Monday, February 15, 2010

North Country Spiders: Some thoughts concerning technique.

Having posted a series of north country spider patterns, I thought it might be an idea to add a few words regarding their successful deployment on the river. Not that I’m in a position to preach; far from having any degree of expertise, I am just a dead keen angler who will ramble on to anyone prepared to listen. What I can describe though, are some of the various ways in which these special little flies can be fished, including the methods which seem to work best for me......and if they work for me, they will work for anyone!

Spiders are basically wet flies and as such are used to fish the upper inches of the water column. The fact that they are tied so sparingly and on relatively light gauge hooks facilitates this, although – as will be described later – they can be made to fish a little deeper at times if required.

Wet fly fishing on rivers is not terribly fashionable these days. In fact to some degree, the term ‘wet fly’ has become synonymous with a rather simplistic and ineffectual approach commonly referred to as ‘down and across’. But that is only a part of the story; in the right hands, these flies are deadly and have been for decades - there are few better methods for searching large areas of water on rain fed rivers.

Although the variations and minor tactics of spider fishing are many, they can all be grouped under two broad headings: ‘downstream’ and ‘upstream’ depending on the general direction of the cast and the direction the angler travels as he fishes through the pool.

The Downstream Approach

1. Down and across: 
Unfortunately the old ‘down and across’ method has given wet fly fishing a bad name over the years, being commonly referred to as ‘chuck and chance it’. In its simplest form the angler stands at the head of a pool and casts a team of three spiders across and at an angle of approximately 45 degrees downstream, letting the flow swing the flies across the current until they hang parallel to the nearside bank, directly downstream of the angler. After taking a couple of steps downstream, this process is then repeated until the suitable water is fished through. The theory is that in moving swiftly across the current – hopefully in front of the snout of a waiting trout or grayling – before coming to rest in slacker water down the near side of the crease, a certain aggression and/or curiosity is aroused in the fish and they are compelled to take the fly. And take it they certainly do.

However there are a couple of big problems with this method: first, it tends to attract the attention of smaller fish due to the fact that the flies basically behave in an unnatural manner (tiny insects don’t swim quickly across fast currents and the bigger, wiser residents aren’t so easily fooled by this ploy), and secondly the angler tends to fish this method on a tight line which results in a lot of nips and tweaks being felt as fish investigate the fly but are unable to turn away with it before feeling considerable resistance.

The end result then, is that the angler may feel like he is gaining plenty of interest to his flies, but an unacceptable percentage of the takes are actually converted into hooked fish.....and when eventually we do get a ‘sticker’, it tends to be a small fish. Besides this, the method is repetitive and quite frankly boring – not a technique for the thinking angler.

2. Across and down:
This might sound like a trivial distinction, but the practicalities are significantly different....and the results are a world apart. There are several different tactics which could be grouped under this header (you may have heard reference to Oliver Edwards’ ‘escalator method’ for example).
In all of them, the basic premise is very similar in that the angler moves down through a pool and lets his flies drift downstream of his position. However, several modifications can be made to the technique described above, which improve prospects of sport considerably.

First, we need to consider the behaviour of the flies. In the vast majority of occasions when river fishing, it is preferable to allow the flies a dead drift for as long as possible before the current affects their progress and causes ‘unnatural’ movement to occur. However, it is true to say that many species of olives and caddis do rise from the river bed, rapidly towards the surface to emerge as duns/adults and that trout and grayling will be greatly interested in this stage of the insects’ life cycle. So if we can imitate that upward movement it is likely to bring success; in this sense, a degree of ‘swing’ towards the end of the cast can be useful – provided it is controlled rather than exaggerated.

Secondly, a degree of line control is required: a high rod tip - maybe as high as 45 degrees – allows most of the fly line to be held clear of the surface, so that provided a long enough leader section is used (I would suggest a minimum of 14’), the flies can be fished at an acceptable distance away from the angler, but near enough so that they can be closely controlled without fractured currents imparting too much unwanted influence on the fly line. A high rod tip is also essential to hooking fish which take when they are well downstream of the angler – the hanging loop of fly line between the rod tip and water’s surface acts as a bite indicator and shock absorber which allows the fish to turn down with the fly against much less resistance. Such takes will now been seen before they are felt – and a much better hook-up ratio will result.

Above: Steven Dawson showing good line control on a spring day on the Eden.

Putting this into action, I find the following set-up works well on my local rivers and I would suggest it over the basic ‘down and across’ method any day of the week:

The leader consists of three flies: in some cases – such as fairly gentle, even flows and when the fish are very much looking to the surface film for their food – these three flies will all be spiders. However, in a more lively, popply current and as a general searching method, I tend to fish two spiders on the droppers and a small weighted nymph, such as a copper headed hare’s ear or PTN on the point.

The initial cast is made across and slightly upstream of my position and immediately, a small upstream mend is made in the fly line which affords the team a dead drift and allows the point fly a little time to sink. We may not be talking much here – maybe a foot or 18” – but it has the effect of stabilising the leader, adding a little ballast to the cast....which will be important in a few seconds.

During this dead drift phase, takes will manifest themselves as tweaks to the tip of the fly line, or maybe as ‘boils’ just sub surface to one of the dropper flies, so concentration is required. As the flies progress downstream, and extra mend or two may be required. What we are aiming for is that when the current ‘grips’ the leader and begins to swing it around below us, the movement is not too fast and that the flies don’t just skate across the surface. This is where the weighted point fly comes into play, anchoring the cast down in the water and allowing a controlled sweep up and across the flow which I believe mimics the behaviour of the ascending insect prior to emergence. This often results in a good positive pull from a decent fish – in much the same way that the upstream nymph fisherman often finds he ‘induces’ a take as he lifts his flies out to re-cast. Remember to keep that rod tip high though!

I hope that doesn’t sound complicated because it isn’t. Better qualified, more descriptive information can be easily found if you know where to look: Oliver Edwards’ excellent series of DVD’s features a lengthy illustration of wet fly tactics, and Paul Procter regularly features spider fishing in his articles for Trout & Salmon magazine.

The Upstream Approach.

In many ways, this is the quintessential north country approach. It is a wonderfully subtle way of presenting spiders in and around the surface to visibly feeding fish and is traditionally practised with a long-ish rod and a very short line. This harks back to the earliest beginnings of the north country tradition, when rod building materials were cumbersome and heavy and fly line floatability was moderate at best. Out of necessity, the distance cast with such an unwieldy rod was kept short and with maximum water-logged silk line held off the water as far as possible.....but the method was undoubtedly successful as the delicate spider flies proved such good imitations of emerging, crippled and drowned insects that huge baskets of fish were possible.

Sadly, this technique is little practised these days. Why this should be so is open to speculation but I believe that the evolution of modern emerger patterns such as the ubiquitous klinkhamer may have had a big say. Spiders used to fill the void between fully-hackled dry flies and nymphs, when a fly presented in or just below the surface film was the order of the day for ‘bulging’ trout and grayling. These days however, we have a multitude of parachute and no-hackle patterns which fulfil this criterion admirably.....and with the added advantage of having a ‘dry’ wing which of course remains clearly visible to the angler. The fact that the spider fishes just sub surface means that take detection to the upstream technique can be very tricky indeed. I would go so far as to submit that the upstream wet fly is the most difficult of all running water disciplines to master – I can understand why so many anglers eschew it in favour of the relatively straightforward ‘damp’ dry fly. And yet it is such a rewarding method, and one so steeped in angling history, that I feel its neglect is a great shame. I certainly try to keep my eye in and deploy it a few times every season; though nowhere near enough times to gain anything approaching competency!

The basics are as follows: once it becomes apparent that fish are feeding on food trapped in and just below the surface film (emergers, drowned duns, low-lying terrestrials etc), the spider comes into its own. A pair or trio of flies are cast upstream on a very short line, targeting bulging fish where possible, but also in a searching manner, covering likely water as the angler progresses up through the pool. The difficulties lie in take detection, which may manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, we may see a rise form in the approximate area we imagine our flies to be, or maybe the flash of a turning fish, or we might see the tip of our fly line stab forward quickly. Great concentration is required as we need to be aware of several different areas on the water’s surface at the same time - the point fly may be 12-15’ distant from the tip of the fly line, but we need to pay attention to both areas simultaneously. A good upstream spider fisher has something of the Czech nympher’s sixth sense which almost subconsciously indicates when to lift the rod into a fish. To be fishing this method successfully means being completely in tune with one’s surroundings, to be well and truly ‘in the zone’. It can be a frustratingly difficult technique, but it is very rewarding too. To see a big grayling rise from the river bed and flash at an unseen sub-surface morsel, before lifting the rod to find you are attached to him takes some beating. I’d wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go next time out, before reaching for the klinks!

Above: Rob Denson fishes wet on the Ribble. Another example of good line management.


Jim Anderson said...

Beautiful, Matt! The past few seasons I have been practicing the upstream technique which you so clearly describe. The water I fish are mainly high gradiant freestone stream full of boulders and pocket water. I generally fish with one fly on a nine-foot leader usually with only one to three feet of fly line extending from the rod tip - the fly often being in the water mere seconds before being lifted and cast again. I began using this technique with dry flies, but now almost exclusively use spiders as I find it much more fun and productive. I look forward to one day fishing some broader spring-fed rivers using an upstream method. Thank you so much for the great post - your descriptions of detecting the take are right on!

Best regards,


Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks Jim, glad you liked it. I wish I could fish the method better than I can describe it...rather than the other way around!!

Midgeman said...

My compliments on the posting. Having grown up and being mentored by a hard core wet fly addict in the 1950s, I can tell you that you did a fine job covering the techniques involved. I might add that you do a beautiful job with the tying the spiders!

irene_dawson said...

Well done again Matt, some lovely pictures, apart from the one of me. You are very generous with your comments.

irene_dawson said...

Lovely stuff matt as always.

florent coca said...

Hello Matt
i greatly enjoyed your paper about fishing north country spiders.
i have already tied some of this flies and i 'd like to try them in my pyrenean freestone streams.
Please could you advice me about
the length and diameter of the leaders and tippets; are the same for the 2 techniques :escalator and upstream?
Also, what are the most popular flies combinations and the place where to tie them on the leader.
i apologize for my bad English
thanks for all and best regards.

Florent COCA a French angler

Matthew Eastham said...


Glad you found it useful!
I normally use three flies when fishing escalator and downstream methods, but reduce this to two when fishing upstream. Leader lengths will about 15' and 12' respectively and I tend to use Stroft in 0.12mm or 0.14mm.

Hope this helps,

Angus Watson said...

Thanks for the insight :) im a young angler and i have fished spiders all season down on the river Wharfe at Addingham and have had moderate success and i am going to employ these tactics this season indeed! especially the 45 degree rod angle and using a a weighted nymph in faster water on the point thanks again check out my YouTube channel ,Angus

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