Festive Flies

There are two types of freshwater fly-fisher in the UK: the one that hangs up his or her tackle in the autumn at the end of the traditional game fishing season and the other that ploughs on through the coldest months chasing grayling – the lady of the stream.

It is unlikely that you could read far in any literature on grayling fishing before coming across the name of a fly which is synonymous with this branch of the sport – The Red Tag. Numerous versions of The Red Tag have been resident in my fly box over the years, but only recently did I try using one for the first time.

The pattern was first tied in the 1850’s as a dry (floating) fly for trout and grayling in the north country of England. However, despite its rich history I have never had much faith in this famous fly. The bright red tail has always struck me as a bit odd. Natural flies do not sit on the water’s surface wearing bright red dresses. Still, there is a reason such patterns stand the test of time: they catch fish. There may be no rhyme or reason to it, but they do.

I recently visited the River Nidd at Summerbridge for a spot of late autumn grayling fishing. It was my first time on this beguiling stretch of river run by Nidderdale Angling Club. Narrow and heavily treelined, the fishing was rather tricky at times, but there was a great variety of water along the relatively short length available on the day ticket. There was some lovely pocket water at the lower end of the stretch, a number of intriguing deeper pools dotted here and there and, at the top end, a series of classic riffles and broader glides. The weather was unseasonably warm and some great sport was had with several grayling and trout being taken on dry flies and nymphs as I worked my way from the lower limit beneath the village of Dacre back up to Summerbridge.

Lovely water on the River Nidd between Summerbridge and Dacre

The final pool I got to looked perfect for swinging a few wet flies through. There was a good depth to the water as it emerged from under the B6165 bridge and veered tantalisingly towards the far bank beneath a canopy of alders. I set up a new leader with a team of three flies that covered all the bases:

  • Beadhead Hare’s Ear Nymph was generally suggestive of something like a cased caddis larva and with its added weight would turn over the leader well and help the other two flies achieve a bit of depth;
  • a Dark Spanish Needle on the middle dropper could resemble any dislodged nymph or waterlogged upwing fly; and
  • a Black and Peacock Spider on the top dropper was, of course, the clumsy beetle fallen from the overhanging trees.

After fishing a little way down the run with no offers, I spotted a couple of fish rise tight against the far bank. Despite the temperature dropping quickly as the afternoon wore on it seemed the fish still had their heads up. Thinking that the Hare’s Ear Nymph was perhaps taking the flies a little too deep I rummaged through my box for a lighter alternative and noticed a couple of Red Tags tucked away in one corner.

Despite my past reticence towards this pattern, I had in fact tied up a few last winter in a romantic vision of fishing a team of north country traditional patterns for Yorkshire ‘ladies’. There was no time like the present to finally give this fly a go – when in Rome and all that. The versions I had tied included a twist of lead wire under the peacock herl body to help the flies penetrate the surface film, but they would still be much lighter than the nymph. The nymph was snipped off the leader and I made my first cast ever with a Red Tag.

Unusually, my first cast was spot on. Pitched perfectly beneath the far bank trees, the Red Tag lightly plopped in just upstream of where I’d seen one of the fish rise. A single upstream mend was made as the team of flies started their drift and just as they passed directly across from me the line jabbed forward and a fish was on. After a spirited tussle a perfect six-inch wild brown trout was brought to hand with the Red Tag firmly in its jaws. One cast with a Red Tag, one fish. A couple of casts later and another bigger fish hit the Red Tag just as it swung away from the far bank. It would be nice to say that the day finished with a big grayling taking this classic fly, but I could hardly complain when another lovely (although out of season) trout slipped over the rim of my net. The fish went back unharmed just as the light was fading and it was time to pack up with the open fire and a pint at The Royal Oak calling.

Inspired by this outing I have tied up several more versions of the Red Tag (see picture above) – from left to right – a bushy dry fly, a beadhead nymph and a hackled wet fly. Indeed, with the colour combination of red, green and gold, tying these up at the weekend after a days’ Christmas shopping got me feeling rather festive – Merry Christmas.

One of several grayling is drawn over the net on the Nidd

4 thoughts on “Festive Flies

  1. Dr Steve Rogowski December 21, 2017 / 8:41 pm

    Although by no means an expert on fly-fishing whether it be for trout, salmon and even pike, this piece provides an excellent account of the ups and downs of the sport. No doubt Adam will be giving it a bash over Xmas/New year. Meanwhile, I will probably sitting it out with the dead baits meant for pike.

  2. myriadofripples January 2, 2018 / 10:36 pm

    Great little write up! I have to admit that I’ve never really given the old red tag a fair airing either. One for the next time I’m chasing grayling, perhaps.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

    • northnwild January 3, 2018 / 6:06 am

      @myriadofripples, thanks for taking the time to comment, really glad you enjoyed the piece, plenty more in the pipeline … tightlines!

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