Monday, January 5, 2015

Upstate New York

John Shaner has been around flies a long time. The former guide, commercial fly tyer, and fly fishing rep (for the likes of Cortland, Orvis, and Hardy, to name a few) was on hand at a recent IFFF BC Flyfishers chapter meeting to speak about soft hackle flies - better known as "spiders" in the UK, where they originated.

The meeting kicked off with a fly tying demonstration by Shaner. Alongside John's tying vise was a notebook filled with all types of spiders - soft hackle flies tied in the English tradition - and some were very very old originals. These flies, Shaner said, were tied "fully hackled" and not at all in the sparse style of the modern soft hackle. Shaner's explanation for this was that they needed to be durable - anglers of the late 1800's to early 1900's wanted flies that could stand up to use and that could last. Materials were not at all as available as they are now and as many anglers will testify, a well-chewed fly tends to fish better, probably because of its buggier look. Shaner tied up some "Partridge and Orange" soft hackles and talked about the simple beauty of these wonderful patterns as well as their history. He prefers to use Pearsall's silk thread, insisting on a small body. He also talked about the use of wax and true Hare's Ear dubbing.


After 30 minutes of tying and talking, Shaner made his presentation to some 30+ fly anglers. One did not need to listen long to learn that John is a history buff. Following are the high points of his presentation:
  • The spider is first mentioned in angling literature in 1817. The early patterns were snelled to horsehair and contrary to popular belief, were not always big flies with some tied down to size 20. The spider originated in north England - rivers such as the River Ure are places where these flies are fished extensively. Spiders are typically fished in the upstream method and not downstream as done in the USA.
  • W. C. Stewart wrote one of the first books dedicated to angling with spiders in 1857, titled, The Practical Angler. Stewart's Spider is one of his famous creations.
  • Though extremely effective, soft hackles do not sell well because of their simplicity. Shaner claims from his extensive background in the business of angling that complex-looking flies sell and that "no one wants to buy a simple fly".
  • Shaner talked in detail again on tying these simple patterns. Hackles, he said, are the heart of the fly. Early flies featured much longer hackle, which he still favors, but he added that trimming the hackle can make the fly appear more like a nymph emerger. John insists on using quality hackle from such birds as Hungarian Partridge and Water Hen (Coot is a good substitute), but he also said that Starling can be an exceptional material. Pearsall's silk in purple, yellow and red makes a great small body. Gold or silver ribbing is used on many patterns. Shaner also reviewed a unique method of water blending Hare's Ear which makes outstanding dubbing. Dubbing he claims should also be extremely sparse, his rule being "if you think you have too much, you probably have twice as much as you should have".
  • Like the soft hackle fly, the tackle used is fairly simple. Shaner recommended a 10 foot 3 weight rod and emphasized that any rod that is used should have a softer action. Casting a brace of soft hackles (where allowed) requires using an open loop to avoid tangles. Methods of tying droppers include the standard where a tag is run off a blood or surgeon's knot or alternatively, the use of a looped dropper or tippet rings.
  • The classic method for fishing soft hackle flies is the quartering cast and swing, though Shaner recommended letting the fly "sit on the hang" a bit. He's convinced that a riser will follow the swung fly and then strike it when it stops. He also talked about fishing a soft hackle upstream as is done in England. Anglers there fish upstream and work the "pots" - their term for pocket water.
  • The presentation ended with rivers. Shaner's photography throughout the presentation was incredible, especially the pictures of his favorite rivers in England, our own Beaverkill (his local favorite for soft hackles) and the Firehole River, his favorite river of all.
  • Shaner's presentation ran right up to closing time at the packed library meeting room. The room was quiet as slide after slide whetted angling appetites, but once the presentation ended the silence was filled with applause and then lots of very positive comments. Many felt it was one of the best, if not the very best presentation of the year. There's no doubt John Shaner convinced more than a few fly fishermen to try the simple, storied, and elegant soft hackle in the coming fishing season.
  • PC180643

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