Archive for January, 2022

Bare Midriff Ant Pattern

January 12, 2022

Some nineteen years ago I was privileged to participate in the 23rd World Fly Fishing Championships in Jaca in Spain, as part of the South African five-man fishing team. The fishing was tough and not least because, as a result of heavy winter snows and then very warm summer weather, each day many of the rivers would flood as the snow melted and turned the streams from crystal clear waterways to muddy and unfishable flows within minutes.

Jaca is an old city with buildings dated back to the 11th Century

This is a spectacularly pretty part of the world; if one has notions of Spain based only on the Costa Del Sol and its overabundance of British tourists, fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel then the surprise at the glorious tranquility and wonderful scenery is near overwhelming.

Jaca, the host city for the competition lies in North Eastern Spain in the Huesca region, right at the base of the Pyrenees. It sports a number of medieval walls and buttresses surrounding the 11th century cathedral as well as, as I recall, both a girl’s school and a military base; one has to wonder if this represents as much a headache for the officers as it might for the parents.

Recollections of the place include glorious mountainscapes, wonderful hospitality and crystal-clear streams, running at base of deep mountain gorges.

The Spanish Pyrenees are spectacular

As is frequently the case with such events the fishing venues were often quite far apart and as a result of the terrain not always being that accessible, competitors faced long hours on buses being transported, dropped off and again picked up along the sectors they were due to fish.

In short, such competitions require a good deal of transportation and a lot of dead time sitting on coaches, either planning one’s strategy or reflecting on mistakes made. Such times however provide the ideal opportunity to discuss things with other anglers and most of us take that chance to meet up, befriend and share ideas with fellow competitors. Actually, despite the competition, those championships I have been fortunate enough to attend are really rather like going to “Fly Fishing University”. There is a plethora of knowledge and, for the most part, it is shared freely, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone was giving away secrets related to the fishing during the event, but fly anglers are generally a friendly and helpful lot, they are happy to discuss almost anything else, fly fishing related.

So, it was on one of these winding coach trips over serpentine mountain roads that I found myself in conversation with a Scandinavian competitor about some streamer flies he had shown me. They were unusual in that the fly was tied in two separate parts, the tail and then the wing, with bare hook shank between the two segments. 

Generally speaking, and certainly at that point to my knowledge, most flies are simply tied in one go. It would be normal to take the thread to the bend of the hook, tie in the tail, body, ribbing and finish off with a wing and a whip finish. These flies were different, the tail had been tied down and then operations curtailed before reattaching the thread near the eye of the hook and adding in the wing. What purpose the bare shank in the middle? Turns out that the theory, and to me a pretty sound one I would imagine, is that these flies were designed for toothy fish such as pike or perhaps Zander and the lack of dressing mid-hook make it harder for the fish to bite down on the dressing and prevent the fly moving during the strike. Essentially then, designed to allow the hook to slip between the teeth of even a heavily clamped jaw and allow for the fish to be hooked.
I can’t actually say if it works, but it at least makes sense and I am a sucker for a good theory, so long as it ticks the boxes of logical thought.

I don’t have the opportunity to fish for any such toothy critters so I have never been able to genuinely put the theory to the test.

Now it so happens that I have, of late, been tying quite a lot of flies and even more so quite a lot of ant patterns. The primary reasons are that we have a planned trip to Lesotho at the end of the month and ants are one of my primary “go to” flies up there on the Bokong River. The resident yellowfish are particularly susceptible to terrestrials, hoppers and ants mostly. The second reason is that we have had a lot of late rains here in the Cape, and to be honest that hasn’t done the fishing any favours. It has been a poor and slow start to the season, with the fish behaving more as they might in spring than in summer. The rains do however offer at least the possibility of a flying ant fall, which if it happens can provide a red-letter day on the water, so long as you have an ant pattern to throw. (if you don’t you might as well go home and drink some beer).

It is an unfortunate happenstance for the ants, although a potential bonus for the angler,  that many of insects end up in the water, trapped, helpless and at the mercy of the fish.

I tend to carry a number of different ant patterns on the Bokong. The yellowfish love terrestrials and ants in various forms are a must have.

Ants hatch and then fly out to meet a mate and set up a new colony and they tend to do this after rain, because the wet earth is softer and easier for them to dig out their nuptial burrow, which, if they are successful will become an entire new colony in time.

Of course, that might not happen on any day I am on the river, but it pays to be ready and with that I have increased my stock of minute flying ant patterns just in case.

I have a particular soft spot for ant patterns, mostly because so do the fish, both trout and yellowfish tend to become fixated on ants if they are available and it definitely pays to be ready, as said, if you can’t copy them, you are in for a very hard time of it, if you can, you are very likely to experience an exceptional day.

One of the interesting things about imitating ants seems to be that the fish key into the segmentation of the body, all ant pattern designs at least attempt to mimic or better still, exaggerate the segmentation. Little black mayfly patterns simply don’t work if the fish are tuned into ants, a near identical pattern with a distinct waist will do the business nine times out of ten. So segmentation is, to me at least, a crucial factor in a good ant pattern.

The most obvious features of most ants are the segmentation and the very thin waists of these insects.

I have already experimented with a number of effective copies of ants, the Compara-ant, from my book Guide Flies, is a case in point. To better emphasize that segmentation and waist there is no hackle, no post, no anything that may detract from the obvious ant shape. (it is a failing, in my opinion, that many commercial ant patterns don’t do a good job of imitation, tending to be overdressed and not obviously segmented.

In my opinion, many commercial ant patterns fail dismally to exploit the obvious narrow waist of the natural.

This recent fly tying session had me tying parachute ants, size 18 parachute ants to be precise and it is pretty hard to get a distinct segmentation with a small hook and a parachute pattern. But then my mind wandered to those streamers I was shown in Spain, all those years back, and it dawned on me that should I skip any thread or dressing on the middle of the hook I might more easily exaggerate the required waist on the fly. There is after all no real requirement to dress the middle of the hook, real ants have tiny almost invisible waists and by tying the gaster and thorax as two separate operations I was able to achieve what I think to be a far better pattern.

Sparse hackle and bare midriff accentuate the segmentation of the natural

It seems odd really that it should take close to twenty years for one innovative idea to spawn another, in fact I doubt that I could be the first person to think of this or even to attempt it, but I am pleased with the results. Now if the fish decide, for once, to play ball, and if the ants, sitting in the warm dark of their mounds have been keeping an eye on the weather and figure that the next couple of days might be a good time to kick the teenagers out then we might just be in for some great fishing.

It is still after all the holidays and I am overdue for a good session. What I am pretty sure of though, is that if that all comes together I will have some great patterns to try out and I am more than confident that they will work, possibly better than other previous designs.

Some conventional ties and some with bare midriff’s, the segmentation of the latter is more obvious in my opinion

Coitus Interuptus

January 9, 2022

Almost a year ago we had planned to revisit the spectacular fishery of the Bokong River in Lesotho. Even in normal times this is something of a crap shoot, the water can be too high or too low, the fish may move in or move out and probably like many destination fishing adventures the entire enterprise tends to be fraught with risk of failure.

Most anglers simply accept that risk, it is part of the game. Your flight into Alaska might be grounded by bad weather, your trip to the Seychelles may accidentally coincide with Hurricane Hilda or your exhaustively planned trip into the Rio Negro could be interrupted by civil unrest. Let’s face it travel is a gamble, fishing trips probably doubly so. But we tried. We tried because this venue, when you hit it right can provide you with the fishing of a lifetime.

So, our fervent attempts last year, in this era of Covid lockdowns, governmental intervention and panic, nonsensical regulation and more resulted in what? Nothing; no trip, no flights, no entry into the country and more to the point no refund of our expenses. It was a disaster not simply financially but emotionally too.

The scenery is almost as good as the fishing

One sees the images on line of fly-fishing destinations, almost all of them far too far outside of my budget. Fly fishing on line has become the theatre of the wealthy; exotic locations and even more exotic fish. Sure, I wouldn’t sneeze at giant trevally or schools of bonefish on a tropical flat, I don’t begrudge those who can wet a line on “Jurassic Lake” or chase “Golden Dorado” in the jungles of South America, but those things are not within the realm of my existence. Lesotho, and its spectacular fishery for yellowfish is (just) within the scope of my financial limitations and it isn’t any the less special for that.

To be honest, the main reason I can afford to go (giving up some creature comforts in the course or the year to do so) is that Yellowfish are yet to hit the headlines. Thankfully, a remarkably ignorant public with eyes on the media, have yet to cotton on to just how magnificent these fish are or how spectacular the fishing on the Bokong can be. It probably won’t last; this blog may even lead to the downfall. This place is special, and for those of us who have chased it, there is something of a love/hate relationship. When she rewards you, you are on cloud nine, but the system is an unforgiving mistress

Yellowfish are almost unknown to most fly anglers but they are a spectacular quarry, solid muscle and they like flies.

She can give you a glimpse of her stockinged thigh and leaves you for dead when you attend the party, she can tempt you, offer up just enough that you become enthralled, leave the sweet scent of that first kiss on your lips, only to draw back again. The waters may run gin clear on arrival only to flood in rampaging spate just as soon as you unpack your bags or alternatively there is just not enough rain to bring the fish into the system

Yes, it is madness, it is addiction, it is the gambler’s chant that “this time I will win”, it is the addict’s mantra “one more time”, it is the ingrained hope of every lover, every wallflower at the town dance that somehow, this time the God’s will favour us, and I can’t argue with that. Because when she rewards you, when the river runs clear and the fish move in, when large yellowfish in their hundreds pick and choose over your dry fly, when your reel screams and you are well into backing, all those slights, all those inconveniences and sacrifices burn away like morning mist on a hot day.

Small mouth yellowfish are really carp which have been redesigned by Enzo Ferrari

So, in short, I am planning a return; I thought that my previous trip was the last, then we planned another, interrupted by foolish Covid regulations which had little basis in truth or reality. Equally I had planned to be off this continent by now, but again viruses and regulations push one back and it is easy to feel like Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder up hill. Governments will do what they do, they need not explain, they don’t have to consider the emotional or indeed financial costs to others, they simply impose and, in that imposition, they have contrived to ensure that I am still here, at the tip of Africa, and my best shot at amazing fishing is to once again, hope against hope, plan a trip to the Bokong.

The emotion is worthy of consideration, there is massive excitement, anticipation and planning but with them equally, the sweated dreams of potential failure. In the past I have been rewarded, perhaps just sufficiently to maintain the addiction. When it is good, it is out of this world, the scenery, the people, the friends and the fishing, but the entire affair spins on a pin head. One thunderhead too many, one last minute governmental mandate and all is lost. In short it is a gamble. I feel like some piscatorial meth head, knowing that I am addicted, knowing that perhaps I should focus my efforts on less ephemeral objectives but unable to tear myself away from the perceived prize. As I said, when it is good, well it is better than you might ever imagine, so hope springs eternal. With all the interruptions and disappointments, perhaps this will be the year?  I have previously been welcomed into that embrace, I have touched that stockinged thigh and I want more, I am prepared to risk all and perhaps humiliate myself in the pursuit of happiness, because make no mistake, if you are a dry fly angler and you catch the Bokong on a good day, happiness is assured.

On a good day, happiness is assured.