Every dog has its day but which breed catches the biggest trout? Armed with an array of dog-fur flies, Richard Negus sets forth
The Roman author and teacher Claudius Aelianus is credited with being the first to record the use of artificial flies in angling. Writing towards the end of the second century, he described the practices of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River comprehensively: “They have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman’s craft. They fasten red wool round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, which in colour are like wax.”
Tying fishing flies with dog hair
Claudius, sadly, does not note if the Macedonians included any dog fur in their flies. Dog hair has been used in fly-tying for generations. This is hardly surprising, because as any angler who keeps their dog in the house knows, an endless supply is always ready to hand — on the sofa, armchairs, carpet, spare room bed and 1,000 other places.
The roguish genius Hugh Falkus himself used to tie fishing flies with dog hair. He famously fashioned a winning sea-trout pattern using hairs he pilfered from a sleeping retriever, owned by an acquaintance with whom he was staying for the night. Allegedly, he added extra movement to the lure by using a wisp of human tresses. The lustrous locks he tied had adorned the head of his host’s attractive wife, until she carelessly left the strands on Falkus’s pillow having silently slunk from his guest room before dawn.
Ask a group of anglers for their favoured killing fly pattern and a rancorous debate is guaranteed, much in the same way as if one enquires of a group of Guns which gundog breed they believe to be superior. To tie these two thorny issues together, I returned to Falkusian canine flies.
I decided it was high time to find a definitive answer to a question that has plagued fieldsports men and women for centuries. Namely, which breed of dog catches the biggest trout?
To achieve a truly sporting dog-hair fly, I reasoned, the gundog should be the go-to group. Many breeds are renowned for the water-repelling qualities of their coats and are, if my aquatic cocker Mabel is anything to go by, more fish than dog.
I enlisted my friend Adam Bragg to help me create a range of flies incorporating a number of breeds. Adam’s day job sees him crafting beautiful stocks, gun cabinets and all sorts of wonders in wood. Away from the sawdust and beeswax, he is an avid angler and a fly-tyer of notable skill.
Following a good rummage under the radiator in my dining room, I was able to source sufficient black cocker fur to dub a dozen bibios and black gnats. I also fashioned a few hare’s ear nymphs, replacing hare fuzz with pungent Chesapeake Bay retriever trimmings.
I furnished Adam with some curls kindly donated by an Irish water spaniel called Boris and a generous clump of fluff from a Sussex spaniel named Slug. He crafted these into emerger patterns, made buoyant by the addition of CDC, which are the feathers taken from near the oil-secreting glands on a duck.
Using yellow Labrador clippings, he made a selection of klinkhammer-style olives. Springer spaniel matts and roan cocker locks were dubbed into more CDC emergers. We were now well set for a session in pursuit of rainbow and brown trout.
I joined a small stillwater syndicate in High Suffolk early this year. It is a glorious lake nestled within a wildlife-rich farm owned by Mike Porter. Dug out in the late 1960s by Mike’s father, it is stocked with rainbows and has a healthy population of brown trout, too, some of which purportedly reach a rod-bending 8lb.
Adam and I arrived at the lake at 9am. Sunglint sparkling ridges rolled on the water caused by the puffs of westerly breeze. A hobby treated us to an aerobatic display as we tackled up. The rake-winged daredevil carved a gravity-defying turn to snatch a fat-bodied dragonfly a few inches above the surface. A V-shaped wake in the water marked its passing, so low was the take.
A great crested grebe carried on fishing, unperturbed by the drama. The becalmed lake was a seething mass of electric-blue damsels, and larger dragonflies tussled and wrestled in sexually charged airborne battles.
Mike had chosen to forgo using insecticide on the rape fields that surround the lake this year and, as a result, the insect life is both plentiful and varied. With this in mind, both Adam and I tied on dry flies.
Our hopes were raised by regular risings of trout. They broke the rippled veneer with laconic rolls, to sip the succulent bugs ensnared in the surface tension. Occasionally, a fish would erupt, hang briefly airborne and land with a splash, to drown some insect or other.
Adam stood on a promontory, the rhythmic whish, whish, whish of his fly-line cutting through the rod rings complementing the purring of turtle doves that billed in a woodland clump to our rear. The tippet end of Adam’s line held an Irish water spaniel emerger. I fished some 30 yards away.
Loyal to Mabel, I tied a cocker black gnat to my leader. The tactics were straightforward — cast to a rise or, failing that, flick a fly out into water that carried an eddy caused by the variable light breeze.
A joyous shout came from Adam and his rod bucked as a rainbow became airborne in its bid to rid itself of a mouthful of fur and hook. After a brief fight, including three more leaps, the trout was on the bank and despatched with a sharp tap from the priest — 1lb 8oz of fine eating.
My black gnat being scorned led me to tie on a Sussex spaniel emerger. As my third cast landed gently on the water, a broiling take ensued. My fly-line straightened, rod curved and then, with a sickening end of days climax, the fish was off. Hand-lining in, I found my leader was neatly severed. A trout, when rolling to drown a terrestrial insect, can cut your line cleanly with its sharp, bony gill covers.
As I sulked, another resounding splash followed by a cheer indicated that Adam was once more into a fish. This time a pinch of springer spaniel fur whipped onto a hook and buoyed by a feather from a duck’s backside had fooled a rainbow into mistaking it for something edible. This fish stayed water-bound, racing around the lake. After a five-minute fight, I wielded the net for Adam to land the 2lb 4oz beauty.
I persevered with my Sussex spaniel pattern. Again a rainbow took it gleefully, only for me to fluff my strike. After the briefest of struggles, the fish was free and I was left forlorn.
The sun disappeared at around noon and with it so did the appetite of the trout. The pair of us tried our entire portfolio of gundog flies. We fished dry flies dry, wet flies wet, dry flies wet and wet flies dry, but all to no avail. It was as if a tap had been turned and we enjoyed no more sport.
As I mooted we call it a day, one rainbow chose to break the stalemate. Once again, the seemingly blessed Bragg succeeded, this time casting an olive springer spaniel emerger, coloured with the aid of a Sharpie pen. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I took an unkind pleasure in seeing him lose his fish just as he stooped to land it. I pride myself in being a welcoming fishing host, but I am a terrible loser.
The best fishing fly with dog hair?
An oily, lifeless slick seemed to come over the water. Despite my disgust at losing two fish, I had to accept I had inexplicably blanked and it was time to call a halt to our dog fishing day. As we put away our rods and returned flies to boxes, Adam and I were in full agreement about using fishing flies with dog hair. An Irish water spaniel will catch you a trout, but if you want to bag up, a springer is your killer fly.