The North Country School

The 'North Country' school was a strong one, and to a large extent, it still exists, with traditional patterns still available from many local tackle dealers. I was taught the method in Yorkshire with patterns like the Snipe and Purple and the Partridge and Orange, hardly realising how old they were. The technique is misunderstood almost as often as A.H.E. Wood's "greased-line" method for salmon, so it might be worth going through it here.

Swarbrick orange partridgeThe streams in the north of England have stony bottoms and fall comparatively steeply out of the hills and into lowland areas. The high moorland where they originate is sheep country, with few inhabitants apart from the odd small hamlet here and there and scattered smallholdings. There are curlew and grouse, and it is a harsher, but more beautiful place than even the Vale of York, into which many of the rivers flow.

Fishing water like this requires special techniques. With the rivers 'on their bones' in the summer, the only possible method is the upstream worm in many cases, but with a little more water it is possible to fish a fly, but no downstream man ever does well with these small, wild fish. The traditional outfit is a long rod - nine foot six or more, throwing a short length of line. The angler casts the fly upstream, or up and across, and watches it, staying in touch by raising the rod tip and sometimes by retrieving line with the other hand. When a fish takes, there is often no more sign than a slight crinkle, but now and then there is a heart-stopping splash as a big trout moves in for the kill.

The beginnings of the school and its distinctive patterns can be found in a series of manuscripts written in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The fly shown above is an Orange Partridge, a dressing that is still used, with very slight modification, today.

Snipe and purpleThe interesting thing about the North Country spiders is that they seem to have little in common with the Scottish "spider" patterns beyond the name and indeed they represent a quite separate line of development. North country spiders are very sparsely dressed, with as little as a single turn of soft hackle and they are designed to be fished upstream, with as much of the line held out of the water as possible, hence the long rod. The Snipe and Purple shown here is arguably far too well hackled, if you were going to be critical of the style, but believe me, it will catch trout.

No floatant is used and quite what trout take the patterns for is a good question, but the style is so versatile that depending on whether they are fished on, in, or just below the surface, the flies can represent spinners, still-born duns, or even nymphs. The method is one of the triumphs of wet fly development, and it is odd that it has never been popular outside England's northern counties, though there are devotees scattered all over the world. It certainly works well enough elsewhere; perhaps one of the problems is that it isn't an easy technique to master.

According to Pritt, a man who clearly understood the value of the nymph at a time when many fishermen were ignorant of its value, north country school fishermen had abandoned the winged wet fly almost completely by 1860. The men who led this new way of thinking shouldn't be underestimated, because their achievement was to realise that trout find it easy to take stillborn duns which have been crunched around in the turbulent conditions of freestone rivers, and they had the courage to break away from the mainstream and design radical and new patterns to take advantage of their theories. As long ago as 1886, Pritt said:

It is now conceded that a fly dressed hacklewise is generally to be preferred to a winged imitation. The reasons for this are not far to seek and are satisfactory. It is far more difficult to imitate a perfect insect and to afterwards impart to it a semblance of life in or on the water, than it is to produce something which is sufficiently near a resemblance of an imperfectly developed insect, struggling to attain the surface of the stream. Trout undoubtedly take a hackled fly for the insect just rising from the pupa in a half-drowned state; and the opening and closing of the fibres of the feathers give it an appearance of vitality, which even the most dextrous fly-fisher will fail to impart to the winged imitation.

Pritt's target was the traditional winged wet fly, and in his quiet way, he dealt it a heavy blow. He was one of the first anglers to question the fundamental premise of the design of the traditional fly; pointing out the inconsistencies that had been staring fishermen in the face since the days of the Treatyse. He stood out as a beacon of reason in the disputes that were to follow. His two best known books, The Book of the Grayling and North Country Flies, guaranteed him a place in fly fishing's hall of fame, but it isn't generally known that he was an all-rounder who was an expert coarse and sea-fisher.

Waterhen BloaMuch sought after as an after-dinner speaker, Pritt was acknowledged as the spokesman for Yorkshire anglers and for many years wrote a racy angling column for the Yorkshire Weekly Post. His writing was so littered with anecdotes, asides and thinly-disguised characters that he was nicknamed "veracious" Pritt. His death at the age of only 47 from influenza was as unexpected as it was tragic. His legacy stretches down to our time and accounts for why patterns like the Waterhen Bloa shown above remain such firm favourites. The pattern shown came straight from my fly box.

In the years leading up to the turn of the century, a stand-off developed between the northern English and Scottish anglers on one side and the southern chalk stream fishermen on the other. The failure of each side to grasp the problems which the other faced lead to decades of bickering. Many books of the era include a triumphal passage in which a group of northern (or southern) visitors were trounced by the application of the "proper:" technique. I find it absolutely fascinating that there was so little cross-over of skills, since the upstream spider works perfectly well outside its accepted northern range. The reason may well be that by the time the north country technique was properly established, no southern angler in his right mind would have tried it; the penalty for such heresy being a black-balling by his enraged fellow club members. Northern anglers did try the dry fly, but as Pritt pointed out, it can be an unrewarding pastime on rivers where the trout do not rise freely. From personal experience, casting a dry fly over acres of rise-free water is not one of my favourite techniques, and if you have water near you that would suit this method, I can recommend it.