Fishing: Nothing to trout about

Fishing lines
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The Independent Online
THE first day of spring, and a late middle-aged man's thoughts turn to trout. Being a daft old traditionalist, I still think the trout- fishing season starts on 1 April. It doesn't any more. On many waters, you can fish for them right through the year. This is all very fine if you're a tackle dealer, a trout farmer or an Environment Agency bailiff on commission. But for the average duffer, having no discernible start or end to a season takes away much of the anticipation.

Ah, the Ides of March (I'd rather be fishing than cleaning my tackle, mending broken rod rings, winding in new line). But these rituals added to the excitement. Never mind the fact that 1 April was always blowing a hooley and probably snowing, too: just being there on the first day was enough.

They say that age brings wisdom though I'm convinced that my gravestone will bear the legend: "None The Wiser". But after a few years, I scrapped one aspect of the slow March that others find even more pleasurable than going fishing. This is the arcane business of fly-tying.

I am constantly amazed by the number of otherwise sound people who will spend days - no, weeks - ruining their eyes by attaching slivers of fur, feather and fin to a hook. They honestly believe that using the third feather in from a woodcock's left wing, rather than the right, makes a crucial difference to the way a fly works. I have seen these demented souls discarding a whole cape (the skin and hackle feathers from the neck of a bird such as a golden pheasant) after using just a few strands, simply because none of the other feathers is quite perfect.

Trout, of course, don't know the difference. I've never had a trout complain because the medium sedge I was using did not have a body of unstripped condor feather dyed the correct shade of cinnamon, as recommended in the best books. But serious fly-dressers are obsessive about detail, especially as the challenge of obtaining feathers from a condor, or fur from the first part of a snow leopard's tail, is not quite as easy as it was in Victorian times.

There is, I have to confess, another reason why I buy my flies rather than spending hours constructing them, and that is: I'm a useless fly- tyer. The only fly dresser who is even worse than me is an unknown Russian who sells his wares in a Moscow tackle shop. Some years ago, on a fishing trip there, I bought a box of his flies. The workmanship is almost impossible to describe. I can only suggest you buy or borrow a copy of the admirable Freshwater Fishing by Fred Buller and Hugh Falkus, which has a picture of the flies on page 297.

The most favoured pattern appears to be a hook with wool wrapped round it. From personal experience, I can vouch that the wool starts to unravel if you make the mistake of attaching it to a line. Another uses what is probably a feather from a pillow (lots of fly-tying material there). The feather is joined to the hook by a few twirls of cotton. My favourite, however, is the moth. This has two wings shaped like the old keys used to wind up tinplate toys, and cut from what may be an old pair of shoes. The six flies in my box were all apparently tied by a very old, blind person with severe Alzheimer's.

Still, who am I to mock? It could be my impatience in trying to rush a job that, done well, can take at least an hour. It could be that the instructions are written for right-handed people and us caggy-handers follow instructions and do it all back to front. It could be that I'm simply useless at fly-tying.

On the other hand, this does not preclude me from being critical about the work of others. Adrian, the son-in-law of my next-door neighbour, has become obsessed with fly-tying and brings me his latest offerings to judge. Poor sap. To keep him on his toes, I find some footling fault with every new batch: the bodies are too fat; he has used too many turns on the hackle; the fibres are a touch too long.

It's important to set high standards. It also means that, as long as he keeps churning out all these flies, trying to get it just right, I will never have to worry about tying the damn things myself. I've now got dozens for the start of the season.