Fly in the face of convention

Fishing lines
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The Independent Online
The MOST popular fly for catching trout would never be found in a respectable angler's creel. It is the Blackbird's Fancy, and most people know it by its more common name, the garden worm. Yet even on top trout fisheries, there are people who abuse the no-bait rules in their desperation to catch a fish. It is pretty obvious that if a water only permits anglers to fish with an artificial fly, then hooking on a worm is cheating. It is also against the spirit of angling, just as much as spearing or dynamiting. But fly-fishing rules are not always straightforward.

For example, many waters allow artificial flies, but ban natural flies such as mayflies, bluebottles and crane-flies. Some insist on a maximum hook size. Others limit the presentation of the fly. On waters like the river Test, in Hampshire, it is considered heresy to use an artificial fly that sinks (a "wet fly"), and only one that floats on the surface (a "dry fly") is permitted.

Fishermen get pretty het up about such esoteric matters. The obsession is not new. In Rod and Line, which he wrote in 1929, Arthur Ransome discusses the thorny issue of whether nymphs, the post-larva stage of various aquatic insects, are unethical. This may seem a bit like arguing over whether pet shops should be allowed to sell red dog collars, but it was a hotter issue among anglers than Commander Byrd flying over the South Pole or Wall Street crashing. Ransome's case for the prosecution goes like this: "A wingless fly is as much of a contradiction in terms as a two-legged quadruped. You have been fishing with a grub instead of a fly. Why not use worm?"

In fact, his conclusion is that an artificial fly doesn't need wings to be acceptable. But would he have found it as easy to argue the case for a revolutionary fly design made of entirely of jewellery beads rather than fur and feather? This "fly", invented by Barry Salter of Reigate, Surrey, is called The Activator and is now commercially available. It looks certain to create deep divisions in fly fishing.

A keen fly-tier, Salter was strolling past a Brighton jewellery shop when a window display of brightly coloured beads caught his eye (which proves we haven't come all that far in 13 million years). He had been experimenting with a new-style Austrian flycalled the goldhead, which has a head made from a bead, and thought: "Why not a fly entirely of beads?"

That was 18 months ago. The Activator, far from being just another fishing fly, has proved unbelievably successful, tempting trout when other anglers could not catch a thing and nearly always getting more than its fair share. Salter reckons the translucent effect of rainbow beads in differing sizes, which imitate the segments within a nymph's body, are a key factor in its success.

The fly has been so successful that Salter, managing director of a design company, has sold the concept to Fulling Mill, a Surrey fly-making company, for worldwide production at about 60p a throw. Despite its simplistic approach the Activator has attracted the attention of minimalists and featured in Design Week, but how will trout anglers, especially traditionalists, like fishing with jewellery?

Mac Campbell, of Trout Fisherman magazine, found the radical design difficult to assess: "It is far removed from the traditional fly, and I'm sure it would not be allowed in international competition," he said. "Butsome anglers fish with very little dressing on a fly, so they are almost using a bare hook. Isn't that fishing with a metal fly? I'm not sure what the reaction will be."

Salter said: "I accept that a few old colonels might not like it because it's not fur and feather. But it's simply using modern materials. My only worry is that it could be banned at trout fisheries because it's so deadly."

That, of course, raises a whole new can of worms: the reactionary attitude that many anglers have towards a bait or method that is just too successful.

At least you know where you are with a Blackbird's Fancy.

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