Tweed Flies Part 2


David Westwood


In my first article I painted what was perhaps an idyllic picture of Tweed, which may have had you imagining that all was very well on the river throughout the century.

In actual fact at the time when Stoddart, Younger and the others were angling to their hearts content, there were serious problems. In 1861 W.C. Stewart's now famous The Practical Angler was published, and it his chapter on Tweed he mentioned the effects of rainage ... manufactories, bleachfields etc" and in later editions he remarked that he had been severely taken to task by the Border Advertiser newspaper for expressing the opinion that "manufactories injure... the fishing."




If he had been writing today, no doubt there would have been less counter reaction, but it seems that the river was not always the heart of fishing. He also commented that Mr Stoddart had said that the Gala Water (a tributary of Tweed) "is an unseemly dith, full of the blackest and most noxious dyes ". Stewart lamented the effect of pollution, echoing others' comments that Tweed might become a “pestilential sewer”.



Luckily for all of us, then and now, this fate did not befall the river, and today it stands as one of the great rivers of the world. This could not be so, however, without the efforts of the Tweed Commissioners and the Tweed Foundation, to whom all should be grateful; better still, if you fish the river, join the Foundation and contribute to the research work that goes on daily for the betterment of the river and especially its fish stocks.



Stewart's boek was published in 1857. He was a remarkable angler, renowned for his ability to catch fish (despite the problems of the ‘noxious swamp'), and yet he had only a few flies that he recommended to his readers. The patterns are listed below, but is comments upon the flies, what they represented, and how to tie them are very important. He said categorically that "spiders dressed with very soft feathers are ... for fishing up rather than fishing down ", and that he felt that only the Black, Red and Dun Spiders were needed on Tweed. He then moved on to discuss winged flies, which he said lasted longer than spiders, being effective for a day or more: but he was catching three of four dozen good trout every day that he was on the river.



He emphasises throughout the text that the essential of a good fly is its fineness; "bushy flies" he cautions, would defy even james Baillie to "fill even a small basket in clear water with such tackle." The colour of Tweed is very often that of good bitter beer, with a constant tinge of peat in the otherwise clear water, and today it is just as important to tie flies in a sparse, even anorexic, style to fool the wily trout of the river. lt is also important to consider fishing the wet fly upstream, even tough perhaps not with eight flies on the cast! Just put the flies on the water at 45 degrees upstream, watch intently for any halt or change in movement, and set the hook with a tightening by lifting the rod tip. Retrieve and recast as soon as the flies are level with you; and do not forget to fish the margins first, before wading in.



Later in the century, in 1888, there appeared a slim volume entitled “How to Catch Trout ", the authors of which have never been determined. In it there is a wealth of information that is still valid today, regarding wet fly fishing, loch fishing and bait fishing, but the interesting chapter appears towards the end of the boek. This is the chapter on dry fly fishing. lt shows an interesting line of thought in that the authors tend to disparage dry fly as "cushie", and that no great accuracy is required "when we have so definite a target as the rise to be aimed at." They go on to say that "this appeals to the nature of the elderly angler ... who inclines to give up the more strenuous method for the easier if less scientific one." The proliferation today of both books and fly patterns to match the hatch makes one wonder if the authors did not have something after all, although they will probably be decried today as old fuddy duddies, and their methods totally antiquated. Me? I’m not so sure. Once more there is a listing of some of the flies mentioned by the three doughty anglers, witlk their tyings. I have illustrated a mixture of wets and dries, and they have been tied with traditional wool rather than artificial modern materials. But, before turning to the patterns, I would reiterate a caution that is a valid now as it was over 100 years ago:


“’Fine and far off’, that old down stream axiom, is sometimes correct, but often misleading. "Fine and near" were closer to the truth. Remember Stewart's dictum, that 'long casts are as useless as long prayers'."


W.C. Stewart's patterns:


The Black Spider

Body: Brown silk (James Baillie's method); nowadays often darkened with cobbler's wax

Hackle: Starling neck feather. Today starlings seem to have shrunk, and I find the best feather to be at the shoulder. lt is a good idea to tie the feather in half way along the body and then half palmer it to the head, where you tie off. 

Stewart said he had "never been without one" since shown the pattern by James Baillie.





Body: YeIlow silk (and see Article 1)

Hackle: Nowadays a golden plover marginal will do the trick, but only use feathers from birds NOT in full mating plumage, when the yellow tip is too strong. This is a good substitute for the dotterel feather now unavailable.







 The Woodcock and Yellow

(a winged fly)

Body: Yellow silk

Wing: woodcock wing slips

Hackle: a single turn of red feather (he does not specify, but I prefer hen feathers for all my wet flies).

There are other flies, but only a few. The three anglers however, draw on a larger box.



Flies listed in "How To Catch Trout "


As I mentioned above, I shall only use a few flies to illustrate the text, but they are still fishable today.





(see Arlicle No. 1 of this series)










March Brown (male and female)

The authors do not specify a pattern, but one that is first class is that of Pritt (1885):


Tail: two strands of a partridge tail feather

Body: pale orange silk dubbed lightly with hare's ear and mohair mixed; ribbed with yellow silk

Wings: from a partridge tail

Hackle: from the back of a partridge.





Body: Black silk

Hackles: Fore and aft, two sets of badger hackle, the front hackle slightly longer than the rear.











Body: brown olive feather fibre (goose or similar today), ribbed with fine gold wire Wings: dark starling slips set upright Hackle: Brown olive; Skues specified hen, and if this is tied full and rough, the fly will float well, and close to the surface.


lt is extremely difficult to present the fly fishing history of any river in just three articles. All I can reasonable do is draw attention to some of the great men who have fished the river and written about their fishing. The real experience comes when you go up to the Borders and find out for yourself. The Scottish Borders Tourist Board publish an Angling Guide (see below) which gives a wealth of information on the fishing available, where to get tickets, listings of tackle shops and other relevant establishments, as well as supplying details of hotels, guest houses and these most important holiday cottages.


The one my wife and I stay at even has a special salmon size deep freeze, which gets some use, although not as much as I would like! Remember, too, that the patterns of a century ago are still in use today by those who know!

Further information can be had from:


The Tweed Foundation

The Fish Conservancy Centre

Drygrange by Melrose,

Roxburgh TD6 9DJ

(Phone 01896 848271)


Scottish Borders Tourist Board

70 High Street, Selkirk TD7 4DD

(Phone 01750 20555)