You might ask why I write about Oliver Kite's dry flies in this modern era of super-specialised patterns that have evolved on the back of an almost bewildering abundance of advanced fly pattern designs. Today's dry fly trends lean to parachute, emerger, CDC and ultra-micro patterns and the addition of growingly sophisticated spotters. Then there's the arrival of an immense range of new fly tying materials, including improved dubbings, threads, ribbings and tinsels and the availability of a wide range of genetic capes, not to mention a dizzying assortment of hooks. In short, our fly tying world is nothing like Kite's. Ours is a world that is infinitely more advanced.
Yet, notwithstanding all these advances, I still don't doubt the relevance of Kite's dry fly patterns today, because the man was one of the most skilled, astute and accomplished fly fishers of his time. As a result, much of Kite's thinking on fly tying, and his developments in dry fly and nymph designs, particularly for chalkstreams, consequently remains applicable today. In fly fishing fashions change and developments come and go, but the importance of Kite's tactics, his observations and his approach to fly pattern design, will remain as relevant now as it was in Kite's heyday in the 60's, when he was a living colossus among his peers; just as Sawyers PTN nymph will retain its relevance despite the passage of time and fly tying advances.
But the other important reason for chronicling Kite's dry flies is simply to serve – and preserve – a valuable slice of fly-fishing history. Kite is perhaps less well known in South Africa because over the last 40 years or more we were dominated by American personae, American tactics and trends and American literature. Not that I find any fault with that because their contribution, not least to tackle development and fly design, has been huge. But in more recent times fly fishers the world over have become wiser more informed anglers due to the added influence of European presentation methodologies, fly pattern design developments and the arrival of the age of electronic media that has produced the phenomenon of a 'global-fly-tying-village'.
So far so good, but let's not forget, or discard, our important roots and foundations. As Edmund Burke said, 'Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it. '
Click in images to enlarge
Kite the man
Kite was born in Monmouthshire in Wales on 27 November 1920 and died on the River Test on the 15th of June 1968 from a heart attack. He had suffered from angina for many years, the illness starting while on overseas duty with the British army in Australia. He returned to England in 1958, living in Owl Cottage in the village of Netheravon in Wiltshire right on the banks of the River Avon.
In fact the famous Court Stretch of the Avon was only a short stroll from his back door. But Kite fished nearly all the major chalkstreams of England, including the delightful Driffield Beck in Yorkshire, as well as countless rivers and streams in England, Wales, France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
Close to the banks of the Avon. This image also shows how close Sawyer and Kite lived from one another. Map per Bill Latham
Kite was not only a competent angler and writer, he was also an astute observer and naturalist, especially of trout behaviour and aquatic insect life, and it was from these observations that many of his fly patterns were developed.
Kite is buried in Netheravon and on a trip to the UK some years ago I paid my respects to this great angler at his grave.
Kite's grave in Netheravon
Kite is better known for his Bare Hook Nymph and his version of Sawyer's Pheasant Tail Nymph than for his dry flies, perhaps with the exception of his Imperial. But he used dry flies other than the Imperial fairly commonly.
The unlikely but highly effective Bare Hook Nymph
Notable were his Hawthorn Fly imitating Bibio marci, a fly that begins to appear on UK streams as its name suggests from St Mark's Day, the 25th of April. Kite refers to the Hawthorn Fly frequently in his book A Fisherman's Diary.
He also developed the Sepia Dun, Apricot Spinner, Pale Evening Dun and a pattern that he simply called 'my Mayfly'.
His references to fishing a pattern called the Red Pheasant Tail Spinner and a Black Gnat (Diptera family) are not uncommon either, though neither were his own patterns. I can find no tying recipe at all for his version of the Black Gnat, other than on page 132 of his book, A Fisherman's Diary, where he says, 'This magnificent fish (a 2½ lb grayling) took a Black Gnat which I dress with a black hackle slightly tinged with red.'
On the other hand, the Red Pheasant Tail Spinner Kite used was apparently Frank Sawyer's invention and Sawyer's favourite dry fly. Sawyer was for many years Kite's friend, colleague and neighbour in the village of Netheravon until their friendship sadly ended. Kite used this Red Pheasant Tail Spinner pattern often, and once described it as being '...as effective as Lunn's Particular', high praise indeed in the world of chalkstream fishing.
Terry Lawton on page 71 of his book Nymph Fishing: A History of the Art and Practice, tells the story of Sawyer fishing a Red Pheasant Tail Spinner until the hackle disintegrated and yet it still took trout as it sank.
That, it is believed, was the origin of what is now arguably the most famous and ubiquitous nymph in the world, the PTN.
Kite's style and philosophy in tying the dry fly
There is a simplicity and sameness about Kite's dry flies that T Donald Overfield describes on page 174 of his book, Famous Flies and their Originators, as 'orthodox', and as of 'leaving nothing to the craft that was not already known at the time'. Overfield says Kite placed considerable store by movement, being of the opinion that the 'fluttering' fly was frequently the one picked out by the trout. He describes Kite as having a strong preference for long, stiff hackles that allowed the dry fly to 'land lightly on its points' and to ride high, on tiptoe as it were, on the surface, with the mobility obtained by 'the breeze gently rocking the artificial to and fro.' Kite describes this more eloquently on page 31 of A Fisherman's Diary: 'What deceives trout is lifelike movement. Put a dry fly on the surface, any decent pattern properly constructed with sharp hackles, and above all a decent thorax. The stiff hackle points will finger the water as they rock in the lightest airs. There you have movement, life and deception.'
These principles resonate well with our longstanding subscription in South Africa to the merits of Tony Biggs' style of dry flies, most particularly to his celebrated RAB and RAB variants.
Kite's dry fly patterns
All the patterns I tie here are on Grip 11001 dry fly hooks, very close to the sort of dry fly hook Kite would have been using.
Kite developed this pattern to imitate the Large Dark Olive Mayfly, Baetis rhodani, but later also used it to imitate the Iron Blue Dun. On page 41 of his Diary Kite says, 'This much I know, that whether trout are eating olives (Baetis species), or iron blues or both, they invariably accepot an Imperial, the only dun pattern I carry at this time of year. (This was written in the chapter titled Spring.)
Large Dark Olive mayfly. Image per Dr C Bennett MBE
Many of Kite's dry flies incorporate a thorax tied in the 'Netheravon manner' (to quote Kite), where the body material is 'double and redoubled' to form a thorax just behind the hackle. However, in so far as the Imperial is concerned there has been contention as to exactly how it was tied, especially in respect to the thorax. The finest reference I can find is Davie McPhail's description on You Tube which I illustrated on my website some time ago. See http://www.tomsutcliffe.co.za/fly-fishing/fly-tying/item/1093-tying-the-kites-imperial-dry-fly.html.
Kite frequently dressed his Imperials on down-eyed hooks, being of the opinion that '...it mattered but little to the trout'. (Famous Flies and their Originators page 173.)
In A Fisherman's Diary Kite writes on page 113, 'In practise I nowadays use it (the Imperial) whenever duns are on the water, be they olives, iron blues, blue-winged olives or anything else.' It certainly remained his most used dry fly and quite clearly an effective pattern judging by the number of trout and grayling he records catching on it.
Iron blue dun. Image per Dr C Bennett MBE
Hook: 14 in early Spring, 15 or 16 later in the season
Tying silk: Purple
Tail: Greyish brown hackle fibres in early Spring. Honey dun later in the season
Body: Four un-dyed heron primary herls, doubled and re-doubled at the thorax
Rib: Fine gold wire
Hackle: Honey dun cock hackle
There are references in A Fisherman's Diary to the Hawthorn-fly taking both trout and grayling and on pages 56 and 57 Kite describes tying the pattern after setting up his vice on an old plough in a riverside field! Kite also describes the pattern's value on rivers other than chalkstreams in his book Nymph Fishing in Practice (page 145) where he had great success fishing the Hawthorn Fly on the River Torridge in North Devon and on various rivers in Wales.
But he does not describe the tying of his Hawthorn pattern, at least not in any detail. The detail comes from page 176 of Famous Flies and Their Originators as well as page 401 of A. Courtney Williams' A Dictionary of Trout Flies, and is as follows:
Hook: Size 13 or 14 (No further detail given)
Tying silk: Black
Body: Peacock tied plump.
Hackle: Black cock hackle
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Kite's Hawthorn Fly
The tying is not given by Kite, but is found on page 401 A Dictionary of Trout Flies and on page 176 of Famous Flies and Their Originators, but in my view the most reliable and exact description is to be found on page 187 pf John Goddard's Trout Fly Recognition. It is primarily for imitating the Sepia Dun, Leptophlebia marginata. Sepia is a redish-brown colour, the predominate colour of this dun. It is a fairly common species in Ireland and the British Isles, Europe and the USA. There are similar mayflies in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia but it is of more use on stillwaters and ponds. Overfield leaves out the fine gold wire rib, am error on his part I believe. It is included in A Dictionary of Trout Flies.
Hook: Size 14 U/E (No further detail given but I revert to Kite's comments on U/E hooks and tie this example on a D/E hook)
Tying silk: Dark brown
Tail: Dark red (Rhode Island) or black cock hackle fibres, or both mixed to get the redish effect
Rib: Fine gold wire
Body: Heron herls, doubled and re-doubled at the thorax.
Hackle: Black cock hackle, or black with one turn of Rhode Island to get the redish effect
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Kite's Sepia Dun
Again the tying of this pattern is not given by Kite but is found on page 352 of A Dictionary of Trout Flies, on page 96 of Trout Fly Recognition by John Goddard and on page 176 of Famous Flies and Their Originators. This is the female spinner of the Pond Olive (Cloeon dipterum) which has an apricot-coloured body.
Hook: Size 14 (No further detail given)
Tying silk: Golden olive
Tail: Pale yellowish/orange.
Body: Swan primary herls dyed apricot, doubled and re-doubled at the thorax. An effective substitute is goose primaries or apricot-coloured flat silk.
Hackle: Pale honey dun
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Kite's Apricot Spinner
Pale Evening Dun
See Trout Fly Recognition page 95, A Dictionary of Trout Flies page 394, Famous Flies and Their Originators page 176 and John Veniard's A Further Guide to Fly Dressing page 148. This pattern imitates a mayfly of the heptagenid species. Its most famous American imitation is the Light Cahill. These insects are found widely in streams and rivers and the patterns, both the Pale Evening Dun (Procloeon psueudorufulum) and Pale Morning Dun, have equivalent species in South Africa and in most countries around the word. These are by far the palest-coloured duns of all.
Hook: Size 15 (No further detail given)
Tying silk: White
Tail: Cream cock hackle
Body: Grey goose primary herls, doubled and re-doubled at the thorax.
Hackle: Cream cock hackle
Kite's Pale Evening Dun
In A Fisherman's Diary I found only two references to this pattern, the first under the chapter heading Spring where Kite fishes the Avon and is advised by the keeper Les Sawyer '...to bring some Mayflies (E. danica), as there were still natural mayflies about'. Why he didn't use an Imperial is almost certainly that the mayflies Les Sawyer was referring to were the Prince of maylies, Ephemera danica.
Ephemera danica. Image per Dr C Bennett
In the second reference on page 59 Kite gives his Mayfly dressing as follows:
Ephemera danica per kind favour of
Hook: Size 12 or 14
Tying silk: Brown
Tail: Four of five pheasant centre tail herls
Body: Dubbed mink fur (I have substituted muskrat)
Rib: Fine gold wire
Hackle: Red in front and cream (or light ginger) behind
Kite's Mayfly Immitating E. danica using hare and Antron dubbing
With muskrat dubbing and darker pheasant tail whisks, both versions very reminiscent of the RAB
The only further reference I can find to this pattern is on page 103 of Kite's Diary where he describes fishing a Hampshire chalkstream in high summer when there is no fly hatching and trout are grubbing for caddis, with only the occasional fish is just out on the cruise, when he advises against using a Mayfly and suggests using a hairy sedge pattern instead. (See the Sedge Fly below for more on this point.)
There are few references to the tying of Kite's sedge pattern. One pattern ascribed to Kite by Overfield (page 175) is recorded below.
Hook: 12 or 14 (Unspecified)
Tying silk: Brown
Body: Strands of pheasant tail herl
Hackle: Dark red cock hackle, tied palmer down the body
Kite's Sedge Fly
Kite makes an important observation on sedges and says in A Fisherman's Diary (page 103), 'On a day of little fly, trout do not rise. A few hungry fish will tail as they grout for caddis and snail on the bottom, but now again an odd trout cruises quietly, ready to snap up any sufficiently big and succulent-looking sedge-fly...' But he then goes on to say, 'It is the old logic of fishing for trout: high-school dry fly, in the very cradle of the sport. You must place your hairy fly (sedge) absolutely on the fish's nose to get away with it. It must be something indeterminate: chuck a Mayfly at a fish on this water in high summer, and he will be off like a shot!'
A further reference to an entirely similar sedge pattern can be found in Datus Proper's book What The Trout Said. On page 215 he illustrates and describes high-floating sedge designs and lists the Palmer Sedge first which is no more than a hook palmered with red hackle, although he adds that a wing, usually a rolled wing quill or rolled hackled fibres can be added. Proper says the pattern is hard to beat when fished as a skittering caddis. GEM Skues' Little Red Sedge was also very similar to Kite's Sedge, using a palmered dark-red cock hackle but with a wing of rolled hen pheasant breast fibres. This pattern according to unconfirmed sources influenced Al Troth to create his Elk Hair Caddis.
Associated dry flies mentioned in this article
I include here the tying of Frank Sawyer's Red Pheasant Tail Spinner and Lunn's Particular.
Sawyer's Red Pheasant Tail Spinner and an intriguing sister pattern, Skues' Pheasant Tail Red Spinner
Sawyer's Red Pheasant Tail Spinner is described as a wonderful imitation when olives are on the surface and it's a pattern, as I mentioned, that Kite said ranked with the famous dry fly, Lunn's Particular. It is also an effective all-round dry fly when spent mayflies with a red to rust-coloured body are on the water. The tying recipe I give here is taken from page 160 of Famous Flies and Their Originators, but also from page 71 of Terry Lawton's book, Nymph Fishing – A History of the Art and Practice. In general, though, this pattern is poorly described in most sources I researched, the best and most authentic in my view being from Famous Flies and Their Originators.
On page 103 of his Diary, Kite writes, 'I had on the Pheasant Tail Red Spinner which is the fly I fish as a matter of course on those rare occasions when I go out in the evening, until darkness dictates a change to the Sedge.'
Hook: Size 14 or 16
Tying silk: Red
Tail: White (or cream)
Body: Under-winding of fine copper (or gold) wire. Four centre pheasant tail fibres are tied in at the tail end. Spin the fibres on the wire and wind all the way to the eye of the hook. Separate the pheasant tail fibres from the wire, and wind the wire back to just behind the thorax. Pull the pheasant tail fibres back over the thorax, trap with wire and wind the wire forward again over the thorax hump. Draw the pheasant tail fibres forward over the thorax and secure.
Hackle: Dark Rhode Island Red cock hackle
Sawyer's Red Pheasant Tail Spinner
Something of a mystery
This Red Spinner of Sawyer's seems to differ little from a somewhat mysterious pattern that GEM Skues called the Pheasant Tail Red Spinner (see page 144 of Skues' book Side Lines, Side Lights and Reflections). But Skues also tied a dry fly that he called simply a Pheasant Tail which, other than for the colour of the tying thread, which is black or sometimes yellow according to Taff Price on page 21 of his book and the honey dun cock hackle, was a very similar dry fly pattern to Sawyer's Red Pheasant Tail Spinner, though not named a 'spinner' as such. It is recorded and illustrated on page 21 of Taff Price's book Fly Tying but hot orange according to both Overfield and Goddard on page 184 of his book Trout Fly Recognition. Nowhere in all the references I quote can I find any other mention of Skues' Pheasant Tail Red Spinner, but it is possible that Sawyer may have adapted it to develop his own pattern. More learned minds than mine may well be able to throw light on this, but there it is, as bold as brass on page 144 of Side Lines, Side Lights and Reflections, Skues' Pheasant Tail Red Spinner.)
SKues' Pheasant Tail Spinner
Hook: 12 or 14
Thread: Hot Orange
Tail: Whisks of honey dun cock hackle
Rib: Fine gold wire
Body: Dark cock pheasant center tail fibres
Hackle: Rusty or sandy-dun cock hackle
Skues' Pheasant Tail Spinner
William Lunn, a founding luminary in a subsequently long family line of keepers on the River Test, developed this fly in 1917 and it rapidly became popular on the chalkstreams of Hampshire. It was intended mainly to represent the Medium Olive Spinner.
Hook: 14 - 16
Tail: Natural red cock hackle fibres
Body: Stripped natural red cock hackle stalk
Hackle: Natural red cock
Wing: Light blue dun hackle tips, tied spent
Lunn's Particular from the side
and from above to show the spent dun hackle wings
Sources of reference and appreciations:
I would also like to thank Dr Cyril Bennett, MBE, who is a world renowned aquatic entomologist specialising in river insect monitoring, for sharing his magnificent mayfly images.
John Goddard: Trout Fly Recognition. A & C Black 1966.
T Donald Overfield: Famous Flies and Their Originators. A&C Black 1972.
Oliver Kite: A Fisherman's Diary. Andre Deutsch 1969.
Oliver Kite: Nymph Fishing in Practice. Herbert Jenkins 1969.
John Veniard: A Further Guide to Fly Dressing A & C Black 1968.
A Courtney Williams: A Dictionary of Trout Flies. A & C Black 1973.
Datus Proper: What The Trout Said. Nick Lyons Books 1989.
Terry Lawton: Nymph Fishing: A History of the Art and Practice. Stackpole Books 2005.
Taff Price: Fly Tying – An International Guide to over 400 Fly Patterns, Exeter Press New York.1986.
David Collier: Fly-Dressing. David & Charles, 1975.
David Collier: Fly-Dressing II. David & Charles, 1982.
GEM Skues: Side Lines, Side Lights and Reflections. Fly Fisher's Classic Library 1996.