Jim discusses Wigram’s Shannon Moth, and caddis fishing generally.
My last column included reference to the importance of good quality trout flies tied on top quality hooks – hopefully highlighting the importance of the ‘business end’ of our flyfishing tackle. I encouraged readers not to purchase cheap flies or leader material.
I purposely evaded the subject of individual flies, but since then, I’ve been encouraged by a few readers to write about my favourites, those of historical interest, and even forgotten patterns. Well, the only time pressure doesn’t work is when not enough is applied, and after much discussion (plus quite a bit of encouragement from the editor) I have yielded to the pressure!
In the early 1940s, the Victorian Fish and Game Department (as it was called then) appointed a biologist to the staff for the first time. One wag at the forthcoming annual dinner of the Victorian Fly Fishers rose from the table, and perhaps with an extra whisky on board, expressed the loud opinion, “We’ll get a bloody lot of biology but no bloody fish!” The biologist’s name was A. Dunbavin Butcher, known generally as Alf.
Well, our erstwhile opponent to the appointment might have been right, but Alf Butcher wrote (and the Department published) a booklet on the food of trout, highlighting the significance of caddis in their diet. For this much younger angler in the 1960s, on a serious flyfishing learning curve, the advice on the importance of caddis was avidly followed. Over the years since, I have fished with both dry and wet fly imitations, and have studied the various stick caddis larvae styles: from little ‘log cabin box’ shaped models, to other superb cases made from weed, sand and various forms of detritus from the lake or riverbed. Some specimens come in quite remarkable colours, and most are beautiful in their own way. In my shack in Tasmania, I have many specimens in small phials which I’ve gathered over the years, and I treasure this collection.
During the 1990s or thereabouts, I was fortunate enough to successfully bid for over 100 Shannon Moth flies, supposedly tied by the late Dick Wigram himself. There was both a female and male pattern, one darker than the other. When I first purchased them, I genuinely thought I’d bought flies actually tied by the famous angler and author. I subsequently found out there were a few tyers who tied for ‘Wigram and Ross’, a small flyfishing store in Launceston many decades ago.
I was informed it was likely my flies were tied by others, as Dick was either busy in the store or away fishing! It was pointed out to me that another well-known angler, Max Christensen, may have tied them; or a Mrs. Mercedes Hose, who tied many patterns for the shop at the time. Either way, they certainly are Dick Wigram’s original patterns, and are superb historical examples of what was used at the time of the famous Shannon Rise.
By 1956, changes to the flow regime down the Shannon River were impacting the Shannon Rise, and the last Rise was in 1963 if my memory serves me correctly. Then, the main flow out of Great Lake was diverted via Poatina, and the once-mighty current from the southern end of the lake was reduced to a relative trickle. Sadly, I never walked the banks of the few hundred metres of river between Great Lake wall to Shannon Lagoon in its glory days. In recent years, I’ve driven over the Shannon bridge hundreds of times, fished the lagoon, and imagined the anglers who came from all over to fish those last days of November and early weeks of December, way back when.
I have since used many caddis patterns like a Hares Ear on the Goulburn River in Victoria. On many waters at last light, I like a Royal Coachman, because of the extra visibility of the white wings. My favourite caddis dry fly however is still the original Wigram pattern. I’ve used them very sparingly, knowing I probably shouldn’t even knot them to my leader.
I’ve purchased many copies, yet the originals are unique. They’re arguably way too precious to use. It is a bit like the memory of younger days and a special one-night love affair with someone one never saw again. For the rest of Time, one dips the memory swab into that bowl of happiness, for a taste, hoping the bowl never becomes empty!
Having just waxed lyrically about caddis dry flies, if I’m really being truthful, I’ve used stick caddis patterns more frequently. My favourite three patterns were tied by three old friends who ‘have gone on ahead’. Julian Brown, more famous for his Bogong Moth pattern affectionately called a Dunny Brush, tied a simple stick caddis pattern from fine Venetian blind cord dyed dark chocolate brown, with a wisp of yellow floss silk at the head. Another came from Murray ‘Muzz’ Wilson, and this was a pattern tied from a piece of rolled up Sellotape and felt, in an olive-brown colour.
My favourite, however, is John Philbrick’s Nymph. This is a superbly designed, very slim pattern, tied from a mixture of seals fur in yellow, black, claret brown, red and olive. It doubles as a mayfly nymph but to me it has always been at its ultimate best when fished inert as a stick caddis pattern.
While all three patterns work, they are very difficult to see underwater. The trick for me is to fish with polaroids in clear stillwaters. The idea is to set a trap for an oncoming fish. First, cast the fly beyond the anticipated track of the trout, and then draw it into its path at the right moment. One must do this with accuracy, stealth and without spooking the target. A cast that is too short has little chance. Watch closely and as the fish accelerates to take the fly, and then slows down. The fly is in the trout’s mouth or it isn’t. One has to have the confidence to strike. Strike crisply and with confidence. I’ve seen many anglers lift the rod way too slowly. If one feels for the trout, a spooked fish is usually the result.
Another very successful way to find stick caddis feeders, is to fish along a lagoon or lake shore with the wind blowing in and on to it. The stick caddis become dislodged in the waves and will be found swimming in the slightly murky waters. Again, the fly is impossible to see but the fish are often visible. Again, just watch carefully. There is usually an acceleration over to the fly. Again, one has to have the confidence to strike. It’s hard, but he who hesitates is lost! I’ve had some remarkable fishing along windward rocky shores and grassy banks. The water needs to be slightly murky: stirred up a bit, yet clear enough to see the vague shape of a trout. On Great Lake in Tasmania, there are a few small bays which have a very dark or even black soil bottoms. The trout show caramel coloured on the dark background. These corners aren’t large, but one can often find a number of fish hunting stick caddis and providing some excellent fishing.
So, there you have the ubiquitous caddis – adults and ‘stick-cased’ larvae. If these notes lead the reader to discover more about the many forms of caddis, I’ll be very pleased I’ve written them.
The Food of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Fish in Victoria with Special References to Trout
By A. Dunbavin Butcher
The Trout and Fly in Tasmania
The Shannon Rise
Nymph Fishing in the Southern Hemisphere
All by R.H.(Dick) Wigram
Memories of The Shannon Rise by Roy Dean
A Fly Fisher in Tasmania by David Scholes.
Note: Some of these publications are quite rare but do come up for sale, usually once or twice a year, as part of angler’s estates.