Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Black Spider

The variation of the Black Spider substitutes embroidery floss for the body



Abdomen floss

Embroidery thread - DMC 938 dark coffee brown or, better still, silk buttonhole twist – Coats & Clark’s 56-B dark chocolate brown, size D

Optional; beaver and mole

Starling from the shoulder or crow

This spider pictures a mole and beaver thorax with a crow hackle.

Or, better still:
This spider is dressed with a body of silk buttonhole twist.

The variations above are in the vein of the Black Spider that E. M. Tod attributes to W. C. Stewart and James Baillie in Wet-Fly Fishing (1903). Tod draws no distinction between wingless, hackled flies and the dressing that Stewart describes: "When dealing with the fishing of 'Waters' with the wet fly, had I been asked to name one particular class more suitable than any other for this purpose, I should certainly have named hackled flies, the 'Spiders' of Stewart's book."  He equates it with famous soft hackles like the "Water-hen Bloa,' that splendid hackled fly" and "Pritt's 'Dark Snipe and Purple'" which is "another fly of similar characteristics" to Stewart's Black Spider. 

W. C. Stewart originally ranked the black spider as the "killing" pattern in his Practical Angler (1857). Stewart’s original recipe for the black spider is simple: “This is made of the small feather of the cock starling, dressed with brown silk.” His dressing, for most fly tiers, seems a bit more complicated than the typical soft hackled fly.

Stewart, or rather his editor, illustrates the three styles of dressing he discusses - the silhouette on the left is the spider. The picture is excerpted from page 95 of W. C. Stewart's The Practical Angler, an online text maintained in the Digital Collections of the New Hampshire University Library.

Stewart distinguishes the spider from the winged wet fly, since “dressing a spider is a much simpler operation than dressing the fly.” His dressing uses three materials: hackle, waxed silk, and silk gut (more commonly used in Stewart’s time for building leaders than dressing flies): “Before commencing, bite the end of the gut between your teeth; this flattens and makes it broader at the point, which prevents it slipping; a thing very liable to occur with small flies. Next, take the hook firmly between the forefinger and thumb of your left hand, lay the gut along its shank, and with a well-waxed silk thread, commencing about the centre of the hook, whip it and the gut firmly together, till you come to the end of the shank, where form the head by a few turns of the thread. This done, take the feather, and laying it on with the root end towards the bend of the hook, wrap the silk three or four times round it, and then cut off the root end.”  

For Stewart, hackling the spider was crucial, as it created both hackle and body and distinguished it from other styles of flies depicted in the illustration above: “still holding the hook between the forefinger and the thumb of your left hand, take the thread, lay it along the centre of the inside of the feather, and with the forefinger and thumb of your right hand twirl them round together till the feather is rolled round the thread; and in this state wrap it round the hook, taking care that a sufficient number of the fibres stick out to represent the legs; to effect this it will sometimes be necessary to raise the fibres with a needle during the operation.” The silk-gut-hackle  twist is wound back to the original tie-in point at the hook’s center, tied off, and half-hitched or whip finished. Stewart characterizes this method of fly dressing as being  very “rough and simple,” but it yields a “natural-looking, and much more durable” fly.  

This dressing, truer to James Baillie's and W. C. Stewart's original intent, substitutes brown Pearsall's Gossamer Silk instead of silk gut. It is dressed entirely in the reverse of Stewart's directions: the tip of the feather is tied in at the rear, twisted with the silk; both are wound forward, with the stem of the hackle and silk tied off at the eye of the hook.

In recent years, some fly tiers have offered alternate methods for dressing flies. Dave Hughes adapted the common method of dressing palmered patterns like woolly worm or woolly bugger to dress Stewart’s spiders. Hughes method only requires tying thread and hackle, as he illustrates in Wet Flies (1995). The hackle is tied in like Stewart’s with the tip to the front. The feather is wound back to the hook’s center and tied off; the thread is wound forward through the palmer to reinforce the hackle stem, and the fly is finished at the head.  

Either version, the more traditional, front-hackled or partially-palmered versions of Stewart's spider might not follow Stewart's original intention exactly, but both offer a buggy silhouette that would undoubtedly match a hatch of caddis flies, a mayfly rising in fast water, or stonefly caught in the wash of the current.

Listing all of the authors after Stewart who recommend his Black Spider (or any of his spiders) would be an effort too comprehensive. The highlights, however, are interesting enough. Stewart’s Scottish spiders are noticeably absent from T. E. Pritt’s North-Country Flies (1886), but another Scottish author, E. M. Tod, highly recommends them in his Wet-Fly Fishing Treated Methodically (1903). While spiders and Stewart’s method of fishing them upstream certainly have an influence on G. E. M. Skues, Skues does not cite Stewart Spiders. James Leisenring, however, wholeheartedly recommends them in The Art of Tying the Wet Fly and Fishing the Flymph (1940): “I have found W. C. Stewart’s spiders to be a deadly combination on every stream I have ever fished. If a fly fisherman presents them carefully, he can soon acquire the reputation of a fish hog! . . . After tying in the hackle by the stem, Stewart put the tying silk against the stem on the inside of the hackle, twirled them together slightly, and then wound them about the hook shank together.”


  1. Neil~ These are outstanding!
    Phil and Lisa


  3. Now that is one of my favorite spiders. The ones I've used are more closely related to the last dressing. Nice job Neal!

    1. Thanks, Mark - I didn't realize some of the old posts (this was the second) are reposting, although some of them I have updated. Thanks for checking it out.