My Books

Tim Rolston’s Soft Hackle Midge - By Ed Herbst

Thursday, 13 March 2014 05:10

Given the relatively small size of its fly fishing population South Africa has produced some really outstanding books on the subject in the last twenty years.

Dean Riphagen’s two books, both published by Struik, The South African fly Fishing Handbook (1999) and Stillwater Trout in South Africa (2004) are, by any standards, world class.

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Tom Sutcliffe’s Hunting Trout, a South African classic, received a deserved accolade when one of the chapters, “The Lakes at Inhluzane”, was included by Nick Lyons in his compendium, The Best Fishing Stories Ever Told (Skyhorse Press, 2010)

Screen shot cover Hunting Trout

Peter Brigg’s magnificent coffee table book, Call of the Stream, for both content and layout gets my vote as the most beautiful fly fishing book ever written and the fact that it is about small stream fly fishing is a double bonus for me.

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To this list I would like to add Tim Rolston’s new book, Guide Flies – Simple, Durable Flies that catch Fish which is also deserving of high praise.

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It comes as a book/CD set which combines step-by-step computer-generated drawings, text and videos on the flies that Tim has come to rely on as the premier guide on Western Cape trout streams.  As such he needs flies that are quick to tie and effective.  It is all gold dust, full of anecdotal information that I found fascinating and useful.  It also contains a variety of patterns for dams.  These are flies that will catch fish anywhere in the world. 

Click in images to enlarge

 511 Rolston Molenaars

Tim fishing the Molenaars River near Cape Town

I watched Tim tie a #18 parachute in two minutes at the 2013 Wild Trout Association Flyfishing Festival in Rhodes, and ‘Guide Flies’ shows you how he does it.

The book had a Eureka Moment for me and that came when I read the passage below on the CDC soft hackle.

On one of our streams during the summer there was a prolonged hatch of little blue winged olive mayflies which put in an appearance each afternoon as a spectacular spinner fall. On one run in particular the fish would hone in on these spinners and proved tremendously tricky to catch. The fish would come right into the shallows with fins sticking out of the water hunting down these bugs where they had spun off the current and were laying prostrate in the surface film. I had for some time been playing around with spinner patterns, the standard crucified poly yarn versions elicited near no response from the fish at all and I created some flies with burned nylon organza wings which looked to me exactly like the real thing, even in close up on stream comparisons. The fish however took absolutely no notice of my fly at all. It was very disappointing as a great deal of time had gone into their design and manufacture. In an act of desperation I tied on a simple Olive CDC soft hackle with nothing more than a thread body, no wings, no tail, nothing complex about it at all. The fish couldn’t leave it alone and I caught one fish after the other until the pattern finally fell to pieces.

This fly has one all-encompassing appeal as a guide fly; it is tremendously versatile and can be fished as a spinner, emerger or nymph. It can be presented dead drift upstream or swung like a North Country Spider, down and across, all to equally good effect. It is a pattern that has that magical quality of being all things to all fish and is so simple to manufacture that it is no trouble to fill a box with variations in an afternoon at the bench.

The CDC Midge combines a black thread body and a technique I first saw Hans Weilenmann use on his CDC and Elk – you throw a loose loop of thread around the butt of a CDC feather, gently tighten and then draw the feather underneath the snugged thread to compact the barbules.


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Tim Rolston’s soft hackle CDC midge – quick to tie, devastatingly effective.

I have looked in that encyclopaedia of micropatterns, Modern Midges by Rick Takahashi and Jerry Hubka (Headwater Books, 2009) which contains more than a thousand patterns from all over the world and it reveals nothing like Tim’s pattern.

About twenty years ago I would often see a young woman taking samples in the Elandspad. She was an aquatic entomologist studying for her doctorate at the University of Cape Town and I asked Rebecca Tharme if she could give me a percentage breakdown of the insects she had found in her samplings of the stream bed. I knew that Baetis nymphs would predominate, so I was really surprised when it turned out that diptera were, by quite a margin, the most common aquatic insects found in this small mountain stream near Cape Town.

I knew that there were massive hatches of Black Fly and Net-Veined Midges in spring but was surprised to find, as a result of her analysis, that chironomids were also plentiful. As night falls on all our small streams, midges can be seen dancing over the water near the banks and there are always rises to them.

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Net-veined Midge

In a recent article in the local magazine, Flyfishing, “The Logical Angler — Dry fly magic with Tim Rolston at the CPS Festival”, Gordon van der Spuy describes a day fishing on the Elandspad with Tim. He spotted some Net-Winged Midges on a rock but felt it would be impossible to imitate their rising and dipping flight.

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Gordon van der Spuy celebrates the efficacy of Tim Rolston’s soft hackle CDC midge

Tim tied a rather uninspiring #20 anorexic CDC soft hackle on the back of the dry and fished it sunk and that’s when my Damascus moment happened.  After that it was like taking candy from a baby. We’d spent an hour on that first pool.”

As Tim explained it to me, many insects which have been dragged by the current through a riffle and into the next pool, end up as tangled blob of legs, wings, body and, in the case of ants, antennae. The Soft Hackle Midge thus resembles something which is a constant in the life of trout.

He fishes it on a 7 or 8x Stroft tippet and a relatively slow-action rod which protects such light tippets.

One of my all-time favourite books is Fishing the Midge by Ed Koch (Stackpole Books) which made its debut in 1972 and was subsequently updated. I read it again and again and my favourite chapter was the one on the Herl Midge. He was fishing the Young Woman’s Creek in Pennsylvania with his wife, JoAnn. He sat watching a productive pool. “Several minutes passed without incident, then at the head of the pool a trout rose. The rise was just noticeable – no more than a minute dimple in the surface. It wasn’t till then that I noticed a swarm of tiny black flies hovering over the water at the end of the riffle. A minute later another rise came at the same place. During the next quarter of an hour the same small trout rose twenty three times and, as I watched, seven more trout began feeding at the edge of the quiet water. They were taking the little black flies as they touched the surface. ‘Well, I’ll be damned’, I muttered to myself. I managed to grab a couple of flies out of the swarm. They were midges – minute two-winged water-bred flies that I later came to know well. I hurried back to tell JoAnn what I seen.”

Back at camp, he came across some black-dyed   ostrich herl. “The short-fibred herl seemed just the thing to imitate the blurred wing pattern of the midges.”

He tied up a few #22 patterns with a conventional rooster hackle tail and a herl body.

When he returned to the pool in the late afternoon, the herl midge produced five trout in half an hour and in the next two and half hours he brought another nine to the net – on a stretch which in the morning had produced only one fish on other patterns.

But what struck me most about this account was the almost innocent trust with which the trout took the tiny black blob. “The midge touched down about six inches to the side of the waiting trout. He darted over, snatched the fly and headed back to his feeding station. The take came so fast that I was too startled to raise the rod tip. The trout hooked himself as the line came taut and off he went.”

‘The next cast brought a trout up almost as promptly as the first had. He drifted over to the midge, inspected it and promptly sipped it in.”

Being an inveterate tinkerer I wonder if adding a black ostrich herl body to Tim’s CDC Soft Hackle would not add a little more appeal?

It might, but from all accounts the original works very well without it.

539 CDC Soft Hackle

Here is the illustration of the tying the CDC Soft Hackle from Tim’s book.

You can order the book from Tim through his website:

or from Craig Thom’s Stream-X fly shop in Milnerton, Cape Town.

Anglers now have three CDC flies that originated in the streams near Cape Town and all of them are crackers.

As a dry fly you have Darryl Lampert’s outstanding Hi-Vis CDC Midge

 You can find a video clip on tying the fly here:

Tom Sutcliffe’s Single Feather CDC Midge serves as an in-the-film emerger.

No matter what your level of experience, Tim Rolston’s new book will be of value to you and, hard as it may be to contemplate when you look at his little soft hackle CDC midge, it might come as close to being the universal fly, that elusive silver bullet, that you will ever find.

Ed Herbst


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