Text and images from Ed Herbst
"O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing'"
John Keats: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
When, in early November last year, Gordon van der Spuy joined me to demonstrate fly tying at Sharland Urquhart’s open day in her beautiful Cape Town garden – all in aid of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital Trust – I could see that he was a deeply troubled man.
Sweat sheened his furrowed brow, his shoulders slumped and every now and then his body was wracked by an involuntary shudder.
When eventually I persuaded this master fly tyer to unburden himself, the words tumbled out in a torrent.
Dark forces were abroad, he told me, evil stalked the land.
And, as he spoke, I could almost hear the wind’s whistle through ghostly groves of withered oaks, the eerie creak as the coffin lid was prised open from the inside, the fateful pad of footsteps down echoing mediaeval castle corridors, all drowned out by the inconsolable wails of his predecessors, from Berners to Cotton, from Skues to Schweibert.
The tale he told was frightening, apocalyptic even, for it clearly signalled the end of all he held dear about the hallowed art and craft to which he had devoted much of his life.
It concerned a lovely sunny day on the upper Elandspad stream in the mountains about an hours’ drive from Cape Town.
The day was set fair, birds sang and a faint upstream breeze caressed the right shoulder, ideally placed to unfurl the cast and delicately waft the tiny CDC soft hackle, tethered to a 9x tippet, onto the water.
He was fishing with one of the combative Young Turks of the competition scene, someone fixated on success signalled by trout in numbers, the tally against the clock.
Frustratingly, nothing worked.
Eventually Gordon wearily gave the fish best which was when his companion, equally fishless, announced that he was now going to affix to his tippet his infallible “fly” which, he confidently predicted, would be chased up the bank by trout that would beach themselves in their manic readiness to succumb to its siren song.
And so it proved.
Click in images to enlarge
Andrew Ingram fishing the birthplace of the infamous Elandspad Squirmy Wormy
The success of the Elands Pad (EP) Squirmy Wormy (aka Ed’s Logjam Fly) which, in this case consisted of – sans thread – a bead, a hook and the soft, seductive jelly-like tendril derived from the toy industry and marketed as “Squirmy Wormies” devastated our Gordon. This is not surprising for he has been known to spend days combining exotic Bird of Paradise feathers conforming exactly to the edicts of long–deceased salmon fly maestros like George M. Kelson, Dr Thomas Edwin Pryce-Tannatt and Major John Popkin Traherne.
There was no Pearsall’s silk on this version – nothing to mollify or ameliorate his deeply affronted sense of fly tying propriety.
An example of one Gordon van der Spuy’s traditionally dressed salmon flies,the Silver Grey, after the style of the famous tyer George M Kelson.
It was apparently just a bit of Squirmy Wormy material squeezed onto a sedge hook behind a gold bead. Fly “tying” does not get more prosaic than that.
Fearful of offending my friend but mindful of the success of Ed’s Logjam Fly on the Orange River yellows in the Richtersveld desert on the border of South Africa and Namibia, I started my diabolical experiments in shame-filled secrecy.
Squirmy Wormy territory. Nico Claase fishing the Orange River in the Richtersveld
If, I reasoned, even the highly-pressured trout of the Elandspad were not immune to the charms of this bastard offspring of the San Juan Worm – in itself a fly of deeply suspect provenance (the San Juan shuffle) – imagine how effective it would be on that most intelligent of fish, the carp?
My first problem is that everyone had heard of the success of the Squirmy Wormy before I had and the red version was not available in Cape Town. Fly shops, reacting to the sudden and apparently insatiable demand, quickly sold out and ordered more but the interminable South African post office strike prevented them from getting what they had ordered. I finally managed to track down two packets of orange and this, as subsequently transpired, was a serendipitous bit of good fortune. I found that colouring the material with a red permanent marker, gave it a seductive sheen.
Innocence and evil. While Ed Herbst (left) busies himself with ever-more devilish Squirmy Wormy experiments, Gordon van der Spuy teaches Rina Bladen how to tie a Griffiths Gnat.
I quickly discovered, however, that Squirmy Wormy possesses demonic qualities in that it is supernaturally difficult to control.
I started off by using the conventional “fold and wrap” technique which, in the San Juan Worm, results in the chenille being tied down at the bend and eye of the hook. No matter how I tried, the Squirmy Wormy strand rolled every which way except the correct way, always ending up in the wrong place.
I persevered and, assured by me of its imminent success, Tom Sutcliffe set off for a day on the Lourens stream in Somerset West armed with half a dozen succulent specimens.
Not only were they resolutely refused but there was a slight problem – they floated.
Ed’s floating EP Squirmy Wormy – tied San Juan style - which was spurned by trout on the Lourens stream
Before I go any further in discussing the ethics of this unspeakable ‘fly’ I need to place on record some historic context and I refer you now to one of the legends of British Stillwater fly fishing, the late Arthur Cove. His book, My Way with Trout (Crowood Press, 1986) is a stillwater classic and the section quoted below refers to his research on bloodworms and the ingenious pattern that he came up with. It proved so successful that he stopped using it because it made the fishing too easy.
Says Arthur cove on the bloodworm imitation or ‘Red Diddy’
I cannot ﬁnish this part without mentioning the larval form of most of the chironomids. This is the bloodworm, and take it from me, they are not all red. Like the adults they vary a lot in colour from very pale, nearly transparent, to greens and deep red to crimson. The ﬁrst time I really noticed them was in the early days at Eyebrook but I didn’t appreciate their true value until, about two years after Grafham opened.
Things were getting quite difﬁcult for most anglers there, for after the flush of the ﬁrst half season and the start of the second one, it suddenly started to be a different ball game. But by inspecting the stomach contents of every trout, I realised that bloodworms were beginning to feature more and more in the diet of the better ﬁsh. So, I decided one day to try to make a passable imitation of this great big bloodworm (and I had found quite a few up to one and a half inches long).
I started by tying dark red silk ribbed with yellow onto a longshank size eight hook, varnished it, tried it and had a few ﬁsh on it. But after further observation of them alive in the water, I noticed that although they lashed about a lot in the water, they never made any real progress of travel through it and, like most other non-swimming nymphs, they were really at the mercy of wind and drift. I tied them with longer tails to try to improve this lashing action without much real movement through the water. Well, to cut a long story short, after trying hackle feathers sticking out behind pieces of silk, wool cloth, leather (you name it I tried it), they usually ﬁnished up with the tail wrapped round the body. I wondered what I could do to get it right and eventually came up with an articulated worm consisting of joining one hook behind another with a piece of nylon and when completed, nipping off the bend of the rear hook. They were a bit more successful and caught ﬁsh but still didn’t have the real action I needed. It was a conversation with a good ﬁshing mate, Eric Bridgeman of Wollaston in Northamptonshire that gave me the good idea of using a rubber band - red of course. Using the natural bend in them, I could make the tail curve back over the shank of the hook.
I tried this in the bath (my usual testing tank) and, realising it was still immobile, I decided to shave the piece of rubber down closest to the shank where it appeared from under the crimson silk I used for the body. Eventually I got it to kick with a very slight tweak from the nylon I had it tied on. Success at last! The shaving down of these rubber bands was nearly as exciting as catching ﬁsh for, as you can imagine, I had to shave them real ﬁne in the one particular spot and I would often ruin half a dozen before getting it right.
Well, I tied up a dozen of these crimson bloodworms and on the Sunday went to Grafham with Rodney. We were ﬁshing in a line of anglers in the Yacht Club bay, not doing a great deal, so decided to try one of these latest creations. I banged it out a couple of tweaks on nice slow draw and I was into a good ﬁsh, repeated in the next three casts with the same result. Rodney, not backward in coming forward, was soon tying one on and in his next cast he was into a ﬁsh and the word went right along the line of anglers, each in turn coming to me and asking for one of those things we were catching on. They all without exception caught their whack.
Arthur Cove – inventor of the Red Diddy
The one thing I did ﬁnd out over the next few weeks was that the few of them that attempted to tie copies hadn’t twigged that the most important part of the pattern was shaving the rubber band down real ﬁne. The next time I went ﬁshing with Rodney, the first thing he asked for was one of those ‘Red Diddy’ things. That’s how it got its name.
Well, things got to such a point over the next couple of months that it was only a matter of putting the Red Diddy in the water and ﬁsh stuck themselves on it, and some funny things used to be said about it. I remember one evening after dashing up from London on my way home, calling in at the lodge before I decided where to go for the last hour or so. I appeared by the side of the lodge and heard one of the bailiffs shout to a chap down below the veranda, ‘Here’s a bloke who’ll have his limit before he goes home.’ This bloke answered that he’d ﬁshed the last three weeks without catching anything and there weren’t any ﬁsh left in there. I went up the steps into the lodge and the money was being laid. Before I could get anything on, it had been decided that I would get my limit before dark, it then being 8.30pm. It was going to get dark by 10pm.
I had noticed, when coming along the road, having nipped into Gaynes Cove car park, that there were ﬁve anglers in the narrow part of the cove and decided that this was the spot to go. With the wind blowing out of it, it usually pulled ﬁsh down from the dam and when they got into the shallow water near the mouth of the brook, they turned round and came back out again. So if you were in the narrow part, you could get two goes at them — if they didn’t take on the way in, you got them on the way out (lovely theory isn’t it?).
On going down, I was pleased to see that the man in the spot I always thought was best, the pitch nearest the fence, was packing up and I got into that spot. Eight casts, eight ﬁsh and I was back in the lodge in an hour and nearly home before dusk. At that time, the bay was full of bloodworm and that was that. I never got a penny out of it — not even a drink.
To tell you the truth, I got fed up with the bloody thing (get it?) and after doing unholy slaughter with it over the following season, I could even go out in a boat when ﬁsh were really hard to ﬁnd, toss it over the side and it wasn’t many minutes before my line was being stretched. I stopped using it and have never tied another since. One little sequel to this story is that some years later I was given some of the spiralled nylon tube and was asked to give it a try. I put a length of it on a size ten hook, leaving a tail about half an inch out of the back. I put a small Grey Head on it, went round the west bank, saw a ﬁsh move about twenty-ﬁve yards out and tossed it out to it. The next instant the ﬁsh was on — a rainbow of 3lb. Two casts later I was into another 2 ½ lb trout, so I cut it off and ground it into the mud, thinking to myself, this is where I came in.
A month or two later I phoned Gordon with the good news – my unweighted SW, tied San Juan style, had proved completely unsuccessful on three streams, the Elandspad, the Lourens and the Upper Olifants. Furthermore the yellowfish in Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith in the Orange Free State had also spurned it.
Jay Smit with a largemouth yellowfish from Sterkfontein Dam – they spurned the Squirmy Wormy
Here are some field notes:
Tom Sutcliffe: “Fished your fly on the upper Lourens – no reaction from the trout”
Stephen Dugmore: “Fished the wormy on the Upper Olifants stream in the Witzenberg Mountains near Ceres and also on the Elandspad but have to say with little success. I found the Squirmy quite a heavy fly. Although it has a neutral density, once in the water it lands with a serious plop so you need to cast it well ahead of where you think a fish might be. I think for me it might be better as a bigger water fly - maybe the Sterkspruit or Kraai River in Barkly East. I think a bit of weight on it might also be a good variant.”
Jay Smit: “I fished for two days at Sterkfontein Dam last week and thought the squirmy worm would really work well there, but not a touch. Caught my fish on Klinks and F Flies.”
When Gordon received the glad tidings he was not mollified. “It didn’t work because they were fishing it wrong. That thing is a bass worm fly – you have to jiggle it and then fish find it impossible to resist – they chase it up the bank.”
The Upper Olifants River in the Witzenberg Mountains nears Ceres in the Western Cape – where the trout refused the EP Squirmy Wormy.
My current version – which awaits field trials – consists of a 2.5 mm red tungsten bead on a #14 jig hook. Using 16/0 red Veevus thread I tie in a piece of pink Squirmy Wormy material about 2 mm behind the bead and pointing towards the bend of the hook. I dub a suitable pinkish dressing, in the illustrated example I have used Hends UVD09 (Vine Red) behind the bead. I then fold the SW forward over the dubbing and tie it off against the bead. This forces the SW section into an upright position. It takes about two minutes to tie and it is a magnificently sparse “fly”.
On dams, a San Juan Worm, attached to the bend of the hook of a DDD - New Zealand-dropper style – and allowed to drift with the breeze, is not only a restful style of fishing but an extremely successful one. My latest version of the Squirmy, tied with a glass bead or no bead at all, on a jig or conventional hook, should have more movement than the original chenille pattern and, like all soft plastic bass lures, the fish should tend to hang onto it longer. (Use a yellow DDD for more visibility but don’t try to kid yourself it is not a float.)
The weighted EP Squirmy Wormy – judgement deferred
Now I am waiting for someone courageous, someone not fazed by base insult and calumny, to field test my latest creation. It also occurs to me that a combination of a small section of Squirmy Wormy material, coloured black with a permanent marker and covered with UV light-cured acrylic resin could form the basis of a very successful tadpole imitation if tied on a short shank hook with a tail of a very mobile material such as marabou and, in that regard, let me leave you with some food for thought.
I have recently been re-reading Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout by the late Charles Brooks (Crown Publishers, 1976) which is one of the classic books in the nymph fishing corpus. In it he describes a pattern which he calls the Cream Wiggler and I have scanned an illustration of the fly by Dave Whitlock from the book. Brooks describes the fly as “impressionistic”. The main component is a tapered strip of chamois leather and I wonder, if dyed black, this material could not form a better choice than marabou to imitate the tail of the tadpoles which are so prolific in our dams and in the margins of our streams and rivers? Here is the relevant extract from the book:
For fishing ponds, lakes, deep slow pools and backwaters one needs a pattern that simulates midge, blackfly, mosquitos and other larvae. I use the same pattern and size and feel a wide selection of this artificial is not necessary.
Hook Sizes 18 – 22, 2X short, 2x fine
This fly has only a ‘body’ and a very short sparse hackle. The body is a half-inch strip of car washing chamois (shammy), the thickness of a toothpick tied at the centre of the hook shank by one end, the full length being left hanging loose. One turn of very short, very soft watery-coloured grouse hackle is made just in front of where the shammy is tied in. The head is finished somewhat large. Use brown or tan tying thread
I formerly made the body of this larvae imitation from cream rubber strips, but the shammy when wet is more realistic and gives better action. This fly should be fished so that it hangs head up in the surface film. Greasing the head and the hackle together but not the body will usually accomplish this. Sometimes it is necessary to grease all but the last foot of the leader.
I think it is fairly obvious that it will be necessary to re-evaluate your artificial nymphs and larvae continually and to redesign them as you learn more about their use and about the natural they represent. For this reason, the fly fisher who is also a fly tier over his brother angler who is not.
The Cream Wiggler as tied by Charles Brooks and sketched by Dave Whitlock.
Fly tyers, in their insatiable quest to catch anything and everything that swims, have strayed far from the original fur and feathers edict of early pioneers like G M Halford and Theodore Gordon but, for van der Spuy, the EP Squirmy Wormy and Ed’s Logjam Fly are a bridge too far.
Ed’s Logjam Fly – a bridge too far?
There are limits you know.