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The Bigger They Are, The Ardea They Fall!

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David Collyer's Grey Nymph utilising Grey Heron herl David Collyer's Grey Nymph utilising Grey Heron herl

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) is not a common fly tying material in the UK these days explains Paul Davis, mainly thanks to it being a protected species and therefore not commercially available. But many old patterns prescribe its use and a dead bird can provide useful salvage material!

I’m not too surprised when someone shoves a brown envelope into my hands with furtive glances. Well unless it contains a large amount of used twenties and a whispered warning to make yourself scarce before Mr Big catches up with you. Therefore when, at a Sussex Fly Dressers Guild Thursday tying evening at Patcham, the chairman of the main guild at that time, Alan Middleton, thrust a brown envelope into my paws I thought it might be a pay off from the main guild to stop writing these articles! However looking at the scrawl on the front - Ardea cinerea - it was clear that a few Grey Heron feathers wouldn’t buy many personal desert islands.

Alan indicated I should cast these treasurers widely so I passed them on to whoever fancied them as I didn’t need any for myself as I still largely had most of a complete set of wings from a dead Heron I found whilst out walking last March.

It occurred to me that only a few people decided to have some – and I wondered whether this was down to the fact that heron, specifically herl from the primary and secondary feathers (the main flight feathers of the wing) is hardly used in trout flies these days. Now this is obviously linked to supply and demand – with Heron being a protected species the material doesn’t appear in catalogues for sale and it is only those available to those who make use of any dead bird or discarded feather found on their countryside outings. It set me thinking that maybe it might be worth tying up a few of these old patterns (and as I surprisingly discovered some quite new patterns).

I dusted off my memory banks, had a rifle through my fly boxes and came up with the following pattern. Before falling into the detail of the pattern I should mention that any of the long wing feathers or even the tail feathers from a heron yield very usable herl and it should be cut off and used very much like pheasant tail fibres. However heron herl is more fragile than pheasant and I apply the following tactic when making a herl body as it makes it slightly easier to tie and also more resistant to fish teeth and gives a nicer segmented abdomen effect than herl alone: When laying down the underbody of thread do not clip of the waste thread but keep it attached. Then when the heron herl is tied in take this trailing piece of thread and wrap it around the herl. Grasping both the herl and the thread wrap the body as normal and then tie both the herl and thread at the thorax point.

Grey Nymph
One of the David Collyer trio of nymphs for the reservoirs – probably the most famous of the three as this fly was used to catch the fly-caught record rainbow trout back in the early 1970’s. In my tying I have substituted the very precise description of ‘grey with white tips ostrich herl’ for just plain white ostrich herl. I also prefer slightly longer tails than some may tie or consider in proportion but I think this gives the fly slightly more ‘wiggle factor’. With either of these modifications the fish don’t seem to care!

Hook: Size 10 Heavy Wet Hook (e.g. Kamasan B175)
Thread: Black
Tail: Tips of 4 or 5 strands of heron herl. These are the tips of the herl that are tied in to form the body.
Body: 4 or 5 strands of heron herl.
Rib: Silver oval tinsel
Thorax: Grey with white tips ostrich Herl. The waste ends of the heron herl are tied over the back to create wing cases.

N.B. Dr Paul Davis, to give him his full title, is the current Vice Chairman of the Fly Dressers Guild. When he is not fly fishing or fly tying he sometimes turns up for work as Registrar at the Natural History Museum.

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Comments (4 posted):

oldguide on 02/03/2016 12:51:43
Ladies and Gentlemen. Ever since I had acquired my first full season ticket back in 1979, I pick up every single feather of grey heron I could find while fishing our rivers. Similarly to Great Britain, here in Germany the grey heron is, or better say, was protected. More on this at the end of this story. In the beginning I was wearing these feathers on my hat. First, because I did not have to carry them this way, later on, because they gave a nice touch. Only many years later did I discover these feathers for fly fishing and fly tying. The fly I am using this feather for regularly now is called a Rhodani Dun. This pattern was published in the German fly fishing magazine Der Fliegenfischer, Issue 79, in the beginning of the 1970s. First I used doubled up tying thread for ribbing this sensitive material. Now I am using a more classic ribbing material, Gudebrod or Gossamer silk. This fly had caught one of my largest fish on a dry fly, a 22 in. rainbow. It has caught fish for me in the Deutsche Traun, Weisse Traun, Gmundner Traun, and the Gacka, among others. Today, here in Bavaria, it is allowed to shoot the grey heron in the immediate vivinity (200 m) of fish farms or trout hatcheries from September 16 to October 31 after application for a special permission to shoot for prevention of damage to endagered fish species (e.g. the grayling) or commercial damage. So if you know a trout farmer or a hunter associated with such an operation, you may aquire material from a grey heron. My constant collecting of shed feathers for almost 40 years has given me more than two lifetime supplies of material; usually you use two fibers on a #18 Rhodani dun, maybe three for a #16. And I just can reassure the good fish catching ability of the grey heron feather. Sincerely, Wolfgang Erl
Bigfly on 02/03/2016 17:28:03
Nice fly and fish..... But here it is illegal not only to take, but even possess.....those pretty feathers. Otherwise we probably wouldn't have any left.....
oldguide on 03/03/2016 10:38:37
well. it was exactly the same here just about 20 years ago. the grey heron was a rare sight. but due to complete protection, the population first grew and then almost exploded. usually, the hard winters we had some 20 to 30 years ago held the population low, because many of these birds die during a hard winter, when all the lakes and smaller ponds are frozen over. but the last 5 winters in a row we did not have solid ice here for more than just a few days on any lake, which made the populations explode, and in some areas with lots of fish farms, these birds can be a problem. of course, if I see one on our lakes or rivers, it makes me happy, almost as much as seeing a kingfisher, but for a trout farmer this may be different. what about shed feathers? even as a studied biologist I am not good enough a bird man to know if it would be possible to tell for an expert to distinguish between a pulled and a shed feather. but I can image this should be possible, because the shedding of feathers is a natural process causing the base of the feather to die before the feahter is lost. this should be possible to determine. anyway, I think it is not allowed to sell or buy such feathers here, but who should mind to pick up a lost one ... best, Wolfgang
Bigfly on 04/03/2016 15:48:26
I agree they are beautiful and make my day when I see them. Kinda figure if they lose their feathers....they didn't really need them, right? Most Wardens wouldn't know if a fly is tied with those feathers. But since it's trouble here...... I wouldn't advertise too much about my stash..... Jim
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