How to fish spiders for trout and grayling

North Country spiders, or soft hackles, are some of the most effective wet fly patterns for trout and grayling. Here are some simple tips explaining how to fish them.

How to fish spiders for trout and grayling
© Fly and Lure
How to fish spiders for trout and grayling
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to fish spiders for trout and grayling
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 8 - 13 minutes

What are spiders?

Spiders, or North Country spiders as they're also known, are a kind of sparsely tied wet fly pattern popular with river anglers in the more northerly parts of England. In the US, this style of wet fly is known as a soft hackle, so you'll often see these names used interchangeably.

After being developed by the fly fishers of the Yorkshire Dales and other areas, they've been used in the UK for over a hundred years and still catch fish really well - some patterns are said to have been used for over 400 years, making them among the oldest of all fly patterns.

What do spider fly patterns represent?

Contrary to what their name implies, North Country spiders aren't supposed to imitate actual spiders. Instead, they're a suggestive fly pattern which gives off the basic shape of a nymph when they're wet. They're one of the many flies that works by looking a lot like a lot of creatures, but not really like anything specific.

Spider patterns resemble many different nymphs when they're wet.

Where are North Country spiders fished?

North Country spiders are wet flies typically fished in rivers. They're popular in Yorkshire, where they were first developed, but obviously work anywhere. They're a classic pattern for brown trout and grayling on rivers across the UK and beyond.

In what situations do you use this technique?

Wet fly fishing with spiders is a technique well suited to fishing faster riffles and runs. You really need to use it in an area where there's a bit of flow as you're relying on the movement of the water to add action to the flies. It's an active method and you need to cast frequently which makes it an involving way to fish.

Spiders are great patterns for riffles and runs.

How many flies do you use?

When fishing North Country spiders you generally fish a team of three flies - generally all spiders - one on the point and two on droppers. The droppers should be about six inches long, with the first one 4-6 feet from the end of your fly line, the second one 3-4 later and the point fly 3-4 after that.

What's the basic technique for fishing spiders?

Spiders are fished in the traditional wet fly method known as "down and across." Here you cast your flies downstream at an angle, hold the rod at 45 degrees or more and allow the current to move the flies around before they straighten up downstream. You then simply repeat the process over and over, moving a little as you go, so you cover the whole stretch of water and search out any trout or grayling.

What are the secrets to fishing down and across?

With the down and across method the flies are fished subsurface and the aim is to try and get them to resemble nymphs that might be naturally drifting in the current. If they drag the fish will probably reject them, so you want to aim to get them to drift as naturally as possible.

One clever tip is to lift the rod periodically through the drift to hold the flies back before releasing them. This gives you a couple of extra seconds of dead drift, and often results in a pull or two. You should also aim to keep your line straight and strike if you feel the slightest pluck on the line, as the bites are often gentle.

The technique works best in rivers with a reasonable current.

At what angle should I cast?

With the traditional down and across approach, the angle of your cast will depend on the speed of the current. It takes a little while to learn this, but basically, in moderately flowing water you'd normally cast at about 45 degrees across the river so your flies drift around naturally. However, in faster water, you might need to cast at 90 degrees, otherwise, they'll whip around too quickly.

How can I feel more bites?

The traditional down and across approach to fishing wet flies, like spiders, has been tweaked slightly in more recent times and it's now fairly common for people to actually fish across and down instead. Here, you'd cast immediately across the river, or even slightly upsteam, then raise the rod high and let the flies drift around until the line straightens. It's said to increase your chances of catching as it aids bite detection.

How can I get a better drift?

Since you want the flies to move at the same speed as the water, or only a fraction faster, not really fast, adding in a mend can help decrease the speed of their descent downstream. A mend is simply a bit of slack line thrown into the cast at the end by flicking some more line upstream after the cast has been made.

The extra line gives the rest of the line more time before it straightens so the spiders drift through more naturally and are more likely to be snaffled by the trout or grayling. As the line finally straightens at the end of the drift, the spiders will speed up, and it's at this point that they often get grabbed.

Adding a mend will help improve the drift of your flies.

Should I retrieve?

You don't usually retrieve when fishing North Country spiders, but you can move the tip up and let the flies drift back downstream immediately in front of you. You may also be able to induce a take by using a figure eight retrieve to work the flies slowly back towards you. However, the usual technique is simply to re-cast when the flies have straightened at the end of their drift.

How else can you fish them?

You can also fish North Country spiders upstream. Here, you make only tiny upstream casts of just a rod length or two. After each cast, you lift and cast again. It can give you a better presentation than the down and across or across and down methods, but means you can only cover small areas of water.

During which season do spiders work?

This is a suggestive fly pattern tied to resemble a range of nymphs, sometimes including those of specific insect species. This means there's a spider to use at any time of the year. They're primarily used for trout these days, as French and Czech nymphing is arguably a more popular and effective technique for grayling, but you can catch on them all year round, including over the winter.

Spiders work well for grayling.

What sort of fly rod should I use to fish spiders?

Fashions have changed over the years. People used to fish #5 or #6 fly rods, sometimes even a #7, but a #4 is fairly common these days. I use an 8'6" #4 or a 9' #5 and both are fine, so your normal fly rod will probably be perfectly adequate for the job.

How can I stop droppers tangling in fast water?

If you're fishing very fast water and using a couple of spiders attached to droppers, it can cause them to twist and wrap around the line. Some fly fishers who fish spiders use a level leader and tie the flies directly to this without using droppers via a Palomar style knot. It probably affects presentation a bit, but not as badly as a tangle.

The Snipe and Purple is a classic North Country spider pattern.

What flies should I use?

North Country spiders, or soft hackles, are the preferred fly for this style of fishing. These slightly scruffy looking flies are intentionally tied sparse and consist only of a thin layer of silk thread or other material for the body and a soft hackle made from partridge, cock hackle or other feathers.

How are spider fly patterns tied?

North Country spiders are typically tied on straight hooks, like the Partridge Spider hook, and are usually between size 12 and 18, with 14-16 being most common. They consist of a thin body of silk thread or fine dubbing, and a sparse soft hackle of partridge, moorhen or cock hackle. Sometimes there's a thicker body material, like peacock herl, but they're generally quite slender flies.

What are the classic patterns to try?

There are lots of North Country spider patterns, but only a handful of them really get tied, sold or used regularly. The most common three are: the Black spider, the Orange and Peacock and the Snipe and Purple.

Snipe and Purple spider fly pattern

Davie McPhail / YouTube.

Hook: Size 14, Kamasan B170.
Wing: Snipe feather from wing tip.
Thread: Purple gossamer thread.

Orange and Peacock spider fly pattern

Davie McPhail / YouTube.

Hook: Size 14, Kamasan B170.
Wing: Chinese hen hackle black
Rib: Black wire
Body: Uni mylar peacock and orange
Thread: Uni 8/0 black.

Black and Peacock spider fly pattern

Hywel Morgan, HM Fly Fishing / YouTube.

Hook: Size 14, Kamasan B170.
Wing: Chinese hen hackle black
Body: Peacock herl
Thread: Black thread.

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