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Bug Tank Benefits


By Peter Lapsley


About Peter Lapsley: Peter Lapsley has been fly fishing and fly tying for over forty five years. A British national game angling instructor (STANIC and APGAI), he owned and ran a stillwater trout fishery in Hampshire for several years in the 1980's. He has contributed countless articles to British game angling magazines and occasional ones to overseas journals, and has written, co-written or edited seven books on fly fishing. For ten years now, he has done most of his fishing for trout at Abbotts Barton on the lovely River Itchen in Hampshire, where G.E.M. Skues fished for 56 years from 1883 to 1938, and for sea trout in the Falkland Islands. He is fascinated by the history and ethos of the sport and is a member of The American Museum of Fly Fishing. Peter is married with two grown up children and lives in London where, as his 'day job', he is chief executive of a national medical charity. We are honored and delighted to have him here.

Bug Tank Benefits

The most famous debate in angling history took place at The Flyfishers' Club in London on 10 February 1938. Its purpose was to examine the propriety of nymph fishing on chalk streams. The arguments in favour of nymph fishing were set out by G.E.M. Skues and supported by Dr Walshe and John Waller Hills. They were opposed by Sir Joseph Ball, The Reverend F.P. Sheriffs, Dr R.C. Mottram and Messrs Norris, Myers and Peck.

A central theme of the debate was the question as to whether ascending nymphs are active or inert and whether it was possible to imitate the wriggling of an ascending nymph - if indeed they wriggle. What is intriguing about the whole thing was the uninformed nature of the discussion. We know that Skues caught nymphs and preserved them in formalin, the better to study their form and colour, and Sir Joseph Ball quoted (conflicting) evidence from Martin Mosely and F.T.K. Pentelow, both eminent entomologists. But it appears that none of 'the pundits of fly fishing, gathered in solemn conclave' had ever actually themselves seen and studied ascending nymphs. Nor, it seems, had F.M. Halford (or his collaborator, G.S. Marryat), much quoted by both sides in the argument.

To set the record straight, 60 years on, Mosely was right. Ascending nymphs do proceed to the surface in alternate bursts of extreme energy and inertness. How do I know? By having watched them doing it, time and time again - not simply gazing down on them from above but in a bug tank, in which I have been able to view them from every angle.

I must confess that the ephemerid nymphs I have watched have chiefly been those of stillwater species, pond and lake olives (CloŽon dipterum and CloŽon simile). While it is possible that nymphs in running water behave differently, swimming harder and more persistently, it doesn't seem very likely. They behave exactly like their stillwater counterparts in every other respect. They can have no real interest in where they hatch, only in that they should hatch somewhere. Once they have cast themselves adrift from the stones or weed amongst or upon which they live, they cannot possibly 'breast the current' and are therefore simply rising through a moving column of water. This may well, incidentally, account for the year-to-year 'downstream drift' of insect hatches that has been observed so often on river fisheries.

All of this is a slight digression from the purpose of this article which is to encourage people to keep bug tanks. I have been doing so on and off for 20 years or more, and the benefit to my fly tying and fishing has been inestimable. It has given me first-hand understanding of the creatures trout eat, of their appearance and behaviour, and of the ways in which they move. It has enabled me to tie flies that really do approximate quite closely to their natural counterparts and to fish them realistically. And I have no doubt that it has helped me catch more fish. More than that, though, it has proved to be a fascinating if occasional pastime.

The first thing I learnt when I set up my first bug tank was how very small most of the aquatic invertebrates are. The size 10 and 12 hooks which many people regard as 'standard' are actually far too big; 14s, 16s, 18s and 20s are generally far more appropriate. There are exceptions, of course. As examples, damselfly nymphs and some cased caddis larvae can quite faithfully be represented on #10 or 12 long-shanks, some midge pupae can reasonably be tied on standard #10s, and standard #12s are about right for shrimps and some free-swimming caddis pupae.

The second thing I learnt was how very little most of the creatures move. Shrimps buzz about busily, usually turning on their sides when swimming; cased caddis larvae lumber about a bit; midge larvae wriggle ceaselessly, and corixae lead yo-yo lives, as we shall see. On the whole, though, and especially where ephemerid nymphs and damselfly nymphs are concerned, most aquatic insects spend most of their lives simply clinging to stones or vegetation, moving infrequently and then only very slowly.

The third thing I learnt is that it is a mistake to include alder larvae, dragonfly larvae or sticklebacks amongst one's livestock, because they tend to eat everything else!

It is evident both from the sorts of flies people use and from the ways in which they fish them that very few anglers have taken the trouble to study natural aquatic insects. Corixae, damselfly nymphs and bloodworms (midge larvae) all provide good examples.

Most artificial corixae are weighted and are intended to be fished 'sink-and-draw' with floating lines and long leaders, but this reverses the way in which the naturals behave.

Corixae rely for oxygen on the air they trap on their fuzzy abdomens. They float up to the surface every three or four minutes, replenish their air supplies, and then have to swim back down very determinedly in order to overcome their natural buoyancy. When they regain the weed from which they ascended, they cling on for dear life. Were they to relinquish their holds, they would bob up to the surface quite quickly.

There are several lessons in this.

The first is that, if they are to be able to ascend to the surface as often as they must, corixae will only be found either in relatively shallow water or where there is weed not far beneath the surface. There is no rationale, therefore, for fishing artificial corixae in deep, weedless water.

The second is that, logically, we should tie and use artificials designed to behave like the naturals, which argues for a buoyant pattern fished on a sinking line. The difficulty, of course, is in dressing a buoyant artificial which approximates to its natural counterpart in size, but it can be done. By chance, both David Collyer and Derek Bradbury came up with the same idea almost simultaneously in the early 1970's - using a plastazote body on a #10 or 12 hook and an olive or brown feather fibre back.

Fished on a quick-sinking line which is allowed to sink to the bottom and then retrieved in long, slow pulls with even longer pauses, the Plastazote Corixa behaves very much like the natural and is extremely effective, being taken very confidently. The sacrifice of realism in the form of a somewhat bloated abdomen, essential if it is to have the necessary buoyancy, seems to deter the fish not at all. I find that a body made up from layers of 3mm plastazote is easier to construct and rather more durable than one carved from a plastazote block. The dressing requires few materials but is fiddly to tie. This is a slight modification of it:

Lapsley Floating Corixa

    Hook: Standard 10-12.
    Silk: Yellow.
    Underbody: Flat medium silver tinsel on hook shank.
    Body: Two cigar shaped strips of ethafoam above the hook shank.
    Back: Cock pheasant tail feather fibres.
    Legs: Cock pheasant tail feather fibre points.

Where damselfly nymphs are concerned, it is evident from the number of bloated, bulbous, bushy and biliously coloured offerings around that very few fly tyers have ever even seen a natural, let alone watched one in its natural environment.

Natural damselfly nymphs are slender creatures, pale, translucent olive-green in colour, beautifully camouflaged against the background of the weed in which they live. When they swim - which they seem only to do seriously when preparing to hatch - they propel themselves through the water with a sinuous lateral wriggling of their bodies.

All this argues for a slim, translucent, light green artificial with a built-in tendency to wiggle when retrieved, quite unlike the fluffy, opaque, often dark green and always rigid patterns so often tied and sold as 'damselfly nymphs'. It was with the colour and translucency of the naturals in mind that I developed, over several years, the See-Thru Damsel Nymph, with pale green seal's fur dubbed very sparsely over a gold under-body, with a similarly pale green marabous tail to provide sinuous movement, and with a pheasant tail wing case and legs of soft, waving grey partridge neck feather.

At one time, I experimented with 'wiggle nymphs', tied on two hooks hinged together, the rear one being snipped off at the bend. Having found that they did not wriggle as expected when pulled through the water, that fish had a tendency to take them 'short' and that they were tricky to tie, I discarded them. The See-Thru Damsel Nymph is still more rigid than might be wished; perhaps that typifies the compromise between realism and practicality that is inherent in all fly tying. The dressing is as follows:

See Thru Damsel Nymph

    Hook: 10-12 long-shank.
    Silk: yellow.
    Weighting (optional): fine lead wire wound under the thorax.
    Tail: sparse, pale green marabou.
    Underbody: flat gold tinsel.
    Body and thorax: pale olive seal's fur dubbed very sparsely and ribbed with gold oval tinsel.
    Wing case: cock pheasant centre tail feather fibres.
    Legs: grey partridge neck feather, very sparse.

Bloodworms (midge larvae) are excruciatingly difficult to tie and fish convincingly. Although some of the larger species may be as much as an inch long, they are generally much smaller. They are slim, sleek and translucent. They live amongst the silt, pebbles and detritus at the bottoms of lakes and rivers. And they swim with a fascinating but inimitable figure-of-eight lashing motion.

Several people have produced dressings intended to represent bloodworms but few of these patterns have really gone any way towards mimicking all of the naturals' characteristics. They are all either too big, too fluffy and bulky, too opaque, too rigid or too difficult to position at the bottom - which is why I devised the dreadfully named Wobble Worm. Sometimes unkindly referred to as "the gentleman's Dog Nobbler", it is, in fact, a serious attempt to replicate the appearance and behaviour of the natural bloodworm.

I started with a small Partridge K4A grub or shrimp hook to provide at least some of the curvature of the natural; crimped on a tiny (No 3 or 5) split shot to carry the fly down to the bottom; added a slender marabou tail in the interests of sinuousness; and dubbed seal's fur very sparsely over a tinsel underbody to provide a degree of translucency. The full dressing is as follows:

Lapsley Bloodworm

    Hook: Partridge K4A, #12-14.
    Head: No 3 or 5 split shot, crimped onto the shank of the hook just behind the eye and painted (enamel) red, green or buff, as appropriate.
    Tail: Six strands of red, green or buff marabou.

    Underbody: Flat silver tinsel for the red version, gold tinsel for the green and buff ones.
    Body: Very sparsely dubbed red, green or buff seals fur ribbed with fine silver wire for the red version, gold wire for the green and buff ones.

Fished on a floating line with a long leader, allowed to sink down deep and then retrieved in short, sharp pulls, it seems to me to approximate to the natural both in appearance and behaviour, and it certainly catches a lot of fish.

All these patterns - the Plastazote Corixa, the See-Thru Damsel Nymph and the Damsel Wiggle Nymph, and the Wobble Worm - have depended for their development on direct observation of their natural counterparts. Even if you do not fancy yourself as a designer of trout flies, there is much to be said for seeing with one's own eyes what the creatures trout eat look like and how they behave. It is fun, too, and it is neither expensive nor particularly time consuming.

All the equipment you need - a small, rectangular (rather than round) aquarium, some clean gravel, a few fronds of weed and a fine-meshed net - can be had from any pet shop for £10-£15. Most fishery managers are keen to see people fishing more thoughtfully and intelligently, and are more than happy to allow them to collect specimens from their lakes or rivers. I decant my specimens individually from the net into a bottling jar of clean water with a few holes punched in the lid. It is probably best to fill the aquarium from a rainwater butt or from a garden pond, rather than with chemically treated tap water, and to keep it in a reasonably light but cool place.

Bug tank keeping is not a long-term affair. The mortality rate, at least in my tanks, has been remarkably low. But algae and limescale deposits do tend to accumulate on the inside of a tank after a while and there doesn't seem to be much point in keeping the insects in captivity for longer than necessary. So, I usually release mine into our pond after a couple of weeks or so. If you want to run a tank on a more continuous basis, a few aquatic snails will help keep the algae under control and daily topping up will help prevent the formation of limescale.

If you want to photograph aquatic creatures, which I have rarely done, the very shallow depth of field which is a characteristic of macro lenses argues for the use of a small and very narrow tank - ideally no more than a couple of inches high and wide, and only Ĺ" to 1" from front to back - and a considerable amount of patience. But that is rather an esoteric exercise. For most of us, a small, simple and inexpensive aquarium can provide hours of fascination and a huge leap in our understanding of our sport. ~ Peter Lapsley

More Fly Fishing in Europe:
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Marble Trout in Slovenia - By Tomaz Modic
Red and Cinnamon Sedge - By Alan Goodwin
Rogan of Donegal - By Arthur Greenwood
Bug Tank Benefits - By Peter Lapsley
River Piddle, U.K. - By Paul Slaney
A Day on the River Test By Mike Pratt
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Donít duck the issue! - By Mike Pratt
To Russia with Love - By Ron Gras
Just Simple Pleasure - By Mike Pratt
Rich - Beyond the Dreams of Avarice - By Mike Pratt
The Good Place (Ireland) - By Jim Clarke
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Fish On Half a Rod - By Jim Clarke
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The Odd Couple - By Jim Clarke
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The Artist - By Jim Clarke
One to Remember - By Jim Clarke
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2004 Fishing Season in the Czech Republic - By Tim Baldwin

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