The Arundell Journal

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The Kite's Imperial - an early season favourite

This popular and effective dry fly was devised in 1962 by the late Oliver Kite to imitate the Large Dark Olives which were hatching on the Teifi, where he opened his season that year. Kite fished The Arundell waters a few times in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, opening his season with us prior to the much later opening of the chalk streams. On his last visit in 1967, he fished both the Tamar and Carey in mid-March. He also opened on the Usk some years. He used this fly all season long whenever any olive duns were hatching and fish were rising, and cared not whether the olives were large or small, light or dark, or pale wateries or iron blues, and seldom failed to take his limit.Instead of changing dry flies, Oliver Kite most often only changed the size of the fly.


The Dressing;


Hook; Size 14 or 15
Thread; Purple
Tail; Grey/brown or honey dun cock hackle fibres
Body; 4 undyed grey heron primary herls, doubled and re-doubled to form the thorax Rib; Gold wire
Hackle; Honey dun cock hackle

Tying the Kite’s Imperial - The Materials.

The Hook - Kite makes no mention of what particular type of hook he used, and in fact was rather unimpressed with what was available to fly-dressers at the time. Since tradition has it that dry flies are dressed on up-eyed hooks, it is fair to assume that he used the best up-eyed hook he could find. Today we are blessed with a bewildering array of hook types, different bends, gauges of wire, eye conformation and a lot more besides, and the majority of reasonably-priced hooks are all now of excellent quality. Some are also available in the odd sizes, so I’m sure if you wanted to follow Kite to the letter, you could obtain a size 15. From a practical fishing viewpoint, I am sure if you tied your Imperials on either 14’s or 16’s, you would adequately cover all the duns which Kite intended his fly to emulate, and any decent quality dry-fly hook would do the job. My preference is for Fulling Mill pattern 31310 down-eye dry.

The Thread 

Kite would have certainly used Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, in purple. This was pretty well the standard thread used by all fly dressers in the early 1960’s. When I started to tie flies in1961, I have painful memories of how easily this natural fibre would break, inevitably at some crucial stage in the procedure, resulting in a ruined fly.

Today we are again blessed with threads of every conceivable thickness, colour and texture, and all of these modern synthetic threads are far stronger that the good old silk – which, by the way, is still cherished and used by those who follow the more traditional ways of fly dressing, who would certainly use no other for North-Country spiders. Just make sure that whatever thread you use, it is of a rich, royal purple colour, and either pre-waxed, or wax it yourself prior to tying. The name Imperial comes from the regal colours of the purple thread and gold ribbing wire.

You should now still have almost a quarter of a shank-length left on which to wind the hackle, not actually very much in real terms, on a size 14 or 16 hook. I have found when teaching fly-dressing that one of the commonest and simplest errors made by novice fly dressers is that of failing to leave sufficient room at the head end of the body in which to apply hackles, or indeed wings, and form a small head. Tie in and wind the hackle by whichever method you already trust.I use the old Veniard method, and having pulled off the soft downy fibres at the base of the hackle, cut off just a couple more fibres on each side, leaving a minute ‘barb’, which holds very well. Veniard holds the prepared hackle on his side of the shank just a tad behind the eye, vertically with the ‘good’ side forwards, and crosses it with a figure-of-eight wrap, then folds the stem back and winds tightly over it back to the start of the body. The butt of the hackle stem is now trimmed. The hackle is then wound back to the thread, a couple of turns then ties in the tip forwards of the hackle, and the thread wound through the hackle, cross-ribbing it with no more than 3 turns, emerging in front of the hackle to form the head. This counter-winding can tie down and splay the hackle fibres, but if you gently move the thread a few degrees back and forth as you wind, this is avoided. It makes for a very secure construction, as we all know there is nothing worse that a fly which disintegrates in use. Carefully nip off the tip of the hackle feather, and then make a small, neat head in front of the hackle, whip-finish, and varnish. Waxed silk often runs a small ball of wax off the thread as you tighten the whip-finish, tweak this away with your dubbing needle before varnishing. With smallish flies I find it difficult these days not to get some varnish over the eye, so I always take a waste hackle feather tip (at this point you will have one in your hackle pliers) and push it through to clear the eye. It is infuriating to commence tying a fly on your leader, to discover after much probing and squinting that the eye is blocked, a common fault on many commercially-made flies.

The Tail 

Kite prescribed either grey/brown or honey dun hackle fibres for the tail, or the rather charmingly titled ‘whisks’, as they were often called. A natural honey dun cock cape, or a saddle skin, should be primarily the rather ill-defined ‘dun’ colour, really a sort of soft grey, with a lighter colour showing toward the tips of the fibres, again a rather poorly defined ‘honey’ colour. A glance at the selections of honey on the supermarket shelves will reveal anything from stuff almost as black as treacle, to an anaemic white! Since all natural undyed feathers will exhibit minor variations in colour and tone, even today’s top quality and very expensive genetic hackles, getting an exact match is tricky. Kite was a firm believer in the importance of presentation over pattern, as am I, and in reality anything in the vaguely grey/brown/honey/ginger spectrum will still catch fish. When viewing a honey dun feather against the light it exhibits an almost golden glow, and this of course will be trout’s viewpoint. The above comments apply equally to the hackle at the head of the fly. 

The Body 

Kite stipulates natural undyed grey heron herls, from the very large primary wing quills. Today the heron is a protected bird, but a substitute of pale grey goose is perfectly acceptable to the trout. I once found a very dead and extremely smelly heron on the river bank, and have enough of the real thing to last several lifetimes. The aroma left on my hand, having carried the stinking corpse by the neck for half a mile, also took quite some time to wash away! Herons often shed feathers along the banks, and if one was to visit a heronry and search about, I am sure a few decent feathers could be found, even the body feathers are so large as to be of use.  

The Rib 

Gold wire it is, keep to the relatively fine diameters for flies of the sizes specified, both for neatness and reduction of weight. Dry flies should float. 

The Hackle - Any decent cock hackle, of the colour already discussed. In Kite’s book ‘A Fly Fisherman’s Diary’ (an excellent book, published posthumously in 1969 ,which was compiled by Philip Brown from Kite’s column of the same name published in the ‘Shooting Times and Country Magazine’, which Brown edited.) Oliver Kite mentions using a darker version of the Imperial specifically to imitate the March Brown, but unfortunately gives no details of what he changed to achieve this darker variant.  

Tying the Imperial - The Method

There is no special technique required to produce a perfectly serviceable Imperial, so any fly-dresser of moderate competence should be happy with his efforts. Indeed, one of Kite’s outstanding concepts was of ease and simplicity, both of tying, and fishing the fly. 

Place your hook in the vice, covering the point to avoid cutting your thread at a crucial moment, and give it a gentle twang to make sure it is springy and correctly tempered. Tie on your thread about a quarter of the shank length behind the eye, and wind in close touching turns to about half-way down the shank. Tie in the whisks at this point, they should protrude no more than one to one-and-a-half hook-lengths behind the bend when fully covered. Cut off the butts of the whisks just behind where you first tied-in, so that they will make for an even underbody. Keep the whisks on top of the shank as you wind towards the bend, it is easy for the natural winding of the thread to push them over and around the shank. Not only does this look awful, but in use it can cause the fly to spin while casting and put a mass of kinks into the leader. Stop at the bend, keeping the whisks aligned with the shank, and, on your side of the hook, tie in the gold wire. Then after just one turn of thread round the wire, tie in the heron herls, 4 is quite enough. Tie these in just over the top of the hook, by the tips, and before really tightening the thread, pull gently on the butts of the herls to draw the tips back until they are just short of where you tied-in to begin. This keeps the underbody even, and gives more than sufficient length of herl with which to form the body and thorax.  

Now wind an even underbody, neatly covering the tips of the herls and the stub of the wire, back up to about a quarter shank-length back from the eye. For durability, I often lightly smear the underbody with thin clear varnish or superglue, this should not show or discolour the herls but certainly makes a tougher fly. Now gently twist the herls to form a fine rope, then wind them all the way up and tie in with the thread making sure the butts are on the top of the hook. Do NOT cut off the butts of the herls, these will now form the thorax. Now wind the wire rib, in a REVERSE direction so it counter-crosses the herl body, giving even greater durability, and cease winding about a third back from the eye. Grasp the butts of herls and pull them back towards the tail, then tie down with a single turn of the wire, and continue winding the wire to the end of the body. Tie the wire in firmly, then grasp the herls again and now pull them forwards back over the first layer, tying down firmly with the thread. This creates a thicker and significant thorax, which accurately represents the profile of all Ephemeroptera, and is a style first used to construct a prominent thorax by Frank Sawyer, in the construction of his famous Pheasant Tail nymph. Kite refers to this as ‘the Netheravon’ style of tying, and since he lived virtually next door to Sawyer at Netheravon, we can let it stand. 

You should now still have almost a quarter of a shank-length left on which to wind the hackle, not actually very much in real terms, on a size 14 or 16 hook. I have found when teaching fly-dressing that one of the commonest and simplest errors made by novice fly dressers is that of failing to leave sufficient room at the head end of the body in which to apply hackles, or indeed wings, and form a small head. Tie in and wind the hackle by whichever method you already trust. I use the old Veniard method, and having pulled off the soft downy fibres at the base of the hackle, cut off just a couple more fibres on each side, leaving a minute ‘barb’, which holds very well. Veniard holds the prepared hackle on his side of the shank just a tad behind the eye, vertically with the ‘good’ side forwards, and crosses it with a figure-of-eight wrap, then folds the stem back and winds tightly over it back to the start of the body. The butt of the hackle stem is now trimmed. The hackle is then wound back to the thread, a couple of turns then ties in the tip forwards of the hackle, and the thread wound through the hackle, cross-ribbing it with no more than 3 turns, emerging in front of the hackle to form the head. This counter-winding can tie down and splay the hackle fibres, but if you gently move the thread a few degrees back and forth as you wind, this is avoided. It makes for a very secure construction, as we all know there is nothing worse that a fly which disintegrates in use. Carefully nip off the tip of the hackle feather, and then make a small, neat head in front of the hackle, whip-finish, and varnish. Waxed silk often runs a small ball of wax off the thread as you tighten the whip-finish, tweak this away with your dubbing needle before varnishing. With smallish flies I find it difficult these days not to get some varnish over the eye, so I always take a waste hackle feather tip (at this point you will have one in your hackle pliers) and push it through to clear the eye. It is infuriating to commence tying a fly on your leader, to discover after much probing and squinting that the eye is blocked, a common fault on many commercially-made flies. 

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