Ben Bangham steps back in time on a trip to the River Avon where river keeper and angler Frank Sawyer brought us the Killer Bug.
There are a few names that are synonymous with fly fishing and none more so in the more modern era than Frank Sawyer. He has given the fly fishing fraternity many things in his years as a river keeper and fly angler, in particular, his fly patterns the Killer Bug and Pheasant Tail.
He holds a special place in my heart as a fly angler because I cut my teeth fishing on the Avon, which is the river that he had a passionate love for and spent all his life both keeping and fishing.
Adam Sinclair (left) and Ben Bangham on Frank Sawyer's commemorative bench
He was born in 1906 and got his first job on the Avon as an under keeper in 1925 at Lake in the Woodford Valley. It wasn’t long until he got a head keepers job on the Officers’ Fishing Association waters around Netheravon in 1928. The club changed its name to the Services Dry Fly Fishing Association (SDFFA) and is still called this today. Frank was the keeper of this stretch until his death in 1980.
The Avon now has a healthy sustainable population of wild brownies...
Restoring The Avon
We who fish the Avon can really say thank you to Frank because he made it what it is today. In the early 1930s, the river was in a very bad way due to the army training around the river on Salisbury Plain, as well as the farming practices employed in the area. This meant that there was a huge amount of silt running into the river and destroying the trout’s redds. If the eggs did manage to hatch then the river itself was still in a good enough condition to support the trout population. It was really just the build up of silt that was the problem, suffocating the redds.
... With plenty of prized specimens thanks to work done by Frank Sawyer and SDFFA
This meant a huge decline in the trout population on the Avon. Frank, spurred on by his love of the river, took it upon himself to rectify this. He started a stocking programme of fry that he hatched just for this purpose. He introduced around 100,000 fry into the Avon for nearly 25 years. This brought the fish stocks back from the brink of collapse. As well as this, he started a project to clean the river up by removing hatches and sluices to speed it up, setting up silt traps and dredging the worst affected areas. This along, with other projects, really set the groundwork for the river I know and love today.
The Killer Bug
In fishing terms he has also contributed several things, such as the induced take, a method of making the nymph rise up in front of the fish, therefore inducing a take. Nymph-wise, the Pheasant Tail is the most famous of the flies he gave us and is a generic nymph pattern that is still used in many shapes and forms and has caught fish all over the world. It's lighter cousin, the Grey Goose Nymph, was a very well-known fly that seems to have gone out of fashion somewhat in recent years. There were a couple more but the one I am concentrating on is the Killer Bug.
The 'special grayling'. Not the biggest of fish but one that will remain with Ben for the rest of his angling career!
It is said that it was originally concocted as a grayling fly, representing the Gammarus that are so plentiful in the Avon. This was so that Frank could remove the grayling from the river because they were considered vermin back then. As a result, he wanted a highly effective fly and he certainly found one. Like most of his flies, it is a simple pattern that involves two materials – copper wire and yarn. The original pattern was tied with the legendary Chadwicks 477 wool that ceased being produced in 1965 and is now a bit like gold dust! It still makes the best killer bugs in my opinion.
A Trip To Hallowed Waters
I have used this pattern over the years on the Avon with good success, but they have mainly been commercially tied Killer Bugs that do not incorporate 477. When a friend of mine, Adam Sinclair, got his hands on a card of Chadwick’s 477 it wasn’t long before I had managed to alleviate him of some and I was finally able to tie a few Killer Bugs ‘original style’. Adam also happens to be a member of the SDFFA, the beat that Frank used to keep. When we talked about the Killer Bug and Frank he suggested that he might be able to get me permission to do an article based on the bug at the actual place it was invented. The SDFFA kindly agreed to let me onto the hallowed waters to do this article; a truly amazing opportunity.
The Avon offers a nice mix pool and riffles with plenty of hidden lies to target.
I decided to use the commemorative bench that is on the river just outside Netheravon as the starting point and centrepiece to the article, where I would tie a Killer Bug using the original Chadwick’s 477 then fish the water that Frank used to keep.
It was a very mild autumnal day, warm and just right. We met Adam and made our way to the bench. The sun was shining, the leaves were turning, the river low and clear and the fish visible – perfect.
Tying the Killer Bug on Frank’s bench was special, to say the least; then to tie it on my cast and catch a grayling on it in sight of the bench was just amazing. It did make me feel pretty special and I think Adam and Andy were also a bit touched by the whole experience. It’s as close as you can get to going back in time. It’s something that I will remember for a very long time indeed.
So how did I fish it? I wanted to keep in tune with what Frank would have used as much as I could, so to start with the nymphing rod stayed in the car, along with my modern-day nymphs. Just a normal fly rod, tapered leader and single nymph cast upstream was the attack.
Tying at the water's edge. The Killer Bug is a simple pattern to tie and deadly when used!
I started with a 9ft, 4-wt Sage Method with a floating line, a 9ft tapered leader to a small section of RIO Two Tone indicator tippet. This is the best indicator line on the market, I think. The colours are amazingly vibrant and don’t fade like many others. The other advantage is that the coloured sections are short, which makes it easy for your eyes to pick up any movements. Onto this, I tied three feet of 0.12mm Stroft and then the freshly tied, fabled Killer Bug.
Later I did crack out the proper nymphing kit to fish as effectively as I could. I couldn’t help thinking: “I wonder what Frank would think of this kit and my flies?”
The Special Grayling
I used the single nymph in the stretch opposite Frank’s bench, just working slowly up the shallows casting into likely looking spots. I concentrated on casting to the small gravel patches or the back of the weed patches. As I moved up I spooked a grayling that was sat behind a bit of weed that I hadn’t cast to. This fish then moved a few more that were sat in the same spot. I slowly moved back downstream to a safe distance and waited for a couple of minutes. I didn’t think I had spooked them too much so hoped that I could still get a couple.
A change of tactics for the deeper, slower water meant a heavy modern bug was tied on the point and the Killer Bug onto the dropper
Once I had given them a good rest I made a cast into the hole and was treated to a sharp jag on the indicator tippet. I struck and instantly saw the twisting, turning silver flashes of a small grayling in the clear water. To me this was a very special grayling indeed.
This spot was good to me and produced a fair few small grayling but none as special as that first one.
It wasn't just the smaller grayling that liked the 'Bug'. The Avon holds some quality trout and grayling, proving that Frank's fly was still to their liking
When Old Meets New
I then switched to my normal nymphing approach and coupled the Killer Bug on the top dropper with one of my nymphs on the point, depending on the water depth. I caught steadily on all the flies throughout the day and had a huge number on the Killer Bug, giving me a slightly warm feeling inside.
It’s a shame that I only have this space to write about the experience because I could probably fill the whole magazine. It was truly special and I am privileged to have been able to do it. When you have been doing this as long as I have, it is rare to feel how I felt about that small grayling. Firsts for me in fly fishing are generally a distant memory, and of them all, this, as well as being the newest, is probably the best.
It was a special day, a special place, a special fly and a special grayling. A huge thanks to Adam and the SDFFA for making the day possible.
Tying The Killer Bug
Hook: Hanak BL200, size 12
Thread: Fine copper wire
Body: Chadwick’s 477
1. Secure the Hanak BL200 in the vice.
2. Start with the wire at eye of the hook.
3. Build up a couple of layers of wire on the first half of the hook to give the fly some weight and a uniform body.
4. Tie in two bits of the Chadwick’s 477 yarn onto the back half of the hook. Leave the wire at the back of the hook so you can tie the fly off at the back.
5. Wind the wool up to the eye of the hook and then back down to the back of the hook. When you reach the back of the hook use your whip finisher to finish the fly and break off the wire.
6. I add a drop of superglue on the wire at the back for peace of mind.