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Stewart's Black Spider
by John Evans
(San Antonio, TX)
Stewart's Black Spider
The Stewart’s Black Spider is a famous fly, rough and simple in its original form. Consisting of only a hook, some thread, and a starling feather, this minimalist pattern has accounted for countless fish in a variety of waters.
The story goes that W. C. Stewart adopted this fly from a talented Scottish fishing guide, James Baillie. Stewart described this pattern, and others, in his book The Practical Angler way back in 1857. His method of tying the spider was simple and scruffy. The Black Spider worked over 150 years ago and still works today.
For my last four trips to local streams, I’ve fished the Stewart’s Black Spider exclusively, trying to learn all I could about it. It’s been an effective pattern, even in my in-experienced hands, and has taken dozens of fish. I think part of its attraction is that it lands softly on the water, yet looks amazingly life-like.
One humorous incident illustrates its effectiveness. As sometimes happens, I lost a Black Spider in a tree and just couldn’t find it. Well, I went on fishing down the stream, and in about an hour returned to the same spot. I wasn’t thinking about the fly I lost, but there was a mulberry limb hanging near the water when I reached to handle a fish. My hand instinctively recoiled when it came close to what I thought was a spider. Well, guess what it was? That’s right . . . my Stewart’s Black Spider! At a passing glance, I was sure it was a real spider. A pattern like that just has to catch fish!
There are several ways to tie the fly which are detailed in books or recorded on video. The hard part is working with the starling feathers because they’re fragile. I like to use black thread instead of Stewart’s original brown, and I prefer the method described by Dave Hughes in his book Wet Flies. A size 14, wide-gap hook works well. Just remember to use a delicate touch, and you’ll do fine with a little practice. The fish don’t care if the fly looks a little rough; in fact, they like it that way.
Part of the secret in tying a good Stewart’s Black Spider is simply to select the right starling feather. You don’t want the tiniest ones near the neck, nor do you want the stiff, coarse ones on the outer part of the wings. Find the soft “in-between sizes,” and the tying becomes easier. At least that’s my experience.
How should you fish the Spider? I’ve had my best luck fishing cross stream or slightly upstream with just a few light twitches. I think the tendency is to over-work the fly. Let the hackle do most of the work. Again, a gentle cast . . . patient sink . . . light twitch.
What a deal! A hook, some turns of black thread, and a scruffy, iridescent hackle waving in the water.
Three words describe Stewart’s Black Spider: simple, yet effective. W.C. Stewart was on to something.
“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten” – Benjamin Franklin
"Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish..." Col. Robert Venables 1662
As age slows my pace, I will become more like the heron.
The hooks are sharp.
The coffee's hot.
The fish are slippery when wet.
Beware of the Dogma