Imitating the Wolf Spider – from Mackereth onwards

Ed Herbst

In the early sixties a fly was developed which symbolised a radical change in fly fishing technique as it was then practised in South Africa. The Caribou Spider was tied by a British expat double bass player in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, Mark Mackereth. It was probably the first local fly made of spun and clipped hair and the first tied specifically to imitate the Lycosid Wolf Spider.

Prior to Mark’s arrival  in South Africa it was customary to concentrate on the deep pools and to fish big wet flies like the Mrs Simpson downstream, often on a sinking line.  Mark fished the dry fly upstream on a floating line, concentrating rather on the runs, riffles and pocket water.

I bought my first Caribou Spider from Lemkus Sports in Cape Town in 1979 and I saw it as a wingless parachute version of American dry fly patterns – such as the Irresistible – and meant to imitate mayflies.

It had a conventional dry fly tail and the parachute was constructed by tying the stripped quill into a loop which was held upright by a gallows tool. The hackle was wound laterally around this quill loop, the feather tip was then threaded through the loop and the quill was pulled to tighten the loop around the feather, leaving the tip of the feather pointing forward. Later versions saw the hackle feather wound around a post of red chenille which made it easier to follow on the water.

If I were to recommend just one fly to a beginner on Cape streams it would be the modern version of the Caribou Spider. It floats like a cork, is easy to follow in the most boisterous of currents and has proved successful for half a century

A few years ago, a newcomer to Cape Town, Liesel Hattingh, asked my advice on fly selection and my recommendation, the Caribou Spider, quickly became her favourite. She still has one on which she caught more than forty trout and says that offering it to a trout “is like offering a child chewing gum.”

Mark was born on Christmas day 1907 in Stillington, Yorkshire but grew up on a farm in nearby Pickering where he fished for trout and salmon. His parents reluctantly conceded to his decision to choose music rather than farming as a career. The outbreak of WWII interrupted his musical studies and he saw action at Dunkirk and in the subsequent Normandy campaign. After the war, while doing guard duty at the Tower of London, he met a South African woman, Eileen Watkins, who was a friend of the family of the Officer Commanding of the Tower and who introduced them.

For South African fly fishers it was a fortuitous romance. The couple left for South Africa in 1951 after Mark was offered a position as a double bass player with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. Ten years later he took a transfer to the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, joined the Cape Piscatorial Society, and discovered the Smalblaar which, in issue number 53 of the CPS magazine, Piscator, he described as a “delightful little river.”

Perhaps his most significant role was as mentor to a new generation of CPS Young Turks who were chafing against a decades-old regimen of tactics prescribed by the luminaries of the day such as Sydney Hey and Fred Bowker (Kingfisher), the manipulated wet fly, often based on gaudy salmon patterns and fished under tension across or  downstream.

One of them was Tom Sutcliffe. It was only when I interviewed him for the DVD, A South African fly tying journey with Ed Herbst and friends, that I learned how Mark developed the fly to imitate the Wolf Spider which was common on the banks of the Holsloot and Smalblaar streams near Worcester and that it therefore did not have a tail. On the DVD Tom ties the modern version with a parachute post.

He described how Mackereth’s sister, who lived in Canada and was due to visit Mark and his wife in Cape Town, was asked to bring out any fly tying materials she could find. She brought with her a piece of caribou (reindeer) skin. It spins beautifully and Mark combined a spun and clipped body of caribou with a parachute hackle wound around the feather’s looped quill.This process was facilitated by the use of what became known as a Gallows Tool which was developed by an Australian engineer, Bob Barlow and marketed by Veniards. Mark apparently said at the time that the inspiration for the fly was American – possibly the original Rat Faced McDougal with grizzly hackle tip wings.

Tom recalls “Mark’s quest for the ultimate, wide, glossy and cleanly barbed free-range cock hackle was insatiable.

“During his time in Johannesburg he befriended Leo Rosettenstein, then owner of the iconic hunting and fishing shop, ‘Arms and Ammunition’ located in Bree Street in the city centre. One night after dinner at Leo’s house, Leo mentioned to Mark that he had a small collection of game cocks that he used for hackle. Mark insisted on seeing them there and then. Armed with a torch, Leo showed him a few birds roosting in a peach tree. In a flash Mark grabbed the best-looking fowl by its feet and marched it inside where he divested it of a heap of its prime neck hackles. This story was related to me by Leo himself.

“Mark and I frequently fished the Holsloot River and along the road we passed close by a number of farms. We often stopped at Gevonden just before Rawsonville for, as “Mark put it, ‘A little inspection.’ Folk would be going about their business around their cottages, but when Mark stepped out of the car he was instantly recognised as ‘the feather man.’ The farm yard would erupt into a cacophony of screeching roosters as men folk, women and kids chased the better birds Mark pointed out, the red, ginger and white game cocks, but only the ones with the longer spurs. He’d take envelopes and a pair of scissors from his shirt pocket and in five minutes he’d snipped off the best of the neck feathers and handed over a rand or two.

“The same would happen as we passed through farms on the road up the Dwarsberg Valley on the way to fish the upper sections of the Holsloot and on frequent occasions, if there was time left in the day after fishing, I was instructed to take a back road home where Mark scoured new farm yards for suitable birds. If he spotted any he would bark, ‘Stop!’ quickly get out, establish his purpose with the somewhat bemused locals and then have them hunt down a targeted fowl or two. His parting shot was often, ‘I will be back.’ I’d see them in the rear view mirror as we left, staring incredulously at the money they had just earned for a couple of feathers – and no doubt hoping he would be back!”

At my request two other people who had fished with him, a former President of the CPS, the late Geoff Godley and Pieter Cronje, former communication director of the Cape Town municipality, wrote articles for Piscator about him. They said he never learned to drive a car, was a great cook and could cast with amazing accuracy – even into the wind – with his split cane Pezon et Michel Ritz Fario Club

Geoff Godley wrote: “There was an aura about him which had to be observed to be appreciated. Cows and horses in a meadow would walk quietly up to Mark and nuzzle him and small animals such as dogs and cats were tremendously attracted to him. Barry and Helga Steyn who for some years managed the Du Toitskloof Hotel, had a bull terrier by the name of Jane who was always nearly beside herself when Mark arrived there to fish.”

Pieter wrote: “I have never watched a neurosurgeon at work but observing Mark Mackereth present a wispy dry fly to a wily trout gets pretty close. 

“His artistry included playing the double bass, tying delicate fly patterns, getting a trout when no one else could and preparing a connoisseur meal after a day on the river.

“The refinement started way back in Yorkshire.  His grandfather who died on the trout stream at age 93 trained him to drop a fly into a glass some twenty paces away.  He retained the skill and the accent. 

“His gentle dexterity and control with his split cane rod, his irresistible presentation of the fly, how he could adjust his cast for any situation, how he gently coiled the fly line in the palm of his hand and how he could play and land the fish will stay with me forever.  Here was a consummate expert steeped in the tradition of gentlemanly conduct on the water coupled with a deep respect and appreciation of nature and living things.  He was only too willing to share his vast, intuitive knowledge and techniques.”

Fifty years later two expert fly fishers, Fred Steynberg in Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape and Leonard Flemming in Stellenbosch independently developed their own patterns after realising that Wolf Spiders are taken avidly by trout.

But Mark Mackereth was the first. His role in closing a chapter on the past, popularising the upstream dry fly and in inspiring a new generation of fly fishers who were, in their own right,  to impact massively on the evolution of South African fly fishing and fly tying, deserves recognition.

As Pieter Cronje put it: “Such a mentor comes but once in a lifetime.”