I don’t recall when I tied on a RAB for the first time. I do know that it was many years ago, probably in the 70’s and have been using them ever since having proved its worth as a dry fly. Arguably, it is the most iconic of all South African flies. The jury is still out on what it represents. It’s generic and buggy, but it’s thought to be imitative of all manner of insects from dragon flies to spiders.
Tony Biggs and one of his original RABs
Tom Sutcliffe, in an article, “The Magic of the Biggs Fly”, in Piscator 102, Winter 1978, wrote, “If you suggested that Tony Biggs tied the perfect fly, I might argue the point. But if you said he tied an effective fly, I would be with you every time.
“In simple terms Tony is an impressionist fly tyer, shunning the Halfordian dogma of strict imitation, critical of the formal and stylised school of traditional wet and dry fly tying, regarding it all as a total waste of time and effort. His fly box contains none of the orthodox patterns but rather an array of caterpillar-like creations that are all unlisted, unnamed and very individual.”
Tony in his own words gave this account of his creation and the story of its origins.
“The initial concept of the RAB, aside from being based on the marrying of myriad observations of both water-borne and terrestrial life forms, was triggered by the remains of a much-used, heavily-battered and disintegrating bivisible dry fly. It was the sole survivor from a batch of my first serious attempts at fly tying.
This entity, despite the collective efforts of numerous trout to annihilate it, continued to produce results. The more fractured and bedraggled its appearance became, the better it worked. So much for the argument for exact imitation!
Eventually this “enigma” was retired and for some years it enjoyed pride of place on the top left pocket flap of my fishing vest. A more sorry excuse for a fly would be difficult to imagine with its unravelling red thread and disintegrating hackles. These straggly ends provided the initial thoughts on the inclusion of “legs” in the tying of the RAB.
There is not a great deal more to add on this score apart from the oft-relayed detail of how the fly eventually gained a name.
The event occurred in April 1965 on the Smalblaar stream in DuToit’s Kloof between Paarl and Worcester. I had been fishing in the morning and early afternoon in the company of Mark Mackereth and another angler. At about 4pm we split up and Mark and his friend decided to fish the stretch between Donkergat and Cathedral pools. Up till then the fishing had been poor with the three of us collectively catching few fish.
I decided to head up the road and fish the stream where it flowed past the hotel, a hitherto untested stretch, and it turned out to be a revelation. The as yet un-named fly certainly worked its magic, resulting in a memorable few hours of incredible fishing.
Upon returning to the spot where we had agreed to meet, I was surprised to learn that my companions had enjoyed little success. Mark then enquired about the fly I had been using, implying that it had to be the fly rather than the skill of the angler that explained the disparity in our catches. I explained that it was, as yet, nameless. He closely examined the now disintegrating fly in the beam thrown by our car headlights, finally commenting that it needed a name and that, in his opinion, “Red-Arsed Bastard” would be appropriate. So there it is – and the name stuck.”
Tony no longer ties flies and hasn’t fished for a number of years, but he will forever be remembered for the RAB. He is seen in the photograph below flanked by Tom Sutcliffe and Ed Herbst, while attending a recent CPS event in Cape Town – legends in our fly fishing community for their contributions to fly fishing, wisdom, mentoring and inspiration to many.
Tom, Tony and Ed (photo – James Leach)