Stillwater flyfishing in the UK probably started seriously in the 1830s in a small way in Scotland, in particular on Loch Leven. Boat and bank fishing at Leven and on a few other waters was certainly described around then by the notorious Professor Wilson of Edinburgh University – a man detested by Sir Walter Scott for corrupting his somewhat characterless son into becoming a habitual flyfisher (and maybe something of a drunken sot on the side). Wilson's writings are interesting because they reveal that the flies he used were copied from friends of his on the West Coast of Canada – nothing changes much in that respect, it seems! He did have one amusing theory about trout and the fly – as Professor of Natural History he established the largest collection of natural flies in the UK in his department at the University, and after comparing naturals with artificials was forced to conclude that whatever trout took flies for it was not as imitations of anything natural! He used half a dozen flies (including the 'Professor', which was named for him) on the grounds that they actually worked, for whatever random reason. His seminal studies on the trout of Leven revealed that they fed on chironomids, daphnia, snail, shrimp, Asellus and perch fry – which should have been common knowledge from 1842, but then seemed to have been forgotten for many a long year afterwards.
Leven was also a commercial net fishery until quite late on in the 19th century, as were many other lochs and Irish loughs (and some still are, one suspects!) – perhaps one reason why it was worth sportfishing. I assume that a hardy band of local enthusiasts carried on quietly flyfishing mainly from boats right across the Scottish Highlands for the next 60 years until the turn of the century, almost without any tactical development – except for the very wide range of Traditional Wet Flies that seem to have developed across that period. At some point in that period the techniques went to Ireland or came from there, where flyfishing on stillwaters first involved dapping from the 1790's. Cast and lift fishing probably hails from the 1820s, when reels, rodrings, casting lines and their ilk were first developed. Cast-and-pull or cast-and-figure-of-eight flyfishing probably never really got going until the 1880s, when the first dressed silk flylines and splitcane rods appeared.
There is little doubt that Victoria and Albert's acquisition of Balmoral made the Scottish sporting summer holiday very trendy and popular with the rich. In their turn, the rich had a lot to do with the development of boat drift fishing between the 1840s and 1880s, especially in the company of ghillies. Grouse shooting, stalking, salmon, trout, even sea fishing and shooting seals for sport were all on the agenda and enthusiastically pursued by the very wealthy in those years, and no doubt developments occurred thereby. The landed gentry made huge contributions, especially fishermen such as John Colquohoun, whose family did (and probably still do) own a minor stillwater called Loch Lomond. Colquohoun was without a doubt the first of the stillwater specimen hunters. Severely wounded in the Crimea, he devoted much of the rest of his life to catching trout – although his idea of a good day out consisted of being rowed round waters such as Loch Awe whilst he trolled deadbaits and assorted ironmongery out of the stern. In his lifetime he is credited with catching 5 trout in excess of 10lb, although he remarked that larger trout were not amenable to fly-only tactics – he caught nothing bigger a single 5lb fish on flies.
And then Peter Malloch, a great influence, began to come to prominence towards the end of the 19th century. Among his many fishing achievements was the invention of International Rules flyfishing. Match fishing started on Leven in the 1870s and Malloch, who saved the loch as a fishery at the turn of the century by totally wiping out an uncontrolled pike population of great size, organised the first internationals – oddly barring professionals from taking part with the sole exception of himself! Malloch controlled most of the smokehouses and taxidermists in the North, and had virtually every specimen trout come through his hands in the decade spanning the turn of the century – trout that he photographed and documented. Trout in excess of 20lb were being trolled annually, many from Lochs Rannoch, Quoich, Awe and many other waters with populations of char on which the big ferox trout fed hard.
Across the latter half of the 19th century, the Irish acquired or instigated exactly the same stillwater trouting tactics. Dapping, trolling and classic shortlining were all part of the Irish stillwater scene by 1900, as were weird attempts to categorise and classify the brown trout taxonomically – you don't hear much of Dollaghan, Sonaghan, Slob or Monaghan trout these days but they were all keenly pursued. And you don't hear much about Ferox either – regularising things scientifically certainly took away some of the romance.
Be that as it may, by 1900 many of the current methods were in place in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – admittedly only on a few venues but there nonetheless. And from the turn of the century, stillwater flyfishing as practised on reservoirs – our modern version – developed.
Next week: The reservoirs.