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Ronan's report

Tuesday April 1st, 2008

Over on the Board a couple of recent threads had me thinking about tackle history and why fishing and particularly fly-fishing has changed.

I guess we all know fly-fishing is a couple of thousand years old. Fishing is far older. Fishing with a hook has a few thousand years more history than fly-fishing, then some bright Macedonian spark ran out of bait, saw a fish rise to an insect struggling on the surface and suddenly the RFU was invented and it was all just as we do it now?

In the first quarter of the twentieth Century Arthur Wood, engineer, keen salmon angler, owned a small beat on the river Dee. When Wood fished Cairnton, salmon fly-fishing meant hefty double-handed cane and greenheart rods, a simple fly-reel (Perfect perhaps?) and a silk line.

Cairnton is a fairly short beat with very well tended banks; some pools still have small croys, walkways built for Wood where he and his fellow anglers could fish the whole water without getting their feet wet. Wood lived at Cairnton, right next to his water, and fished a lot. His technique was unusual, for a start he used a 12ft single handed rod, so lose the idea that his rod was a heavy double handed monster. His lines were silk, but he wrote of Greased Line Fishing - meaning, where others of that time used dressed silk lines he deliberately made his line float; he had his lines re-dressed three or four times a day for a reason. Similarly, he actively experimented with flies - Wood famously spent a year fishing just one pattern (a March Brown for one and a Blue Charm the other) to see what would happen to his catch rates - not much was the answer. Eventually his fly selection was whittled down to the Blue Charm, March Brown, Jock Scott and Silver Blue. The Blue Charm became his signature fly, frames in his tackle room hold a few dozen of that pattern in several sizes, from small low-water versions up to big higher water flies.

So, in the 1920's, Wood was covering the whole of his stretch of the Dee with a single handed rod, a floating line, choosing one of four flies. He was far from typical. Anglers, on other beats and other rivers used longer rods, a wider range of fly sizes and patterns. They too dressed their lines before fishing but silk lines sink, they equate with our intermediate density lines unless dried and re-dressed, that was part of fly fishing.

It's commonly assumed that on Scottish rivers salmon flies were cast at 45 degrees to the current and, with a few upstream mends, allowed to swing to the dangle before recasting. Wood probably did use that technique but he was certainly not limited to that - in a letter to Farlows of Pall Mall he mentioned that "I cast upstream so that the fly drifts downstream like a leaf", describing what we know as fishing dead-drift - certainly not what we think of as mechanically fishing a 45 degree swing.

Leap forwards. During the 1950's plastic fly lines arrived in tackle shops, followed in the 1960s by fly lines with different coating densities - slow, medium and fast sinkers.

Put yourself in the position of a pre-PVC line fly-fisher. How would you control the depth at which your fly fished? The main tool was fly size, more specifically hook or Iron weight, to get depth think meat hooks (huge single irons), then waddingtons and metal tubes fitted with trebles hooks taken from spinning lures. The other obvious methods of depth control, swing angle and mending, comes with line density.

At the same time, historically the same time, anglers like my grandfather would use spinning lures (spoons, minnows, sprat etc) or bait (prawns, worms, sprats) whenever the water was high, cold or coloured. All of which allowed an angler to fish through the season at any depth. Few salmon anglers of the 1950's made the hard and fast distinction we now make between fishing methods - some certainly prized fly-fishing above all other methods but they were salmon anglers.

With the inventions of sinking fly-lines came other methods of controlling fly depth and speed. Modern Scottish salmon anglers use lines to fish a fly all year. On cold opening days when fish are dour, the fly needs to be down on their noses, fished slow on a fast sinking line. As spring takes hold the water is clear and cold with snow-melt, salmon will turn to a fly fished shallower on a slower sinking line. By summer the corries are dry and the rivers are warm, then a floating line or more likely a sink-tip and a wee dark fly fished slow. Come the back-end it all depends on weather, water-height and temperatures, could be a floating line in the morning and an ultra-fast sinker by afternoon.

On most Scottish salmon rivers the tide has turned in favour of fly-fishing; bait is rarely allowed these days and spinning is not as common as it was. Anglers are more reluctant to use treble hooks, doubles and singles have come with Catch and Release thinking. To my mind we need to be heading towards barbless single salmon hooks - but that'll take time.


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