“Chalk Stream Fly Fishing: A 21st Century Anthology” Reviewed
Former South African lawyer turned UK based publisher and chalk stream fly fisherman, Graham Chalmers, has crafted a what in British fly fishing circles, is already a highly regarded and much talked about book. Gathering together some of the abundant wisdom that can be found in the membership of the Salisbury and District Angling Club he has produced a superb anthology about chalk stream fly fishing. This is no effete panegyric to dry fly fishing by the upstream method (there are even chapters on nymphing and coarse fish) but instead thoroughly modern and robust look at what chalk stream fly fishing is today, how it got there and its future. Twelve club members write engagingly on the full gamut of this subject from climate change all the way through to leader construction. Many of them are famous in fly fishing circles. Gordon Mackie is featured as is Brian Shaw who offers one of the better précis of the smorgasbord of what river fisherman can throw at a trout. Want to get from the beginning of time into the future in terms that identify the great fly designers and what they contributed to the oeuvre? Brian Shaw does it in 26 illustrated pages that include his top six go to flies. For fly tyers that chapter alone makes this book worthwhile. I can go on and in fact many members complain that I do, far to much and at great length. So let me end by saying that this book is not yet available locally though can be ordered on line through Amazon or Coch-Y-Bonddu Books.
If you are still in doubt and need a little taste of what lies between the covers of this book here is an extract from the introduction written by by Graham Chalmers. I don’t think anyone has covered the great upstream dry fly debate better. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
EXTRACT FROM EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION TO CHALK STREAM FLY FISHING – A 21ST CENTURY ANTHOLOGY
© OUTDOOR MEDIA LIMITED 2012
When I first designed the content of this anthology, I thought to include a detailed chapter on the history of chalk stream fly fishing to serve as a foundation for understanding the ethos so ably expressed by Gordon Mackie. In the end, I decided against it. The topic has received vast treatment in earlier angling literature, in countless magazine articles and most recently in Andrew Herd’s comprehensive history of fly fishing The Fly (reproduced as a new edition in 2011 entitled The History of Fly Fishing). There is one aspect of the history that I must deal with though because it is alluded to by a number of the contributors and that is the perpetually controversial “upstream dry fly only” rule. Nothing causes more heated debate and general trouble amongst chalk stream anglers than this rule and it has done so for about a hundred years. It is in fact two rules, one regulating casting direction and the other regulating what type of fly may be used. These rules are enforced on some chalk stream fisheries, either continuously or at least during the early part of the season. Many fisheries relax the rule specifying “dry fly only” and permit the use of sub-surface nymph patterns from about the 1st July onwards, after the notional end of the mayfly hatch, but you are still required to cast upstream. As far as I know, these rules are only found on English chalk streams and on no other fisheries anywhere in the world and they are somewhat mystifying to other fly fishermen. They simply cannot be understood in a historical vacuum.
To leap nimbly over several thousand years of fly fishing history to arrive at a convenient starting point, let me just say this: before the modern era, fly fishing was done differently to how we do it now. A long, heavy, solid rod was used; a fixed length of line, usually made of braided horsehair and roughly the same length as the rod, was attached to the rod tip; a fly, consisting of a hook with a body of some or other natural material and feather wings, was attached to the end of the line; the angler cast as best he could, usually downstream and with a careful eye to the wind, to fish that were very close by modern standards (probably ten yards or less); the fly fished on the surface or just beneath it; a fly was a fly and there was no concept of “a dry fly” or “a wet fly” – a fly was both, as the circumstances allowed and the fish took it without much regard for whether it was “on” or “in” the water. Casting upstream had particular problems because the only way the line could be shortened as the fly came downstream towards the angler was to raise the rod. This made striking a fish difficult and the method was not popular. This angling technique, or something very like it, persisted from time immemorial until the 19th century, when several remarkable technological innovations took place, the most important of which were the invention of the tapered silk fly line and the split-cane fly rod. The fly line could now be cast exactly as we do it today and once anglers had figured out how to make the fly line float, modern fly fishing had arrived, along with a differentiation between flies that were specifically designed to float (modern dry flies) and those that were not. It was against this backdrop of a very short history of modern fly fishing that Frederick Halford strode onto the scene in the late 19th century.
It is not possible to do justice to Halford’s contribution to fly fishing in a single paragraph because that contribution was mighty indeed. For our purposes though, his contribution can be distilled into two material elements. Firstly, although he neither invented modern dry flies nor invented the upstream method of their presentation, he designed a series of small imitative dry flies that could be used effectively all season long in contrast with earlier dry fly patterns which, through their bulky construction, were only suitable for use during hatches of large insects like the mayfly. Secondly, he proposed that the most effective and pleasing way of catching trout on a fly in a chalk stream was to find a rising fish, observe what natural flies were hatching, select a dry fly that matched the natural precisely and then present it to an unsuspecting quarry by means of an upstream cast delivered in such a way as to ensure the fly drifted back over the fish in the most natural manner possible. He presented these views in his writing as a set of prescriptive rules designed to define fly fishing on chalk streams, which was audacious at a time when a wide range of methods were in common use. Others took it even further by devising a distinction between the “purist” and “ultra-purist” dry fly schools. Halford, at least initially, happily contemplated casting a dry fly to non-rising fish if the occasion arose, but “ultra-purists” limited themselves to rising fish only and must have often found themselves sitting idle on the river bank enthralled by the intransigence of their own narrow minds. Halford’s influence as a writer was enormous and had truly global reach. His name became synonymous with chalk streams and adherence to his views gained great momentum, until those who counted themselves as members of the purist dry fly school had the premium trout waters in a complete stranglehold. It is here that the trouble started in earnest because the purist school began to legislate for their method only and outlawed all other methods. Their reasons for doing so have been the subject of fierce debate ever since and the situation has been exacerbated by a particularly infuriating bit of spin indulged in by members of the purist school from time to time and that is to suggest that fishing the upstream dry fly, a method that is relatively easy and is devastatingly effective on rising fish, is in fact more “sporting” and therefore, by implication, more difficult or more noble than other methods.
It is important at this point to distinguish between the upper and lower reaches of the chalk streams. Brown trout, historically the principal target of the chalk stream fly fisherman, predominate in the upper reaches along with grayling. The lower reaches are a more diverse habitat and are occupied by a wide range of fish species, including trout. It was the premium trout waters of the upper reaches that the purist dry fly school set about capturing as the exclusive preserve of the upstream dry fly method. They were not interested in the lower reaches which, to this day, entertain anglers from all freshwater angling disciplines in relative harmony. By stipulating upstream dry fly only on the upper reaches, the purist school necessarily excluded all forms of angling that are designated as “coarse”, meaning anything that is not fly fishing. Nobody has a problem with this, not even the coarse anglers. The upper reaches are exceptionally suitable for fly fishing and it is generally considered appropriate that they be exclusively reserved for this type of angling. The problem was rather within the ranks of the fly fishing fraternity itself because the upstream dry fly only rule also swept away the time honoured and popular downstream wet fly technique, a method that involves moving steadily downstream repeatedly casting so as to cover the water with a wet fly (or team of wet flies) swung across the current. The principal argument advanced by the purist school in support of banning downstream wet fly fishing was that the method is very disruptive of the water. In the context of a chalk stream with its smooth flows and clear water, this is undoubtedly correct and the method would irredeemably prejudice the prospects of any other angler who might follow the wet fly fisherman. It is important to note though that the disruption is caused by the act of repeated casting and possibly also by the sweeping of the fly line and flies across the current and not by the simple fact that the flies are wet flies as opposed to dry flies.
The elimination of the classic wet fly method (and with it classic wet fly patterns, no matter how they were fished) from premium chalk stream fisheries eventually achieved more or less universal acceptance. That would have been that, had it not been for the intervention of G .E. M. Skues in the early 20th century. Skues, who achieved great fame as an angling writer, solved a problem that much puzzled chalk stream fly fisherman of the day. That problem was the phenomenon of “bulging” fish – a rise form caused by a fish taking a nymph just beneath the surface and creating a hump-like disturbance in the process. Dry fly fishermen quickly learnt that bulging fish could seldom be taken on a dry fly and as the classic wet fly method had been banned for being too disruptive, the purist school strangely leapt to the conclusion that such fish were uncatchable. It just simply didn’t occur to them that there might be some other method of fly fishing outside of the conventional dry fly and wet fly methods that might succeed. But it did occur to Skues, who proceeded to more or less invent modern upstream nymph fishing and then wrote a book about it. There was instant controversy because Skues’ new nymphing method contravened the upstream dry fly only rule then universally and continuously in force on most premium fisheries. The stage was set for an extraordinarily bitter and protracted dispute that has still not been fully resolved.
The new nymphing school argued that, self-evidently, the criticisms levelled at downstream wet-fly fishing could not logically be applied to fishing sub-surface nymph patterns with an upstream cast in exactly the same way that a dry fly is fished, with the only difference being that the fly sank rather than floated. But the dry-fly purists set their minds against this compelling proposition with a stubborn refusal to accept the distinction between nymphs and traditional wet flies and a mistaken conclusion that it is unsporting or even harmful to fish sunken flies on a chalk stream in any circumstances. Although the debate ebbed and flowed over the decades, the purists were eventually overcome, their hegemony of the chalk streams was broken and upstream nymph fishing became an accepted chalk stream method. However, the purists retreated with extremely bad grace and so slowly that today there are still fisheries that insist upon upstream dry fly only for some or all of the season, although these days this is more likely to be motivated by a desire to alleviate fishing pressure on hard fished waters coupled to an apprehensive conservativism, rather than by quasi-religious ethical convictions.
I know it is difficult to walk away from a fight when logic is offended and passions have been unreasonably inflamed, but to my mind continuing this debate in the 21st century overlooks an important point. With the passage of time, these quaintly anachronistic rules have become a distinctive tradition that partly defines what chalk stream fly fishing is and how it is distinguished from other types of fly fishing. Nobody else, anywhere in the world, could credibly introduce rules like this today without them seeming to be an affectation. Chalk stream fly fishermen should thus revel in the distinction conferred upon them by an iconic history and in honouring that history, should happily observe the traditional rules where these are still in force. It is just the way this very English game is played – like bowling with a straight arm in cricket or wearing white at Wimbledon. Believe me, everybody else is jealous as hell and it is great fun teasing other types of fly fishermen by adopting a posture of implied superiority and spouting irritating aphorisms like “it’s not how many, but how, that counts”.