The pursuit of angling ( a much more descriptive word than ‘fishing’) brings us into closer contact with nature, for sure. But it can also place our own attitudes to place and identity into sharp relief.
The book that combines insights into the art of angling with general reflections about life is a book to savour. The book that accomplishes this with literary skill in a quiet understated way is a book to treasure. Over a lifetime of angling, as a boy in the seas off Brazil, as a man in quiet shady streams in north-west Britain, I have read many angling books. Of these I would like to mention a few ‘in despatches’. I hope the reader will forgive the parochialism of my choice of books. But angling is really about place and identity and therefore it is quite natural that ones’s chosen books reflect one’s local world.
My first book choice published in 1863, is ‘The Art of Trout Fishing on Rapid Streams, comprising a complete system of fishing the North Devon Streams, and their like”, by H.C. Cutcliffe, F.R.C.S. Cutcliffe’s understanding of the development of trout behaviour across the angling season and its effect on the manner of angling and the type of fly dressing required is extremely detailed, written from the standpoint of a naturalist who must have spent many hours watching trout activity in small remote streams. A surgeon by profession, Cutcliffe applied similar skills to his angling: attention to detail based on observation, argument based on logical thought. For what is noteworthy about this book is that it could have been written today. Looking at any recent copy of a fly-fishing magazine, you could be excused in thinking that the prevalence of gold or silver tinsel or brightly coloured feathers is part of a modernist trend in fly-dressing. Not so. Cutcliffe had thought through the need for what we now call attractor patterns when fishing fast streams 160 years ago. For example, his pattern ‘XXXV’: Body: Hare’s flax dyed yellow. Rib: Gold twist. Hackle: The most brilliant yellowish red obtainable – to be fished in June.
What makes this book invigorating is that Cutcliffe wrote it against the trend of his times. Rivers were fished with small subdued drab flies many of which we now recognise as ‘north country flies’. Fine for the quieter waters of big rivers, so reasoned Cutcliffe, where trout have choice of station and sufficient time to investigate food items, but not so for fast rolling streams where station and time are of the essence to a trout’s life chances. For Cutcliffe the art of deception lay in understanding by how much one needed to ‘sex up’ a fly to make it conspicuous enough to attract a trout but at the same time by how much to avoid making the fly so odd to a trout’s sensibilities as to propitiate the opposite effect than that intended. After reading this book, one is left thinking that there is very little new in fly-fishing. But of course, as the late Lord Denning said, ‘that argument does not appeal to me in the least. If we never do anything which has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere.’
I am indebted to a very fine angler and fly dresser for introducing me to my second choice of book. Louis Noble gave me a copy of ‘Let’s Fish the Clyde’ by Robert C Sharp when I was taking some instruction from him on the art of the wet-fly ahead of my first visit to the Clyde with him in 2007. Since then I have fished the upper reaches of the Clyde, from Thankerton Bridge all the way up to the ‘Waters Meet’ at Daer Waters, on many occasions and each occasion necessitates in me a bout of dressing flies ‘Clyde-style’. Fishing ‘Clyde-style’ is not just a matter of pattern choice, (as for example in May I would always include Black Spiders, Medium Olives and Sand Flies in my fly box). It is also a matter of what we today call a ‘mind-set’. Flies are dressed very sparsely and, importantly, are slim. In a size 14 or 16 hook, the fly should be as delicate as a natural. The Clyde demands a certain type of approach particular to that river, as indeed do all rivers. We learn this over a life-time of visiting different rivers. The act of fly-dressing prepares me for the trip and in this ritual I open this little book and my mind is taken back to the Clyde.
The third book confirms my parochial side to book choice. ‘Flyfishing the Welsh Borderlands’ by Roger Smith published in 2011 has become a favourite of mine. Spending a good deal of time on the northern Welsh Border streams myself, learning about the anglers of yesterday and their fly patterns, such as the Rev. Edward Powell and Cosmo Barrett, instills in me a sense of tradition and history, of place and community. After all isn’t it this sense that lies at the root of why we fish?
Despite this parochialism, it would be remiss of me not refer to the fine genre of fly angling literature from the USA. It is difficult to single out one particular book. Of the ‘how-to’ books, Sylvester Nemes on wet flies has influenced me as has Vince Marinaro on the dry fly and Swisher and Richards on ‘Selective Trout’. Of the more literary offerings, Gierach, Duncan, Leeson and Dennis all have a place in my book case. Forced to choose, I would plump for W. D. Wetherell. ‘One River More‘ published in 1998 which combines a folksy attitude reminiscent of many American writers with a style of prose that is beautiful in its thriftiness. ‘To find words (that) fit the beauty of the locales it inhabits’ is indeed a laudable approach.
Finally, I come to ‘Fishing and Thinking’ by A. A. Luce, published in 1959. I think this book, more than any other, is one of the the main reasons why I fish. The combination of detailed observations about nature with deeper reflections about life affected me when I read this gem of a book in 1998. After all, are not all thinking anglers philosophers too?
It is no coincidence that the dark rain-fed streams of the Scottish Borders and Welsh Marches gave rise to small, dark and sparse flies fished wet. ‘North Country’ flies, ‘Clyde style’ flies, the flies of the Marches, as they have become known according to region, perfectly fit the conditions that appertain. This is to be expected: flies tied by fly-dressers evolve through a process of selection. Flies that succeed in deceiving trout survive the fly dresser’s inclination to seek further improvements. They take their place in the angler’s fly box ‘hall of fame’, protected from further change. Stewart’s ‘black spider’, first tied in the 18th century, is still regarded as one of the most effective patterns in fast rain-fed northern streams, standing the test of time. [Read more…]