The Quiet Revolution - 1900 to 1950


t the turn of the century, a state-of the art trout fly rod was single handed, and somewhere between 9' 6" and 11 feet long. Most salmon rods remained in the sixteen to eighteen foot range, built either of split-cane or the heavier greenheart. Trout rod weights were now measured in ounces, while weights of salmon rods had fallen dramatically; the Hardy 'Champion' rod 17.9 feet weighed 2lb 8 ozs, and the 'Hi-Regan' sixteen footer came in at 2lb 3 ozs. The hexagonal split-cane rod was the dominant design, with single, double and steel-centred builds available on request. There were still some surprises left; the very fine Chinese 'Tonkin' cane would wait until the 1930's to be discovered. The alternative to cane was greenheart, which had the advantage of being far less expensive than split cane. Greenheart had the disadvantage that it was extremely difficult for the average fisherman to shoot as much line with a greenheart rod as he could with a split cane rod, and cane cast better and further. The 'old' materials persisted for longer than many people think. The last greenheart rod made by Hardy Bros. went out of production in 1952, the material having been used for production since 1885.

The ferrule had at last triumphed over the splice, although British designed ferrules lacked the quality of their American counterparts (the suction ferrule was perfected by Orvis). The splice might have been down, but it wasn't out. As late as 1958, Jock Scott was still recommending the splice over the ferrule, and Sharpe still made a range of spliced rods. But by 1900, ferruled rods had approximated to spliced rods in weight and cost and the death knell of the splice had been sounded. Reel seats were beginning to standardise, and Hardy were promoting the 'Universal' reel seat invented by Dr. Emil Weeger. The Universal had two wedge-shaped holders, one fixed for pushing the reel plate into, the other a loose ring that pushed down to secure the reel foot. By 1913, Hardy had released their patent screw winch fitting. The new reel seat hid the one side of the reel mount in a recess in the cork at the bottom of the cork handle, the other end of the reel foot being trapped by screwing a locking ring into place. With minor modifications, this type of reel seat is in widespread use today.


Rods were becoming more comfortable to use and cork was coming into widespread use as a covering for handles. Prior to the 1880s, butts were made either by machining a swelling into the material, or sometimes by wrapping it with pig skin. By 1900, many quality rods had natural cork handles, with ground cork being used on inferior rods. The old 'drop ring' which swung loose, fastened to the rod by a hoop set parallel to the line of the rod, had gone out of fashion. Snake and bridge rings were the rule on better rods, and tip rings were lined with agate on quality rods.

The consensus on the length of salmon rods that had held for three hundred years was soon to be broken. A.H.E. Wood revolutionised salmon fishing by inventing the 'greased-line' technique in the early 1930s. Wood's revolutionary system of salmon fishing not only allowed summer fishing for salmon, but it encouraged the use of shorter rods. His friends took to using 'strong trout rods' nine or ten feet in length. A floating line did not require a long, strong rod to lift it, and the days of salmon fishing as a muscular sport were drawing to a close. Nine feet was the target to beat, and it didn't take long to fall. Ten years after Wood's 1930's experiments, Lee Wulff took the issue to it's logical extreme . The arguments that Wulff put forward were so persuasive that the 'long' rod vanished from North American fishing within a decade. The short rod became the trade-mark of the American fly fisherman, and for a time, rods shrank to vestigial sizes. Arnold Gingrich fished for a time with a Royal Crown Phantom rod - a four and a quarter foot split-cane trout rod weighing one ounce, that was manufactured by Hardy. Double-handed salmon rods were virtually eliminated from the fishing scene, and have only begun to make a comeback in the last few years, as a Spey-casting craze sweeps America.


Few reels can be said to have had more influence on subsequent development than the Hardy Perfect. The Perfect marked a decisive break from the old-fashioned slow winding, wide barrel reel, and was in the forefront of a modern generation of well-designed, fast winding, single-action devices. The other great reel of the day was the Malloch "Sun and Planet" reel, named after the gearing arrangement within the casing. The early years of the twentieth century were a time of great innovation, and the design of the fly reel was greatly improvedl. At long last, the technology was up to the job, and the designers were free to experiment. Farlow reels of the period illustrate this well. In 1910, Farlow released the Patented Still-Handle Reel, which resembled the Patent Lever in all respects except that the handle did not revolve when line was stripped from the drum. In the same year, Farlow marketed the Cooper Multiplying Reel, which had a handle which extended beyond the frame for winding, but tucked in during casting, and a few years later they produced the Heyworth , which had a silent check But such rapid development was not to last. The Depression and the Second World War took their toll on the reel as much as it did on society at large. The years from 1930 to 1950 mark a low water mark in modern European reel development. Many of the reels produced during this period were of worse quality than those manufactured fifty years earlier. The sixties boom economies fuelled the recovery of the tackle suppliers, but their ranks had been dramatically thinned out, and many of the old British names were gone. From this time onwards, American designed reels began to lead the way.

Fly Fishing for Trout

The period from 1890 to 1930 was the heydey of the dry fly on the English chalk streams, and the time when American fly fishers finally kicked over the traces and dveloped their own distinct identity, with a rush of new patterns and techniques. Perhaps the most important development during this period was the discovery of nymph fishing, by one of the angling greats, G.E.M. Skues. We are still being carried forward by the momentum of developments made during this period.

Salmon Fishing and Flies

The inter-war years saw another revolution in fly fishing technique, with the widespread use of floating lines and floating flies. Until A.H.E. Wood's discovery of the "greased line technique", salmon fishing in Britain finished to all intents and purposes, at the end of spring, with a brief resurgence in the cold and cloudy days of autumn. The impact that Wood's ideas had on salmon fishing is difficult to imagine now, but at the time, they were revolutionary. After Wood, summer fishing became not only possible, but profitable. Wood was extremely innovative, raising mending to a high art, as part of a system of fly fishing that demanded the presentation of the fly to the fish just awash and "sidling past him and floating downstream" like a dead leaf. "Greased line" fishing is frequently misunderstood as referring to any presentation of a sunk salmon fly on a floating line. Wood regarded any pull on the fly by the action of the stream on the line as fatal, and would mend the cast obsessively to achieve the effect.

After Wood, the focus of salmon fishing development moved to America. Three men were to pioneer a new breakthrough: Hewitt, La Branche and Monell. Their inspiration came from none other than Theodore Gordon, who tied dry flies for salmon some time before 1903. Although La Branche proved that salmon would take just about any dry fly, he developed a special series of palmer hackled flies for the purpose, which rode high on their hackle points. LaBranche was later to compare the patterns to bottle brushes, and the trio settled on four patterns: the Colonel Monell, Soldier Palmer, Pink Lady Palmer, and the Mole. Despite Gordon, Monell, Hewitt and LaBranche's pioneering work, the dry fly was not popularised until the 1930s, when Lee Wulff revisited the whole problem of floating flies for salmon, and indulged in some major design work. The result was the Gray Wulff, a pattern which was so successful that it encouraged the inventor to develop the White Wulff and the Royal Wulff. The three patterns still form the mainstay of many fishermen's dry fly boxes. The dry fly method works well for salmon, anywhere where fish are present in large quantities, where a sighted fish can be accurately fished to, or in water temperatures over 60 Fahrenheit, which may explain why it is not so successful in Northern Europe.

Leader material

By the end of the nineteenth century, natural or "undrawn" gut had had its day, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find it. Undrawn gut was almost impossible to find by the beginning of the Second World War, at which time most gut was being sourced from Spain, and the familiar "x" system of grading drawn gut was well established. In 1909 or 1910, a material called "Japanese Gut" or "Gut Substitute" made an appearance. There were various brand names for the material, including "Telerana Nova," "Padrona," "Jatgut," and "Subgut." The basis of this material was silk from silkworm cocoons; this was made into a thread of the required thickness and then boiled in a mixture of animal glue and an extract of seaweed. The end-product was chemically dried, and polished, but the results were unpredictable, to say the least, and there was considerable scope for poor quality copies. Nevertheless, given the problems with the supply of natural gut, Japanese gut became a popular leader material

Hairwing flies

The exact origins of the hair-wing salmon fly are obscure, but it seems to have originated in the late nineteenth century in North America. Bucktail flies were first used for bass fishing as early as the 1890s. As far as is known, the originator of hairwing flies was an Idaho rancher called A.S. Trude, who first fished his patterns some time between 1886 and 1890. Colonel Lewis S. Thompson saw the flies and had them adapted for trout fishing, trying them much later for salmon on the Restigouche (in 1928, or even a few years earlier.) The motive behind this radical departure from tradition is not recorded, but it isn't hard to guess. Many of the materials used for tying "standard" fly patterns were becoming hard to find in Europe, never mind America, and the temptation to experiment with local materials which were abundant and cheap must have been hard to resist. The major development of the hairwing was undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s on the East coast of North America. The fully-dressed wet fly was in widespread use in America at the time, and a group of fly tiers began experimenting with simpler conventional patterns. They worked so well that it wasn't long before they abandoned the use of feathers in the wing and started to tie with local materials such as bear, squirrel, wood chuck and deer. The success of these patterns elbowed out the traditional British salmon flies, and led to a new and innovative school of North American fly tiers. We still fish with the products of their imagination.


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