The Victorians


he years 1851 to 1900 were a time of enormous change in the fly fishing world. In those fifty years, the conventions of centuries would be swept away. The false cast was discovered, the dry fly technique emerged, split cane rods were perfected, and reels that we would appreciate as "modern" appeared. In 1851, there were those who fished the fly and bait using the same rod. By 1900, specialised rods for dry fly fishing were on the market, and no-one would have dreamed of using a fly rod for anything other than its intended purpose.

In the 1850s, the majority of trout rods were still double handers, of twelve to thirteen feet, but salmon rod lengths were much the same as they had ever been. Spey salmon rods were as long as eighteen feet, and Shannon rods longer again, but the disadvantage of long rods was their extreme weight, although they did allow the angler to cover more water. Few anglers had the equipment or the technical expertise to shoot line, so twenty-five yards was a good cast. An expert could manage thirty or even thirty five yards using an eighteen foot rod.

The wind of change began to blow in 1857, when Stewart, a young Scotsman, advocated upstream wet fly fishing with for 'a light stiff, single-handed rod, about ten feet long.' This, the discovery of the false-cast early in the decade, and the beginnings of dry fly fishing, began the trend towards shorter trout rods that led to the nine to ten foot split-cane rods of Halford's generation. Rods on both sides of the Atlantic were still made of and made of lancewood, bamboo and whalebone. The weights of rods belonging to Francis Francis (editor of The Field,) give some idea of why split cane became so popular, but it was upstream dry fly fishing that caused the final defection to the single-handed trout rod. It wasn't only the length of rods that changed in the last half of the nineteenth century; the materials also changed. In the 1850s, both trout and salmon rods were built of lancewood, bamboo and whalebone. By the end of the century, the majority of better quality trout rods were built of split cane, and almost every salmon rod was built out of greenheart. Salmon rod lengths remained in the fifteen to eighteen foot range, but no longer were they spliced, and the ferrule had finally triumphed as the standard method of fitting sections together.

The improvements in reel design were accelerated by the entry of a new generation of tackle dealers into the market. Firms like Eaton and Farlow concentrated on reel design and were pivotal in the improvements that would take place in the next fifty years. By now checks were standard fittings on reels and wide spindles were common on quality models, although narrow diameter spindles would remain a common feature of reels until at least the 1890s. A major change was that reels were getting lighter, as a result of the use of new materials, particularly aluminium. With Aluminium came a brief vogue for the use of all sorts of exotic materials. Rubber was in popular use for fly-reel construction between the years 1851 (when Goodyear put in his first patent for rubber processing), to around 1925. The hard rubber used in reels of the period went under various brand names, but Ebonite, Xylonite, and Vulcanite were the most common. Developments in Britain were mirrored in America, where by 1845, indigenous reels had almost completely replaced imported products. By the mid nineteenth century, the American fisherman was dependent on Europe for little other than gut. The first American narrow-frame fly reel, made by Charles Orvis, appeared in 1874. From now on, there would be an increasing trend for fly reel development to be dominated by American machine technology. American reel design equalled, and in some respects surpassed, its British counterpart in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Then came catharsis. In the 1890s George Kelson set out to determine exactly how improvements might be made. The firm he chose to continue the design of his reel was Farlow and Co., Ltd., of 191 The Strand. Kelson's reel was to be marketed subsequently as the 'Patent Lever Winch'. The other great reel of the era was the Perfect. Hardy's reel was introduced in 1891 and included most of the improvements that fishermen had been asking for: it was narrow between the plates, and deep in the drum, with an adjustable check (within a limited range). It had a 'foot' mounting, and a patent 'revolving ring line guard' which facilitated the shooting of line. The reel ran on ball-bearings and could be taken apart for easy cleaning, unlike the Patent Lever. This ease of disassembly was the key to the Perfect's success. Prior to the Perfect, the side plates of reels were held together with screwed intermediate bars, and a reel that had grit inside it was a nightmare to take to pieces. The only feature the Perfect lacked was an exposed rim, precluded by the nature of the design. If the Perfect had a fault, it was the drag mechanism, which was barely effective compared with the Kelson design. 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 use of horsehair lines began to die out after the 1860's and 70's, although the material still had its adherents many decades later. The difficulty of making long lines out of horsehair was a key factor in hastening its end. No longer did fishermen use thirty or forty yard lengths of line and hang on like grim death when they hooked a salmon; the development of the check, high capacity single-action reels, backing line and the acceptance of tapered fly lines meant that they could cast a long way and allow a fish to run. the braided silk fly lines had such a huge advantage over level horsehair that no angler who had tried silk once would ever go back to the traditional materials. Silk could be cast further, mended, and generally controlled so completely that it revolutionised fly fishing. The combination of the new rod materials and silk lines brought about a quantum leap in the distance that it was possible to throw a line. Almost every cast we know today had been discovered by the 1890s, and the average salmon fisherman could contemplate a cast of thirty yards. The experts cast much further, forty or even sixty yards.

The 1890s were the high water mark of traditional "fully-dressed" salmon fly design. Under the influence of George Kelson, John Traherne and many others, some of the most spectacular creations of fur and feather were tied during this period. The exuberence of the patterns reflected the confidence of the Victorians, and their beauty exceeded even that of the flies tied by Blacker and his generation. The number of different patterns in common use was extraordinary, with Kelson giving 300 different tyings in his book, and Hale and Hardy even more. A sophisticated import trade grew up around the need for exotic feathers, and despite a few dissenting voices, the fully-dressed salmon fly was to dominate salmon fly fishing until as late as the early 1950s.

In trout fishing circles, there was one development during this period that overshadowed all the others. This was the discovery of the dry fly. Not only did the popularity of the upstream dry fly method have an enormous impact upon rod design, favouring shorter, split cane products, but it split trout fishermen into two camps, at the expense of a great deal of heat and light. In the 1890s, trout wet fly fishing development effectively stalled, and it was the dry fly that was to drive the technology of the next century.


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