Thanks go to Ron Holloway for allowing the reproduction if the following article.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF THE UPSTREAM DRY FLY CODE OF PRACTICE ON THE CHALK STREAMS.
There are records of the use of floating flies being used to catch fish as far back as 2000 years ago in ancient Macedonia. One of the earliest documented records of the use of artificial floating flies here in UK was by Robert Venables a soldier in Cromwell’s army back in 1642. He tied a hackled fly, turned it upside down so the hook pointed upwards so the hackle would give an impression of it being the wings of the insect. What’s new!!!
In those days the flies tied then were not called dry flies but “floaters”. Chemical floatants had not been invented or any dressings used, so a fly could only float for a very short time before it became water logged and sank. Whisking the line and fly to and fro did shed some of the water from the sodden fly allowing a couple more casts, hence the evolution of “false casting”. However, a sodden fly would be changed to a different fly that floated for a few more casts before it too sank below the surface and had to be replaced by another floating fly.
Through the 1600’s and 1700’s several thinking fishermen, like John Tavener, William Lawson, Charles Cotton, Thomas Barker, and James Cheetam designed floating flies that floated a little longer. It is interesting to note that many of the developments in fly and tackle design in those days came not from the chalk streams of the South but from the provinces, the Midlands, the limestone rivers of Derbyshire and the spate rivers of the Scottish Borders. Both W.C. Stewart and James Baillie of the Borders were emphatic about the need to fish the fly upstream. Stewart states in his book “The Practical Angler” published in 1857 that the greatest error of fly fishing as generally practiced at that time was that the angler fishes downstream whereas he should fish up stream.
Moving swiftly on through the 1800’s the likes of James Ogden of Gloucester and David Foster of the Derbyshire Dove claimed to have tied the first true dry flies. So, somewhere around the 1840’s to the 1860’s, long before Frederick Halford’s time the dry fly as we have come to know it was invented and recorded in angling literature. The use of the dry fly spread throughout the fly fishing fraternity of UK via the country and fishing magazines of the time. It was only from these sources that Halford and his good friend Marryat picked up the idea on the chalk streams of Hampshire. Halford then proceded to create and establish a dogmatic rigid code of dry fly fishing practice and claimed their belief that they alone had discovered the acme of unchanging perfection in designing and fishing only upstream the exact imitation of a natural insect. A code of practice that rapidly spread to all the chalk streams of the South.
The rigid practice that Halford promoted and instilled very successfully throughout the chalk streams in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s was adopted by all the beats on the Test and Itchen and it still exists today on many of the chalk stream beats. The main Halfordian ethic to survive today is the “upstream without drag” casting ethic , because once learnt it is still the easiest way of catching trout who are feeding on insects floating down on or in the water surface. Over time the artificial flies and nymphs that are now used have changed dramatically from the exact over dressed imitations of natural insects that Halford designed, tied, and the use of which he vigorously promoted very successfully. That is until George E.M. Skues came on the scene with his subsurface nymphs which stimulated an extended period of contentious debate between Skues and Halford and his disciples regarding the use of the artificial nymph on the chalk streams. This confrontation was carried out in a gentlemanly Victorian manner through various heated meetings and prolonged interchanges of correspondence between and within the chalk stream members of the “Fly Fishers Club” in London and the Houghton Club in Stockbridge.. Most this correspondence and meeting minutes are faithfully recorded in the archives of the “Fly Fishers Club.”
Now in the 21st century the quality of rods, lines and reels have moved on rapidly utilising space age materials, so has the design and use of the flies and nymphs and emergers we now use moved on dramatically. The practice of fishing upstream nymphs and emergers has become an accepted invaluable addition to the chalk stream fishers repertoire thanks to G.E.M. Skues, Frank Sawyer, John Goddard and to a lesser extent Oliver Kite et al.
Halford tied all his flies from copying closely as possible the shape and colours of the natural insect. This is because he thought that as he observed closely the natural insect on the water surface and bankside vegetation, so would the trout under the surface see that same insect in exactly the same way as he did from the river bank. This belief did not last, a revolutionary change in dry fly design was on its way. It all stemmed from a book by E.W.Harding (The Fly Fisher and the Trout’s Point of View). Harding discovered to his astonishment that a trout looking up to the surface from below did not see the floating fly at all, whether natural or artificial.
Harding conclusively demonstrated that the fish from below only sees the floating natural insects and or artificial dry fly’s imprints it makes in and on the surface film. Depending on the intensity of the day light at the time and or angle of the sun the fish only sees the sparkles of reflected light emanating from these mirror distorted imprints. These findings have since been conclusively confirmed by underwater photography by the late John Goddard and by Vince Marinaro in America who fished on the river Le Tort in Pennsylvania back in the 1960’s & 70’s and 80’s. What the trout sees from below is all to do with the distorting mirror effect of the underside of the surface film and the refracted light reflections of the imprints that the natural insect or artificial dry fly makes on the underside of the water surface film.
Although personally I do not even try to tie exact imitations of natural insects all my small flies are basically “impressionistic” which also may include an exaggerated trigger factor of some kind, for example, overlong tails on spent flies. The colour of an artificial fly is not all that important in my opinion, but the size and shape does have some significance. Not forgetting delicate, accurate presentation is an important part of the equation!!!
Having been born on the Test and having worked for 34 years as a full time river keeper on the Upper Itchen I am very proud of the wonderful angling history of these beautiful rivers upon which I have had the privilege to work. More importantly my learning and understanding of, which at times has been a very contentious evolution and ongoing development of the chalk stream dry fly fishing code of practice as we know it today has for me even in my lifetime been a fascinating journey.
We all know that trout can be caught with a worm, or a maggot, by spinning, or by one of the various forms of modern weighted nymph fishing techniques, and we know that at times either one of these methods will catch more fish than any other. Many river keepers on the chalk streams have little or no objection whatsoever to anglers practising these methods to their hearts content on other fisheries, but certainly not on many of their wonderful dry fly beats of the chalk streams. Many fly fishers today do not enjoy killing trout particularly wild trout, except may be the odd one to eat. What has held the intense lifetimes interest of so many of us who fish these placid flowing chalk streams is the catching of trout by a method we call the upstream dry fly. This is a method that is so intriguingly challenging, so full of perplexities and uncertainties, that the actual landing of a trout fades into insignificance compared to the intense mental stimulation and thrills experienced prior to the release of a trout taken on a upstream dry fly.
The up stream dry fly code of practice of the chalk streams has evolved over time. It is a method that works once the fly fisher has learnt the necessary skills of adept river and field craft needed for a stealthy approach and he has acquired the physical rod handling skills and learnt the art and subtleties’ of delicate accurate presentation of dry flies and or nymphs upstream without a vestige of drag to a known or marked feeding fish. Long may this code of practice be protected for our children and their children to learn and enjoy.
The strict upstream only ethic is not 100% sacrosanct as even Halford himself said that a downstream cast of a dry fly to a rising fish was acceptable as long as the angler was capable of presenting his dry fly to a rising trout naturally without drag by using a reach cast, slack line cast, or by walking downstream parallel with his drifting fly. What we do and how we fish on the chalk streams is certainly not an elitist, purist or a ultra-purist sport as some people seem to think. Expensive it may be in places, yes, but it is a finite resource as there is little quality chalk stream dry fly fishing for wild trout left these days. We are indeed indebted to the generations of fly fishers who over the years have contributed to the evolution and development of these methods of fishing and the subsequent continued adherence to this accepted voluntary code of practice on the chalk streams. . Upstream dry fishing only is not a statutory law, it is merely an arbitrary regulation set down by almost every individual owner of a chalk stream fishery to which every angler who fishes the water has to abide by. IMO It is still the easiest and most satisfying, exciting , challenging and sporting way of catching trout on the chalk streams.