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The Dry Fly

James OgdenThe first mention of the dry fly in print is in the issue of The Field dated December 17th 1853. In an article by-lined "The Hampshire Fly Fisher" the writer says: "On the other hand, as far as fly fishing is concerned, fishing upstream, unless you are trying the Carshalton dodge and fishing with a dry fly, is very awkward." Dry fly patterns certainly became commercially available around this time; the firm of Foster's of Cheltenham selling dry flies with upright split wings as early as 1854. It is, however, unclear who actually developed the first dry fly, if any one man can be said to be the inventor. James Ogden, another Cheltenham tackle dealer, claimed to have been the first to use a dry fly, stating that he used dry patterns during the 1840's. But although Ogden certainly fished patterns that floated, many others did so before him, and none of them made any claims to have invented the method.

Ogden and Foster were certainly part of the generation who began the transformation the floating fly into the hackled dry fly during the years 1840 to 1850. If the time frame is correct, then the development of the false cast in the early 1850's makes a good deal of sense. Whatever the chronology was, the discovery took a good while to sink in and gain general acceptance. By the late 1880's the dry fly was well established, although it was by no means universally adopted. Amazing to relate, the first River Test trout wasn't killed with a dry fly until 1888 - thirty-four years after Foster's patterns had first gone on sale. The late adoption of the dry fly on the English chalk streams is even more striking when one considers that Thaddeus Norris was using a dry fly on the tumbling streams of Philadelphia as early as 1864.

19th century mayflyOne reason why the dry fly took so long to catch on was that it wasn't very easy to fish it. The dry fly of the 1880's had several glaring deficiencies. When cast, traditional dry flies frequently landed on their sides, or even upside down. Another problem was that the that flies became waterlogged and sank, often in fairly short order. Again, flies were most often tied to gut, which not only made bodies bulky but positively encouraged them to sink, a process which was speeded up by the tendency of silk lines to become waterlogged.

Another key development was the acceptance of the single-handed split-cane trout rod. The 1850s marked the beginning of the end of long double-handed trout rods, although they didn't go totally fall from favour for at least another forty years. Apart from their length, the worst fault of these early and mid-nineteenth century rods was their excessive pliability. Six strip split-cane fly rods, which were stiff enough to false-cast a dry fly repeatedly, didn't become cheap enough for general use until the 1880's.

We don't know who discovered the false-cast, but we know where it might have been discovered, because of a piece in the issue of The Field dated December 17th 1853. In an article by-lined 'The Hampshire Fly Fisher' the writer says:

'On the other hand, as far as fly fishing is concerned, fishing upstream, unless you are trying the Carshalton dodge and fishing with a dry fly, is very awkward.'

Carshalton is now a suburb of London, but in those days it boasted some good water and the 'Carshalton dodge' was the first name by which false casting was known. For such an important development, the false cast was discovered very quietly by some unsung angler to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude.

The term 'false-casting' wasn't adopted immediately, although the technique was widely practised, and for many years after its invention, the process of drying a fly by false-casting was known as 'spreading.' The technique led to the development of stiffer rods with pliant tops that could generate the line speed necessary to perform the manoeuvre and had a far-reaching effect on the design of dry-fly rods. These were pioneering days, and one school of thought held that in the absence of paraffin floatants, it was necessary to 'crack' the fly at the end of every false-cast in order to dry it properly, a method known as 'flicking'. One of the major problems with this technique that it weakened the gut just in front of the fly, with the result that the fly eventually cracked off on a back cast, or worse still, broke off on the strike. The sheer bother of drying a fly every time it sank (which was pretty quickly) encouraged anglers to keep false casting to a minimum, except in conditions where the trout were large and couldn't be caught any other way - but it worked when all other methods failed.

Halford style mayflyA group of fishermen including F.M. Halford, G. S. Marryat, H. S. Hall, E. J. Power, Dr. T. Sanctuary; and various professionals including Holland, Hammond, Currell and Chakley took the floating fly, improved on it and produced dry fly patterns that fathered the ones we use today. It is traditional to give Halford much of the credit, chiefly because he wrote so extensively about the subject to which he had devoted his life, but Marryat was the driving force behind the patterns which made his friend Halford so famous.

Halford gained prominence partly because he originated and belonged to the "exact imitation" school, devoting his life to the development of a definitive series of flies for the chalk streams. His first book, The Floating Fly and How to Dress it, was published in 1886 and you can download a copy from the libary by clicking here. Halford continually refined his ideas, and his final selection, some 33 flies in number, was published in The Modern Development of the Dry Fly. Halford was obsessed with obtaining an exact match to the colour of the insects he was imitating; and spent many thousands of hours comparing his artificials to preserved naturals. Despite his painstaking research, Halford was later to be much criticised for his approach, and the passage of time has eliminated most of his patterns from anglers' fly boxes.

But there was more to Halford than a set of patterns. In 1886 he attempted to define dry fly fishing as "… presenting to the rising fish the best possible imitation of the insect on which he is feeding in its natural position."

Which he broke down to four conditions:

  1. finding a fish feeding on winged insects.
  2. presenting to him a good imitation of the natural insect both as to size and colour.
  3. presenting it to him in its natural position, floating and "cocked".
  4. putting it lightly on the water so that it floats accurately over him without drag.
  5. that the four previous points should have been fulfilled before the fish has caught sight of the angler and his rod.

It was a bold attempt to enshrine the art of the dry fly on the chalk streams, and for a long time it succeeded, until the nymph fishermen won the day and their own part in history.

Now read on to find out about the tricks Halford's generation used to make their flies and lines float...