| Fly Fishing Devon | "The Heuristic Trout" |Should I Fish Upstream or Downstream?

Introduction: Should I Fish Upstream or Downstream?

That's the question I was asked by a beginner, who happened to be an Oxford don. I trotted out a stock answer about facing upstream to keep within the trout's blind spot. I now call it the "Oxford Question" - a question he might ask a potential student to gauge whether they were capable of evaluating received wisdom.

Anglers fishing on freestone West Country rivers have assimilated some of the techniques developed on chalk streams for upstream presentation by Halford, Skues, Sawyer and Kite, as well as the development by American anglers - Leisenring, Hidy and Nemes - of more effective techniques for downstream fly presentation.

A theme runs through the work of these innovations - movement of an artificial fly - a topic touched on in previous essays in The Heuristic Trout

This essay explores the strengths and weakness of casting flies (dry, wet and nymphs) upstream and downstream. The fundamental difference between up- and downstream presentation involves the ease with which the angler can control the direction of movement of a fly on, or beneath, the water surface. Upstream presentation favours vertical movement of a sub-surface fly (wet or nymph). Downstream presentation opens up the possibility of imparting lateral, as well as vertical movement to a sub-surface fly.

It ends with a discussion of dry-fly fishing downstream, a technique readily adopted in America, but unusual in southern England despite being advocated by Mottram in the 1920s.

"With the popularity of techniques such as French/euro nymphing taking over river fishing in recent years the traditional method of wet fly fishing on rivers seems to have been largely forgotten by the majority of anglers." (Robinson 2019)

Horses for courses

It's worth bearing in mind, when reading this essay, that fly-fishing techniques that work in one environment, may not be allowed or successful in another.

Everyone is, to some extent, writing on the basis of their own experience. Experience is moulded by environmental circumstances - water speed, clarity and depth, and not everyone inhabits the same environment, or has the same expertise. This can lead to problems when enthusiasm for what works in one situation, time or place may not transfer to another environment.

The Chalkstream Legacy

Mottisfont Abbey
"The true and historic home of dry fly fishing"

In some parts of southern England, the development of effective techniques to present sub-surface flies downstream appears either forgotten, or obstructed. I have traced   Halford's  growing criticism of sub-surface presentation as he grew older (Bulmer 2015).

" Skues thought that Halford did more than anyone to discredit the wet fly on chalk streams"   (Berls 1999).

This involved an attack on Skues who had simply pointed out that a nymph presented a few inches below the surface was effective when trout were 'bulging', and not taking a dun on the surface. This culminated in the now notorious "Nymph Debate" at The Fly Fishers Club in 1938 which I covered in an earlier essay. In two fascinating books, Terry Lawton (2005 & 2020) gives more depth to the backgrounds of the principal figures in this very English debate.

Writing for an American audience about her visit to English chalk streams, Forbes magazine staff member Madeline Berg commented: "Halford turned that method into a sort of cult with himself as high priest, dispensing not only revolutionary technical information on the dressing and employment of dry flies but also a body of on-stream etiquette that is still adhered to today on the Test and, to one degree of purity or another, on many of the other chalk streams as well. " (Berg 2009)

Halford's influence lives on in the form of 'chalk stream etiquette' Ms Berg was instructed to: "Cast only to rising trout. Upstream, and only with dry flies." That will just about keep an American visitor on the straight and narrow. But others beware, the crucial word here is 'etiquette'; more subtle than rules, but with more serious consequences when breached. An English chalk stream angler might be expected to appreciate the corollaries:
  • "Your fly should not pass below your position on the river. "
  • "always use an artificial fly which is a reasonable representation, in size and outline, of the insects upon which Trout are likely to be feeding."
  • "a nymph is an imitation of a mature subsurface insect that is about to hatch"
  • Otherwise "It's just not cricket".

    Halford became more dogmatic as he grew older. It's revealing to revisit his first book  Floating Flies and How to Dress Them  published in 1886. He advocated upstream casting, but if necessary a cast could be made across stream provided that the tip of the rod was moved downstream to avoid drag. (p124). If necessary, a fly cast downstream can be "efficacious" (p124).

    The respected, but now forgotten, chalk stream angler Dr. J.C. Mottram who supported Halford in the "Nymph Debate", included a chapter titled Dry Fly Fishing Downstream in his book because "it is of such overwhelming importance that it may well outweigh all the disadvantages. It is that the fly floats down to the fish before the gut." (nd circa 1922 p47).

    Gingrich (1974 p244) devotes a chapter to Mottram who he regards   "as the completely unsung genius of English angling literature"  Mottram was described as  "too broad-minded to think that only absolute dry-fly fishing counts;"

    Unfortunately, Halford's lasting legacy is responsible "for a kind of sporting elitism that still dogs the dry fly" (Herd 2002, Gubbins 2018). The distinguished social anthropologist Mary Tew Douglas (Gacs 1988) has written a penetrating analysis of the influence of sportmanship on the promotion of dry-fly fishing over fishing with a nymph or wet fly: The English idea of the sportsman is morally laden with strong pretensions to virtue. The sportsman is trustworthy, essentially fair and ethically worthy. And the true sportsman deserves a worthy, educated and selective quarry: The English trout literature vaunts and debates the cleverness of the trout.. (Douglas 2003).

    Criticism of fishing downstream with a wet fly is sometimes dressed up as unsporting - targeting small, young and therefore 'uneducated' trout. Here is an example of that attitude written in the style of an earlier age:  "My main objection to wet fly fishing in the smaller rivers is that when the current carries the flies speedily the little brownies dart madly at the artificials, and do not give the bigger fish a chance of taking the lures. Again and again, with one throw, I have hooked a brace of the rascals of five or six inches in length ..."   Cass (1946)

    In an earlier essay I wrote about the largely English attitude to downstream sub-surface presentation. Critics label it as "chuck-it-and-chance-it". At times it resembles the  Social Class sketch in The Frost Report 1966.

    The American author Hughes (2015) presents a more balanced approach, and introduces subtle presentation techniques - including movement of the fly - to a wide audience. Downstream presentation was popularized in America by Sylvester Nemes (1993) in his book The Soft-Hackled Fly as a way of presenting a trout fly without drag i.e. dead drifting. Bergman referred to that as Natural Drift (Hughes 2015 p 243). Natural drift was also the defining feature of Skues' method of presentation.

    For good reason, anglers strive to avoid the fly (dry, wet and nymphs) dragging whether fishing upstream or downstream. By drag I mean unnatural movement of the fly. In contrast, vertical and lateral movements can be used to mimic the behaviour of the natural insect.

    Sub-surface presentation techniques

    Previous essays describe several ways to present sub-surface flies to trout:
  • Skues'dead-drift approach
  • Sawyer's Induced Take
  • Leisenring's Lift
  • Hidy's Subsurface Swing

  • Skues

    Skues' biographer Tony Hayter with an important point about the depth that Skues fished

    Skues designed nymphs to sink just beneath the surface to target trout seen 'bulging'. He cast his nymph to land upstream of the trout, and allowed it to be carried downstream by the current - 'dead drift'. The angler does not impart movement to the fly, and remains downstream of the trout. Skues simply modified Halford's technique by altering the position of the artificial fly in the water column, but this failed to satisfy the 'ultra-purist' dry-fly followers of Halford.

    I agree with the assessment by Datus Proper and Berls of the problem faced by Skues: "Gordon Mackie suggests that Skues knew of the moving-nymph tactic but decided not to make his information public for ethical reasons. Skues' case against the dry-fly purists would, to say the least, be weakened."  (Proper 1993 p78).

    "Gordon Mackie wrote in Trout and Salmon magazine some years ago ... that any intentional movement of the fly would have aroused cries of his using the old downstream and dragging wet fly... Skues had corresponded extensively with James Leisenring, and probably was aware of the "lift" techniaue. but if so, he again refrained from writing of it. " (Berls 1999).

    Movement, or the lack of it, has been the elephant in the room of English fly-fishing theory on how a sub-surface fly should be presented.

    " If Skues had admitted that nymphs move as they drift under the surface, he would have yielded the argument over the effectiveness of nymph fishing to Halford, who, of course, asserted that nymphs could not be imitated because of their vigorous wiggling movement. Skues needed to maintain his no-movement assertion, or his counter-argument to Halford would have been severely weakened - as a debating matter, not in actuality." (Berls 1999)

    Skues usually fished nymphs 'dead-drift'. The presence, or absence of movement, as nymphs are carried downstream is at the heart of the 1938 Nymph Debate.  Terry Lawton (2005) gives this quote from Dr. J.C. Mottram: "The nymph will be seen coming down with the stream, but often diverging from one side or the other, at the same time, rising slowly to the surface; the motion is quite slow and even, not in the least fast or jerky. "  (Lawton 2005 p45). Mottram is describing nymph movement in two direction: (1) vertical movement (ascent), and (2) lateral movement from side-to-side. Berls (1999) reviewed other accounts of the "alternating struggle and inert drift" of Baetis and Ephemerella nymphs.

    Halford argued that it was impossible to replicate this behaviour with an artificial fly: "Some readers may inquire why the dun in the nympha state should not be imitated, and, as remarked in a previous chapter, it is my opinion that the difficulty does not lie in dressing an artificial grub fairly resembling the dun nymph, but in imparting to that imitation the motion and direction taken by the natural insect at that stage of its existence" [emphasis added] (Halford 1889 p122-3).

    Thereafter, the techniques developed to deal with trout feeding sub-surface involved two changes: angler-induced movement of the fly (vertical and lateral), and the position of the angler (facing upstream or downstream).

    Frank Sawyer

    Sawyer specifically designed his nymphs to sink by substituting copper wire for tying silk. In Sawyer's induced take method the nymph is cast upstream of the trout, allowed to sink, and drift downstream towards the fish. It is then deliberately lifted vertically towards the surface in front of the trout, in a movement known as the “induced take”. The angler remains downstream of the trout.

    Invention of the 'induced take' is normally attributed to Sawyer. Lawton (2005 p 42) records that in 1935 Mottram wrote in The Journal of the Flyfishers Club] about presenting a leaded nymph "As it passes the fish, draw gently on the line, causing the nymph to ascend through the water in imitation of a natural" emphasis added.

    Oliver Kite: Keeping the light under a bushel?

    Oliver Kite described a similar technique - the 'swing-lift' . "The technique was to cast a yard or two beyond the fish's lie and a similar distance upstream. Then by the time it reaches the grayling, and has sunk to its approximate depth, the current, acting on the extended line, will cause the nymph to lift in the water, so triggering the take. You may even feel it, which you never do in orthodox, upstream nymph fishing. " [emphasis added] (Lawton 2005 p86).

    Kite's technique offered a solution to a problem that bedevilled upstream nymph fishing - the difficulty reported by many anglers detecting the take. "Many anglers are quietly terrified of fishing a wet fly upstream. It has a reputation for being impossible – probably because it is rare to feel a fish grab the fly." Gaskell (nd)

    It also overcomes Halford's criticism that it is impossible to imitate the nymph's behaviour. Kite, and the American Hidy, used the current to move the line "... you want the line to draw the flymph in a slow arc right across the bow of the rising trout. (Hidy 1979). Sawyer lifted his rod to raise the nymph towards the surface. In contrast, Kite and Hidy's technique introduces lateral as well as vertical movement to represent the behaviour of a natural nymph reported by Mottram (Lawton 2005 p45).

    Serious restrictions, planted by Halford, and nurtured by his ultra-purist followers, remain to this day, and may have stiffled the realisation of the full potential offered by nymph fishing on English freestone rivers. Sawyer, Kite and Mottram developed 'induced take' techniques on chalk streams. They would have been aware of the convention that:  "Your fly should not pass below your position on the river."   Consequently, they could not target a fish lying downstream, and would not have been allowed to cast downstream.

    Kite respected this convention, but pushed 'the edge of the envelope' as this quote shows: "The term 'upstream' should not be taken literally. Although fishing a nymph downstream and across, with a dragging action, is barred on the chalk streams, the artificial nymph is fished directly across the stream, or up and across, at least as often as it is fished upstream."  (Kite in Lapsley 1992 p86) [emphasis added]

    Kite's Bare Hook Nymph from Sutcliffe (2016)

    Perhaps a greater problem than this faced Oliver Kite. Lawton (2005) hints at the problem when he suggests that Kite may have found the Bare Hook nymph more successful than he explicitly stated in print. But Kite certainly gave a clear steer. For example, in discussing Sawyers Pheasant Tail Nymph : "In practice the herls do not matter much. They are put on to please the fisherman rather than the fish, and even after they have completely worn away, the artificial should continue to deceive if suitably handled  [i.e. using the swing-lift / induced-take]  in the water, provided that its basic structural outline in unimpaired" (Kite in Mansfield 1970 p49)

    Oliver Kite catching a trout on his Bare Hook Nymph

    Does Kite's Bare Hook nymph conform to the chalk stream edict to: "always use an artificial fly which is a reasonable representation, in size and outline, of the insects upon which Trout are likely to be feeding."? It certainly drives a coach and horses through the Halfordian idea of 'precise imitation'. .

    Lawton (2005) concluded that "Kite was an interpreter of other people's , primarily Sawyer's, ideas rather than an original thinker."

    Sidney Vines came to a similar conclusion about Oliver Kite:  "He was a media man, a born showman ...But he was not an orginal thinker. He had not the inclination, or possibly the capacity, for the long and painstaking research which is necessary before new ground is broken." (Vines 1984 p150)

    The ex-soldier and Irish historian, Charles Chenevix Trench (1914-2003)  expressed a different opinion: ".. the late Major Oliver Kite, who before his untimely death in 1969 established a reputation to rank with those of Stewart, Halford, and Skues. Indeed he improved on Skues as a nymph-fisher."

    Chenevix Trench justified this conclusion: Kite and Sawyer "imitating the natural nymph's behaviour, rather than appearance, when it swims quite briskly towards the surface and down again, even across the current. "   Skues was aware that "trout which will never take a dragging dry fly will sometimes take a dragging fly if it were sunk. But he never exploited this ..."  (Chenevix Trench 1974 p 99).

    In his   characteristic fashion Chenevix Trench has captured the important advance made by Kite - the central role of movement in eliciting the trout's rise to a sub-surface fly.

    Oliver Kite's Bare Hook Nymph (from  Grayling festival with friends

    There may have been a good reason for Kite to avoid the limelight by hiding in plain sight. I suspect that Kite kept the light under a bushel. Lawton described Kite, from 1957 to 1968, as "a very knowledgeable naturalist and observer of country life", as well as a journalist, author, and presenter of Kite's Country on the ITV company Southern Television.

    Kite advised the angler to base his practice on "a study of the behaviour of the natural insects we are trying to simulate.".  (Lawton 2020 p76-7) [emphasis added]. This is a very different approach to the then prevailing idea on chalk streams of precise imitation of the size, shape and colour of whatever a trout happens to be feeding on.

    Instead Kite focused on an insect's behaviour rather than its form . Kite's approach was consistent with the scientific approach towards animal behaviour (ethology) that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, involving concepts such as  'sign stimuli'  and  'supernormal stimuli'.   The 1973 Nobel laureate Tinbergen was regarded as:  "a superb popularizer of animal behavior studies, producing stunning nature films as well as books and articles to reach a broad audience"  (Burkhardt 2005, p5). Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Oliver Kite was aware of Tinbergen's work on animal behaviour.

    Ethology was popularised by  Niko Tinbergen  in books such as  Curious Naturalists  published by Country Life in 1958,  The Herring Gull's World  published in 1953 in the Collins New Naturalist series, and  Animal Behaviour  published in 1966.

    Kite did not live to see the BBC's award-winning entry for the Italia Prize, Tinbergen's  The The World About Us: Signals for Survival;   a TV programme from BBC South and West directed and narrated by the fly-fishing author Hugh Falkus, transmitted in October 1969, shortly after Kite's early death from a heart attack

    Kite suffered his first heart attack at the age of 35, and died of a second heart attack on the banks of the River Test in 1968, at the age of 48 (Wikipedia - Oliver Kite 2020).   "In the 1960s, there was no treatment for a heart attack. If they survived, victims were confined to a hospital bed, given painkillers and told to take complete rest." (Roxby 2011).  In other words patients who had suffered a heart attack were advised to avoid stress.

    I have thought for some time that Kite was probably aware of why trout could be caught by presenting them with a simple twist of wire to represent a thorax, which - when moved - acts as a 'sign stimulus'. But he very wisely avoided articulating this insight because of the sensitivity associated with sub-surface presentation on chalk streams, as demonstrated by the treatment received by Skues.

    The significance of Kite's Bare Hook nymph for understanding why a trout takes an artificial fly is described here.

    An Early West Country Pioneer: G.W. Soltau (1801-1884)

    This section introduces a local (Plymouth, Devon, UK) author G. W. Soltau, whose 1847 book  Trout Flies of Devon and Cornwall and How and When to Use Them,  shows that upstream dry-fly fishing was used on freestone rivers around Plymouth (Devon UK) long before widespread adoption on chalk stream rivers to the east.

    Soltau's book has been neglected, and consequently there is very little by way of commentary on its content. However, I did come across this evaluation and context prepared by an archivist to accompany a digitized version of the book:

    Fly-fishing in the Westcountry has a lengthy history. The requisite skills continued to develop in the 19th Century with the emergence of fly fishing clubs, together with the appearance of several books, such as this one, on the subject of fly tying and fly fishing techniques. In Devon and Cornwall, dry-fly fishing acquired an elitist reputation as the only acceptable method of fishing the clearer rivers of the south such as the Exe, Torridge, Mole and Teign. The weeds found in these rivers tend to grow close to the surface, and it was felt necessary to develop new techniques that would keep the fly and the line on the surface of the stream.

    These techniques became the foundation of all later dry-fly developments. This rare and much sought-after book was produced digitally from a copy in the Harvard University Library collection and can be downloaded from Google Books. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.  Prepared by Michael Steer  [emphasis added]

    In my opinion, Soltau adopted a very effective technique to present novel ideas to his audience. He used diagrams to illustrate the main points in the book, and placed figure legends beside each diagram that enable readers to interpret and understand the significance of the diagram without reading the main text. (See example here). This continues to be modern scientific practice.

    Fly fishing for wild brown trout on the River Yealm in South Devon (UK)

    Soltau lived at Little Efford, on the east side of Plymouth. He fished his local rivers, the Tavy, Cad, and Yealm, above and below Lee Mill Bridge.

    The  Upper Yealm Fishery  is upstream of Lee Mill Bridge, on the southern slopes of Dartmoor, east of Plymouth. Soltau's approach is  still effective  on this section of the river.

    A problem of definition: What is a dry fly?

    Soltau was writing in the middle of the 19th century at a time when the term 'dry fly' was undefined. Later writers have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to define the term.

    In 1913, Halford (1913 p61) defined a dry fly as a floating fly: "There is no such thing known as a half-way house between dry and wet-fly fishing; either the fly is floating, in which case it is dry-fly fishing, or it is more or less submerged, and is wet-fly fishing."

    The British historian Dr Andrew Herd (2003 p273) has written an acclaimed history of the artificial fly. Unlike Halford, Herd does draw a distinction between a floating fly and a dry fly  with the laudable purpose of helping his readers "make some kind of sense out of the chaos" of the story of how, what we now call, a dry fly evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. .

    With characteristic brevity  Conrad Voss Bark  exposes this 'chaos'. "As Professor Joad used to say: it all depends on what you mean by a dry fly. To Halford and his followers in the 1880s it meant a split-wing floater. To David Foster of Ashbourne in the mid-1800s it meant a well-hackled fly that floated longer than a badly-hackled fly. To George Pulman of Axminster also in the mid-1800s it meant a fly that he had just taken out of his box to replace a fly that had become soaked" (Voss Bark 1992 p 83)

    English philosopher Professor Joad

    The American historian Paul Schullery is well aware of the problem caused by trying to distinguish between 'floating' and 'dry' flies. Many authors before Halford's 1913 definition of a dry fly described fishing flies floating on the surface; to deny them a place in the history of the development of dry-fly fishing is not helpful to them, or those who made significant progress after Halford.

    Strictly speaking, Halford didn't define a dry fly in 1913. For example, the phrase "more or less submerged" would fail interrogation by Professor Joad. "

    Schullery (1987 p 102) offers this useful definition of a dry fly from Vince Marinaro (1970):   "We must begin with the proposition that no matter how dry the fly is, it must touch the water and be exposed to the air at the same time. If this idea is carried out to its logical conclusion, all of us must agree that if the smallest portion is exposed to the air no matter how deeply submerged the fly may be, it is still a legitimate form of the dry fly" . This is my understanding of the generally accepted modern definition of a dry fly.

    Wyatt's Snowshoe Emerger - dry fly?

    Dr Andrew Herd adds a subtle British nuance to his definition of a dry fly as: "a fly which is fished on an upstream cast and which sits with the majority of the fly above the surface of the water"  (2003 p273). Notice that how it is fished (cast upstream) is part of that definition. It follows from Herd's definition that a fly cast downstream is not a dry fly.

    I think a problem arises from incorporating a later post-Halfordian chalk stream etiquette / convention - casting upstream - into the definition of a dry fly. This convention was noticeably absent in  Halfords   first book (1886), but has roots in his last book published in 1913. The title of Chapter 3 "The Ethics of the Dry Fly" set the mood to this day.

    Development of dry-fly fishing in the 19th century

    Herd uses Pulman's 1841 book Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout as an example of "the final metamorphosis of the floating fly into the dry fly .. during the second quarter of the nineteenth century"

    The American fly-fishing historian Glenn Law (2015) expresses a similar view: "George Philip Rigney Pulman is generally credited as the first to write of the dry fly in The Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout, published in 1841."

    Pulman's (1841) book contains this description of what we now call dry-fly fishing : "Now, it is impossible to make a soaked artificial fly swim upon the water as the natural flies do, so that, when cast by the angler to a fish thus occupied, it most commonly escapes his notice, engaged as he is with 'things above', by sinking in the water beneath him. This is plain, because if the wet and heavy fly be exchanged for a dry and light one, and passing in artist-like style over the feeding fish, it will, partly from the simple circumstances of its buoyancy, be taken, in nine cases out of ten, as greedily as the living insect itself. " (quoted in Herd 2003 p275).

    An overlooked Devon fly-fishing author, G. W. Soltau, may have played a major role - he was certainly an early adopter - in the early evolution of dry-fly fishing. He fished on the rivers Yealm, Cad and Tavy in South Devon.

    The first step is to evaluate to what extent, if any, Soltau's 1847 book was based on, or influenced by, Pulman's 1841 description. I think it unlikely that Soltau plagiarized Pulman's work.

    Soltau may have read Pulman, but dismissed it as lacking detail. For example:
  • Soltau was critical of earlier fly-fishing authors:  ".. various treatises, which have appeared from time to time on Fly-Fishing, do not contain those minute details, which are so essential to the ready acquirement of the art," [emphasis added] (Soltau 1847, Gutenberg edition p5-6). Soltau may have considered Pulman fell into this category.
  • Soltau certainly gave a detailed description on how to fish the flies he recommended (see diagrams below)
  • Soltau states he started fly-fishing on local rivers in 1827 - 20 years of prior experience, and gives   "a list of flies; which, for a period of twenty years, I have found the most effective, in the Rivers of Devon and Cornwall. " (Soltau 1847, Gutenberg edition p6)
  • Soltau does not refer to Pulman's 1841 book, but remarked that "Mr. Scrope’s work entitled Days and Nights of Salmon fishing, is most interesting;".  Soltau quotes this line from Scrope’s book published in 1843; it is a fitting introduction to Soltau's fly-fishing techniques: "I take a little wool and feather, and tying it in a particular manner on a hook, make an imitation of a fly; then I throw it across the river, and let it sweep round the stream with a lively motion." (Soltau 1847 Gutenberg edition p32).
  • Was Soltau Halford's Precursor?

    Soltau's flies from Trout Flies of Devon and Cornwall
    Larger version available here

    Unfortunately, neither Herd, nor an earlier historian J.W. Hills who wrote A History of Fly Fishing for Trout  in 1921, mention Soltau's 1847 book which describes fishing with a dry fly upstream : "As a general rule, I am in favour of fishing up the stream for trout; the heads of the fish being always against the current, their eyes are pointed in the same direction, looking for flies, &c., which may be floating down on the surface; your approach therefore is not so readily perceived, and your fly when taken is pulled against the jaw, and not from it as is often the case when fishing down the stream." (Soltau 1847, Gutenberg edition p47)

    Soltau is clearly casting his fly upstream to represent flies floating downstream (duns) on the surface, and avoid detection. This was 10 years before  W.C. Stewart  (1857) forcefully advocated casting upstream, which then became a defining feature of chalk stream dry-fly fishing.

    Thus, Soltau's 1847 method appears to meet the requirements of Dr. Herd's dry-fly fishing.

    But, as this next quotation reveals, Soltau was not only seeking to present the fly 'dead-drift' (the later Halfordian approach), he was also moving his fly to represent the behaviour of the spinner on, and above the surface. This removes any doubt that Soltau was fishing with a dry fly, by anybody's definition.

    Soltau's gift for clear communication

    More of Soltau's flies from Trout Flies of Devon and Cornwall
    Larger version available here

    Soltau advised the angler to: Never use more than two flies, one at the end of the collar, called the “stream-fly,” the other about three feet from it, called “the bob.” (p38)

    "The stream fly should fall lightly on the desired spot, and the line, being just of sufficient length to allow of the exact point being reached, the bob fly will rest on the surface of the water, and by imparting to the rod a slight tremulous motion, from right to left, the stream fly will appear to be struggling in the stream, whilst the bob will occasionally bob up and down, (from which circumstance its name is derived) exhibiting the movement of the natural fly, when it alights, rises, and again alights."  (Soltau 1847 p48).

    Soltau is potentially important to fly-fishing historians because not only did he make, in 1847, an attempt to represent the behaviours of the spinner and dun, he also appreciated the importance of movement in the behaviour of the artificial sub-surface fly - a problem that was revisited a century later by Sawyer, Kite, Leisenring and Hidy.

    Datus Proper (1993 p32) - in a discussion of Pulman's book published in 1851 several years after Saltau (1847) - recognized the importance of movement, as a result of the insect's behaviour, and the angler's action.

    Unlike all earlier authors, Soltau gives this diagram and a detailed description of fishing the  bob fly and  stream fly   across-and-upstream for brown trout:  "Commence by throwing the fly across the tail of the stickle, thus:—A. is the fisherman, B. B. the banks of the river, C. the tail of the stickle, D. its commencement. A. first throws his fly across to E. then draws it with a kind of tremulous motion to F. then to G. and back to H. A. then moves on, and takes up his position at J. casts over to K. and across to L. tries again at M. and hooks a fish. If it is small, as too many of our West Country fish happen to be, it may be raised instanter, gently out of the water, and deposited in the basket. A. then advances a few paces, and finishes the pool between M. and D."  (Soltau 1847 p51)

    Soltau's techniques are different to the normal across-and-upstream and across-and-downstream methods. The wiggly lines in his diagram convey his method of moving the fly. He deliberately moves both flies by "slight tremulous motion, [of the rod] from right to left, ". This may be one of the first descriptions of mimicking the behaviour of spinners (imago), and nymphs.

    It is interesting to consider Soltau's combination of 'stream' and 'bob' flies in the light of the subsequent tedious argument between followers of Halford and Skues over the merits of 'dry' flies and 'nymphs'. My conclusion was that Halford's and Skues' techniques complement each other, and the way of doing this was demonstrated by Soltau almost a century before the Nymph Debate held in 1938.

    The South West rivers fished by Soltau benefit from a run of migratory trout. I was intrigued by this detailed early description of fishing for these sea trout by moving the fly.

    Soltau fished across-and-downstream for salmon and peal (local name for sea trout). He provides a diagram to describe his method of moving the fly: "Commence fishing at the head of the pool Z., instead of at the tail, as in trout fishing. Throw the fly directly across the river, from where the fisherman stands at A., to B. Let it sink a little below the surface; then guide it from B. to G., forming the segment of a circle; give it, during this passage, a jerking or sliding motion, such as water-spiders exhibit when sporting on still pools by the side of rivers; at each jerk draw the fly gently towards you, two feet or two and a half for salmon, seven or ten inches for peal. For instance, your fly having lighted at B., draw it to C., then pause a moment, when the stream will carry it down to D. again; draw it to E., and let it fall back to F.; pursue the same process until the curve from B. to G. is completed. By giving this motion to the fly, it appears to be struggling against the stream. In drawing it towards you the wings collapse, when you pause they expand."  (Soltau 1847 p70).

    Harris and Morgan (1989) have reviewed the relevant angling literature. It's sparse: "... it is surprising that so little has been written about sea-trout angling ...". The oldest book they consider is Maxwell's Salmon and Sea Trout published 50 years after Soltau. Maxwell (1898 p 203) advocated casting down-and-across and stated that the flies should be worked at a moderate rate. This is the technique introduced by Soltau 50 years earlier. The early literature tended to be dominated by books that briefly covered sea trout as an adjunct to salmon fishing. In the smaller West Country rivers sea trout outnumber salmon, and enter the river in the summer to be followed by autumn salmon runs. I cover sea trout fishing in South Devon in this essay.

    Soltau probably used a  greenheart rod.

    Soltau used a 12 foot rod with a 7-8 foot gut leader. He describes casting with what today we would call a 'soft-actioned rod', and 'rotating' the wrist, as well as 'loading the rod', rather than throwing the rod forward with the shoulder. This description of rod action, before the introduction of split cane, is typical of rods at that time: "It was undesirable to have a rod too whippy but yet not too stiff. All the writers of the period favoured a rod that could play easily and bend slightly throughout the whole length. " (Graham Turner 1989 p46)

    Soltau's (1847 p47) remarks on casting a fly cover points that still apply. For example, letting the rod do the work, avoiding 'creep', and his remark on the role of the wrist. It's often said that you can't learn to cast from a book. Soltau recognises that point.

    "The casting the fly well and lightly is a knack which can only be acquired by experience. The spring of the rod should do the chief work, and not the labour of your arms. To effect this, you should lay the stress as near the hand as possible, and make the wood undulate from that point, which is done by keeping the elbow in advance, and doing something with the wrist which is not very easy to explain. Thus, the exertion should be chiefly from the elbow and wrist, and not from the shoulders." (Soltau 1847, Gutenberg edition p47) [underlining represents the emphasis in original]

    More than half a century later, Halford (1913) devotes a chapter to fly casting that manages to illustrate Soltau's point that it's very difficult to describe in words fly-casting, particularly the role of the wrist. Halford encouraged his readers to cast with either hand, and offered this ("don't-try-this-at-home") route to success: "A scientific friend of mine established a rule in his household that the table should be laid right and left-handed in alternate weeks... His wife, children, and even guests were expected to conform to this rule. I commend it to my readers."

    A major problem faced at that time was keeping the dry-fly dry. Paraffin was used "to render the fly waterproof or nearly waterproof". He rejected using a switch (roll) cast as impracticable because it was used in wet-fly fishing.

    Then Halford (1913 p62-3) lets the 'cat-out-of-the-bag': "There are occasionally places where upstream fishing is barely possible, .. it is almost impossible to 'place the fly accurately into the teeth of the gale. Then it is permissible to fish down stream or partly across and partly down even with the floating fly."

    Thus, at times, even Halford wasn't fishing with a dry fly according to Dr Herd's definition.

    Soltau gives advice that is as fresh in 2021 as it was in 1847 for anyone fishing on the River Yealm:   "A little practice will enable you to determine the length of line required to reach a given spot: until this knowledge is acquired, rather throw too short than too long a line. In the latter case, it will bag in the water and scare the fish, or if per chance one rises, it will most probably escape, before you have power to strike."  (Soltau 1847, Gutenberg edition p47). I think by "bag in the water" he refers to the line falling in a heap, or not lying straight. He's absolutely right 'slack line casts' run the risk of interferring with being able to hook a fish. They can spit it out as soon as look at it on the Yealm.

    G.W. Soltau's home, Little Efford House built in 1738

    Mr George William Soltau  (1801-1884) was Deputy Lieutenant of Devon, and Justice of the Peace. He began fishing local rivers in 1827; his book was published in 1847 by several local publishers, as well as Longman & Co. based in  Paternoster Row  which was "a centre of the London publishing trade".

    Soltau's book was reprinted in 1856 by James Land of Plymouth. There is an intriguing newspaper cutting inserted by a previous owner Arthur Howard Thompson that is described on this page.

    Despite this relatively wide availability, Soltau may have been judged as insignificant by historians, and later anglers, because although he gave information on how, and when to use flies, his book contains precious little information on the actual flies; no names and no pattern details, only two plates of numbered flies with advice to obtain the flies from named tackle dealers in London (Mr. W. H. Alfred and Messrs. Benjamin Chevalier and Co.) and Plymouth (Mr. J. N. Hearder): " Those persons have engaged to keep a good stock on hand, so by sending to either of them for any No. required, no mistake can arise...I would therefore recommend those persons, who are in the habit of making their own flies, to procure patterns from the makers and imitate them, rather than take those in the lithographed sketch for their guide... I have examined the patterns manufactured by the parties referred to .. and find they correspond precisely with my own."  Turner (1989) gives details of these long-established companies. It is difficult to judge the colour of Soltau's flies from these hand-coloured lithographs.  Click on image when it loads to magnify viewpoint.

    This shows that Soltau anticipated, and dealt with, a problem that fly-fishers were to encounter many years later when they bought commercially tied Skues' Tup's Indispensable - " some most extraordinary patterns masquerade under the Tups marque. They range from the quite unbelievable to the truly impossible."" (Courtney Williams 1973 p318).

    Soltau and the importance of presentation alongside imitation

    Michael Steer   concluded that Soltau's 1847 book "became the foundation of all later dry-fly developments"

    This may appear a surprising conclusion when it is compared against the fly-fishing books that were published before, and after 1847.

    Wikipedia contains a  bibliography of fly-fishing literature  from the 19th to 21st centuries. In the mid 19th century, two important fly-fishing books preceded Soltau's 1847 book:
  • In 1836 Alfred Ronalds' The Fly-Fisher's Entomology was published.
  • In 1842 William Blacker's short 48 page book Blacker's Art of Fly Making was published. The later 1855 edition was expanded to 252 pages.
  • Both Ronalds and Blacker have received the attention they deserve in the history of fly-fishing. I discuss the lasting impact of Ronald's book - for good or ill -  here.

    Blacker (first edition 1842, on a preliminary unnumbered page ahead of the text) identifies specific (numbered) trout flies "best adapted" to use on rivers within a 20-mile radius of London, as well as the rivers Dove and Derwent in Derbyshire. This geographical emphasis may have deterred Soltau from using Blacker's flies on West Country rivers. I discuss the unresolved influence of Blacker on Soltau's flies here.

    Soltau book was novel; he used diagrams to illustrate the main points in the book, and placed figure legends beside each diagram that enable readers to interpret and understand the significance of the diagram without reading the main text. (See example above). This continues to be modern scientific practice.

    The diagram and legend convey Soltau's fly-fishing method. His method is to present the artificial fly in a way that mimics the behaviour of a trout's prey. Thus, Soltau emphasized presentation. This is a fundamentally different approach to fly-fishing than that put forward in books by Halford (1886-1913) and Skues (1910-1939) based on earlier work by Ronalds (1836) and Blacker (1842).

    Why has Soltau's book been overlooked in the literature on fly-fishing history? The American fly-fishing historian Paul Schullery (1987) points to the paucity of books written by presentationists compared to the large imitationist literature. This imbalance has been addressed in recent years, for example, Clarke (1996), Wyatt (2013), Juracek et al. (2020), and Rolston (2020).

    Nowadays. it would be hard to find a serious proponent of imitation over presentation, or vice versa, on chalk streams or freestone rivers. Therefore, in my opinion Soltau is important in the history of fly-fishing because he clearly articulated the presentation method long before the imitationist school was developed on English chalk streams.

    A lot of Americans have been given the impression that dry-fly fishing was invented by Halford around 1886 on the River Test, and consequently have an English chalk stream on their bucket list.

    Maybe some of them might - after they have seen the Mayflower Steps from where the Pilgrims are believed to have finally left English soil - consider visiting the rivers outside Plymouth to see where dry-fly fishing has earlier roots !

    Impact of Soltau in South Devon and Beyond

    In the middle of the 19th century, rivers in South Devon that run off the southern slopes of Dartmoor could have been at the cutting edge of English fly-fishing innovation. Soltau explained in words and pictures a way of fishing dry flies, as well as nymphs, that were later popularized on chalk streams through the writings of Halford and Skues.

    But it's not clear if Soltau's book had much influence on local Devon anglers. For example, in 1979 Mr. J.B.S. "Jack" Notley (1880-1980)  wrote an unpublished detailed history  of fly-fishing on the Devonshire Avon after fishing the river for over 80 years. He refers to Rabley's 1910 book "Devonshire Trout Fishing", and concludes that Rabley only used wet flies. Around this time Jack Notley was introduced to the dry fly: "Dr Perkins fished with dry fly, something quite new to me."

    South Devon based author Garrow-Green included a chapter on the dry fly in Trout- Fishing In Brooks published in about 1920. Clearly Soltau was "a prophet in his own county". Halford's teachings between 1886 and 1936 were accepted, but thank goodness, without the 'chalk stream etiquette'. However, I was chairman for many years of a South Devon fishing association with a rule that contain the ghost of Halford by allowing "Any complaint of unfair fishing, unsportsmanlike conduct" to be considered by the committee...

    Nowadays we refer to Soltau's (1847) method of fishing two flies, a dry fly above a wet fly or nymph, by various names, 'Klink and Dink', Duo Method, or New Zealand style. These are probably re-inventions, rather than being directly inspired by Soltau. I discuss the early literature here: Fishing Wet and Dry Together.

    An early adopter was  Dr William Baigent (1862-1935)  a medical doctor in Northallerton, a market town in North Yorkshire (UK). He is remembered for Baigent’s Brown, and his influence on the Catskill tradition of fly-tying through correspondance with American authors George La Branch and Preston Jennings. (Smith, Robert. "Dr William Baigent". Available online)

    Baigent's influence on American fly designs live on; Swisher and Richards (1975 p.72) recommended searching the water with "heavily hackled" spiders, variants and bivisibles. Proper (1993 p 163) remarks favourably on Baigent's interest in designing flies, rather than copying handed-down patterns.

    It is now impossible to recreate the flies Soltau used in South Devon in the mid 19th century. However, we do have a remarkably clear picture of fly-fishing in North Devon at that time due to an outstanding piece of detective work by a team of enthusiasts led by Dr. Paul Gaskell.

    In 1863 a North Devon doctor H.C. Cutcliffe published The Art of Trout Fishing in Rapid Streams. The text of Cutcliffe's book, and high quality photographs of John Shaner's collection of Cutcliffe's flies tied by Roger Woolley, are now available in a book published by Paul Gaskell (2019). The insights flowing from their research are discussed at length in  this essay.

    The West Country Approach: Any which way you can

    Anglers visiting freestone West Country rivers brought with them techniques introduced on chalk streams by Skues, Sawyer, and Kite, thankfully without the attendant post-Halfordian dogma .

    For example, Oliver Kite fished the  Arundell Arms   beats a few times in the 1950s and '60s. He used a Kite's Imperial "all season long whenever any olive duns were hatching and fish were rising, and cared not whether the olives were large or small, light or dark, or pale wateries, or iron blues ... Instead of changing dry flies, Oliver Kite most often only changed the size of the fly." (Quote from David Pilkington in Arundell Arms Hotel Spring 2021 newsletter, which also includes a detailed description of tying Kite's Imperial).

    Paul and Geoff on our annual "Guides' Day Out"

    This more relaxed, and relaxing approach, is exemplified by chapters written by Dermot Wilson and  David Pilkington  in Ann Voss Bark's book  West Country Fly Fishing (1983).

    David Pilkington explains how to fish in a way I can only describe as refreshing - 360 degree wet-fly fishing - upstream, downstream, down-and-across, up-and-across. This contrasts with the chalk stream 180 degree dictum - upstream, or up-and-across.

    Dermot Wilson, who lived in Nether Wallop Mill on the banks of a chalk stream, writes of the delights of catching wild brown trout on a dry fly without any mention of the restrictions encountered by anglers fishing for stocked fish on chalk streams.

    In the Introduction to his book Fishing the Dry Fly (1957 p viii)  Dermot Wilson  is in typical forthright mode: "Dry-fly fishing, on the chalk -streams especially has often been described as an art, and sometimes as a cult. People in fishing books always seem to be 'initiated into the mysteries of the dry fly', ... so that acceptance into the brotherhood of the elite can come to them only at the end of a very long process...What a load of nonsense! Dry-fly fishing takes less time to learn than most other sports."

    Dermot Wilson fishing the Cherrybrook on Dartmoor

    One of my favourite fly-fishing quotes from Dermot Wilson sums up the attraction of our local rivers: "In the West Country, you can catch trout from after breakfast till sunset, and enjoy the open air and the country for as long as the sun is in the sky". And the reason? Because in chalk streams food is so abundant that the trout do not have to feed all day; during a hatch they feed on the surface, and afterwards sink to the bottom. On West Country rivers trout can't afford to let anything potentially edible pass them by. (Wilson p 84).

    Devonshire Avon above Forky Pool (South Brent)

    Over a hundred years ago, Bradley (1850-1943) wrote a perceptive eulogy of my local river, the Devonshire Avon, that is as true today as when it was published in 1915. Bradley would have appreciated Pilkington's approach, and use of the wet fly: "It does not so much matter how you present the wet fly. You have got to get it there through difficulties, above and around... Ingenious fools have written of wet-fly fishing as an operation conducted on 'chuck-it-and-chance-it' principles...in such a river as this is, [ the Devonshire Avon] it is a deplorable exposure of innocence." (p225).

    Devonshire Avon Pembertons' Pool (Loddiswell)

    Bradley recalls meeting a young marine on the Devonshire Avon who had been "sitting all the morning by the big open pool beside him waiting to see a fish rise. .. He proved dear fellow to be an embryo dry-fly fisherman, .. and a victim of dry-fly literature in what may be called its arrogant days. He honestly thought that 'chuck-it-and-chance-it' fishing, as he called it, had disappeared among sportsmen everywhere, and that waiting for a rise and throwing a dry fly over it was the only legitimate way of catching a trout." (Bradley 1915 p271).

    Writing in 1920, Sheringham had a sensible all-embracing approach to the "..upstream or down question. By casting across with a little slack to your line you can cause them to float down unimpeded for a few yards. .. In principle there is little to distinguish it from the across-and-up plan." (Sheringham 1920 p123)

    On the basis of personal experience, Sheringham (1920 Chapter VII "Some Controversies") questioned the reason given for fishing upstream that trout have a blindspot to their rear. He also pointed out that Devonshire flies such as the Blue Upright, and Half Stone  "fished dry or wet in the minor tactics fashion"   [i.e. Skues] were "extremely valuable" on chalk streams. (p 107).

    Casting a fly on West Country Rivers

    Peter Arfield with some fly-casting tips on the Derbyshire Wye

    One problem faced by anglers fishing West Country rivers for the first time is that our rivers are often relatively narrow. A conventional overhead cast can sometimes result in frustration caused by leaders and flies being caught up in overhanging bankside vegetation. Being able to roll cast helps, but often just being able to make small adjustments allows you to put your fly into a tight spot. This video from Peter Arfield demonstrates these techniques on a river that has many of the challenges you are likely to encounter on local rivers.

    This essay  describes how we apply Spey and Skagit casting principles to trout fishing on small and medium sized rivers.

    Lessons from America

    American anglers were not contrained by chalk stream etiquette, and at liberty to cast to fish lying downstream. This led to development of more effective techniques for lateral sub-surface fly presentation .

    Leisenring cast upstream of the trout. "The fly comes straight down to him bumpety-bump over the gravel and stones along the bottom with the current"  (Hughes 2015 p266) but he relied on stopping the downstream drift, and allowing the current to lift the nymph vertically in front of the trout as the line came to the end of its downstream swing. The angler remains upstream of the trout.

    Hidy's Subsurface Swing is similar to Leisenring's Lift - the angler is upstream of the trout and casts the flymph upstream of the fish - but, because of its construction, a flymph does not sink as deep as a nymph before the current acting on the line swings the fly across the front of the trout. Hidy designed his flies to be fished "within a few inches of the surface film" (Hidy, Lance 2018).

    For this reason I have placed Hidy alongside Skues in the diagram that, to some extent, simplifies the similarities and differences between techniques. Its purpose is to convey the principal depths within the water column where the techniques are designed to be most effective.

    A difference of opinion

    Why do British authors (Skues and Sawyer) proceed in an upstream direction, and cast a sub-surface fly to trout that are lying further upstream, whereas American authors (Leisenring and Hidy) wade in a downstream direction, and cast to trout that are lying further downstream ?

    The British approach may be a hangover from strong views ordained in the late 19th century by Halford and Stewart. Gingrich attributes the upstream presentation element of Halford's purism to Stewart:   “Purism, which it would not be too fanciful to say was fathered by Stewart’s upstream technique on the body of Ronalds’s entomology.”  (Gingrich 1974 p142). Around the same time, an equally forthright American author expressed a contrary view.

    In 1865, the American Thaddeus Norris expressed his views on fishing upstream in these terms:   "The advice of English writers to fish up stream, or with the wind at one's back, in most cases cannot be followed; for our rough rapid streams in the first instance, and the thickly wooded banks in the other, which make it necessary to wade, ignore both rules. The force of the current in many a good rift would bring the flies back, and, as I have seen with beginners, entangle them in the legs of his pantaloons." (Norris 1865 p331) [emphasis added]

    W. C. Stewart advocated fishing upstream rather than down

    Norris (1865) does not name the English writers, but I don't think he was referring to Ronald's 1836 book The Fly-fisher's Entomology. It may be the Scottish writer Stewart (1857 p60-63) who describes the merits of casting upstream in some detail:

  • Trout  "cannot discern anything behind them,...The advantages of this [casting upstream] it is impossible to over-estimate."
  • The emphatic way Stewart expresses this point gives the impression that, like us, trout "don't have eyes in the back of their heads".

    "The case for casting upstream was first put in 1857, with such force [by W.C. Stewart] that it has never been intellectually refuted" (Chenevix Trench 1974 p78).

    This may have given rise to the popular - oft repeated view - that trout have a 30 degree blind spot behind them (e.g. Drifthook Fly Fishing 2021).

    If that were true, there would be no need to explore the topic further.

    Clip from   Underwater World of Trout Part Three | Trout Vision

    However, the  blind spot behind trout  is not that straightfoward :

    In this video, "Ozzie" Ozefovich challenges "the false belief that trout have blind spots."  He makes, what I think is, a crucial point - the trout's blind spot only applies to its underwater vision. The trout has 360 degree all round vision through its window for objects above the surface.

    In other words, the trout may not see the legs of an angler wading upstream in the blind spot behind its tail.

    But, depending on the depth of the trout, the height of the angler, and the distance between trout and angler, the trout could see parts of an approaching angler that are above the surface in its window. A way of dealing with this problem, and calculating a safe distance to stand behind a trout, is described in my essay on stealth

    For me, the message is to wade upstream or downstream with extreme caution. Even if you think you are directly behind a trout, there's a good chance it has a friend nearby who will sound the alarm!

    Goddard (2002) has challenged the size of the trout's underwater blind spot: ".. when a trout is focusing  [using binocular vision]  at very short range on food immediately in front of it, an arc of about 45 degrees on each side and to the rear of the fish is still focused to infinity."  The trout has a narrow 10 degree blind spot to the rear, so the angler needs to be positioned directly behind to be invisible to a trout (Goddard 2002 emphasis added). This point is illustrated in this diagram from Randall (2014 p71). Furthermore, the angler will move in and out of the blind spot as the trout moves from side-to-side.

    According to Goddard (2002 p132), an angler standing downstream behind a trout could be seen if they are within the range of the 45 degree arc of monocular vision focused at infinity on each side, and to the rear of the fish. In contrast, a fish feeding close to the surface and focused at short range may not see an angler standing opposite, or slightly upstream.

    Considering Ozefovich and Goddard's insights into trout vision leads me to the conclusion that the trout's blind spot is very restricted - a narrow angle (10 degrees, Goddard) - and only involves the submerged part of an angler's body (Ozefovich).

    Furthermore, it's worth bearing in mind that trout can quickly move several feet from side-to-side to intercept nymphs being carried downstream. Clearly this behaviour interferes with an angler's ability to exploit a trout's 'blind spot'.

  • Stewart suggests :"In angling down stream, if a trout rises and the angler strikes, he runs a great risk of pulling the flies straight out of its mouth ; whereas, in fishing up, its back is to him, and he has every chance of bringing the hook into contact with its jaws."
  • This may be a problem if a trout takes the fly when it is dangling directly downstream of the angler, or when the fly is close to the surface, and the angler strikes on seeing a rise to their fly. But often the only indication of a fish taking a fly cast downstream is the angler feeling a tug on the line as the trout takes the fly and turns away with it.

  • Stewart makes a further point; a trout hooked downstream will run further downstream, and disturb fish that have not yet been cast over: ".. and by its vagaries, leaping in the air, and plunging in all directions, alarms all its neighbours, and it is ten to one if he gets another rise in that pool. Fishing up saves all this. " Stewart argues that when the angler casting upstream  "..hooks a trout, pulls it down, and the remaining portions of the pool are undisturbed.".
  • This tactic only works if the angler casting upstream manages to prevent the hooked fish taking off further upstream. It could be argued that an angler fishing downstream can employ the same tactic to avoid a hooked fish dashing downstream, and disturbing trout below it.

    Oliver Edwards, an admirer of Stewart, has produced a popular series of videos including "Wet Fly Fishing on Rivers". Edwards explains his reason for casting upstream; he focuses on the behaviour of the fly. When it is cast upstream the angler can allow it to dead-drift downstream : "... only by casting our flies upstream and then allowing them to drift with the flow, back towards the angler will they behave naturally. This is not rocket science! So, why then does just about every river wet fly fisherman swing wets 'down and across'? " (Edwards 2014)

    Oliver Edwards "Sight Fishing on the Lambourn"

    In 1985 the leading American fly-fishing magazine Fly Fisherman published this instruction on upstream casting with a dry fly or nymph in an article by Fred Arbona: "Make your cast straight up the fish's back. Lay the tippet section of your leader between his eyes, causing the fly to land two feet in front of his nose, and watch him take the fly when it gets to him" [emphasis added to reflect original emphasis]. That's one heck of an accurate cast ! As John McEnroe famously screamed 'You cannot be serious!'.

    In this video Oliver Edwards is nymph fishing on an English chalk stream to fish he can see. It's interesting to compare his approach in the light of Arbona's advice.

    Preventing  drag (i.e. dead-drift)  is generally agreed to be an important element in dry-fly presentation. But, is dead-drift also the key to sub-surface presentation? To anticipate what follows, it turns out to require a more nuanced approach when presenting a fly sub-surface.

    North Country Spiders

    Early  Northern and West Country writers  seem relaxed about casting up- or downstream. Robert Smith (undated) dispels the notion that North Country spiders are fished upstream because Stewart said they should be. For example, anglers fished up- or downstream according to which way the wind was blowing.

    This video, featuring Rob Smith casting upstream, illustrates several of the important points he makes in his blog post  including this: "The often-quoted line about the exceptional upstream wet fly angler instinctively sensing the take and tightening into fish, is because the onlooker has missed the subtle induced take of the fly as it drifts back to the angler imperceptibly quicker than the streams own current." [emphasis added]. In other words, rather than rely on dead drift, the angler is being advised to move the fly.

    Image from Trout and How to Catch them (Mansfield 1970 p34)

    A Flymph Forum post by "Greenwell" illustrates this subtle induced take with  two pages  from Baverstock's River Fly-Fishing Theory and Technique (1961). Baverstock's book was part of a series of fishing books, written in a style and with a purpose - "How to catch them" - that appealed to my generation of young post-war anglers.

    "As soon as the fly is in the water the fisherman begins raising the rod point so that he keeps in close contact with the fly as it comes towards him. Apart from raising the rod it will be necessary to draw in line with the left hand too." (Baverstock, in Mansfield 1970 p34).

    It's not absolutely clear to me what purpose lies behind this technique - keeping in close contact with the fly to detect a take, or producing some movement in the fly to induce a take? Either way it will not guarantee the drag-free drift recommended when fishing a dry fly upstream.

    A collection of these short books was published together in 1970 as Trout and How to Catch them (Mansfield 1970). Unfortunately, it did not include Bate's short book Artificial Flies: How to tie them from the original series.

    North Country spiders tend to be simple flies consisting of slim bodies consisting of touching turns of silk thread, and a soft hackle. They are fished a few inches below the surface, and it has been suggested that the mobile hackle represents an emerging nymph (Harding 2009). The use of peacock herl or fur to form a thorax is consistent with this idea.

    North Country spiders are very effective flies. Maybe their design favours upstream presentation. Casting them upstream increases the likelihood that their soft hackles will move in the current. Cast downstream may cause the hackles to be forced against the slim body transforming the fly into what Cutcliffe called "more like a little roll of the dung of a rat than a fly .." Cutcliffe 1863 p119).

    An important point about fishing upstream is illustrated in Rob Smith's video; it looks deceptively simple, but it isn't. Just one example, did you notice that he made a roll-cast pickup? Was this to dry one of his three flies, or because the D-loop had passed the ideal position for starting the forward stroke. An experienced angler doesn't need to think about this decision, it's automatic. But what about less-experienced fly-fishers ? This is the point  made above  by Thaddeus Norris in 1865. And it was appreciated by Stewart a few years previously.

    Difficulties of wet-fly fishing upstream

    Stewart (1857 p67) acknowledges that "Fishing up is much more difficult than fishing down, requiring more practice, and a better acquaintance with the habits of the trout ; and we believe that a mere novice would, in a large water, catch more trout by fishing down than up, because the latter requires more nicety in casting." [emphasis reflects original]. Stewart excuses fishing downstream for salmon and sea trout.

    Edwards (2014) is clear about similar reasons for the current lack of widespread uptake of upstream wet-fly presentation; "Today very, very few river fly fishers, including regulars, fish upstream. They don't like it, for several reasons. It's repetitive, has a high work rate, and requires complete focus. It also requires good co-ordination with the rod tip, because the flies are drifting back towards you, so there is no tension on the line, and the take is not a pull felt by the angler. You'll have to be on your toes, as quite often, you only have a split second to react to a take. "

    The chalk stream angler, and celebrated author   John Waller Hills  put it this way: "If you are to get anything of a bag, you had to strike a trout before you felt him, often without seeing the rise." Hills goes on to report that some anglers are able to do this "almost by instinct or some sixth sense" (Hills 1941). The American Schwiebert agreed: "the alchemy often practiced by wet fly fishermen, and the veiled and inexplicable cues that cause a successful wet fly angler to tighten and hook his fish." (Schwiebert 2007 p 39).

    Paul Gaskell  puts his finger on a problem I detect with beginners: "Many anglers are quietly terrified of fishing a wet fly upstream. It has a reputation for being impossible – probably because it is rare to feel a fish grab the fly." Paul has written a series of articles on wet-fly fishing with the aim to :"avoid having high level wet fly fishing elbowed out of the way by the current fashion for modern nymph fishing"

    "With the popularity of techniques such as French/euro nymphing taking over river fishing in recent years the traditional method of wet fly fishing on rivers seems to have been largely forgotten by the majority of anglers." (Robinson 2019). Both authors are too polite to mention 'bobbers' - a modern version of the 'bubble-float' banned on local rivers, and too young to have encountered the controversy surrounding Alexander Wanless' light-line fly fishing for salmon with a fixed-spool reel and a 'controller' - a wooden float.

    Downstream wet fly fishing

    Downstream wet fly fishing is effective, but often criticized precisely because of its simplicity! For example by influential British angler Oliver Edwards in this video clip on the grounds that the swing element does not always present the artificial fly in the way that a natural insect behaves. That's true, the swing element can cause the fly to move across the current at an unnaturally fast speed. In my experience, depending on current speed, takes tend to be more frequent during the initial downstream drift, in the initial stage of the swing, and at the end when the fly is on the dangle.

    I think the problem, identified by Edwards may be " a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance." A beginner I talked to recognized the problem, and when asked how she dealt with it, remembered that she fed slack line through the rod rings onto the surface. Arbona (1985) has a similar, but more complicated, approach to achieving a dead-drift. I'm sure others do the same or similar. As the angler gains experience they are encouraged to mend the line or cast upstream - techniques that prolong the drift element by removing or reducing the adverse effects of swing (McGee, 2007, p58-).

    It turns out that angler-induced movement of the fly is just as important as dead-drift in wet-fly presentation.

    A technique for producing this movement goes under different names; one American technique is Leisenring's Lift, in Britain we have Oliver Edwards' Escalator.

    Edwards (2014) describes his version thus: "I very often 'search fish', using my own method, the 'escalator'. It is a technique that increases your search area. It is another simple skill that you ought to learn. Like the 'upstream' style, it also presents dead drifting flies. However as the dead drift part fishes out, the fly line tensions slightly, causing the flies to rise. This can be the most deadly part of the drift - the flies rising in the water column - sometimes, just what you need to provoke a trout to take."

    It is remarkable that Leisenring, Hidy, Sawyer, Smith, and Edwards have all reported that movement of the fly after a period of dead-drift can be the most deadly part of the drift. I have suggested in a  previous essay  that, under certain circumstance, movement acts as a sign stimulus, or super-stimulus.

    In both countries there is a no-name "poor man's version": When casting a wet fly downstream, let the fly dangle for a few seconds at the end of the cast because trout often take a wet fly 'on the dangle'. This pause will mimic the behaviour of an insect ascending prior to hatching.

    Transatlantic combination holds the key to downstream success

    Anyone who has guided or instructed a friend will have sympathy with the problems experieced by a relatively inexperienced fly-fisher. What can be done to help them? Stewart has the start of an answer. Fish downstream. As soon as the fly lands on the water it will begin to drift drag-free. Then the current acting against the fly line will produce what Rob Smith described as the "subtle induced take of the fly as it drifts back to the angler imperceptibly quicker than the streams own current." This corresponds to the technique called  Hidy's Subsurface Swing  by Hughes (2015).

    If the line is left to swing in the current, the fly picks up speed, and no longer resembles the behaviour of any natural insect of that size. However, there are techniques such as mending , developed by salmon anglers, and adopted by American fly-fishers, to overcome this problem.

    After casting a wet fly downstream, anglers are often advised to let the fly dangle for a few seconds because trout often take a wet fly 'on the dangle' especially if is well sunk. This pause will have the same effect as  Sawyer's Induced Take  and  Leisenring's Lift   the force of the current against the taut line causes the fly to rise which mimicks the behaviour of an insect ascending prior to hatching.

    Fishing a wet fly downstream is not always as simple as it appears on first sight.

    Davy Wotton used a team of wet flies in Wales before he moved to America and began guiding on the White River in Arkansas.

    This article by Dave and Emily Whitlock present  Wotton's wet fly techniques  that can be used to represent different stages of an insect's life cycle: dun, emerger and nymph.

    Paul Gaskell gives valuable advice on how to overcome drag when fishing a wet fly downstream.

    Once the fly and line are pointed downstream, the angler is faced with making the next cast across the river. This involves a change in the direction of the forward stroke. A relatively easy manoeuvre with an overhead cast, but it can cause problems if the roll cast is being used to deal with overhanging bankside vegetation.

    A solution to this problem involves aligning the 'anchor' by using a slowed-down single-handed spey cast which is described here: Learning to Change the Direction of a Roll Cast

    This comment from America applies just as much over here in the UK: "It seems, here in America, we are always looking for something new. Traditional wet-fly fishing is not historically new, but for those of us who are open-minded enough to try something old-fashioned, there’s a world of new challenge and fun waiting." (Whitlock, Dave and Emily 2014).

    Fishing Wet and Dry Together

    Rick Hafele: What Trout Eat - Deschutes River, Oregon

    It's rare to find appropriately-experienced scientists making a contribution to the fly-fishing literature. One notable exception is   Rick Hafele  who studied aquatic insects and freshwater biology professionally for thirty years.

    He wrote these wise words about the importance of sub-surface trout food, and the fly-fishing literature: "Numerous studies have confirmed that 70 to 90 percent of a trout's diet is composed of insects in the underwater nymphal stages. So if you never use nymphs, you are missing out on numerous opportunities to increase your fishing success... But as G.E.M. Skues said, don't automatically believe everything you read in this or any book. Try the methods, experiment with different ones, and compare the ideas with your own experiences.. Such self-discovery is the real home of knowledge." (Hafele xii-xiii 2006)

    On relatively shallow South Devon rivers, when trout are feeding on or just below the surface, I fish with two flies on my leader - one dry the other wet - and use the dry fly to indicate when the wet fly has been taken. My favourite flies for this technique are an Antron Caddis and a 'flymph'

    "I just don't know why this method is not practised more widely. It combines the advantages of both dry-fly and wet-fly fishing, and avoids at any rate some of the drawbacks of both ... A countryman who never reads a book first showed it to me." (Wiggins 1958).

    Title page of The North Country Angler: Author unknown (1789 edition).

    There's a temptation to think that fishing a nymph beneath a dry fly is a recent development. In fact it is a very old technique. This quotation from an unknown angler reveals that he appreciated that trout took flies on, and under the surface, with flies that correspond to Halford's dry flies, and Skues' nymphs. This angler tied his 'drop fly' with a hackle "as near the colour of the wings of the fly, as they appear when flying, as possible. " The 'end fly' was tied with a "dubbed body". (Unknown 1817 p54-5)

    "When I fish with these flies , I let one of them ,the hackle or drop - fly , only touch the top of the water; the uppermost only sometimes; for I have observed, that the fish strike the boldest at those flies , that do not touch the water; because they appearto be upon the wing, and are making their escape from them . But the end fly I let sink two or thre einches sometimes, having observed, that it is often better taken a little underwater , than on the very surface, the reason of which, I suppose, is , that these flies are bred in the water , under the stones and among the gravel ; and as soon as their wings are grown, they cometo the top of the water , before they can fly ,and are an easy prey to the lazy trouts, who feed on them under the surface"  (Unknown 1817 p55)

    Lawton (2005 p 17) commented on this passage: "Here we have an eighteenth century angler aware of nymphs and that trout feed on them yet Skues, the acknowledged founder of nymph fishing, was seemingly unaware of nymphs and their significance until the 1890s. Did he not read old fishing books ... ". Lawton reports that Skues was regarded as composing well researched articles as a result of spending time in the Reading Room of the British Museum consulting the fly-fishing literature.

    I think resolving this conundrum involves the reason behind the anonymity of the author, Skues profession as a solicitor, and the social status of Halford and the dry fly.

    The North Country Angler was first published in 1786. 'Unknown' may have wanted to remain unknown because a remarkable amount of his 'fishing' involved tresspass at night in pursuit of game . In the 18th century the penalties for poaching at night were especially severe (Jones 1979, Kirby 1933). Skues would have realised that a fly-fishing technique developed by a poacher would not be acceptable to his audience.

    In this anecdote Unknown describes his nocturnal activities with a set-line - a simple, weighted, line tied to a stick with baited hooks attached.: "This was in June , when trouts are in their prime: I put in two lines there with eight books a-piece , and went up to the high end of the pool where there was a broad shallow stream,from which about a dozen trouts , upon seeing me , came down to the deep , two or three of them large ones . I laid two other lines here with eight hooks a-piece ; and having ten more baited , I laid two short lines in a little narrow strong stream ,above. I went then up to the town , where two Gentlemen had appointed to meet me , from Morpeth . We supped, and drank till twelve; we laid in the same room: I got up at four , called the two , but only one would leave his bed so soon; we got a glass of wine , and went down to my lines . I had promised them to see such fishing as they had never seen before. .I drew my two short lines ,and at the ten hooks got nine trouts ,the tenth was broke , four of them eighteen or twenty inches long .My Gentleman would not be persuaded to stay any longer; so we went up to the inn ; he awakened his friend , and shewed him the trouts ,telling him I could catch as many more ; he got up , yawned, and swallowed a gill of mulled wine; then we went down to mv other lines; he said he would have given a crown to have seen the nine taken, and could not imagine how it could be done in half an hour's time .When we came to the two first lines , he saw the trouts struggling, but did not observe the lines : I got twelve at these two ; three or four of which were about twenty inches: at the other two I got but four , one a salmon trout , and that great trout I had seen feeding, as I supposed, by his size , which was twenty-three inches. We dined on trouts; and I sent my two friends, home at three o'clock , with fourteen large trouts, such as they had never seen before, " (Unknown 1817 p 30)

    The Dry-Dropper duo method was mentioned by William Lawrie in 1939 but described in greater detail in his book published in 1947. Keith Rollo was an early advocate :“If trout are nymphing, a nymph or wet fly could be mounted on the point, whilst a dry fly could be mounted on the dropper.”  (cited by Rob Smith)  Rollo recommended this technique for fast-running streams in Devonshire (Rollo, 1944)

    Both authors were probably influenced by Dr William Baigent's  Two Dry Fly Technique. In his book Nicholas Fitton (1992) gives a detailed description of the history, and his experience using, this almost-forgotten technique.  And of course going back even further, North Country spiders were - and continue to be - fished as a team of three flies or more, with close attention paid to the position of the top fly (Rob Smith personal communication, 2020).

    There are several popular ways of attaching the dropper to the dry fly: e.g. tying the dropper to the hook bend on the indicator fly - the New Zealand Style, or hooks with a tippet ring on the bend. In this video Stephen Cheetham describes a simple knot used by anglers fishing with a team of North Country spiders. It aligns the flies 'in-line' to eliminate droppers tangling around the leader, and avoids the dropper obstructing the hook of the indicator fly - a recognised problem with the New Zealand attachment method.

    Extracts from How does a trout catch a fly?

    Dry-Fly Fishing Downstream

    When wading upstream it is not unusual to hear a fish rise downstream. The Dry-Dropper duo method is ideally suited to presenting a dry fly to a fish lying downstream of the angler.

    Prejudice against fishing a dry fly downstream is an enduring relic of the debate between dry-fly Halfordian purists and Skues over nymph fishing. At times it resembles the  Social Class sketch in The Frost Report 1966

    Slack line casts prevent drag when fishing a dry fly downstream.

    I'm told that many Americans fish a dry fly downstream. In Britain most anglers fish a dry fly by casting upstream. Nowadays, on chalk streams "The majority of beats have rules of upstream dry fly only with upstream nymphing from July onwards. "  [emphasis added] (Bate 2016). For example, here is a guide to  chalk stream etiquette.

    These rules don't apply on the freestone rivers I've fished, and it wasn't always so on chalk streams; Halford (1886) advocated upstream casting, if necessary a cast could be made across stream provided that the tip of the rod was moved downstream to avoid drag. (p124). If necessary, a fly cast downstream can be "efficacious" (p124).

    The respected chalk stream angler J.C. Mottram (nd circa 1922) included a chapter "Dry Fly Fishing Downstream" because "it is of such overwhelming importance that it may well outweigh all the disadvantages. It is that the fly floats down to the fish before the gut." (p47).

    Gingrich (1974 p244) devotes a chapter to Mottram who he regards   "as the completely unsung genius of English angling literature"  but Gingrich came  "to the conclusion that he was angling's Invisible Man".  Mottram was described as  "too broad-minded to think that only absolute dry-fly fishing counts;"  he anticipated ideas subsequently put forward by the prominent American authors Marinaro and Hewitt.

    Dave Hughes, Rick Hafele and Skip Morris discuss conventional,
    and unconventional, ways of coping with fussy trout

    The South Devon publisher of the  Flyfisher’s Classic Library  David Burnett (2013) describes Mottram's character, and assesses his contribution to the fly-fishing literature. Mottram "seems to have been a retiring man. He never sought the lime-light, and though his book is one of the most original contributions to fishing literature, he has remained in barely acknowledged obscurity ever since it was published... He was cautious, as befitted a scientist. Mottram's first book "Fly-Fishing: Some New Arts and Mysteries",  seems to be the first book on trout fishing by a scientist... his probing mind threw light into dark places which those two great figures [Halford and Skues] failed to illumine, and he indicated paths to progress which have led much further than theirs." (Burnett 2013). My only quibble with Burnett is his assessment of Mottram's book Sea Trout and Other Fishing Studies, as 'not important'. In my opinion, it is worth reading for the chapters on dry-fly fishing for sea trout by day.

    Lawton (2005) devotes several pages to describing how Mottram's early insights into fishing with dry flies and nymphs were ahead of his time. But strangely Mottram subsequently changed his mind, arguing against using nymphs in his last book (1937), and in the 1938 Nymph Debate. Sadly Lawton concludes that Mottram "failed to ensure his place in the history of nymph fishing and is today, a largely forgotten and unsung hero of fly fishing."

    About the author

    Paul guiding ITV News reporter in June 2019

    with sea trout in camera range ...

    Paul Kenyon lives in Ivybridge on the southern edge of Dartmoor about 6 miles from the Upper Yealm Fishery.

    Paul devotes more time than is reasonable to his love of all things associated with fish, fishing, instruction and guiding on Dartmoor rivers.

    Paul constructed his first web page in Autumn 1993 as a way of distributing lecture notes to undergraduates.

    He retired in 2006 from the Department of Psychology, University of Plymouth where he lectured in behavioural neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

    email paul@flyfishingdevon.co.uk

    The author's  YouTube channel


    In this video Bob Wyatt ties his Snow Shoe Hare Emerger

    Bob uses this material in place of CDC because he has found that CDC tends to be "a one fish fly" which is an absolute no-no for guides on local rivers.

    These articles would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of Bob Wyatt. Bob is an artist, author, Certified Fly Casting Instructor and long-time angler. Born in Canada, he fished the freestone streams of southwestern Alberta in the late 1950s. He now lives on New Zealand's South Island. His articles have appeared in Fly Fishing & Fly Tying(UK), Gray's Sporting Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, and Flylife Magazine (AU). He has published two books: Trout Hunting: The Pursuit of Happiness (2004) and What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and Other Myths (2013). In this interview by April Vokey he discusses his “prey image” theory, trout fishing and the early days of steelhead fly fishing.

    John Shaner has been a constant source of encouragement, and source of hard-to-find fly-fishing literature.


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  • Credits

    Tom Sutcliffe for his kind permission to use his picture of Kite's Bare Hook Nymph from Sutcliffe (2016)