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The Dry Fly

As the Easter vacation approaches, the cockney angler, the "inveterate cockney," as Lord Salisbury did or did not say, begins to look to his fishing tackle. Now comes in the sweet of the year, and we may regret, with Mr. Swinburne, that "such sweet things should be fleet, such fleet things sweet." There are not many days that the London trout-fisher gets by the waterside. The streams worth his attention, and also within his reach, are few, and either preserved so that he cannot approach them, or harried by poachers as well as anglers. How much happier were men in Walton's day who stretched their legs up Tottenham Hill and soon found, in the Lea, trout which would take a worm when the rod was left to fish for itself! In those old days Hackney might be called a fishing village. There was in Walton's later years a writer on fishing named W. Gilbert, "Gent." This gent produced a small work called the "Angler's Delight," and if the angler was delighted, he must have been very easily pleased. The book now sells for large sums, apparently because it is scarce, for it is eminently worthless. The gentle writer, instead of giving directions about fly-dressing, calmly tells his readers to go and buy his flies at a little shop "near Powle's." To the "Angler's Delight" this same W. Gilbert added a tract on "The Hackney River, and the best stands there." Now there are no stands there, except cabstands, which of course are uninteresting to the angler. Two hundred years have put his fishing far away from him.

However, the ancient longing lives in him, and the Sunday morning trains from Paddington are full of early fishing-men. But it cannot be that most of them are after trout, the Thames trout being so artful that it needs a week's work and private information to come to terms with him. Hitherto he has been spun for chiefly, or coaxed with live bait; but now people think that a good big loch fly may win his affections. It is to be hoped that this view is correct, for the attempts by spinning and with live bait are calculated to stretch and crack even the proverbial patience of anglers. Persons conscious of less enduring mettle in their mind will soon be off to the moorland waters of Devonshire, or the Border, where trout are small, fairly plentiful, and come early into season. About the upper waters of Severn, where Sabrina is still unvexed by pollution, and where the stream is not greater than Tweed at Peebles, sport is fair in spring.

Though the Devonshire, and Border, and probably the Welsh waters, are just in their prime, the season is not yet for the Itchen and the Kennet, with their vast over-educated and over-fed monsters of the deep. Though there may be respectable angling for accomplished artists thereabouts in late April and May, the true sport does not begin till the May-fly comes in, which he generally does in June. Then the Kennet is a lovely and seductive spectacle to the angler. Between the turns of sun and shower the most beautiful delicate insects, frail as gossamer and fair as a fairy, are born, and flit for their hour, and float down the water, soon to be swallowed by the big four-pound trout. He who has no experience of this angling, and who comes to it from practice in the North, at first thinks he cannot go wrong. There is the smooth clear water, broken every moment by a trout's nose, just gently pushed up, but indicating, by the size of the ripple, that a monster is feeding below. You think, if you are accustomed to less experienced fish, that all is well. You throw your flies, two or three, a yard above the ripple, and wait to strike. But the ripples instantly cease, and on the surface of the water you see the long thin track of a broad back and huge dorsal fin. The trout has been, not frightened--he is in no hurry--but disgusted by your clumsy cast, which would readily have taken in a sea-trout or a loch-trout. They of Kennet and Test know a good deal better than to approach your wet flies. A few minutes of this failure reduce the novice to the despair of Tantalus. He never was set to such a torture as casting over big feeding trout and never getting a rise. You feel inclined to throw your fly-book bodily at the heads of the trout and bid them take their choice of its contents. That method of angling would be quite as successful as angling for large southern trout in the northern manner. So the novice either loses his temper and walks away to take his ease and some shandy- gaff at the Bear, or he sits down to smoke, or he potters botanically among the flowering water-weeds. Then a southern angler comes near, and is presently playing a trout which the northern man has not "put down," or frightened into total abstinence for the day. Then the true method of fishing for trout in a clear stream is illustrated in practice, and a beautiful and most delicate art it proves to be.

First, the angler notices a rising fish. Then he retires to a safe distance from the bank, outflanks the trout, and comes round in his rear. As fish always feed with their heads up stream, it is necessary in such clear water to fish for them from below, from as far below as possible. Every advantage is taken of cover, and the angler soon acquires the habits of a skirmisher. A tuft of rushes, an inequality in the ground, or an alder bush conceals him; behind this he kneels, and gets his tackle in order. He uses only one fly, not two or three, as people do on the Border. He carefully measures his ground, flicking his cast through the air, so that the fly shall be perfectly dry. Then the trout rises, and in a moment the dry fly descends as lightly as a living insect, half a foot above the ripple. Down it floats, the fisher watching with a beating heart: then there is a ripple, then a splash; the rod bends nearly double, the line flies out to the further bank, and the struggle begins. The fight is by no means over, for the fish instinctively makes for a bed of weeds, where he can entangle and break the line, while the angler holds him as hard as he dares, and, if tackle be sound and luck goes not contrary, the big trout is landed at last.

This is no trifling victory. Nay, a Kennet trout is far harder to catch and kill than the capricious salmon, which will often take a fly, however clumsy be the man who casts it. There is a profane theory that several members of the Hungerford Club never catch the trout they pay so much to have the privilege of trying to capture. A very sure eye and clever hand are needed to make the fly light dry and neat so close above the fish that he has not time to be alarmed by the gut. "Gut-shy" he is, and the less he sees of it the better. Moreover, a wonderful temper is required, for in the backward cast of the long line the hook will, ten to one, catch in a tree, or a flower, or a straw, or a bit of hay, and then it has to be disengaged by the angler crawling on hands and knees. Perhaps a northern angler will never quite master the delicacy of this sport, nor acquire the entomological knowledge which seems to be necessary, nor make up his mind between the partisans of the light one-handed rod and the double-handed rod.


Andrew Lang