Days Before Monofilament

by Jonathan

Today few anglers can even imagine fishing without monofilament, be it floating, sinking, fluorocarbon or any of the many derivatives available to us today. Sea anglers, coarse anglers, specimen hunters or game anglers all take it for granted to be able to buy the brand they want in a wide range of breaking strains in spool sizes from 50 metres to 500 metres. All this off the shelf from most tackle dealers at a reasonable price and quality. 

All this makes it hard to come to terms with what our forefathers had to use. Right up to the end of World War 2 all that was available to them was cat gut and most of that came in lengths of less than 60cms. There was no measure such as breaking strain but a rule of thumb gauging ,of the diameter of the gut, rated as 1X, 2X, 3X or 4X. I know this gives away my age but as an eleven year old I can remember using cat gut. Before I go any further just to put any animal lover’s mind at rest it was not made from cats entrails.

The gut had to be soaked well before you tied on droppers or flies otherwise it would break. I used to make up the gut cast with 2 droppers before I went fishing and tied on the flies at the river. Many is the time when I was fishing the Tees, at Gainford, that I was not able to find my precious cast which I had put in the margins to soak.

Recently I was privileged to borrow a book by Geo. M. Kelson, a very distinguished salmon angler of the day who was a legend in his lifetime. This book was published at the end of the 19th. Century when our rivers were full of salmon and the men who fished for them with the fly were not only privileged but had to be very strong. They wielded salmon fly rods of unbelievable length and weight which in this era of carbon rods defies belief.

The author devotes a chapter of this book describing the manufacture of ‘silkworm gut’ which illustrates a part of our angling history which I had never come across before.

Forget for a moment the modern processes, churning out thousands of metres of flawless mono, all neatly spooled on to convenient 100 metre pocket size spools. All of this, in an assortment of breaking strains, to suit every branch of the sport.  Try to imagine how the silkworm gut, which the Chinese had been using to make silk for an indeterminate time, was transformed to make gut for salmon fishing. It was a gentleman by the name of William Hay who was responsible for the introduction of silkworm gut for fishing in this country. It was a major step forward at the time, but one which history has chosen to forget.

There were two essential ingredients in the manufacture of the silk worm gut, the silkworm moth which laid the eggs, and the mulberry bush. The leaves from the all important mulberry bush were the essential ingredient in the process.

At that time silk was produced in China, Japan, Sicily, U.S.A. and Spain. It was a province in Spain called Murcia which had established a reputation for providing the eggs best suited to cultivate the salmon gut known as Sericulture. This silk producing moth was known as ‘Bombus Mori’. It was considered to be of paramount importance to select the right eggs for the process.                

There were eight stages in the actual production of the gut sac to make the silk worm gut.


  1. Each female moth lays approximately 200 eggs.   
  2. The tiny grubs were fed daily with freshly sliced mulberry leaves which were scattered over the grubs for three days, after which the grubs became dormant.
  3. After a further four days the grubs came to life and were now called ‘worms’. Once again the worms were fed abundantly on the sliced mulberry leaves, before becoming dormant again.
  4. At fourteen days old they emerged again and were fed whole mulberry leaves which they devoured voraciously before becoming dormant again.
  5. After twenty one days they took their fourth and final sleep, following a final voracious period of eating after which they shed their skin and sought shelter for the purpose of spinning.
  6. At the exact time of being ready to spin the worms were picked out and thrown into a tub containing a strong mixture of vinegar and water. They died instantly and were left to pickle for twelve hours.
  7. After the twelve hours the worms were removed and the two gut sacs removed.
  8. The gut was then ‘pulled out’ simple by taking hold of each end and stretching as far as it would go. It was than thrown on the floor to dry. This was basically the end of the ‘manufacturing process’.


After a few days the dried gut strands were collected from the floor and washed in pure water, before being hung in a well ventilated area to dry. When they were thoroughly dry the strands were tied in bundles of 5,000 to 10,000 to be sold to the merchants by weight.

At this stage each of the strands had a thin coating of carn which had to be removed before it could be used for fishing gut. This process must have been a trade secret as the information on it can at best be described as scant. After the ‘carn’ had been eliminated the bundles were sorted again and graded on the basis of roundness and thickness. At this stage the bundles were graded again into hanks of hundreds depending on the basis of roundness and thickness. The quality of the crop could vary from year to year and consistency was impossible. A 30cm. Length of gut was considered very good. Quality was determined by its freshness, colour and roundness. Before knotting the strands of gut had to be immersed in soft water for eight to ten hours.


Next time you break your nylon, when tying a knot, just think how our predecessors had to manage. We have much to be thankful for some of the by-products of WW2. and nylon monofilament was one of them.


Dave Cammiss

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Rogerson February 22, 2014 at 4:42 am

Is this still a working web site if so I’d really like to see more videos on fly tying lots of good info on your Existing videos

dick wildblood February 15, 2012 at 2:24 am

Hi Dave
I am currently finishing off an e-book on fly fishing, which so far is over 300 pages. I have just come across your website and videos which would really compliment the chapters I have written so far. Would you have any objection if I referenced your site and videos, giving you full credit for the production? I already have a number of sites who have allowed me to reference them in a similar way. Many thanks for your efforts.
Dick Wildblood

hertz September 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm


DaveC August 23, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Hi Paul
thanks for your comments on my comments about fishing before mono.
These days i have to satisfy myself on reminiscing rather than getting out with the rod…..the wear and tear of time has taken its toll on the joints. I still have regular little smiles at my own expense of when I was about 10 yrs old and putting my catgut cast complete with droppers in the pebbles in the margins of the river Tees to soak and not being able to find it. In the summer holidays I used to get up really early to dash across the fells to the local beck to get a couple of trout and run back in time for my fathers breakfast. These days it is an effort to get out of bed for my own breakfast.
Then there was very little choice of types of ‘ nylon’ available and it took several weeks of pocket money and odd jobs to buy a spool….it was always thick and springy and not easy to knot. It was however a vast improvement on the old catgut. I was lucky in so much that the old guys in the village would take me off occasionally and pass on tips and any reject tackle, sometimes on the bus, sometimes on pushbikes or on a good day by car. There was not the stigma of bait fishing for trout in those days and one quickly learnt how to dig for worms, forage for docken grubs and caddis grubs. If a dead sheep was found on the fells it was a valuable source of maggots for weeks.
Hope my ramblings of an old man have not bored you. Thank you for taking an interest in my site. I hope it has been a help to you. There is not much point in taking a lifetimes experience to the grave when it can be shared.
Happy fishing and flytying.
Dave C.

Paul Price August 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Great write up. Like many others I love the fly fishing scenes in the movie “a river runs through it”. I always wondered how fly fishing “worked” prior to modern lines. I now have a much better understanding. Thanks


Martin Gallagher March 30, 2011 at 6:39 am

Greetings from the Ozarks of North, Central, Arkansas USA: I have been following you for many years, and I thank you for your guidance, notably the way you finish your heads with multiple, double, half-hitches, as a half-hitch is a half-hitch is a half-hitch and the old way is faster, and simpler than using the whip-finishing gadgets.

Do you have any advanced lessons, as I have plenty of time as I am over 60, and my feet are giving out from the many years of stomping the floors, as a RN.

You and Davie McPhaill are my favorites.

Best Regards,

The Irish-Cherokee from Arkansas

Chris clark October 11, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Hi again dave I’m a new apprentice of yours and I’m in a bit of a ponder could you answer this question , is your double half hitch as strong and reliable as I whip finish as I have got away with your double half hitch but wondering is their any benefits of learning the whip finish thxs chris clark

DaveC October 6, 2009 at 8:15 pm

hi bob
thanks for your e-mail. only got one hand to work with at present. will contact you again when i have got out of this sling.
davec.and team

Bob Graham October 5, 2009 at 8:47 pm

I started fishing when I was five years old in 1945 fishing mainly on the Clyde at that time with my father and grandfather. Nylon had just been introduced and I still have a wooden spool of Pearsalls nylon that was made in Germany.

At that time most of the old Clyde style fishers walked around with gut cast in their mouths to keep the gut supple. The casts (leaders) carried from four to six flies tied directly to the gut dropper which they tried to hold outside their mouth.

Quite a few of them could smoke a pipe or cigarette although their mouth was full of gut. The one thing they couldn’t do was to carry on a conversation.

Christopher C. September 10, 2009 at 2:44 am

Dear Mr. Cammiss.
My name is Christopher and I am from the U.S. I would have to say that it was my cousin that actually got me started with flytying and fly fishing. Which, in a strange twist of events, finally led me to your videos and then here to your site.
I am a budding flytyer myself, as are many of the others who have left their comments here. As I have watched most of your videos and found them quite interesting. I have learned many differant ways to apply my materials that never would have crossed my mind. And I just wanted to say thanks. I have learned more from you instructions than I have from anyone elses.
But, Sir, I do have a question. Is there anyway that you could show us some of the patterns that you learned from Mr. Proud, or others from your youth? And maybe show us some of your origional tying tools and materials. I would be ever so thankful, as I am sure most of your other students would be as well.
Thank you for you time and I apologize for babbling for so long..
From the States, Yours Truly:

DaveC July 18, 2009 at 9:51 am

Hi Mika
Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. Your English is excellent.
It is true what you say about too much of our angling heritage being lost. The modern angling press is full of ‘must haves’ most of which are here today and unobtainable tomorrow. I have not met anyone in ages who even knows what I am talking about when I mention cat gut.The secret is to select what you feel is right for you and persevere with it until you have mastered it. Somewhere in the loft is a split cane rod I used when I was a teenager…..wish I could find it. I am still using some of the tools for flytying that I learnt to tie with over 60 years ago.
Happy Fishing
DaveC. and the Team

Mika Laakso July 18, 2009 at 9:18 am

Hello Dave

Thank you very much. This kind of information is really good and usefull. I love the way you presented it. I personally want to know more about history of fishing. I think that in that way i can understand the whole picture better. There must be a lot of usefull things that has been forgotten while new things has become available. I have noticed that allmost every method my grandad have told me is better than every new things you can find from magazines and internet. I will continue my learning and try to fish more like peoples use to do in those days. Maybe that way all the precious facts wont vanish and be forgotten.

Best wishes to you all from Finland

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