( Story ) How I started Fly Tying in the 1940’s

by Jonathan

Earlier this month a close friend sent me a cutting, from the Times, by Brian Clarke the fishing correspondent. His descriptions of the origin of artificial flies, for fishing in Mesopotamia in 200 AD., brought back happy memories of a happy childhood on the fells in County Durham. I am not saying that I was around in 200 AD., but the article went on to elaborate on the use of hand held vices for tying flies.
I am 78 and have tied flies since I was 11 years old. I must confess that I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not fishing in one form or another. My father was the village policeman in Cockfield, then a small mining village on the fells, and some of my earliest memories were walks across the fells to the river Gaunless. It was teeming with shoals of minnows and I could not resist some inner urge, even at the age of five or six, to catch them. In the early days I was armed with an old cloth flour bag on a wire ring stuck in the top of a garden cane and a 2lb. jam jar with a string handle to take my trophies home. I relentlessly pestered my mum and dad to take me to the river and somehow they would always find time to let me have my adventures. It was a common sight, on a summers evening, to see the family being led by Lady, our springer spaniel, and me with my fishing net, across the fells to the river.
Some of the older lads in the village fished with garden canes, thread and bent pins for a hook. They were always secretive about what they put on the hook and usually disappeared when I approached. It was not until some time later that I discovered that they were after the numerous small trout in the stream. There was a war on and food was not in plentiful supply. Between the ages of six and eight I was happy enough catching minnows by whatever means. I had discovered that the caddis grubs, found under the larger stones, were a deadly bait. By the time I was nine I was considered sensible enough to go off on my own or with a friend provided that I was always home at the allotted time, but always with my guardian Lady.
Before every session I would spend about ten minutes gathering my crop of caddis shells, enough for a days fishing. Those were the days of seemingly endless supply of natural resources. Whilst I gathered my bait Lady would swim in the pool and generally do her best to mess up the fishing. It never seemed to make any difference to the fish. Our favourite pool was under the railway viaduct, now long gone, where we spent most of our time catching minnows. Steam trains went by regularly and many of the drivers would slow down and give us a wave or blow their whistle as they passed by. The sun always seemed to shine, the days seemed endless and I was in my own little heaven.
Each time we made our way past the shallows, at the head of the pool, trout surged downstream into the deeper water but we paid scant attention to them. One hot summer day, at the age of nine, that disinterest in trout was about to change. I was sat on the stone wall cane in hand with pin hook baited with a caddis grub, attached to cobblers thread and a quill float, waiting for a bite. The shoal of minnows had drifted away, and I did not know why, was it time to try somewhere new? Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape approach the gleaming white grub. In an instant my float was racing upstream. I held on to my cane not really knowing what to do. I wish I could say that I calmly played that trout to a standstill and pulled it gracefully on to the bank. As I recall there was about two minutes of frenetic activity as that unfortunate trout jumped and dived, showing off its gleaming yellow flanks, before it was swung unceremoniously on to the grass. My first trout, all of nine inches long, lay gasping on the bank and I did not know what to do with it.
I could not take my eyes off it. It was beautiful and there was no-one but Lady to share my excitement and she was not interested. I decided that I would have to take it home for all to see. I emptied the minnows out of jar filled it with water and stuffed the trout headfirst into the jar, picked up my rod and ran all the way home. Amazingly when I got home the trout was still alive and I put it in the kitchen sink to swim around until my dad came home. It was still there when I went to bed but when I came downstairs the next morning my dad had a big grin on his face and said he had fried it in butter for his breakfast.
Things had changed, I was now going to be trout angler and somehow if my dad wanted more trout he was going to have to get me a proper rod and reel. He not only acquired some tackle but arranged for one of the local experts to take me under his wing and get me started.
My first mentor was Tommy Bowman. He was an all round fisherman and whilst he enjoyed the sport it was a disappointing day if he did not have a few trout in the bag at the end of day. He nearly always started with the fly but if that failed there were always a few worms in a tin in his bag and they rarely failed. I soon learned about worms, docken grub and dead minnow for bait.
I was now the proud owner of a very old greenheart three piece fly rod and a small brass reel with cuttyhunk line and an old army gas mask bag with an assortment of hooks, a tin of assorted lead shot and a collection of hooks which would have been rejected by any self respecting trout angler. Tommy spent time with me teaching me knots, giving me odd bits of cat gut and showing me how to bait my hooks. It was a tough apprenticeship and the rewards in the way of trout were meagre in my first year but I was undaunted. One day I was going to cast a fly like Tommy and be a proper angler. For two years he took me with him to the Gaunless, the Tees at Gainford, Grand beck at Staindrop and even got me a ride to Cauldron Snout in Teesdale with Mr. Cowley in the back of his hardware truck that he used to visit outlying farms and villages. The adults were in the cab and I was in the back with the pots and pans. Sometimes they would pull up at the side of one of the streams and they would jump out with their fly rods and have a quick fish for fifteen minutes and then back to the truck and set off again. I had to be content with pulling back the canvas and watching their performance. When we arrived at Cauldron Snout I was overwhelmed by the roar of the peat stained water as it rushed over the rocks and plunged into the black swirling pool at its foot many feet below. From that day on Cauldron Snout was to hold a special place in my heart. The climb down the rocks was scary that first time but I was convinced this was going to be the place of my first big score. The water seemed confused and reluctant to leave the pool, the float kept losing itself in the creamy foam. Putting on a lead leger weight would mean losing a precious hook on the rocky bottom. The noise was intense and you had to shout to be heard by anyone only five yards away. Even though the weather was fine we were all soaked with the spray. It was awesome and I loved every minute despite catching only one fish and it was the smallest of the day.
When I was eleven Tommy felt that I should have some proper tuition on casting a fly and learning to tie my own flies. He had tried so hard to get me to cast a line with the coarse cuttyhunk, which probably was only backing line, and my efforts on water were even worse than those in the field. The poor old greenheart rod had broken twice and was spliced with sewing thread and varnish and one of the ferrules was starting to split. Tommy recommended that I should be taken in hand by Wilf. Proud the Landlord of the Travellers Rest in Evenwood, the next village about three miles away. He was well respected for his fly fishing in rivers and becks and enjoyed a good reputation for teaching fly tying.
By this time I was the proud owner of a ‘new’ second hand bike and cycled everywhere, distance was no problem. It was arranged for me to visit Mr. Proud on Wednesday evenings and he would teach me how to tie flies. You had to be able tie flies competently before he would teach you to cast. He patiently showed me how to tie flies and gave me all the dressings which he wrote down in a 1946 diary together with a sample of the hackle feather which he glued to the page. I treasure that book to this day. He held the hook by his by finger and thumb in his left hand, no vice of any description. A length of the appropriate tying silk was cut, the feather selected and all the flue removed. The first stage was to wind the silk for three or four turns at the eye and secure by a half hitch. The hackle was secured on the top of the hook where the silk had started by four turns and held with a half hitch. The remaining stalk was snipped off. The silk was wound down the hook shank and back to the base of the hackle in touching turns and secured with another half hitch. The tip of the hackle was gripped by hackle pliers and the hackle wound twice round the hook. With the tip of the hackle suspended below the fly the tying silk was wound firmly through the hackle given three turns to secure the hackle and form a neat head. The waste hackle was snipped off and the fly finished off with two half hitches. A quick dab of varnish and the job was done.
That was my first lesson in tying a basic spider patterns eg. Partridge and orange/yellow, snipe and purple etc. The rest is history. Once you are reasonably proficient you can start to add ribbing and dubbing. Practice makes perfect but if you really want to make life easier for yourself, and still feel you are into nostalgia, buy a pin vice. It takes the pain out of your left hand but does not detract from the basic skills. I am still using the one I bought when I was fifteen. Wilf. Proud was not impressed when he saw me using one, but at the time a pin vice was considered new fangled. I am sure if he was alive today he would be tying with a vice. In my early years I tied the teal series, mallard series and even early reservoir patterns on my pin vice. It was only as a result of a chance meeting with the late great Ken Smith, over thirty five years ago, that I was converted to using a Thompson table vice. The result was the tying of many thousands of flies the easy way. Buy a pin vice and give it a go and enjoy the challenge.
Finally I would like say a big thank you to the late Wilf. Proud whose patience and understanding in my youth has given me a lifetime of pleasure. I wish he was alive today. He had so much to offer.

Written by Dave Cammiss

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