Frederic Michael Halford, April 13, 1844 – March 5, 1914, arguably one of the most influential figures in fly fishing history. Credited with being the father of modern dry fly fishing practice and theory he cast a long shadow that still can be seen today.
Certainly Halford was not the first fly fisher to use a dry fly, but he was the one that is credited with codifying and popularizing the sport. Halford was born to money and he started fly fishing when he was 24 years of age when, through the generosity of a family friend he was able to fish the Wandle, a river in south-east England, and today runs through southwest London. It is only 9 miles long and ultimately runs into the Thames. It was during Halford's time on the Wandle that he first came across people fishing with a dry fly.
It was in 1877 that he became a member of the Houghton Fly Fishers, and in 1879 he met George Selwyn Marryat. This resulted in a friendship that ultimately changed the course of fly fishing. In 1880 Halford began fishing the Test and along with his friend Marryat he began to do the research for his first book, Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, which was published in 1886. This book laid the foundations of Halford's fame as a fly fisher.
Halford retired in 1889 at the age of forty-five, and he spent the rest of his life fly fishing and writing about the sport. In the year when he retired he published his second book, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice. He published four other books, Making a Fishery – 1895, Dry Fly Entomology – 1897, Modern Development of the Dry Fly – 1910 and The Dry Fly Man's Handbook – 1913. However, his most influential book was his book on the theory and practice of dry fly fishing. Any modern fly fisher would find that, although it was published 127 years ago, many of the techniques he espoused are still relevant today.
When Halford's name is mentioned most anglers that are even remotely familiar with angling history believe that he was responsible for the feud that developed between advocates of dry fly fishing and wet fly anglers. While it is certain that Halford was a strong advocate for the dry fly he was not opposed to wet fly fishing. In his second book, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice he spoke quite eloquently about the art of fishing the wet fly.
"In treating of the advantages of dry-fly over wet-fly fishing, I am most desirous of avoiding any expression which should tend to depreciate in any way the skill exhibited by the experienced and intelligent followers of the wet fly." Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, Pg. 37 This hardly seems like a man that wanted to abolish the practice of wet fly fishing.
Halford did establish a prescribed method of dry fly fishing that ultimately swept wet fly anglers off most of England's chalk streams. He believed that the angler first needed to see a trout feeding on the surface. This eliminated what is termed "fishing the water," and required that an actual feeding fish be spotted before the angler could employ his artificial. Then the angler needed to ascertain the species of insect that the fish is feeding on, select the proper imitation, and then make a presentation in a natural way.
In regards to Halford's alleged aversion to fish anything but a dry fly only when a rising trout was spotted did not seem to be the case in 1886 when he wrote,"Some dry-fly fishermen are such purist that they will not under any circumstances whatever make a single cast except over rising fish…..Although I respect their scruples, this is, in my humble opinion, riding the hobby to death." [ibid at Pg. 42-43]
It's also interesting that Halford defined a dry fly as a "floating fly." He used a very simple definition to define floating and sunken flies – the artificial fly that is on the surface is a floating or dry fly, and the one that is below the surface is a sunk or wet fly. He went further to note that a floating or dry fly, whether cocked or floating with its wings upright, or lying on its side, is an imitation of a winged insect that is on the surface of the water. Not matter how they floated, if they were on the surface they were floating or dry flies. [ibid at Pg. 36] Many traditional "wet flies" when they are first tied on the leader will float until they soak up water; so many early wet fly anglers were likely fishing a dry fly long before the practice became an accepted technique.
When Halford came on the scene the modern six strip bamboo rod was just beginning to replace the solid wood rods that had been the standard for nearly 300 years. He preferred a single-handed rod over the more traditional two-handed model. The rods he preferred were considerably longer than most of us use today, but he did not believe a trout fisher needed "anything longer than 11 feet and from this to 9 foot 6 inches." [ibid at Pg. 16] He said that "with a short rod of 9 feet 6 inches, one who knows how to use it can put a fly in the teeth of anything short of a positive hurricane." [ibid at Pg. 16]
In regards to reels Halford was certainly a traditionalist. It's interesting to that even at this stage in tackle development there were already anglers that preferred a silent reel over one with a pronounced noise when line was stripped off the spool. Halford wrote, "I prefer the old-fashioned noisy one, which gives forth to my ears agreeable music on the first rush of a three-pounder." [ibid at Pg. 18]
He preferred solid pure silk lines and he gave extensive directions on how to dress them to make them waterproof. [ibid at 22-25] I'm certainly thankful that we don't have to go through that process today. Concerning leaders he was quite modern in his thinking concerning the length of a leader or "a cast" as he referred to them. He believed that they should vary from "three and a half to as little as one and a half yards, the variation in length being necessary for variations in the direction and strength of the wind." [ibid at 26-27] That equals a leader of 10 foot 6 inches under normal circumstances, which would be a fairly standard length for a dry fly leader that we use today. The other leader would be considered short by most modern standards but might be acceptable when using a sinking line.
Halford was a truly scientific angler. He studied the insects that trout eat; he studied how fish feed, and the importance of observation. He completed the classification of the insects on the southern English trout streams complete with their life histories. Then he set about to tie imitations to match the insects that he found the trout to be eating. Those of us that pursue fish with a fly rod, especially trout, stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. One of those giants was FM Halford.
Material cited in this article was taken from Dry-Fly Fishing – Theory and Practice, Reprinted from the first edition of 1889, Field and Stream Club Edition. Barry Shurlock & Company Ltd, 1973