Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

Part Two hundred-eleven

The Gadget

By James Clarke, UK


Many years ago I fished the Lower Bann with my father. I was just into my teens and feeling my way into a life of fishing, all things fishy were of interest and I soaked up, sponge like, everything that came my way. My Dad was the eldest of three brothers running Belfast's oldest gunmakers and fishing tackle manufacturers, so my sponge was kept busy. It was not known at that tender age that my whole life would be spent 'soaking up' and that in these two wonderful pursuits one can never know it all and that soaking up never stops.

On the evening in question the Lower Bann was in perfect condition for trout and the dry fly. This large river, which drains Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Great Britain, is, apart from being a fine salmon river, justly famous for its trout. Let, in those days, by the half mile, this deceivingly placid stretch of water had been fished by the discerning for so many years that a range of dry flies had evolved, just for the Bann. They were much the same as the standard patterns then in common use, but bigger. Tied quite heavily on 12, 10, or even 8 hooks these were imaginatively called names like Bann Golden Olive, Bann Medium Olive, Bann Red Spinner, Bann Claret and Bann Black Spinner. I don't need to go on, you have the idea. These were, as far as I know, only sold in Belfast for those lucky enough to have "a bit of the Bann." I have it on good authority however, that quite a few patterns found their way to the large lakes in the centre and west of Ireland, where they did sterling service as mayflies when the ubiquitous Green Drake had temporarily lost its potency.

We had been allowed to fish for an evening by a customer of Dad's, who had given rudimentary directions and said "Go and fish." Upon arrival we realized, or Dad did, yours truly simply trailing along teenager fashion, that this was fishing which demanded breast high waders. Now in those days, breast highs were exotic animals, sold to people with whom one seldom had the temerity to enquire where they were fishing or why they need the things. They bought them and disappeared into the country from whence they had arrived leaving behind the aroma of money and exciting fishing. To use or to need breast highs ever entered the imagination of normal people, who simply fished from the bank. You see, in those days if the piece of water in front of you was not fishable from the bank, you just went somewhere else. There was plenty of room, we hardly ever saw another fisherman. Oh, whose happy days of yore!

We tried to cover some water from the bank but to no avail, the river was just too wide. We were at a disadvantage from the start, and found ourselves casting envious eyes at a fisherman on the next beat upstream, fishing comfortably from a tethered boat, and what is more, catching fish.

We allowed ourselves to drift towards him, drawn by pure envy just below the surface of professional interest and normal angler's curiosity. As we approached, the angler in the boat dropped downstream from the crossrope to which he was attached, and not surprisingly, my dad knew him. He was a customer well enough known to be on first name terms. The resulting conversation was carried out over fifty yards of water, resulting in the longed for, by me at least, invitation, "Come in the boat and try your luck." We needed no second bidding.

The boat's occupant turned out to be one Bill Ayrton, a customer and friend of long standing. He was, my dad explained to me, an inventor of things weird and wonderful, some of which worked. Some years before he had come up with something revolutionary to do with golf clubs, had sold the idea to a manufacturer and was living quite happily on the royalties. He was an enthusiastic angler, traveling the length and breadth of Ireland, fishing for trout, sea trout and salmon wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. Given financial security, wouldn't we all!

Coming back to the day in question, the Bann fish did not want to co-operate. We caught a few, but the large fish for which the river was famous, eluded us. Bill had three fish, all over three pounds, so of course had to be pumped for the secret. It transpired that he was this very evening, giving the final test to his latest gadget, a hook for live flies.

In these enlightened days most of us will throw up our hands in horror at the thought of impaling a live fly on a hook, but the Daddy had been fished like this since time immemorial, and so had the Mayfly. These were impaled or tied onto the shank with light elastic or even grass. Bill had his fish this day on Daddies using this hitherto secret gadget. It was a spring affair like a tiny mole trap, soldered on the shank of the hook. There were two "wings" at the sides which one pulled down holding the hook as one did so. This opened the gape of the holding prongs wherein one placed the hapless insect. Releasing the wings now had the effect of holding the Daddy or Mayfly firmly and in place.

This was one of the first outings of the "Ayrbro" hook, which was to become commercially available and to sell in reasonable numbers for many years. We, at least, sold many hundreds.

Ayrbro hook

Like so many ingenious items of fishing tackle it went the way of most handmade objects, fading away as a new generation of anglers changed the face of the tackle catalogues. Make in quantities few than the millions now essential for commercial success, such individual oddities now never see the light of day.

I am old enough to remember the catalogues, Hardy's in particular, in whose pages one could find such exotica as "Colonel Pickering's Patent Whatsimicallit" for drying one's dry flies after every ten casts, or Mr. Frederick Smythe-Willoughby's patent cast box. A Major Wardel had a lapel-mounted magnifying glass named after him. Mr. Hutton's Wye minnows were, apparently, unsurpassed, as were the range of sea trout flies perfected by a Dr. Evelyn. Such esoteric items of temptation were, of course, in addition to the vast range of rods and reels made by Hardy's, many of which were the result of making a "special" for a well-known or well-connected customer and subsequently introducing it into their catalogue. The modern angler would reel before such treats as the "Viccount Grey," a 10ft 6in split cane rod made for the famous statesman of that name. Frederick Halford, of immortal fame among fishermen, had the "Halford Knockabout" named after him as did Keith Rollo, A.H.E. Wood, Jock Scott, Alexander Wanless et al. The list is almost endless. You could be excused forming a desire to possess a rod name the "R.C.B" knowing it had been designed to meet the requirement of Mr. R.C. Bridgett, author of Loch Fishing Theory and Practice.

The climate of the time, however, is nowhere so vehemently expressed as by the "H. Cholmondley-Pennel Trout Fly Rod." I quote - "Mr. Cholmondley-Pennel, to whose order the original rod was made say: The split cane rod with steel centre makes a beautiful trouting rod. The length of mine, mady by Messrs Hardy Bros. is 10ft 6 in. The stiffness and swishiness (honestly!) leaves, to my mind, absolutely nothing to be desire."

Blessed with such a recommendation from an August personage, what could Hardy's do but straightaway put it into production. It remained in their catalogue for many years.

The days are long gone when a manufacturer, major or otherwise, could include in his range of products the wild ramblings of which most fishermen are capable, and even sell a few. Their conception and production are defeated by the need to make a profit, something which didn't seem to matter too much in the old days.

P.S. I am hopelessly devoted to my Hank Robert's Waltons Thumb, a beautifully made and designed little gadget. I sold many of these in the brief time they were available, and only wish I had had the foresight to put a few aside for the future. Nothing really changes.

P.P.S. The Walton's thumb was the first of the modern rash of multi-tools. Made in the orient to Hank Roberts' design (I think) it is in the finest stainless steel and has all of the gadgets a boy could want, scissors, blade, hook sharpener, leader cutter, needle spike. They came to the UK 15 or 29 years ago as a remnant of an order which went wrong, if I remember Miller fly reels were part of it. I bought 150 and sold them very quickly indeed, wish I had more. ~ Jim Clarke

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