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?

"To the Immortal Memory:"
Old flies from Admiral Nelson's River Wandle

By Theo Pike and Roy Christie
Fly Photography by Hans Weilenmann

Theo Pike and Roy Christie recount the resurrection of the Carshalton Cocktail and the Carshalton Dun, two famous old English flies.

In the great sweep of human history, it's odd how the little details so often get forgotten.

Cast your mind back to the classroom, for instance, from whichever side of the Atlantic you're reading this. Chances are, you'll remember being taught about the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, and how Admiral Horatio Nelson died with the words "Kiss me, Hardy" on his lips. But how many of you dedicated fly-anglers really knew that the great Admiral was a fly-fisher too - in fact, one of the angling celebrities of his generation?

Until I read Salmonia by his fellow fisherman Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the life-saving Davy Miners' Lamp, I didn't either. I'd admired the Admiral's reputation before - but it's that little human detail, knowing that "Nelson was a good fly fisher, and as proof of his passion for it, continued the pursuit even with his left hand," which really makes me cherish his memory on the waters we share across the sweep of time.

It's said that you can never step into the same river twice, and as far as the little River Wandle in South London is concerned, that's certainly true. When Nelson gave his lady love, Emma Hamilton, the funds to buy Merton Place in September 1801, his new country estate was the dominant property in an ancient Surrey village, just across the Wandle from an Abbey whose history stretched back almost to the Norman Conquest. And that river was one of the most famous chalk stream trout fisheries in the world, where Frederic Halford would later learn to cast a dry fly, and where even on opening day in 1899 a local resident could take sixty fish from a hundred-yard stretch of its headwaters in Carshalton.

In fact, naval duty called so insistently that Nelson was only able to spend short periods at Merton, from October 1801 to April 1803, and from mid-August to mid-September 1805. But it's clear that he made the most of his time on the banks of "the best and clearest stream near London." Despite having lost his casting arm in battle several years before, he taught himself to fish with his other hand: one issue of London Illustrated from 1890 carries an account from a very old man remembering the Admiral fishing at Abbey Mills in Merton - and stopping to talk to little boys who might even have helped him tie on his flies and net his fish.

Two hundred years later, the world has changed, and Nelson's river has died and been reborn. During the 19th and 20th centuries, London crept out around it: the Victorians recorded at least ninety mills on eleven miles of water, and by the 1960's the heavily re-engineered stream had actually been designated as a sewer. Now, our ecological charity www.jetsetclub.co.uk is successfully cleaning it up again. The river is full of chub, dace, and barbel, and we're slowly reintroducing trout too, through our British rollout of Trout Unlimited's "Trout in the Classroom" project.

As part of our fundraising efforts, the Salmon and Trout Association generously agreed to host a charity dinner for us at St Paul's Cathedral on 13th October. And as a commemorative gift for our guests, we decided to recreate some of the flies that Nelson himself might have cast on the Wandle.

But as we dug deeper into our own libraries, and the encyclopaedic resources of London's Flyfishers' Club, it became clear that the brief wasn't quite so simple. Despite the proliferation of fly life mentioned by contemporary writers - a summer-long procession of "little blue and yellow duns," accompanied by stern warnings that "younger brothers of the angle must expect no sport unless they fish fine in the extreme" - it's now our theory that the era of modern tackle development and imitative fly tying only really took off after the Napoleonic Wars had ended, and the fly-fishing classes had a new generation's creativity and time on their hands to develop the minutiae of their sport.

Even Nelson, after all, only ever spent a few months at Merton - none of those during the recommended Wandle trout season. And it's noticeable how, before Alfred Ronalds' The Flyfisher's Entomology of 1836, and William Blacker's rapid succession of self-promotional fly-tying manuals from 1842 to 1855, the great majority of published fly patterns were distinctly - even heroically - non-entomological in nature.

On many rivers this wouldn't have mattered: when fishing in Shropshire, or on the Thames at Staines, Nelson and his buddies would have used natural flies literally impaled on hooks for dapping over the surface of the water. But when the mayfly weren't hatching, published artificial fly patterns tended towards the generic and the terrestrial: sometimes rough and ready, often palmered like modern Griffith's Gnats, and in any case substantially unchanged from Cotton-esqe listings of 200 years before.

On the other hand, it's true that where conditions dictated, specific local patterns did develop to match worthwhile local hatches. This exception to the rule would have made particular sense on the Wandle, where the giant, juicily-impalable Ephemera Danica never appeared at all, and where spooky trout in clear water would later lead straight to Halford's discovery of an early form of dry-fly false casting known as the "Carshalton Dodge."

Here in the crystalline headwaters of the river, we discovered, two imitative patterns had certainly evolved - to catch trout then, and to catch our imagination a century and a half later. As you'll deduce from Roy's words below, it's clear that our researches are far from over (for instance, could the early tying of the Carshalton Cocktail actually represent a missing link, as one of the first ever dry-ish flies, designed especially for delicate presentation Carshalton-style?)

So...two hundred years after Lord Nelson last cast a fly over the Wandle, two little patterns, re-tied in commemoration of a great fisherman, and a great battle. Two little details, forgotten, remembered, floating once again down the Admiral's favourite river.

Will they float down yours, too? ~ Theo Pike

Tying the flies

When I was asked to tie these flies as a tribute to Admiral Nelson and in aid of the restoration of the river, I accepted gladly, of course. I knew that there might be obstacles in working out the design of the flies and perhaps in obtaining the suitable materials.

John Morgan's discovery of a Carshalton Cocktail marked 1853, given to the Flyfishers' Club in 1940 by Maurice Riesco, and now reposing in the Flyfishers' archive, allowed us to accurately pinpoint the style of the patterns. The fly which John brought to light is in the style of a swept-back wet fly, designed for good entry. However, being bushily hackled with a high quality light dun cock hackle with a slim body and short tails, it doubles as a most effective dry and dapping fly.

We can, in fact, learn from the design a lot about how it may have been fished. On a horsehair line with horsehair or silkworm tippet the fly would have been presented upstream by preference, but, dependant on wind direction, could also be dapped or placed gently on the surface and allowed to float with the current. When it passed down by the angler, he could control its progress and retrieve it as a wet fly. The Wandle is not a wide river and the rods would not have had to exceed ten or twelve feet. With a good south or southwest wind upstream the flies could have been reliably placed to fish seen rising to natural insects. Walton had been practising his craft on the London rivers two hundred years previously, with tackle and flies not greatly dissimilar to these.

Did Nelson fish the dry fly? Well I cannot say for sure, though I am sure that he sometimes fished the fly dry.

The Carshalton Cocktail appears to represent the Large Dark Olive and is similar in effect to the Blue Dun in Scotcher's 1800 book The Fly Fisher's Legacy. There is again a close similarity to the Blue Dun in Bowlkers' Art of Angling back in 1746 or thereabouts. The three recipes listed portray the insect Baetis Rhodani in its seasonal variations from February through April, going from darker to lighter as the season progresses. In Hofland's British Angler's Manual of 1839, the Cocktail is described as "a dun fly...made with peculiar neatness in the London tackle-shops (which) will be found a good killer in other streams as well as the Wandle."

The Carshalton Dun is an excellent Black Gnat imitation, also good for midge and passable as an Iron Blue Dun. I would suggest that these flies had adapted over time from the standard patterns, evolving into these bushy little flies, suitable to the Wandle's crystal turbulences.

I decided to emulate the bushy style of the Carshalton Cocktail from the FlyFishers' Club. I chose a #14 hook for the Cocktail, as that was the same as the Flyfishers' sample and just right for a chalkstream LDO. For the Carshalton Dun, I chose a #16, as the small black fly has more density in the water and I like my black flies smaller too. Both hooks are Partridge Ritz dry E4A.

Sourcing the materials - Cookshill for the starling and Pearsall's silk for guaranteed quality and authenticity - I also found one lovely rooster neck suitable for the Cocktail from Christina at Chevron Hackle. This was in her classics collection and allowed me to tie a fly identical to the sample; thereafter I was able to experiment with dyeing my own hackle to match the original in texture and colour. For the Dun I managed to find a lovely dark grizzle hackle in my collection.

I mixed enough dubbing for the bodies of the Cocktails from yellow mohair, hare's ear fur and muskrat with the guard hairs removed. I blended the furs in a large coffee jar in warm water and washing-up liquid, shaking it vigorously for a good few minutes (phew) then dried it on newspaper. I still have enough left for another thousand.

Armed with materials suited to the period, I sat down to tie flies fit for the Admiral's rod. Silk, fur, feather and twist were duly laid upon iron over a period of some weeks to produce these replicas.

A pair of these flies was presented to each guest at our remembrance dinner in the crypt at St. Paul's Cathedral by the tomb of one of the world's most respected heroes. [The photo at the top of this page is his monument in St. Paul's Cathedral.]

I am honoured and flattered to have been given this task. I am delighted that my tribute was well received, and wish to thank all who offered their support in every way.

Particular thanks are due to Tony Bird and his staff at the Salmon and Trout Association, and to the Flyfishers' Club; also to Alan Suttie and everyone involved in the Wandle project for their ongoing trolley-extraction manoeuvres; and especially to Mrs. Anna Tribe, who joined us on the night to dine with us at St Paul's in honour of her great-great-great-grandfather Horatio.

I'd like to think that for the next centennial, some nimble-fingered tyer might repeat my efforts. At the same time, I'd like to think that by then the Wandle will be so clean that our descendants will have to find a better use for the proceeds. To keep up with our ongoing battle for the river, see www.jetsetclub.co.uk. ~ Roy Christie


Recipes for the Carshalton Cocktail:

TC Hofland rev E Jesse: The British Angler's Manual: p214: 1848 (apparently this edition was enlarged from the first edition of 1839, which had only 410 pages and 14 plates): "Made with a peculiar neatness in the London tackle-shops..."

    Body Light blue fur

    Legs Dark dun hackle

    Wings The inside feather of a teal's wing

    Tail Two fibres of a white cock's hackle

    Hook No.9, or No.10

    - plus illustration on plate opposite p211

Mounting from FF'ers Club: captioned Ephemera 3rd Edition 1853:

    Body Blue dun fur mixed with a little light fur of hares ear or yellow mohair

    Wing Light fibres hen starling

    Hackle Small light dun hackle

    Tail 2 fibres grizzle hackle

    Hook 11, 12

From sheet plus recipe from Tony Bird: captioned "Old wallet flies, bustards and bumbles:" undated - illustration plus recipe typed, attached - probably from Hofland.

    Body Light blue fur

    Legs Dark dun hackle

    Wings The inside of a teal's wing

    Tail Two fibres of a white cock's hackle

plus ref to Mitcham Fancy and Wandle Cocktail in the Fishing Gazette: Alfred Jardine: 1894 writing about 1870's.

Recipes for the Carshalton Dun

TC Hofland rev E Jesse: The British Angler's Manual: p214: 1848 (not entitled the Carshalton Dun, but captioned as "For Carshalton and the Test"...)

    Body Black silk, ribbed with a silver twist

    Legs A dark grizzle hackle

    Wings The dark feather of the starling's wing, made spare and short

    Hook No.10

Again from Tony Bird: as above, probably from Hofland:

    Body Black silk, ribbed with silver twist

    Legs Dark grizzle hackle

    Wings The dark feather of the starling's wing, spare and short

    Hook No.10

References to natural flies on the Wandle

1828: Humphry Davy: Salmonia: the earliest reference we've found so far:

"...of the blue dun, there is a succession of different tints, or species, or varieties, which appear in the middle of the day all the summer and autumn long. These are the principal flies on the Wandle - the best and clearest stream near London.

In early spring these flies have dark olive bodies; in the end of April and the beginning of May they are found yellow; and in the summer they become cinnamon coloured; and again, as winter approaches, gain a darker hue. I do not, however, mean to say that they are the same flies, but more probably successive generations of Ephemerae of the same species."

1848: TC Hofland rev E Jesse: The British Angler's Manual: p98

"My young brothers of the angle must not expect any sport in the Wandle, unless they fish fine in the extreme:- a single hair should be used for the foot link, or at least a gut as fine as a hair, and small blue and yellow-bodied duns...

Hofland's fancy, No.1, the yellow dun, No.7, and the small soldier palmer, may be used with success; also a dun-fly, sold at the tackle-shops under the name of the Carshalton cocktail, No.6"

About Theo and Roy:

Theo Pike is a freelance writer and Senior Vice President of the newly founded Wandle Piscators. When he's not fishing small streams around Europe and, occasionally, America, he's cleaning up South London's River Wandle, the chalkstream where Frederic Halford first cast a dry fly. He can be contacted via his email.

Roy Christie is well known for his inventive outlook on fly tying and his progressive stance on conservation and environmental restoration, also a founder member of the Wandle Wands. Email: reversedparachutes@yahoo.co.uk

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