On the Fly

Non-fiction author Charles Rangeley-Wilson inspects the artistry and skill surrounding the fisherman’s flyFlies togetherIt is said that Tenkara, a Japanese form of fly-fishing in which the angler dances up the stream, caressing the water with his line and lure, was developed by Samurai warriors: that swordsmanship and art came together in pursuit of the Cherry salmon. There were, no doubt, easier ways to catch these pretty fish. But, the world over, something in the gratuitous beauty of fish that belong in the salmonid family seems to demand correspondingly ornate methods of capturing them. In British waters we have Atlantic salmon not Cherry, but these bright fish draw a similar response from the men who chase them. Nets are used by those earning a living. But when it comes to rod and line angling what matters is the art of it and the art is built around the fly.

The first was used 2000 years ago in Macedonia and was literally a fly, or a feathery representation of one: red wool and two feathers from under a cock’s wattles. The salmon flies here must look, if anything, more like small fish than insects but the line of evolution is clear, from the Macedonian bee to these baroque creations. They are late Victorian, and as filigreed therefore as salmon flies ever were before or ever have been since. Even their names have a sort of Highland romanticism: The Silver Spectre, Taite’s Fancy. For the fly called Jock Scott (middle right) George Kelson, author of the The Salmon Fly, 1895, reserved special praise: it was ‘the utmost triumph of harmony and proportion’. Of the Akroyd (bottom left) Kelson advised that Spey anglers should trial it with Mallard wing ‘for ordinary occasions’, that men of the Usk should use Black Turkey, whilst on the Earn, he noted, Mandarin Drake had been known to secure more than one tight line.

Did it make any difference to the salmon of the Spey, Usk or Earn even on ‘ordinary occasions’? Who knows? A taking salmon will, maddeningly, sometimes snap at anything, and sometimes only at one thing. Such intricate detail and artistic qualities, one suspects, were more about catching men than fish.

Words Charles Rangeley-Wilson

Photography Sam Harris