Neil Travis - Oct 07, 2013

Old angling books are fun to read, especially old angling books about fly fishing. I find it quite interesting that much of what we think is new and revolutionary is usually just a rehash of something that was discovered long ago. Recently I have been perusing a small booklet published in 1860 entitled, "The Concise Practical Treatise on Artificial Fly Fishing for Trout," by Grey Drake. The entire booklet is 24 pages long, but it contains many tidbits of angling knowledge that are still as relevant today as they were when they were printed.

The author, Grey Drake, tells us that he is an artificial fly-fisher of fifty years' experience. Concerning artificial flies he wrote: "Volumes have been written on this subject, teaching the manner of making hundreds of different artificial flies, the materials and paraphernalia requisite for the finished fly-maker, the particular flies proper for various rivers, and for each month of the fishing season, &c., &c."

Now it's important to remember that this was published 153 years ago. Already there were volumes written on the subject of fly tying. Grey Drake was a man of definite opinions and concerning all the various fly patterns that were available he had this to say:

"All this, I consider, is perfectly useless, and I am decidedly of opinion that when trout are disposed to take the fly, it matters not what fly is used, as to shape or colour, provided it be of proper size. When trout are not disposed to take the fly, you may try all the flies in your book, without success. I have, by way of experiment, fished during an entire season with the coachman and governor only, and have been uniformly successful with those two flies, even during the May fly season, when the water has been covered with May flies, and the fish take them greedily."

"Experience has taught me the fallacy of the common notion, that trout are finished entomologists, and will reject all flies not actually on the water, and even all flies in imitation of those actually on the water, unless the shape and size be exact, and the colour correct to a shade! The fact is, when in the humour to take the fly, trout will take freely all sorts of insects that come in their way, from the May bug and grasshopper to the black gnat, and when feeding on insects they are not nice as to the kind, shape or colour of the insect presented to them. At the commencement of my piscatory career I was as fastidious as I imagined the fish to be, and I so continued until experience convinced me of my error."



"I prefer the spring cog-check wheel, which, when the line is lengthened or shortened, makes a noise like that caused by winding up a clock. By this reel the line may be lengthened or shortened with sufficient rapidity, and with precisely, and no more than the proper resistance, the checks preventing the line running out too fast. This reel is, I think, far preferable to the multiplying reel, which is very liable to get out of order."

Like Gray Drake I prefer a reel that makes a noise when a good fish is attached to the end of my line.


Gray Drake lived in a time when fly lines were constructed of either horsehair or silk. I find it interesting that he preferred a horsehair line, since when the various strands of horsehair began to break they would stick out and cause the line to hang up in the guides. I also find it interesting that he used some really long fly lines. This is what he wrote:

"I prefer a horsehair line. In length it should be proportioned to the size of the river you fish. For rivers seventy or eighty yards are not too much; for narrow rivers thirty or forty yards are sufficient. It should gradually taper towards the end to which the gut or tail line is attached, so that from four to five yards should be little thicker than the gut itself. The gut, or tail line, should be at least three yards long; thick and strong for rainy and windy weather and discoloured water. It cannot be too fine for bright weather and clear water, with little wind."

Now a line of seventy or eighty yards is 210 to 240 feet long! The shorter, thirty or forty yards long, are closer to the length of a modern fly line. [90 to 120 feet] The leader [gut or tail line] is close to the modern leader length of 9 feet. I find it hard to image a reel big enough to hold 240 feet of horsehair fly line.

Gray Drake obviously was an accomplished fly fisher. His instructions for presenting a dry fly to a rising trout are as relevant today as they were 153 years ago. Consider his advice:

"When you observe a trout rise at a fly, throw your fly about a foot above where you judge his head to lie, and a little to the left or right of him. If he does not rise at your first cast, throw again three or four times. He will not take your fly unless it be presented to him temptingly, and near to him. He will not quit his post for your fly if it be out of his feeding circuit ; and a few casts may bring it into that desirable locality. Trout always lie with their heads looking up the stream, watching for what it may bring them ; and when they are taking the fly readily, they swim within a few inches of the surface of the water ; but they will not go out of their feeding circuit to take any fly.

The very instant you perceive a trout has taken your fly, strike him at the same instant by slightly elevating the wrist. This should be done with the utmost rapidity, or the fish will manage to reject the treacherous imitation that has deceived him, and you will not rise him again for hours afterwards. In fact, I have often seen a good-sized trout that had escaped after having been hooked, not only afterwards invariably refuse the artificial fly, but quit his lair and take to his shelter the moment he perceived the tail line fall on the water.

When you have hooked a fish, you must necessarily act as the nature of the place will allow. If embarrassed with bushes, &c., get him out as quickly as possible. You may chance to lose him in the endeavour, but if you have not space for playing him, what is to be done? If you are in a situation to be able to play him, do so, keeping him well in hand with your bent rod. Never check a trout strongly in his first run, if avoidable. If he should be approaching anything that would endanger your line, strive to guide him gradually from it, by gently inclining your rod in the direction you wish him to take, always keeping him, as I before observed, well in hand with your bent rod. Never pull directly against him; for, if you do, you will probably cause him to plunge and leap in such a manner as to endanger your tackle, or tear the hook from its hold in his mouth. Trout, like many reasoning animals, may be easily guided, but never compelled, if of good size and strength, until, by playing him, he has been made too weary and exhausted for further contention. A small fish may of course be landed at once, but a fish of good size and strength should be played, if possible, until he becomes so exhausted by his struggles as to offer a favourable opportunity for introducing him into the landing net. If you have space for playing the fish, and are unencumbered by bushes, &c., perseverance, patience, address, and sang froid, will generally enable you to secure the largest trout."

Gray Drake provided much information in his little book that, if properly edited and reprinted today would be a good primer for beginning fly fishers. Consider the following instructions:

"Frequently examine your fly to ascertain if it be in good order. I have often hooked a good trout, which soon got away, and, upon examination of my fly, I found the barb of the hook gone.

Take care that you do not, by a too sudden jerk, when bringing the fly forward for a fresh cast, snap it oft'. This often happens to the tyro, and sometimes to old hands. A slight, sharp, snapping noise of the line, in bringing it forward for a cast, is a sure symptom of the loss of the fly."

"Excellence in throwing the fly consists in causing it to fall lightly, and over any spot you may desire. This can only be accomplished by practice, for with all the knowledge theory can instill, it requires practice before you can throw the fly either to the exact spot you intend, or so that the sharpest eye cannot detect where it fell when there is a moderate ripple curling the surface of the water.

I have been diffuse in my directions for throwing the fly because it is the chief mystery in the art of fly-fishing, and difficult to be acquired in perfection. I strongly recommend the tyro to take a few lessons in throwing the fly from some experienced and skillful " Brother of the Angle." A few such lessons will be found to be worth volumes of theory."

I enjoy perusing old fly fishing books and I am constantly amazed how fresh and relevant their observations and advice are even after the passage of time. As the winter season approaches reading some of the old fly fishing books is not a bad way to spend a cold winter night.

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