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The pond between us

By Peter Lapsley

Peter Lapsley discusses why British and American fly fishing have divulged so differently - from tackle, to tactics, to access - and the flies, listing Foam Hopper, Chernoybl Ant, Elk Hair Caddis Spun Dun and Etha-wing Trico.


  • Spun Dun

    Spun Dun

    Hook: Size 10-20.
    Silk: To match body.
    Tail: 8-12 calf tail fibres, dyed to match natural.
    Body: Antron to match natural.
    Wing: Spun pale deer hair, trimmed closely beneath shank.

    The Spun Dun is one of many American patterns which work well on British waters.

  • Etha-wing Trico

    Etha-wing Trico

    Hook: Size 20-24. Silk: Black.
    Body: Tying silk.
    Wing: White Etha-wing.
    ‘Hackle’: A tuft of white cul de canard (CdC).

    Etha-Wing Trico are tied on hooks in the range #20-24 to match hatches seen throughout the mornings on many American rivers from July to October.

  • Elk Hair Caddis

    Elk Hair Caddis

    Hook: Wide gape, size 10-20.
    Silk: To match body
    Rib: Fine copper wire.
    Body: Antron to match natural.
    Hackle: Natural or dyed grizzle, palmered.
    Wing: Elk hair.

    The Elk Hair Caddis is one of many American patterns which work well on British waters.

  • Chernobyl Ant

    Chernobyl Ant

    Hook: Size 8-10 long-shank.
    Silk: Yellow.
    Underbody: Cream closed-cell foam.
    Legs: Four 9cm lengths of 1mm white rubber.
    Overbody: Black closed-cell foam to match the underbody.
    Sight posts (optional): White and orange closed-cell foam.

    The Chernobyl Ant resembles nothing so much as a flip-flop with gangling rubber legs.

  • Foam Hopper

    Foam Hopper

    Hook: Size 8-10 long-shank.
    Silk: Brown.
    Tail: Red dyed deer hair. 
    Body: Cream closed-cell foam.
    Ribbing: Short-barbed red game hackle.
    Wing: Varnished, mottled turkey quill strip.
    Head: Spun deer hair clipped.
    Collar: Tips of deer hair.
    Legs: Three or four pheasant tail fibres, knotted and varnished.

    The Foam Hopper is used to mimic the crickets which abound in streamside grassland across much of the US.

Although we may trace its British history back at least to the 15th Century, fly fishing as we know it today is actually quite a young sport. Until the second half of the 19th Century, it was done with long, heavy rods and horsehair lines, leaving the fly fisher very much at the mercy of the wind. And with flies whipped to leaders and therefore difficult to change, the use of dry, damp or wet flies was largely a matter of practicality rather than of personal choice.

The middle of the 19th Century saw spectacular changes. The advent of dressed silk lines made accurate casting easier, even into or across the wind. The development of fine-wire, eyed trout hooks in the late 1870s made it possible to change flies quickly and easily. Every bit as important as these, though, and going hand-in-hand with them, was the development of the built-cane rod – and that we owe to an American.

Fly fishing in the United States had become established on the east coast by the end of the 17th Century. Thereafter American anglers followed in the wake of exploration of the continent, finding their ways to countless waters in its farthest-flung corners – way out in California, Oregon and Washington State. By 1860, even Montana and the remote and rugged Yellowstone plateau were surrendering their cutthroat trout to explorers, settlers and sportsmen.

Until the mid-1800s, the rods, reels, fly lines and hooks used by American anglers mimicked those being made and used in Britain. It was not until Hiram Leonard began rod-building in 1869 that this began to change.

Light and accurate
Leonard’s first rods were made from ash and lancewood, but it was not long before he began building four-strip cane rods and then moved on to making six-strip rods of the sort still used by split-cane aficionados today. Working to carefully calculated mathematical formulae, and using Tonkin cane while others were still using inferior cane from Calcutta, he produced the lightest and most accurate rods the world had ever seen. Since then, British and American fly fishing have developed in parallel.

Although there are many British fly fishers who have fished more widely and more often in the United States, I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to fish enough of that country’s waters to have become aware of the way in which British and American fly fishing have diverged over the past 100 years or so, and to have become intrigued by that divergence. The differences have been evident wherever I have been – in Vermont and Maine in the east, and in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and northern California in the west – and the reasons for them seem to range from the purely practical to the utterly inexplicable.

Perhaps the most striking difference between fly fishing in Britain and in the US stems from our very different cultures.

In Britain, and Scotland aside, access to fishing is managed through riparian ownership, access being restricted to those the owner is prepared to allow to fish provided they both pay their dues and, in most cases, have a valid rod licence.

In the United States, there is a well established tradition that what the good Lord put onto the land and into the water He put there for everyone’s benefit. Generally, therefore, access is unrestricted and you can fish almost any water in a particular state for the relatively modest price of a state rod-licence. As examples, in California in 2008, a resident’s rod licence cost US$40.20 for the year; in Idaho, $25.75; and in Montana, where the resident must first buy an $8 conservation licence, $18, a total of $26.

In its simplest form, it is that simple. You buy a licence and go fishing – anywhere on the often excellent, publicly accessible water the state has to offer. But it is not always quite that simple, and it has spawned a number of differences between British and American fly fishing.

The first is the difference in the relative amounts of river and stillwater fishing done by British anglers and their American counterparts, and the ways in which we fish our respective rivers and stillwaters.

In the more populous parts of Britain, the demand for river fly fishing greatly exceeds its availability. The shortfall is met largely by stillwaters, especially small stillwaters and public water supply reservoirs. There are also long traditions of loch and lough fishing in Scotland and Ireland. As a result, British stillwater fly fishers have become remarkably sophisticated in their approach to their sport. In contrast, there is so much good river fly fishing available in the US that stillwaters are often seen as being almost incidental and, because stillwater fly fishing is a more occasional pursuit, there has been an understandable tendency it to be rather more traditional and less imaginative than on this side of the Pond.

The exceptions stem from the sheer size of many American stillwaters and rivers, and the relatively liberal regulation of them. As a result, there is far more float-tubing in the US than there is here, a technique at which many American anglers have become very adept. And much of the fishing on larger rivers is done from drift boats, a concept almost unknown in the UK.

Going hand-in-hand with the accessibility of public fishing in the US has been the development of an almost messianic commitment to catch-and-release. The $25.75 charged for an annual resident’s licence in Idaho in 2008 doesn’t buy many stocked trout, so catch-and-release is essential if the quality of the sport is to be maintained. It is 70 years since the great American angler, Lee Wulff, wrote that, ‘Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.’ Since then, as the popularity of game angling has grown, anglers have been encouraged to “limit their catch, rather than catch their limit”, and an abhorrence of killing fish has become etched ever more deeply into many American anglers’ psyches. In contrast, in the UK, we have tended to remain more pragmatic, seeing catch-and-release as a useful fisheries management tool where wild trout stocks need to be conserved, but having few qualms about killing occasional fish for the table.

Paralleling all this has been the growth of Trout Unlimited (TU), the charity committed to sustaining, protecting and restoring trout habitats across the United States, and the model for our own Wild Trout Trust (WTT). Even given the enormous differences between numbers of anglers in Britain and America, and the relative youth of the WTT, which has been going for 10 years as against TU’s 50, TUs eye-watering turnover of around US$23 million a year does show a commitment to wild trout habitat management that has yet to be replicated over here.

All that is understandable. Less so are the differences between the ways in which we and our American cousins fish a stretch of water. In Britain, we tend to see river fly fishing as a mobile pursuit, wandering upstream, fishing to seen fish or likely lies as we go, and continually moving on. As a generalisation, American fly fishers approach their sport entirely differently.

Human nature being what it is, they have a tendency to go no further from their cars than they must. As a consequence, ‘hot spots’ near car parks tend to become crowded, especially at peak times in the season. But it is remarkable how short a distance one has to walk to find oneself more or less alone on the river.

Once American anglers have waded into the water, they appear to become rooted to the spot, fishing for hours on end without moving. That might be make sense if it occurred only in crowded pools where people were afraid of losing their place in the picket line. But it doesn’t. It seems to apply as much to anglers fishing alone as to those fishing shoulder-to-shoulder with others.

The flip-side of this is the remarkable friendliness and helpfulness of almost every American fly fisher I have met. Generous with local knowledge and advice, and always willing to press a couple of copies of ‘the killing pattern’ on the visitor, I have always felt welcome when fishing in the US.

Just as incomprehensible as his immobility, though, is the American angler’s preoccupation with fishing ‘across-and-down’.

Exploring Mount Shasta in Northern California with my friend, Rod Bessolo, a couple of years ago, we were privileged to have Joe Kimsey as our guide on Antelope Creek. Joe, is the unquestioned doyen of Shasta guides, having been fishing Mount Shasta’s rivers and their tributaries for over 60 years.

Antelope Creek, which is publicly accessible but off the beaten track, is largely a meadowland stream. Its crystalline waters run between low, steep, grassy banks through a succession of relatively weed-free pools and riffles. Its trout – mostly browns – tend to tuck themselves in under the banks or to lie beneath or in front of obstacles. It is perfect dry fly water.

To my surprise, Joe was adamant that the only way to fish the water was by casting ‘across-and-down’. I did not enter into a debate with him about approaching and casting to fish from behind, drag-free drift or the greater chances of hooking an upstream fish. I was very much a guest. I did as I was told and caught a few fish – mostly smallish because fishing across and down is anything but selective.

I think enough time has passed now for me to admit, without giving either Joe or Rod a heart attack, that my return to the car ‘to fetch something I had forgotten’ was contrived. It took me ten minutes to get back to the car and a further hour-and-a-bit to re-join them. During that time, by casting upstream to seen, feeding fish, I added four or five very respectable browns to my tally before eventually, perforce, reverting to Joe’s ‘across-and-down’ regime.

With no supporting evidence, I can only suppose that the American preoccupation with this style of fishing may have more to do with history than with logic. Perhaps it mimicked the then standard practice imported from the UK in the 19th Century and remained untainted thereafter, either by the North of England’s upstream wet fly tradition or by the dry fly revolution in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, which, chiefly concerned the chalkstreams. And it may be that it has endured simply because it is seen as ‘the easy option’.

Fishing upstream is essential for ‘high-stick nymphing’ but otherwise US anglers stick rigidly to across-and-down presentations.

It may be a little simpler to fish a nymph across-and-down, rather than have to maintain contact with it after casting upstream, and the technique is, of course, essential for ‘high-stick nymphing’ (of which more anon). But to use it for fishing a dry fly seems to me to defy reason, and I find myself at a loss to explain why so many American fly fishers stick with it.

I find it difficult, too, to understand the casting style so commonly seen in the United States, the rod being extended backwards until it is almost parallel with the ground. That it works for master caster, Lefty Kreh, is evidenced by the distance and accuracy he achieves so elegantly and with so little apparent effort. But, a fly rod is as much a spring as a lever. To load it as a spring, the up-cast must be halted close to the vertical with the fly line extending as nearly as possible at a right angle to it. The further back the rod is taken, the line extending in an increasingly straight line from it, the more does it become less of a ‘spring’ and more of a ‘lever’ with which the line must be ‘thrown’. Throwing a fly line, even with the assistance of a rod, is hard and unproductive work, reducing the distance attainable and generally causing the leader to land in an untidy heap.

It may be, of course, that preponderance of river fishing, drift-boat fishing and float-tubing, and a predilection for fishing across-and-down, none of which require particularly long casting, enables American fly fishers to make do with a casting technique of this sort. But, to an English eye, it does seem rather odd.

Then, there are the differences in the types of flies we use, some American patterns bringing to mind the probably apocryphal story of Izaak Walton writing to Charles Cotton, saying, “Pray, Master Cotton, send me one of your flies that I may hang it in my window and laugh at it.”

Extreme sizes
The extremes of size in American trout flies are born of the need to represent the naturals upon which trout feed. At one end of the scale are the tiny, white-winged, dark-bodied Tricorythodes (Tricos), the spinners of which can trigger enthusiastic feeding throughout the mornings on many American rivers from July to October.

To match them, artificials have to be tied on hooks in the range #18-24. At the other, are the Hoppers, fitting naturally on #8-10 long-shank hooks and designed to suggest the crickets which abound in streamside grassland. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is the Chernobyl Ant (actually intended as a hopper imitation), which closely resembles nothing so much as a foam-soled flip-flop with gangling rubber legs. Don’t mock it! Because of its effectiveness and durability, it is the fly of choice for many of those taking part in the annual guides’ one-fly competition on the South Fork of the Snake River in – not ‘one pattern’ but just one fly; lose it and your fishing is over for the day.

Between these extremes, of course, are countless less bizarre dressings, many of the emerger, dun and spinner patterns working well on British waters.

From all this it must be evident that it would be wrong to suppose that American fly fishing owes much to imported traditions and practices. As soon as the sport began to become popular, American anglers set about adapting their tackle and techniques to the conditions they found. I find it fascinating that what we call ‘Polish nymph fishing’ – regarded as a relatively recent development – has been practised as ‘short-line, high stick nymphing’ on the tumbling pocket waters of the Upper McCloud and Upper Sacramento rivers since the late 19th or very early 20th Century. Even more intriguing is the the story of Laktcharar Tauhindauli - universally known as Grant Towendolly, the the last chief of the Trinity River Wintu Indian tribe.

Towendolly was a remarkable man. In addition to doing much to bridge the cultural divide between Indians and white people, he was a highly skilled and innovative fly fisher and fly dresser. In the 19-teens and 20’s, while GEM Skues was refining his theories on nymph fishing, Towendolly was supplementing his income by tying coffee cans full of his ‘bomber’ nymphs and wholesaling them to tackle shops. History does not say whether Towendolly had read Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, Skues’s first exposé on nymph fishing published in 1910, but it seems extremely unlikely that he had.

Our forefathers’ lack of knowledge of developments in American angling must have had at least as much to do with the relatively poor communications of the day as with any lack of curiosity. How could early anglers in the Rockies have told them what was going on there, and why should they have bothered? Today, though, the differences between American and British tackle and techniques are easier to identify. We should be glad of that and feed off each other’s knowledge.

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