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The greatest showmen of all

Looking back on the fun, flies, friendships and funny stories of the great fly fishing show era

How the years fly by! Some of you will be old enough to have enjoyed Chatsworth Angling Fair, the last of which took place 13 years ago, in 2006. Through the 1980s and 1990s shows and fairs that included much fly-fishing and fly-tying thrived. I can recall ‘doing’ shows at Broadlands and Woburn Abbey, Lowther and several in Scotland and Ireland in that period as well at the great Fisherman’s Row at the CLA Game Fair, now a sad, small, politically correct ‘Fishing Island’. At all of these it was great fun and a privilege sitting tying with some of the World’s greats - such as Roman Moser, Lefty Kreh, Dave Whitlock, Darrel Martin and Hans van Klinken – as well as the best of British and Irish, including Ollie Edwards, John Goddard, Taff Price, Davy Wotton and Ted Malone.

In those days, the great manufacturers and retailers had stands where visitors could buy everything from a top rod to the skin of a Patagonian tree-shrew.
You don’t believe me? I was walking across the Chatsworth show ground on Friday evening when Birmingham dealer in fly-tying materials Ellis Slater beckoned me to the small stand he was arranging. “Here, Malcum,” he said in his strong Brummie accent. “Have one of these.” And he passed me what looked like a huge mole skin. “It’s a Patagonian tree-shrew!”

One of the greatest influences at most of these shows was Alan Bramley (1936-2002). He had saved the last handmade hook-making company A & E Partridge by purchasing it in 1972, then after reorganising his other business interests, running the company under the name Partridge of Redditch. It was he who had a big stand at shows like Chatsworth and the CLA Game Fair and brought together fly tyers from around the world.
One year the Game Fair was held at Stratfield Saye, home to the Duke of Wellington. I have two fond memories of that weekend.
Alan had a sheep farm in the Lake District and he brought to that show a ram and a small pen. The ram was housed outside the stand, with a big sign saying: ‘TUP’S FUR; PICK YOUR OWN!’ On the Saturday morning, Her Majesty the Queen visited and we all stood as she walked slowly along the line of stands. Suddenly, as she neared our stand, Alan yelled, “Oh! No!” and, rushing outside, yanked down the sign. “How embarrassing had Her Majesty read that!”, he said later.

Terry Ruane was one of the great members of the Partridge family, for he was a superb tyer and a very funny man. We were tying side-by-side and it came time for us to move and let somebody else take our places. So we stood at the back of the stand. Suddenly, a dapper gentleman approached and asked Terry where he could buy some treble hooks for salmon fishing. The dapper gent then went to pay for them before returning to us.
“Will you look after these for me?”
“Look after them…?”
“Yes, you see, I’m in an awful rush, for I am having lunch with the Queen.”
“Lunch with the Queen?”
“Yes, I’m the Duke of Wellington.”

Terry took the boxes of hooks, the Duke rushed off across the grass, and Terry regaled the entire stand on what had happened. Whereupon, Alan seized a great wodge of cash from the till, and rushed off after the Duke, shouting, “Your Grace...You don’t need to buy hooks....here, take back what you paid!”

Over several years at Chatsworth, Ollie Edwards and I spent time in our own small stand and by the river Derwent showing visitors the abundant food in the form of insect larvae and nymphs, snails, crustaceans and so on that trout and grayling eat. And then we showed them the flies that we used to match these foods. In 2004, there seemed to be something wrong, for in both numbers and variety the invertebrate life seemed well down on normal, and some of the visitors asked why. We tried to give sensible answers, one of which was that there may have been a slight pollution problem.

Shortly afterwards, we received a phone call. Members of the syndicate that fished the Derwent asked for their money back because, “Oliver and Malcolm said that the river had been polluted and the trout would have nothing to eat!” The following year (our last), on each occasion we led a gang of visitors from our wee stand to the river, two fishery workers joined us to make sure it didn’t happen again!

At Chatsworth we had a river full of trout and grayling and the day ended with the Fly v Maggot competition. Ray Baker and I did the commentary, while Bob Nudd and Ian Heaps (the maggot team) tried to catch more than the fly team, which included Oliver. In 2001, the foot-and-mouth outbreak meant that the show had to be postponed from the usual May to October and on the Sunday afternoon a great hatch occurred to coincide with the competition. Oliver was wading from the opposite side to our stand, using a team of three specially chosen wet flies, and he did as I asked, cast to individual rising fish and we got the very large audience to cheer when they saw the tip of his fly line move when a fish took. Some folk think that wet spider fishing is ‘chuck it and chance it’. Oliver showed that it needn’t be, as he out-fished the maggot team.

All these shows were great fun for those of us who took part, and for the vast majority of those who paid to come and watch. Alas, there is only one show of that quality left, British Fly Fair International (BFFI), where visitors can see some of the world’s greatest fly tyers, listen to informative talks and buy bits and pieces that we all need for the ‘new season’. It is on next February and if you haven’t been before, make the effort. It will be worth it.

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