Old School


The more things change the more they stay the same:

It is, perhaps, unnecessary that I should here dwell on the advantages  which a knowledge of fly dressing gives to the angler, since it is to be expected that they are already known and felt by those who read these lines. At the same time such a course seems natural, and  – with the reader’s pardon- its adoption gets me out of the difficulty of knowing how to open up my subject. Opening paragraph of “The Trout Fly Dressers Cabinet of Devices or How to Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling Fishing”, H G McClelland (the Athenian)

Not only do I totally agree with the words above in that, to my mind, a fly angler will never reach his or her true potential without dabbling in the dark arts of feather and fur constructions, but equally find that McClelland simply puts his case in such poetic style.

CloeteCover“The Trout Fly Dressers Cabinet of Devices aka How Tie Flies for Trout and Grayling”

I am looking over an ancient tome, the fifth edition of the above mentioned book which came into my possession over forty years ago and was published in 1921. Not only is the book delightful in and of itself but this particular copy is all the more special for the annotations inside both covers in the most elegant hand, written with perfection in pencilled copper plate , one presumes by a certain  EB Cloete who had inscribed his name and the date 1926 therein  in pen and ink.

On the inside cover a list of “Naval Members of the Fly-Fishers Club 1926″, then on the next page the addresses of :


S & E.G Messeena “Importers of Foreign Birdskins, Feathers , quills and everything for fly tying”, 94 Upper Clapton Road, London E5.

Col. G Carnegy DSO. Libbear Barton, Shebbear, Highhampton, N. Devon

A.F Voelcher MD, FRGP. Langrord Hill Marhamchurch N.Cornwall.

The Fly-Fishers Club 36 Picadilly, with the additional information that entrance would set you back £3.3.0 (three guineas), and membership £4.4.0 (Four guineas) if you lived in Londong  and only £3.3.0 (Three guineas) if you were a country member.

One cannot avoid the impression that at this point fly fishing was very much viewed as an upper class sport, the references to Rear Admirals, Captains, Vice Admirals, Doctors and DSO’s without so much as a sniff of an Able Bodied Seaman tell a tale about the history of fly fishing and fly tying.

Then on the inside back cover in similarly beautifully crafted pencil annotations as to the cost of fly tying materials, including that you would have to pay the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence for a water rat (although one presumes not a live specimen.)CloeteMaterials

What is most interesting of all about this book from the angler’s if not the historian’s perspective is that the content discusses and perhaps battles with the very same things that fly tying books of a more modern age still struggle. The hooking properties of different shapes of hook, how to perform a whip finish, a discussion on the “Exact Immitation Theory” and even the construction of extended mayfly bodies (In this instance using turpentine and strips of unvulcanised indiarubber, one presumes such things were easily obtainable at the time).


Further on the subject of extended body flies (in McClelland’s case referred to as detached bodies), he notes that many anglers had reported lack of success with such flies but commented that given that most anglers only experiment when things are slow the reliability of the subjective assessment is to be questioned. McClelland put it as such “….the trials are, as a rule, most desultory; accorded perhaps, under unfavourable conditions – “when things are slack”, as the saying is – and not so much to make a test as to excuse a condemnation.. (of detached body flies) “

So how many of us are perhaps guilty of exactly the same, only testing flies when things are slow, condemning patterns and fishing concepts primarily because we want to find evidence of their ineffectiveness? I am certainly of the opinion that any fool can change flies when things are not working out, but those blessed with a truely enquiring mind may very well change things when they are catching fish.

The book is a delight, elegantly written in wonderful , if rather “stiff upper lipish”, prose,  but the discussions, concepts and thoughts are much the same as for the modern angler and fly dresser. We still discuss, argue, pontificate and experiment with the exact same things as did McClelland’s generation, although one suspects probably spend just a little less time waxing moustaches, calling for one’s batman and shouting “Tally Ho”.. .

Delightfully the book also contains “advertisements” for other angling publications, which appear quaintly naive compared to the machinations of the modern marketing machine:


Advertisements for other fly fishing related books

CloeteGazetteAdvert for the “Fishing Gazette” in which McClelland wrote under the pseuodymn “The Athenian”

One can find a complete archive copy of this book to read on the link:


Thankfully today we have far greater flexibility in terms of our fishing, you don’t need to be a Rear Admiral or make the honours list to crack a bit of water, or at least not everywhere, and we better recognise than we used to that all of us struggle with the same concepts, the same disappointments of lost fish and the queries about hook design that come with that. The same battles to better understand the nature of trout and their food. Although fly fishermen now hail from all sectors of the community, and have at their disposal, modern materials, macro photography and even electronic books,  I suppose it is simply a case that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” and there really is very little truly new in fly tying.

So in many ways my latest book “Guide Flies” is really only a continuation of a theme that has occupied fly anglers since the very first time some Macedonian ripped a bit of red wool from a neighbour’s nickers to manufacture an artifical fly. That said you may very well enjoy reading the book and it has the advantages over McClelland’s tome of being available in full colour on paper and in electronic format. (One has to wonder what “The Athenian” would have made of that).

Guide Flies Front CoverYou can order a copy of Guide Flies from www.inkwaziflyfishing.co.za

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