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100 Years Ago in the Journal: Fishing Days with Halford

When Frederic Halford died suddenly on 5th March 1914, some of the foundations for his future reputation as the stern, autocratic ‘high priest of the dry fly’ had already been laid. But as the tributes poured in, many of his contemporaries’ anecdotes depict a warm and kindly (if sometimes over-generous) character with whom most of us would be happy to share a drink or a river bank.

The Summer 2014 issue of the Flyfishers’ Journal includes an edited version of this appreciation, which was published exactly 100 years ago in the Journal in Spring 1914. Below, we reproduce the full text of William Senior’s memories of his close friend’s humour, tenacity and above all how his mind really worked.

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People were just getting accustomed to word “dry-fly” when Halford began his career as a scientific exponent of the art to which he devoted so many years of work and study. This was in the late sixties, and he took trout fever on the pellucid Wandle, at that time a beautiful stream with good store of singularly handsome fario, and a regular company of gentleman flyfishers. The dry-fly men were, however, few; the eyed-hook was not yet in fashion, and the custom, not only on the Wandle, but on other chalk streams, was to use the finest gut attachments to flies that were dressed for floating. It was so like Halford to listen to the advice of the few who urged the advantages of the dry-fly. Anything in the shape of an improvement upon something that existed was like red rag to a bull to him, and he went for the new idea with all his heart. He also went for the line which was the standard of perfection to our forefathers; and I must confess that the love of the familiar silk and hair line, with which we of the old guard learned to cast a fly, abides with me to this day, and with it I, for one, can associate the hair cast, and a certain ancient pony up in Yorkshire who was famous for his never-failing tail supply of the best white strands, which were considered indispensable by the fishers of all Wharfedale. Halford, however, objected to the line, which certainly was given to waterlogging and sagging at inconvenient times, and eagerly he took up the dressing of modern lines. He had a hand in all the developments of the process, and only declared himself satisfied when the Hawksley line was perfected, leaving others to this day aiming at still more betterment.

How Halford accumulated his experience, building up a fabric so to speak, brick by brick, is told in the “Autobiography” and the other books written by him; and I may, in passing, suggest that in reading Halford in these volumes you must always read very carefully between the lines. You never know when you will find a pearl. The apparently prosaic statement often contains a valuable lesson, and what seems to be a sentence merely recording the capture of a trout of given inches and ounces will be found to have been written with the object of sustaining an argument or enforcing a truth.

The story in the “Autobiography” of the fishing on the Wandle in those early years is an instance in point. It is quite a short narrative destitute of embroidery, and seemingly a casual introduction to what shall come after, but it is in reality a revelation of the practical methods that governed him from first to last, and which in the Field I ventured to sum up in the one word “thorough”. There is a paragraph telling how he overcame a difficulty in circumventing a certain trout that lay above the mouth of a culvert, and habitually flouted the Wandle rods. Halford made it a problem and solved it at the opening of his second Wandle season. He studied the position, obtained the necessary permission to put white paint on a patch of branches, have them cut down during the winter, and next season went down with a plan of campaign in his head. Of course, it succeeded. On the face of it you have just an ordinary incident with nothing much in it. But it emphasises the value of the horizontal cast and something of its secret, while the kernel of the nut is the fact that it illustrates the efficiency of using the wrist and not the length of the arm in casting.

You will again and again find Halford’s wisdom as if carelessly thrown down upon a bald place. Some of the critics in the daily press were fond of saying of his books “Yes, yes; this is all very good no doubt, but it does look as if page after page is simply a monotonous recital of catching trout that are very much alike by processes that have a strong family likeness.”

A careless surveyor of the page perhaps would think in this way, and never for the life of him perceive the point sought to be made by the writer of the book.

Halford was an angler from his youth upwards, and himself tells us that by his family he was considered “fishing mad”, which, as so many of my readers may remember, is the orthodox manner in which the young enthusiast is tossed off by the unbelievers of his family. He fished often and in various places as a youth, but it was not until he became a member of the Houghton club water on the Test that he plunged into his life-work for anglers. The date may be given as 1877, and the fire was kindled by being on the river one April day, and witnessing one of those marvelous rises of grannom that might once be relied upon every season on the Test. Many of us who still linger have seen this phenomenon, only equalled by the hatch of Mayfly in the Kennet Valley 20 years ago. Just as clouds of Mayfly would greet you on the railway platforms between Reading and Hungerford, flying into the open windows, clinging to the lamp posts and seats, so at Houghton and Stockbridge the shucks of the grannom would drift into eddies and form almost as solid as a weed-bed. Such things are not to be seen now, and have not been seen for years.

From the swaddling clothes of the risen grannom, cast thus upon the surface of the water by the insect made perfect, Halford turned to the artificial imitations then in use. They were of importance in those days, for the grannom was an institution much regarded, and the grannom season was held in high esteem. Anglers packed their kit and hurried away when the grannom was signalled up. There were as many patterns of the artificial grannom as there are to-day of the March Brown, and it was because Halford found them of various forms and colourings, and not a really good imitation of the natural fly amongst them all, that he resolved to learn how to dress a fly for himself. His reserves of patience were heavily taxed in the preliminary stages and the victory came only after a long battle with difficulties. The standard volumes he produced on the subject of dressing, and the kindred subject of the entomological side of it, are conclusive evidence of what came of it all. “Halford as a fly-dresser”, however, is a topic too big to handle in an article which merely aims at rambling recollections of him by the water-side, and indeed it can only be dealt with by a master in the art of fly-dressing.

In his early days at Houghton, Halford went to John Hammond’s shop in Winchester just before the opening of the 1879 fishing season to buy flies, and there met, and was introduced by the rubicund John to, a tall, not to say gaunt, gentleman, who was the most famous of all the Hampshire trout fishers, none other than Marryat himself. This was the beginning of a close life-long friendship between the two men. Halford was at all times most grateful to any helper, and never failed freely to acknowledge assistance received. Whether he took advice proffered was another matter; he sometimes did it all the same, but he was always grateful. Words would fail to describe his appreciation of such co-workers as Marryat at the beginning and Williamson at the end of the labours which are embodied in the series of books which preceded the “Autobiography”. They were co-workers in everything; hard workers, too. I have heard men lightly joke about these worthies going about the meadows with a bug-net and lifting individual ephemerals from the surface of the stream. Let those laugh that win. It meant collecting hundreds of tiny insects, selecting the fittest, preparing, preserving, and mounting them. It meant the endless autopsy of fish and the patient searching of their entrails. To stand by while Halford and Marryat with their scissors, forceps and whatnot laid out the contents of a trout’s stomach, and bent low in separating and identifying the items, putting what were worthy of it under a microscope, and proceeding all the while as if the whole round world offered no other pursuit half so worthy of concentrated attention, was most fascinating. Many a time I was a spectator – I fear sometimes an irreverent one – of this ritual, but always privileged and welcome, always, of course, sympathetic, and always in a way envious of the qualities of mind and extraordinary knowledge which made the whole work a labour of love to them.

It so fell out that two days after the meeting in John Hammond’s shop the parties met at Houghton, and the first of many foregatherings took place that day in the well-remembered Sheep-bridge hut – Marryat, Francis, Carlisle (“South-West”) and Halford. Halford had rooms in the neighbourhood, and, in his own words, there this historical quartette would “hold triangular fishing colloquies”, “South-West” having his home up the river in Stockbridge. Francis was the first of the trio to fall out, his last casts being on his beloved Sheep-bridge shallow. Halford’s quarters were now at the mill at Houghton, and it was my privilege to take Francis Francis’ vacant place there, as also in another place.

What ambrosial nights we had in the homely mill-house after untiring days with our rods! It was there that I insisted upon my host becoming a contributor to the Field, and he required considerable persuasion. Indeed, the suggestion roused him into one of his dogmatic disputations, and he held on tenaciously, till, taking up the bedroom candle, I said, “Well, I’m off to bed. You’ve got my opinion and my advice, and if you don’t write that article you are a So-and-So. Good night, old chap, sleep on it.” Next morning I was taking my ante-breakfast pipe on a cartwheel in the shed outside, and listening to the diapason of the mill, when Halford came out. “All right, sonny,” he said, “I’ll try it, but candidly I ha’e me doots.” This was how the first “Detached Badger” article came to appear in the Field. Walsh, the famous “Stonehenge”, was editor of the paper then, and he stuck for a while at the pseudonym which Halford chose. But he was the best fellow in the world and very soon good humouredly gave in and left it to me. Walsh, nevertheless, would always make merry over that signature, and used with a twinkle in his eye to ask me whether my friend the Badger was quite well.

And what a delightful fishing companion the Badger was! Perhaps for the first two years at Houghton the pleasure was just a little tempered with one insignificant drawback. I had not then been long a dry-fly practitioner, and was terribly ashamed for H. to watch me fishing. ‘Tis 30 years back, yet I acutely remember my nervousness on that point. Having got his brace or so of fish, and finished his studies of water, rise of fly, weeds and weather, and neatly (and oh! so orderly and accurately!) made his entries in his little notebook, he loved to play gillie to his friend for hours together, criticise his style of fishing, and give advice. Naturally, after a time, if you are sensitive, you are certain of one thing only: that you are the king of asses, and had better imitate the immortal colonel who hurled his book of salmon flies into the pool shouting “Here, take the bally lot”. The droll thing was that Halford never dreamed that his chum was put out by his good intentions, or that the victim’s feeble smiles were but a mask for nerve-flutters.

One hot day I was over-tired and nakedly accomplished everything that was wrong; the backward cast caught buttercups and daisies, the forward throw fouled the sedges, the underhand cut landed line and gut in a heap on the water, the fish was put down, the whole shallow scared. Halford stood behind amiably commenting on the bungling operations, and then I uprose from a weary knee, and delivered myself of remarks. Well; yes, I let myself go, and let him “have it”. The amazement of Halford; his contrition; the colour that spread over his countenance (you will remember how prettily he could blush with that complexion of his, delicate as a woman in his last days); – these sufficiently told me that he had not the ghost of an idea of the perturbation that had been seething in me. It took him the rest of the week to cease regretting that he had been so unobservant, and never again during the remaining eight-and-twenty years that we fished together at different times and in divers places did he once depart from his resolve “never to do so no more.” During our long and happy acquaintance that was the only cloud flitting over the sunshine of our friendship, it was one of my making, and vanished like a dream.

After Houghton there was a farmhouse at Headbourne Worthy, and a season’s fishing in the Itchen, and later Halford fished a good deal below Winchester, where Cooke-Daniels and Williamson had private waters. But after Houghton the most notable preserve to be mentioned was the Ramsbury water on the Kennet. The inspiration of “Making a Fishery” came from that, for the four friends who leased the water – Basil Field, Orchardson, R.A, N. Lloyd, and Halford – earnestly addressed themselves to the reformation of a fishery that had become depreciated. They spent much money, and carried out operations with a lavish hand for four seasons. The story has been fully narrated by Halford, and the conclusion (p.217, “Autobiography”) is in these words:- “We had perhaps been extravagant in our expenditure, and also over-sanguine as to the probable result. The river when we took possession swarmed with pike and dace, and had a few trout in the lower part, and in the upper was fairly stocked. When we gave it up the pike had been practically exterminated, and every yard of the river was fully stocked with strains far superior to the indigenous, slimy Salmo fario of the Kennet”.

The plain fact was that at the end of four years, four of the best of our dry flyfishers gave up a water of which they had become very fond, because the trout did not rise at what little floating fly casually appeared, and the sport had decreased to a marked degree. A fishery that gave poor and diminishing returns, even with the Mayfly, sedge and Welshman’s button, was not suitable for dry-fly experts, and the Ramsbury experiment was abandoned. The moral has yet to be drawn, and I have not yet seen anyone grapple at close quarters with the question of cause and effect with the Ramsbury experiment as a test. “Making a Fishery” sets down in detail what was done; the “Autobiography” tells what came of it. Being one of those who has not faltered in the belief that the clearing out of coarse fish, the introduction of new strains of trout, and the artificial feeding of fish may be overdone, I used to discuss the matter with Halford, but he did not agree with me.

Having known the Ramsbury water before the reformation was undertaken, I can testify that I seldom at any time saw a good rise of duns upon it, and that a basket of trout more or less was, notwithstanding, a reasonable certainty there under ordinarily favourable circumstances, spite of pikes and daces. I have with the wet fly, on days when no floating fly was coming down, and no trout seen to be rising, caught my two or three brace of trout with some such pattern as Red Spinner, Governor, Alder, or Coachman for the evening; indeed, if I remember correctly, it was on a six-brace day with the “Red Spinner” on this water that, enamoured of that artificial, I annexed its name for series of articles contributed in 1874 to the Gentleman’s Magazine, and have held by it ever since. Foli, the opera-singer, once caught three half-pounders at a cast, and the keeper netted them all, on this fishery.

One evening we met at Ramsbury, after an afternoon without sign of fly or rising trout. Halford and Basil Field stood by, and we bewailed the absence of duns and lack of sport. We loitered there with rods spiked, and smoked sadly. I then, and not for the first time, repeated the tale of my former experiences, and at last begged Halford not to be shocked, not to think me an unforgivable brute, but would he give me free permission to try the wet fly in the primitive way, and without prejudice. He at first laughingly protested, but saying he would ne’er consent, consented. I was to do my best or worst. The difficulty was to find a fly that could be fished wet, and in the end a Red Spinner on a No.1 hook was forthcoming. I thereupon followed the old plan, except that there was one instead of two flies on the cast, and caught a brace of three-quarter pounders before we had moved fifty yards down the meadow. They were the only trout taken that day; I claimed I had the best of the argument, and had strenuously to maintain it after dinner for more than an hour by Ramsbury clock.

For Auld Lang Syne I cannot conclude without a word in defence of the indigenous trout of the Kennet. I have caught him in spinning for pike, and with wet flies, but he was more than any other variety I could mention a Mayfly fish. Ask the author of “Minor Tactics” how far my note of auld Lang Syne tempts him to throw down his law papers and wake the gloomy echoes of Essex Street with a Te Deum! No one knows that indigenous Kennet trout better than he – the coppery, almost spotless vesture of him, the burly fighter battling on even in the net, the incomparable red flesh of him on the table. My experience, however, was with the smaller fish of Ramsbury, where they took the sunken fly gallantly. But here, again, we come to the wide, open question of clearing out indigenous fish; and all I can say (not desiring to rob the Journal of the space which more talented contributors are hungering to fill) – all I can say is that there are at least three old friends of mine who never ought to be cleared out – the Loch Leven, the Wycombe, and the Kennet trout as we knew them in our younger days.

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