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FM Halford and the Dry-Fly Revolution - Tony Hayter

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Reviewed by Terry Lawton

FM Halford and the Dry-Fly Revolution by (Dr) Tony Hayter is a most interesting, well-researched and very rewarding history of dry-fly fishing from the middle of the 19th century to about 1913 when Halford, the main subject of this book, died. The book is very revealing on the ups and downs of fishing on the Test and Itchen - from the days of vast bags of trout to Halford's self-inflicted blank days. The fishing pressure and lack of fish in the 1890s led to the need to stock rivers and the way much of this was done was to be very damaging.

Halford became a very successfully and wealthy man who retired early in life to devote himself to running fisheries and developing his ideas of how to fish for trout with dry flies only. When I had finished reading this most entertaining book I had cause to write to Dr Hayter and, as he said in his reply, 'He was what we call nowadays a systems man, a bit inflexible and myopic, determined to put into effect a long-prepared blueprint. One can imagine Halford hammering away for hours on end with an unvarying technique, by now confident in his knowledge of fish behaviour - didn't they know what was expected of them?!'. Halford knew only the one way to fish for trout: sadly for him he did not know that the trout has more than one way to eat. As Hayter writes in his book: ' . . . . Halford's approach was to consider a problem, conduct a series of experiments, sometimes at inordinate lengths, and then arrive at an immovable conclusion, as if fly-fishing was a branch of Euclidean geometry.'

Will any of today's celebrity anglers - Chris Tarrant,  Jeremy Paxman, Eric Clapton to name but three - leave their mark on the sport in the way that Halford, Skues and Marryatt have done? There dosen't seem to be much sign of anything coming from them at the moment. Perhaps it is because they are celebrities who fish, whereas Halford was a celebrity because he fished. It is only people like Brian Clarke and John Goddard who are achieving anything memorable.
Hayter writes 'What was needed was a master hand to draw all the strands together, to settle the basic rules of practice, and codify them in book form for the angling public.' I have to ask why? Was not Halford's dogmatic and dictorial approach the cause of many problems, particularly his disagreements with Skues and his unpopularity with fellow anglers? There are times when I feel that Tony Hayter does have a tendency to jump to conclusions that are not easily justified by the evidence presented, or in some cases, lack of evidence.

It was wonderful to read of the arguments over the introduction of eyed hooks. It seems quite extraordinary to discover that not everyone liked them. Who would want to go back to gut eyes? Surely not even the most dyed-in-the-wool 'cane' purist. I think that Dr Hayter has uncovered the first reference to that modern curse of the computer age- RSI or repetitive strain injury. Late Victorian fly rods were so heavy (about an ounce a foot) that anglers often had to stop 'fishing halfway through the day and withdraw to nurse a damaged hand.'. Fly fishing in Victorian times must have been pretty good hell at times. They fished in heavy three-piece suits and heavy boots and Halford recommended false casting anything up to 30 times to dry a fly. Was it any wonder that their wrists and ams gave out? One aspect of Halford's wealth was that it enabled him, and others, to decamp to the Test or the Itchen for weeks or even months at a time, either staying in a convenient hotel or renting a riverside house. It would seem that the grannom hatch at the start of the season was as popular as the mayfly.

One comment I made in my letter was my suprise at how relatively unsuccessful a fisherman was Halford. I know that numbers of fish killed, as recorded in fishing diaries, do not tell the whole truth, but Halford had many a blank day, many of which must have been caused by his insistence on fishing the dry fly only, although, most interestingly, the book reveals that he did flirt with nymphs. Marryatt realised the importance of presentation that still holds so true today as well as being prepared to use a much more flexible approach.

Halford comes across a much nicer person than I had imagined but not an easy man to get to know. How good a fisherman was he? His own self-imposed restrictions must have had a great effect on the time that he had a fly on the water - casting to rising fish only in the main - and thus the number of fish that he caught. Although Hayter does discuss Halford's experiments with nymphs, he never mastered or approved of them nor admitted to fishing with an artifical nymph, and even when fishing to rising fish, he was not always as successful as his contempories such as Marryatt.

Anyone who has an interest in the history and development of (dry) fly fishing for trout will enjoy reading this book and, I hope, learn much from it. The production of the book itself, with a nicely restrained jacket design, adds to the overall enjoyment and pleasure.FM Halford and the Dry-Fly Revolution by Tony Hayter. Hardback 272 pages published by Robert Hale Limited at £25.

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