The Letort Regulars used to meet for Sunday morning breakfasts, or for picnics at Charlie Fox’s place on the Letort spring creek, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. * Vince Marinaro and others would stay over at Charlie’s fishing hut, which he built on his property even before he built himself a house to live in.
It was in that hut that they had a fly tying kit , donated by one Bob McCafferty, and their meetings, experiments and trials drew the attention of visitors like Lefty Kreh, George La Branche, ER Hewitt and Joe Brooks.
This band of fishermen, which included the likes of Ed Shenk, Gene Utech, Tommy Thomas, Ross Trimmer and others, were ground breakers. Their home water was what is still described as one of the most difficult trout streams in the world.
Stories abound about how spooky the fish are, and how clear the water is. The banks are sodden marshes in many places, the whole stream is only 9 miles long, and the fish are apparently all but impossible. Online searches reveal much evidence of these difficulties expounded in recent times. But reading Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” (written in 1950) reveals that not much has changed in this respect. Marinaro humbly paints a picture of himself as a duffer, saying things like ”This stream has always been a difficult one for me to solve and for many others too. The capture of one good trout in an evening’s fly-fishing was quite an achievement” and “….the usual result in these cases is a violent reaction on my part intended to be a strike, something I fervently wish I had never learned, and the matter is concluded by a sudden parting”.
As a relatively slow flowing limestone creek (AKA Spring Creek, chalk stream, Limestoner), its trout have all the time in the world to inspect what the fly fisherman has to offer, as well as a remarkable abundance of food besides. These characteristics make the stream a veritable university of fly fishing technique. Puzzles and riddles needed to be solved there, because although early fly anglers could see the trout, they couldn’t catch them.
What makes this interesting, is that the likes of the Letort Regulars had other streams they could go to, where the trout were easier, but they didn’t. That is to say that they chose not to abandon this near impossible challenge in favour of easier waters. They fished other waters, for sure, but their identity as “The Regulars” formed around the most difficult stream in the Cumberland Valley, the one of which Marinaro said: “the Letort is a hard task master and does not treat lightly any violation of dry fly technique”.
This challenge saw them entertaining the mother of invention: necessity. If they wanted to work out the puzzle, they had to get serious about it, study the trout and the insects and learn by trial and error. And so a great “university” was borne.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ed Shenk’s books, and I am sure there are many other enlightening ones besides that I am not aware of, but I have devoured books by Mike Lawson, Ernest Schwiebert, Darryl Martin and Vince Marinaro.
These articulate writings of a bygone era reveal a level of enquiry, dedication, observation, and let me say obsession, which is rare nowadays. A Google search will reveal tidbits, videos and anecdotes, and people who are quick to boast that they knew the Letort Regulars, but like me, they don’t add to the body of knowledge of flyfishing technique.
The discoveries of the Letort regulars were significant. They pushed the boundaries. They looked for the smallest hooks and finest tippets they could find and tied flies on them, and tried to land big fish on them. They spoke and wrote with deference to Halford and Gordon, but then gently introduced the flyfishing world to the new frontier of terrestrials. They pushed back frontiers. In the 1970 edition of “The Code” which I own, Marinaro writes with wry amusement about how he meets anglers out on he stream who offer him their tiny flies, complete with words of instruction and encouragement, oblivious to the fact that it was he who started the whole thing.
It is also interesting to read on modern forums, how the benches, stream improvements, access paths , footbridges, and passages across the streamside bogs are all gone. Quite apart from the fact that a highway bridge now crosses the river where Fox’s hut once stood, the attentions of this dedicated band of fishermen are seemingly a thing of the past. How strange that is!
Consider for a moment, that when the likes of Charlie Fox fished the Letort, it was probably not as famous as it is now. At that stage it did not have attached to it the history of some of the great personalities of flyfishing, and neither was it described as the birthplace of modern terrestrial imitation, as it now is. And yet, despite its ordinariness, it received the loving attention of these pioneers. That would be attention both in respect of hours spend studying its trout and how to master them, and also hours spent with spade and saw, making it into something great. Now in the glow of its fame, there is little evidence that any of this still takes place.
Instead there are some brass plaques, and there are those who claim to have known the men who made it great. There are also stories about how difficult it is to access the neglected sections, and there are dreadful stories of fish kills and pollution.
One forum commentator enlightens his colleagues as to the names of various stretches, pools and meadows, presumably because these exist only in the memories of ones like him, who witnessed the Letort in its halcyon days.
(I must hasten to add that I have never visited the stream – I wish I could- and that my conclusions are based on desk-bound research, but I can find no evidence that refutes what I claim here)
This whole state of affairs puzzles me. Notwithstanding the burgeoning and ever pressing demands of the human population, the fact that an iconic and revered stream lies unkempt and at least in part, neglected, is an irony. So many other places have been killed by too much attention: turned to theme parks with gift shops and tourist centres, but this one, like many trout streams I read of, suffers neglect instead. I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for, but could I perhaps put in a request for something in between? I mean, could one of the people who revels in the nostalgia of the greats, not round up his buddies and go cut a path and lay a boardwalk to one of the pools? Maybe these fellows actually have it waxed. Maybe they fish there three times a week, meet in secret, and keep their wonderful exploits off the internet. That would be great I guess, and from thousands of miles away I may never know, but nothing leads me to suspect that this is the case.
Turning for a moment to the observations, and technical developments of the Letort Regulars: Has anyone seen Marinaro’s assertions on the body colours of the spinner vs the dun espoused, refuted, or even discussed since the 1990’s? It is quite possible that I am missing something, and that in fact these technical issues have been built upon since that era of great flyfishing books. But my mates and I just throw Para RAB’s. I know: Our particular streams are fast freestone waters, and fish will bite Humpies and DDD’s, so maybe the Letort/Marinaro model doesn’t apply here, and maybe modernisations of his work are widely applied elsewhere..
But, we do have some slower sections of river. Late last season a friend and I were foxed by some fussy trout in a series of slow pools.
Our frantic changing from a para RAB to a beetle to a CDC emerger simply didn’t work, and our conscious repertoire didn’t extend to significantly different solutions. We concluded that we were fishing one of the most difficult trout streams around, and I for one would have been happy with just one trout that evening. I can’t help thinking that Marinaro, if he was watching, would have labelled us as guys who “Stomped the banks and flailed the water”. And I can’t help thinking that all of us fly anglers have gone just a little bit backward. Our enquiries extend to scant viewings of Instagram pictures, and the odd YouTube video in which the tattoos and the brand of fly rod are the main feature. We don’t meet at the riverside to inspect the insects and discuss the finer points of the hatch, and life is too busy for a fisherman’s breakfast every Sunday.
We recently lost Lefty Kreh and Ed Shenk.
There might have been a code once, but I think its broken.
‘ * Errata. I am grateful to John Fiorini who had this to add in respect of the “Letort Regulars”:
The term “Letort Regulars” is capable of a couple of meanings. A loose group that adopted the name (and of which I was a member) was formed in the late 70’s and met for dinner at a local restaurant on the first Fri. of each month, with a picnic in August on benches at the “Nineteenth Hole” on the river behind Charlie Fox’s house. (That is also where an ad hoc gathering of locals often held a “prayer breakfast” on Sun. mornings.) Charlie was a regular attendee at our “meetings”, but Shenk and Marinaro were not. The latter-day Regulars sort of faded away in, I think, the early 90’s.
Seeral others also forwarded me pictures of the cloth badge of the Regulars
And in respect of the conservation of the river, John adds:
I don’t live in the Carlisle area and haven’t followed the recent status of the Letort carefully, but I know that both the city and the Central PA Conservatory have done a lot of rehab work on the river.
And Eric Richard added:
A letter written by Charlie Fox at the group’s inception was titled Super Trout in reference to the Loch Leven strain of Brown Trout. The Loch Leven was the mover. Defined by it’s movement and recognized by these anglers for their value they met to propagate and manage these misunderstood fish. The-book is an historical document. A federal fish hatchery biologist dismissed them with the assumption that all brown trout were crossed. You should be happy to know that while standing on the shoulders of C. Fox a grassroots movement of anglers in PA successfully petitioned for the protection of the Letort’s breeding population during the post spawn when they are feeding in the downstream watershed.
This particularly interested me, because my home river here in South Africa was once on record (and forgive me, but for the time being I forget where the reference comes from , except that I know it is quoted by Duncan Brown in one of his books), as that containing the most pure genetic population of Loch Leven Browns in the world. Sadly I know that this is no longer the case, but a few of us keep pictures of our Browns from the river, and compare notes and are looking to see the degree to which the later introduced European browns remain in evidence, interbreed, or perhaps reduce in number as the supposedly now adapted Loch Leven’s hold sway.
“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake
I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.
While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:
- The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
- The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
Think on that.
It has been many years since I read “A River Runs Though it” by Norman Maclean. The story is of course famous, from Robert Redford’s movie produced in 1992, but I think few people are familiar with the 1976 book that inspired the movie.
I say that the book inspired the movie, because what many seem to forget is that the movie differs from the written story. In fact the movie brings in elements of two stories which appear in the same book, and to which the full title alludes. “A River Runs Though it, And other stories”. So the movie is not, strictly speaking, just the story made into a film.
In re-reading the book recently, I developed a keen appreciation for the mastery of the movie produced by Redford. For example Redford condenses two scenes involving Neil and his “whore”, into one that captures the essence of it all. Two sets of sunburn; and of disappointment in his brother-in-law; and being at the brunt of the anger of the womenfolk in his wife’s family . And yes, Maclean does refer to the lady of the divided skirts as a “whore”, and in all three stories in his book, he displays a western coarseness which Redford delivered slightly more subtly, and in an aura of nostalgia which served to take the edges off. Redford makes no reference for example of the two brothers chasing the self same whore down the street “kicking her in the ass”. You will notice too, that I write here of Maclean’s wife, and brother-in-law, because the story takes place after they are married, and after his time in the forest service. The movie of course brings in the love interest by placing the story during Macleans courtship of his wife, and before his time in the Forest Service.
But quite aside from re-arranging the life sequence, you find many lines in the book which you will recognize from the movie. In other words they are quoted verbatim. The parts not quoted are of course the descriptions of people, and landscapes, but Redford captures these beautifully in the movie. Another part not repeated verbatim, is of course the subtlety of relationships and attitudes and outlook, and emotion, and herein lies Redford’s mastery. He somehow manages to capture these elements, which Maclean unpacks in detail in the written word, and does so by capture of light, facial expression, body language, background sound, and camera angle. The fact that I did a reverse analysis by reading the book after I saw the movie, and recognized these elements in the book, because I had picked up on them in the movie, speaks volumes for the skill of the movie maker.
As a fisherman, I delighted in some of the technical fishing detail contained in the written version. There was a little in there that would not have made it into a commercial production, seeking a broad audience, but which is of great interest to us technical flyfishing types.
In reading it again, I was struck by the unlikely product of academia that Maclean became as a professor of English, given his Rocky mountain upbringing amongst men “as tough as their axe handles”. His language skills of course gave him the ability to tell his family’s story with a resigned dignity and reverence that has one sighing in a sad and appreciative compassion as you turn the last page. Although I didn’t pick up on it when I read the book many years ago, as I came to the end this time around, I was left with a deep appreciation for this little masterpiece.
If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it.
“It’s true that all successful strategies are based on a plausible supposition, but in my experience gamblers and fishermen with a “system” exhibit unshakable confidence , but don’t actually do any better than the rest of us”
John Gierach, “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”
Gierach himself has always puzzled me with his assertion that one should go fishing as the low pressure rolls in, but then he does explain that this means to go fishing when the bad weather moves in. In our part of the world the low pressure is what precedes the bad weather, and it is characterised by strong northerly winds and warm, balmy conditions. For me those are the very worst fishing conditions, but then I have been proved wrong on that before too.
Then when the wind turns from the south, the pressure is busy rising, and miserable drizzle is on the way, or perhaps already here, bam…Brown trout weather.
Unless the wind swings from the east a bit.
And then there’s the moon phase, which I show only a mild interest in, but which colleagues plan their business meetings around.
Cold water equals orange flies.
And if you want to throw random unpredictable determinants in there: ones that are barely worth trying to chart or anticipate, then throw in South African fly hatches. Oh for a “labour day caddis hatch”. Our caddis don’t seem to give a damn about when we are on holiday.
But having said all of the above, I think you have to have a system. Any system. Pick one. It will, as Gierach points out, give you confidence. And in contradiction of his statement, I believe that with that confidence , you will do better then the rest of us.
No. Wait. The rest of us have systems too.
OK. His comment holds true.
I have to confess that the last time I read “A River Never Sleeps” I vaguely remember it didn’t keep my attention. This time it has grabbed me. Maybe you need to become an old fart before you can appreciate literature from dusty old volumes. I don’t know.
Either way, my depth of understanding and context was no doubt enriched by having first read (or more correctly re-read) all of G.E.M. Skues’ works, as well as the very in-depth book about Skues, written by Tony Hayter.
That put Haig-Brown’s background into perspective. Realising that he had grown up and lived during the time of the great wet fly vs dry fly debate, and the frustrating time Skues had explaining that a nymph was not a wet fly, and that in fact you could cast it upstream to sighted fish, allowed me to enter his world just a little more.
I also don’t know that any other angling writer was schooled on chalk streams in England, and then ended up on a great big river in British Columbia flinging meat at salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroats and goodness knows what else, on a river so big that there was a good argument for a boat. To Further the contrast and juxtapositions, Haig Brown grew up wing-shooting, worked as a logger, threw Devon Minnows, and ended up as an author, a judge, and chancellor of a university. From chopping down trees with rough hands, to writing on the paper they made, no doubt with softer ones. That really is quite a contrast. And contrast was something that drew him in. More specifically the contrast of the seasons. He describes in the most beautiful language, the changing of seasons, the trees, the birds, the weather, and a dozen other harbingers of fish runs and seasons to come.
It seems appropriate that I am reading the book at a time where I too am flinging veritable carcasses at stillwater trout, and at a time when the river season is about to open. A time when dry and dust is met by the faintest of green tinges on burnt veld, and days with no jacket required.
You might also have noticed that I have flung myself headlong into the making of videos. The quality is questionable at times, but as I say, I have flung myself at it, and this old fart is learning new skills faster than he can read dusty old books. I am really looking forward to taking the camera onto a stream, and sharing that somehow more genteel and cultured pursuit on film.
In fact, it has me wondering whether I should share the contents and joys of dusty old books on film? Might that make them more accessible, and allow fellow fly-fishers to get a taste of what they have to offer, and their relevance to modern fly fishing. Using film to appreciate books. Contrast draws me in. Juxtapositions. Changing seasons.
Let me know what you think.
Reading my way through the tomes that cascade from my over-full bookshelf, is something I take great pleasure in doing. There is something satisfying in reading a message that resonates, written in so beautiful, and poetic a style that it causes you to lower the book and nod or mumble something. I mumble and nod a lot. It is a way of wallowing in a thought well presented, a way of immersing yourself in a moment shared eruditely in print.
My family have stopped responding with questions to all my mumbling and nodding. So I will share some with you:
“How often fishing leads a man to find beauty otherwise never seen! I am rich in having a treasure store of such places” Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado
“The man who hurries through a Trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him” George La Branche The Dry Fly on Fast Water.
“The secret of successful fishing is to expect it….Hope should be in the fisherman’s heart , expectancy in his hand , and his motto should be “you can never tell” “ Robert Hartman, About fishing
“Now that I care less, I fish better” Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia
“Fisherman who care too much about the size and numbers of fish they catch are insufferable on good days and as harried as overworked executives on slow ones. On the other hand, it is possible to be a happy angler who doesn’t catch many fish; its just that no one will ever say you’re good at it” John Gierach, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.
“Perhaps the power of fly-fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but its escape from it.” Maximillian Werner , Black River Dreams
“Flyfishing has many attributes , but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Nick Lyons, Seasonable Angler.
Let me stop there, lest you fall asleep during this diatribe, but I think you get the idea: An immersed fisherman who doesn’t read, achieves immersion in shallower water.
You may nod and mumble now…
I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.
Just look at the contrast: of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.
And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it. No one does that quite like Middleton:
“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils”
and he goes on with
“ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn leather “ Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”
Now look again:
It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..
I hope you have enjoyed it.
I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.
“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually – as the enemy” John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.
“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”
For the most part, the mountains lining the valleys of our upland Trout streams could borrow descriptions from the Dales. But then we have our peaks, which do tower over you as you flick a fly in staircase streams, deep in the berg. The contrast is as rich as the texture of a black and white photo, as polarising as dark shaded ravines cut in a blanket of winter snow.
So here is a contrast: Giants Castle in the snow, and Catlow’s description of the rounded hills of his beloved home waters:
“It is these mountains that bring me back year after year, to the valley through which she flows. They are not the spectacular peaks of the west, thrusting jagged silhouettes defiantly into the sky.They are massive shapes, rising with calm assurance in great sweeps of brown heather, lifting themselves patiently in long and flowing lines, raising their vast bulk to the sky with the huge authority of sufficient strength.”
Laurence Catlow, The Healing Stream
“It was one of those times that I think come to all fishermen: when we win back something of the vision of our angling boyhood, but at the same time experience it with the deeper gratitude of a grown man” Laurence Catlow, The Healing stream
I think Catlow’s comment is befitting of those times, when you land a Trout, even a very small one, and in the moments before you release it, you admire it and think “Damn I love these fish, and I love this pastime”
On obsessing about conservation while fishing, Gierach once wrote:
“I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this: the fishing was too good for that, and I also understood that if you chase perfection too far down the rabbit hole, you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “The End Is Near”. “
(A fly Rod of your Own: John Gierach)
I am trying to avoid the beard and the sign, but I do relish this one place, which to me represents a degree of conservation perfection attained. It is very dear to me.
I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’
and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:
“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.” George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Wrote Nick Lyons in Seasonable Angler.
Lyons wrote a column by that same name in the magazine “Flyfisherman” for 22 years . Back when our currency had some value, I used to subscribe to it, and always read that column first. I have enjoyed his writing ever since.
I think this image captures the essence of privateness, quiet satisfaction et al:
Pewter and charcoal….a series of sorts, that aims to couple the timelessness of a black and white image, with the timelessness of quotes from our fly fishing literature.
To kick it off, here is the uMngeni on Furth farm:
…and here is something from Walden…that unsung American writer, from his book ‘Upstream and down’, published in 1938:
“Streams with reputations do not always live up to them and the obscurer brooks often hold a big trout or two. ……/../… Fishermen rather than fish perpetuate and enhance the reputation of a stream. By story and legend, the magic euphony of a name, the prestige of a river is won and held. Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Brodhead – such names owe their celebrity as much to the tongues and pens of fishermen as to the numbers and weight of trout between their banks”
I will just leave those two here…..
As I sit here at my desk, the cuckoo is lamenting “Meitjie, meitjie, meitjie” . That would be the Classless Cuckoo, with a gap in his front teeth, and flashing a ‘hang loose’ hand signal, as our family legend has it.
You will know it as the Klaas’s Cuckoo, and tell me that they don’t have front teeth. Either way, they often sound out their call of the jilted lover as the sun emerges after a few days of cool and rain. With that rain, and coolness, us flyfishers are all thinking of heading to the hills to get on a trout stream.
But we don’t do that, because they are all running chocolate brown. By the time they clear, it will be fiercely hot again. In fact it will probably be fiercely hot again by the time I finish writing this. Such are the dog days of summer.
Three writers from my fly fishing library spring to mind when I mention the Dog days of summer. Firstly , Ted Leeson, (whom I rate as one of the finest writers on flyfishing ever), explains the “dog days” term, its reference to the rising of the star Sirius aside the sun during the late summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The Dog star, as it is called, rising along with the sun, supposedly adds to the heat of the day, and thus the hottest days are “The Dog Days of summer”. He has a delightful chapter on this in his book “Inventing Montana”, in which he describes the sultry hot days of their American summer from the perspective of a holidaying flyfisher.
Across this side of the Atlantic, I reckon we trump the Americans in terms of heat, and thus true dog days, even though we don’t have the synchronicity of Sirius to add to the steaminess of the affair. Perhaps it is in fact no hotter here in January than it is in Ennis in August, but since I am the one sitting here sweating, I will claim the warmer ground. In his first book, our own finest writer, Tom Sutcliffe says “concentrate your fishing on early morning and late evening…… and put your feet up for the in-between time.” That is a line that was punted just last week on our local club chat group, and I paused a moment to contemplate how nothing has changed since Tom wrote that line above in 1985.
In fact, nothing has changed much since Oliver Kite wrote “ one morning in late July it was so hot that I left my jacket in my car“ in 1963. He was writing of the UK of course, and in this trilogy I would imagine he might be the least qualified to write of the dog days of summer, given that last year Hampshire’s highest summer temperature, according to Google, was 21 degrees, and the highest in the last 5 years was 25 degrees C. Here in SA our jackets are locked in a trunk for the summer!
But Kite writes not so much of heat, but rather of depleted fisheries, and thoroughly fished-over trout. We are lucky not to have that problem in my neck of the woods.
We do however have the rank growth on our stream banks, which Oliver Kite writes about, and we have the heat, which Leeson sums up beautifully as follows: (and I will end with this, because putting down a piece with Leeson’s words knocking around in your head is just special)
“ But when Sirius wanders in, circles once around southwest Montana, then lies down, curls up, and goes to sleep, the smothering weight of heat and airborne dust cannot be wished away. I number these among the least habitable days of the inhabitable narrative , a recurring leitmotif that grows heavier the longer it hangs around. The story of your fishing has nowhere to go because the main characters refuse to speak. Back at the ranch, there are iced drinks all around and much talk of the weather”
I was impressed recently, by Alison Graham-Smith , a Lead Advisor on conservation and Land Management for ‘Natural England’ in Hampshire, who had read Harry Plunket Greene’s book “Where the bright waters meet”. I was all the more impressed because she is not a fly fisher. I asked her how she had come to read the book, and why. In her reply she explained that it was important as a conservationist to have read the history and the descriptions of Hampshire, before she could claim to be equipped to restore that environment.
Mark, Alison and Sam : Catchment sensitive farming advisors from Natural England, surveying the River Test at Leckford in October
Impressive, don’t you think?
The conversation swished around in my head on that trip, and so when I returned I re-read this old book, and I thought I would share some of it here. It occurred to me that a whole bunch of fishermen have probably heard of the man, and the book, but in an age where few people actually read, I suspect many of us know a lot less about the book than Alison does. I suppose you could be forgiven for that: There was a fair bit of flyfishing literature around at that time, as well as famous flyfishing personalities ‘on the go’, and besides, a lot of these books have lost their dust jackets, and they look faded and smell a bit funny.
But Imagine meeting a lady, who doesn’t fly fish, and have her trounce you in her knowledge of a famous fly-fishing book!
I thought I would rush to your rescue on this front, so here are some interesting facts about the man and the book:
Within those dusty pages are some treasures, and you might find some of this interesting.
When Plunket Greene was born in 1865, GEM Skues was a 10 yr old boy, and FM Halford was 21 years of age. When the Halford/Skues fued over dry fly vs nymph got going, Plunket Greene would have been in his late thirties, and had just moved from London to live in the village of Hurstbourne Priors on the banks of the Hampshire Bourne. Unless I missed it, he doesn’t even give a passing mention to the feud or the two luminaries of the time!
Frank Sawyer had not yet been borne, and across the Atlantic Theodore Gordon of New York had been writing for ten years since receiving a letter and envelope from Halford containing his first dry flies. It would be another ten years before George Le Branche wrote “Dry fly and fast water” and Ray Bergmann’s “Trout” would be written only 2 years after Plunket Greene’s death.
Harry Plunket Greene
Plunket Greene writes in his opening chapter about how he discovered the Bourne. He goes on to write about the wildlife of the valley, and devotes a chapter to the “Iron Blue”. The crux of his message comes in the chapter “ Tragedy of the Bourne”, in which he describes the overstocking of 1905. He opens the next chapter with the words “I prefer to pass over 1906 in silence”, giving weight to the tragedy which he experienced. He writes too of the demise of the original genetics, and of the trout with black backs, a condition he believed they obtained from the tar that leached off the newly tarred roads into the stream. He laments the loss of the silver fish. But his fishing stories do continue through 1910 and beyond, covering days on the Kennet and the Test, and of course the Bourne, and Blagdon.
Harry didn’t tie flies, but he was somewhat obsessed with the Iron Blue Dun.
The Iron Blue
He did fish Blagdon reservoir quite extensively, and people don’t mention that when talking of this book. In fact who knew that Blagdon existed in 1905! Commentators are inclined to make out that it is a purist tome dedicated to the Hampshire Bourne. It is that, but it wanders off into discussions about introducing lawn tennis to Germany, running over dogs, card tricks, games of cricket, and lots of singing.
Singing was of course Harry’s career, and the stories of his touring and putting on “gigs” are scattered about the book. He talks a great deal about his companions on the river, and elsewhere, and it is clear that he was a gregarious fellow. In fact he enjoyed a hot crowded room, and lots of onlookers!
He was a large and imposing man, and reading of him, it could be said that he was “showy”. But here is a quote from his book which speaks to an underlying authenticity in that showiness, and which I think, warrants much thought:
“…..true magnetism and playing to the gallery, though they may have a common ancestor, are as far as the poles apart in the ethics of performance. The one is unconscious, compelling and incomparably precious, the other studied,opportunistic, cheap and nasty”
In reading the book, I sense he didn’t suffer fools, and he makes some cutting remarks about people with questionable intentions.
He was also a nostalgic, and was possessed with an acute and biting appreciation of the countryside and the environment. And this was in 1924! Not unlike Frank Sawyer, Plunket Greene acknowledges that he was complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the stocking his trout stream ( the Hampshire Bourne in his case, The Hampshire Avon in Sawyer’s) , with introduced fish, which displaced the wild fish. He berates himself for the stocking, and is scarred by the guilt of having done so, having learned that the preservation of the natural environment was, with the wisdom of hindsight, the true solution.
What was ironic about this aspect, is that while I was in the UK this year, news broke of how many TONS of trout are stocked into the Test annually. Remember that the Hampshire Bourne is a tributary of the Test.
The Bourne, a tributary of the Test
So what this tells me, is that while fly fishermen wax lyrical about “The Bright Waters” and leave fly boxes at the grave of Harry Plunket Greene, we seem, as a collective to be obsessed with catching fish, even at cost to the environment, and oblivious to his message and his pleas.
Considering the era in which the book was written, it strikes me that he writes with such nostalgia about “The old days”. It also strikes me how environmentally aware he was. In my opinion there is much to be gained from these old books. It places modern fly fishing and conservation topics in context, and it also serves to remind us that not a whole lot has changed. Reading this stuff might also help us to avoid repeating old mistakes, be they ones relating to trout stalking, or how to care for our streams and the trout in them.
I end with the last lines of this lovely book:
“But somewhere, deep down, I have a dim hope that one night the fairy Godmother will walk along the tarry road and stop on the bridge and listen, and send a message to me in the dark; and that when the mists begin to lift, and the poplars to shiver and the cock pheasants crow in the beech-woods, the little Bourne will wake and open her eyes and find in their bosom again the exiles that she had thought were gone for good – the silver trout, and the golden gravel,and the shrimp and the duns- and smell the dust of the road, and see the sun once more, and the red and white cows in the grass, and the yellow buttercups in the meadow and the blue smoke of the cottages against the black elms of the Andover hill –and me too, perhaps, kneeling beside her as of old and watching the little iron-blue, happy, laughing, come bobbing down to me under the trees below the Beehive bridge on the Whitchurch road.
Post script from the fairy godmother: Well Harry….a message for you …..take a look here…River restoration….
“I had been wrong to think of trout as treasure, and so to think of fishing as some sort of treasure hunt. It is an analogy that does both the trout and the process of catching them an injustice, for treasure can be tawdry or vulgar or downright ugly. Treasure can be a monument to the unhappy partnership of inordinate wealth and appallingly bad taste. Treasure is often treasure merely in terms of value in dollars or pound notes. But a brown trout is neither tawdry nor vulgar nor ugly. And his beauty is in perfect taste and quite beyond price.”
Laurence Catlow, The healing stream.