The old school in River Dee

My good friend Ken Reid sent over a collection of amazing old photos from the River Dee

Spite the enormous contribution he made to salmon fishing, A.H.E. Wood remains a shadowy figure. His writing are confined to a few letters and articles in the fishing press of the day, a chapter in a book called "Fisherman's Pie" edited by Holland in 1926, and various accounts of his technique by third parties. The best of these are found in Crossley's "The Floating Line for Salmon and Sea-Trout" (1939), and of course, Jock Scott's incomparable "Greased Line Fishing for Salmon," published in 1935. Beyond that, we know very little, beyond the fact that made his discoveries in 1903, and spent the remainder of his life refining them.

Wood stood out from British salmon fishermen of the day for three reasons. First, he fished a floating line, using his "greased line" technique; second, he used a "short" rod of only twelve feet (as a matter of fact, Wood did so chiefly because he found difficulty using a double-handed rod); and third, his flies were reductionist patterns, a mere wisp of fur and feather on the hook, and on occasion, just the hook itself. News of the success of his method brought fishermen to Cairnton from all over the world, who visited Wood in 1925, and rose several salmon on a dry fly, but failed to land one.

Before Wood, salmon lines sank. They might have floated for a while at the beginning of the day, but silk lines rapidly took on water and once the line was soaked the fly could not be fished near the surface except in fast streams. Wood emulated dry fly fishermen's treatment of their lines, and the fact that his line floated was part of, but not the entire secret of, his greased line technique.

Until Wood, few salmon fishers other than Kelson had devoted much thought to the way the fly 'swam'. That was to change. Wood was extremely innovative, taking mending to the extreme, as part of a system of fly fishing that demanded the presentation of the fly to the fish "sidling past him and floating downstream" like a dead leaf. Wood regarded any pull on the fly by the action of the stream on the line as fatal, and would mend the cast obsessively to achieve the effect. According to Wood, the fly should swim diagonally down and across the stream, just awash:

...in a natural manner; wobbling, rising and falling with the play of the eddies exactly as would an insect, or a little fish which was in trouble.

Wood fished the greased-line by preference, even in Spring, and only turned to the sunk line when his own method had failed. He understood the effect of temperature on salmon taking, used it to decide on hook size, and described the effect of air that is colder than the water in putting salmon off the take. A remarkable man.

The inter-war years saw another revolution in fly fishing technique, with the widespread use of floating lines and floating flies. Until A.H.E. Wood's discovery of the "greased line technique", salmon fishing in Britain finished to all intents and purposes, at the end of spring, with a brief resurgence in the cold and cloudy days of autumn. The impact that Wood's ideas had on salmon fishing is difficult to imagine now, but at the time, they were revolutionary. After Wood, summer fishing became not only possible, but profitable. Wood was extremely innovative, raising mending to a high art, as part of a system of fly fishing that demanded the presentation of the fly to the fish just awash and "sidling past him and floating downstream" like a dead leaf. "Greased line" fishing is frequently misunderstood as referring to any presentation of a sunk salmon fly on a floating line. Wood regarded any pull on the fly by the action of the stream on the line as fatal, and would mend the cast obsessively to achieve the effect.

After Wood, the focus of salmon fishing development moved to America. Three men were to pioneer a new breakthrough: Hewitt, La Branche and Monell. Their inspiration came from none other than Theodore Gordon, who tied dry flies for salmon some time before 1903. Although La Branche proved that salmon would take just about any dry fly, he developed a special series of palmer hackled flies for the purpose, which rode high on their hackle points. LaBranche was later to compare the patterns to bottle brushes, and the trio settled on four patterns: the Colonel Monell, Soldier Palmer, Pink Lady Palmer, and the Mole. Despite Gordon, Monell, Hewitt and LaBranche's pioneering work, the dry fly was not popularised until the 1930s, when Lee Wulff revisited the whole problem of floating flies for salmon, and indulged in some major design work. The result was the Gray Wulff, a pattern which was so successful that it encouraged the inventor to develop the White Wulff and the Royal Wulff. The three patterns still form the mainstay of many fishermen's dry fly boxes. The dry fly method works well for salmon, anywhere where fish are present in large quantities, where a sighted fish can be accurately fished to, or in water temperatures over 60° Fahrenheit, which may explain why it is not so successful in Northern Europe.

Wood's book JOCK SCOTT goes into great detail on the subject. Now we take a 'floating line' for granted, but until the 1960s manufacturers had not developed the line technology to produce self-efficient lines that 'float', 'slowsink', or 'fastsink' at a variety of speeds. Wood's lines were of silk Kingfisher: he greased these lines with lanolin 2 or 3 times a day. Leaders were almost certainly from gut, tied to the fly with his Cairnton knot. He fished a single-handed 12ft rod, but still cast his fly a prodigious distance. While he probably cast at 45° to the bank, he also wrote in a letter to Farlows, of Pall Mall, to the effect that "I cast upstream so that the fly drifts downstream like a leaf".

Wood's personal fishing diaries, now held by his grand-daughter, record his exploits from the time when his fishing consisted of occasional weeks at Ballynahinch in Ireland, and at Cairnton, until his death in 1934. Cairnton provided the setting for most of his fishing from 1918; he took an annual lease of Cairnton from then until his death. The water was owned by the Burnetts of Crathes, and contained a rather small Cottage, with modest bankside accommodation. Wood stayed at Glassel while the Cottage was razed and a Mansion built in 1921; he added 2 excellent lunch huts, and 2 rain shelters on the banks. The Mansion comprised 3 suites with bath, 2 single rooms with bath, ample reception area, and a staff flat for the female servants with a separate annexe for the men!!. Later he devised a system whereby from his study he knew the water height; the drawings and parts of this system survive. It surprises his descendants that he did not develop a system to tell him the water temperature on which his fishing most depended.

Wood's personal fishing diaries, now held by his grand-daughter, record his exploits from the time when his fishing consisted of occasional weeks at Ballynahinch in Ireland, and at Cairnton, until his death in 1934. Cairnton provided the setting for most of his fishing from 1918; he took an annual lease of Cairnton from then until his death. The water was owned by the Burnetts of Crathes, and contained a rather small Cottage, with modest bankside accommodation. Wood stayed at Glassel while the Cottage was razed and a Mansion built in 1921; he added 2 excellent lunch huts, and 2 rain shelters on the banks. The Mansion comprised 3 suites with bath, 2 single rooms with bath, ample reception area, and a staff flat for the female servants with a separate annexe for the men!!. Later he devised a system whereby from his study he knew the water height; the drawings and parts of this system survive. It surprises his descendants that he did not develop a system to tell him the water temperature on which his fishing most depended.

By possibly apocryphal reports, Wood was a stickler for effort; but had lunch delivered to the 2 huts by the chef and chauffeur: He kept a record of the times of day when fish were caught; though the obvious conclusions can be drawn, there was no slacking of effort around lunch-time. Indeed, this analysis shows little bias in favour of morning, afternoon, or evening to the pattern we see today.

Even by todays standards, the engineering design that was used to erect the lunch huts was superlative and can be matched in his design of the 'Rodroom'; here he provided racks and reels for drying lines, for both left- and right-handed tackle; a cool room for cleaning fish in preparation for marketing after weighing and measuring - he kept a skin-scale from almost every fish for 'dating'. His dislike of wading led him to design and set up jetties to help in reaching the lies; modern man needs the help of JCBs to replace the stones that have been displaced over time. How he managed, we can only guess, but like the Pharoes, he managed without.

In his search for the perfect fly, Wood used only a 'March brown' for a whole year, and a 'Blue Charm' for another, to find the best pattern; his success with either was hardly different, but he went for the Blue Charm with a little help from the Jock Scott and the March Brown, and the Silver Blue in high or very clear waters. This search for facts led him to record for each day his 'contacts', classified as 'Caught', 'Kelts', 'Lost', 'Pulled', or 'Rises'; as often as not, the contacts added up to 20 incidents a day. Oh that we could claim the same activity over recent years: The Dee was full of fish in his day, and one can only imagine what today's fisher, with today's equipment, and Wood's skill might have achieved.

His death in 1934 saw the end of an era: The estate reverted to the Burnetts. In 1949 the property was bought by Mr W.N.Mitchell, who fished Cairnton to his death in 1996, with great effect and without resort to paying tenants. For many years he gave the fishing from early June to the Royal British Legion of Scotland, on the basis that each fisher kept 1 fish per day, and gave any others to him. His Nephews now run the fishing on a commercial basis, trying to maintain the standards set by these illustrious forebears.

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