Old School Books

There’s no comparing modern fly reels and monofilament leaders to the old stuff

By Rob Breeding

A friend was clearing out his bookcase the other day and found an old, second-edition copy of “Trout,” which he dropped off at work as a gift. I now have two copies of the Ray Bergman classic, both acquired in the same fashion.

My first gifted copy is packed away somewhere, in a box of books awaiting proper shelves in my new home. It’s been years since I thumbed through it, so the new second edition sitting on my desk provided the perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with old school, Bergman-style fly fishing.

“Trout” is one of the most popular trout fishing books of all time, and was long considered a bible of fly fishing technique. That’s not so much the case today as quite a bit has changed in fly fishing since 1938, when the book was first published. Bergman fished with cane rods and silkworm gut leaders. The reels of the 30s were primitive, best used as a place to store line and little more. And then there were the flies.

The book starts with a series of color plates, 20 in all, featuring hundreds of fly patterns of that era. The first thing you notice is that most of Bergman’s faves were wet flies. There is plate after plate of wets, almost all with classic wings and the hackle tied in bearded style underneath the shank of the hook. There are quills, blue and ginger for starters, and soft-bodied patterns such as the Black Gnat and Brown Hen. These classic wets are patterns rarely fished today. I’ve swung a few over the years, and picked up a few fish with them. But you have to tie them yourself if you want to go old school. You almost never see commercially tied versions any more, just dries, streamers and nymphs.

Most of those Bergman wets were obviously intended to fish beneath the surface, though he does explain how he liked the Black Gnat in small sizes — No. 18 and 20 — as a dry to fish midge hatches. Over time the Black Gnat was replaced by the Griffith’s Gnat as the go-to midge dry fly. I’d like to learn to tie Klinkhammer emergers small enough for midges. For now I’m just trying to get the hang of things tying bigger No. 16 Klinks. It’s a great pattern for winter Blue-Winged Olive hatches.

Bergman recommended 4X or 5X tippets for his Black Gnats. That’s a little thicker than we’d use today. With modern nylon leaders I’d tie a No. 20 dry fly to a light 7X tippet. It would be stronger than Bergman’s silkworm gut leader, and more transparent on the water. I’ve never used an old gut leader, though it might be fun to try sometime. The tensile breaking strength for those old leaders wasn’t too bad from what I’ve read, but you had to soak them in water overnight so they’d be pliable enough to fish.

I’ve got an old noodley split cane rod and while it doesn’t date as far back as Bergman’s era, it probably is similar in action to the classics. There’s an ancient Pflueger reel rattling around my tackle bag as well. I just need a silk line (which are still being manufactured) as well as some vintage gut leader. I’d have to tie up the classic wet patterns.

It might be fun, but that old gear was replaced for a reason. Ultra fast and light graphite rods do the trick better than cane. There are some fine split cane rods still being made, but they run $3,000 or more. There’s no doubt these modern cane rods are remarkable examples of American craftsmanship, but I’m not sure I need a retro fly fishing experience that bad.

There’s no comparing modern fly reels and monofilament leaders to the old stuff.

One other thing that has changed: In “Trout,” anglers are measured by how quickly they fill their creel with a limit of fish. That will get you into trouble on most rivers these days. You might get away with a single trout for dinner now and then, but bragging about killing a limit is definitely passé.

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