Major Traherne is the master of infinite elaboration... There are no salmon flies in creation requiring somuch patient work to dress well as Major Traherne's - George M. Kelson
George M. Kelson began his continuing series "On the Description of Salmon Flies" in the spring of 1884 in TheFishing Gazette. The first eighteen patterns he discussed were a series of flies invented by Major John P.Traherne. Kelson tells us that he had not intended to proceed to publish salmon fly patterns until he had fulfilled the promise he had made the previous year by bringing out "Standard Colours" of material which would permit everyone to dress their flies precisely in accordance with his prescriptions.
Kelson's promise to provide "Standard Colours" commercially was never to be fulfilled as originally stated. Inreality, Kelson's knowledge of dyeing was that of a contemporary of Jones and Blacker, that of an era forty years gone. Chemistry and the technology of dyes had advanced rapidly in the second half of the 19th century,and Kelson found himself unable to compete on the same ground with commercial dyers of the 1880s. In theend, in the spring of 1886 after he had left
The Fishing Gazette to become an editor at Land and Water, Kelson took advantage of the latter publication's tradition of supplemental illustration, and produced a series ofchromolithographed cards illustrating salmon flies; which, the public was informed, were to be taken as the fulfillment of his long-standing promise to provide "Standard Colours."
In the opening paragraph of the first article "On the Description of Salmon Flies," Kelson tells us he hasdecided to proceed with these articles, even in the absence of the "Standard Colours," as it is possible todiscuss Major Traherne's flies which are characteristically tied using only natural material.
Kelson's decision to commence his lengthy series of essays on the salmon fly with Traherne's patterns wasclearly based not only on that consideration. Undoubtedly, George Kelson found it desirable to begin withTraherne's patterns, because their complexity of design and artistic excellence would make the powerfulimpression on the Gazette's readership that he desired. These eighteen patterns would dazzle his readers, as they had the salmon in the Shannon and the Tay.
Kelson could appreciate the impact these patterns would have upon the angling public, as he was himself stillunder their spell. At the Berlin Exhibition of 1880 Kelson had been alone in exhibiting a case of twenty salmon flies tied by himself. He displayed the same case of twenty flies at the Great International Fisheries Exhibitionat London in 1883. It was his dissent, as one of twelve jurors, with the disposition of awards at this Exhibition that led to Kelson's friendship with Robert Bright Marston, editor of The Fishing Gazette, and (after Kelson's judicious cultivation of Marston) to Kelson's various series of articles in the Gazette.
At London, Kelson's case of salmon flies was not alone. Several of the tackle houses and commercial tyersexhibited salmon flies among their various wares, and another amateur also exhibited a case of salmon flies.The other amateur fly dresser was, of course, Major Traherne, and it seems probable that the contents of thecase were the same eighteen patterns, which Kelson published in the Gazette in 1884 and 1885.
George M. Kelson and Major John P. Traherne probably met for the first time at the London Exhibition in 1883. It is possible to imagine that they might have encountered one another previously on the Welsh River Usk, not far from Traherne's home in Glamorganshire, and with which Kelson is much associated.Their frequentmutual gestures of civility, however, directly following the International Fisheries Exibition, fit the pattern of acourtship, and seem to evidence that their friendship was at that time in its formative stage.
The two men could not have been more unalike. Born in Kent, just outside of London (practically a Cockney), the son of a surgeon, a self-made man who had made his fortune as a London merchant, Kelson was a pushing, thrusting, get-ahead sort of fellow. Every detail of his life manifests the insecurity of the nouveau riche. A fiery, red-headed gamecock, a ruthless self-promoter and boundless egotist, Kelson made enemies and stirredup controversy everywhere. His ever-present bowler hat (proudly worn, no doubt, to bring to mind hisachievements on the cricket field) infallibly marked him as a member of the mercantile/clerical class (gentlemenwore toppers). Kelson fell as far short in his morals as his manners from the Victorian ideal of the EnglishGentleman, as Surtees's grocer of Great Coram Street, John Jorrocks, M.F.H.
In contrast, Major Traherne, nine years Kelson's senior, was born a member of the landed gentry. His familywas armigerous, tracing its descent from an eponymous Welsh Prince who ruled Gwynedd in the eleventhcentury. For two hundred years before his birth his ancestors had been land owners and office holders. Hisgrandfather had made a particularly advantageous marriage to one Frances Popkin, an heiress, who broughtinto his family her surname as well as the estate at Coytrahen.
John Popkin Traherne was born August 28, 1826. He was the eldest son, and therefore heir to the estate,which came to him in 1859. In 1845, he obtained a commision as Ensign in the 39th (Dorset) Regiment ofFoot. He served with that regiment for nearly six years, and resigned by sale of his commission in 1851. Heserved, subsequently, as Major in the Glamorganshire Militia, retiring in 1865. As might be expected, Traherneoccupied the sorts of County offices reserved for those principal landowners who were not of the peerage:Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant for the County, and finally High Sheriff in 1863.
In contrast to the fiery Kelson, Traherne was not only a gentleman by birth, but a genuinely gentle and kindlyman. He alone of all the angling celebrities of his era was able to remain friends with the quarrelsome andcontumacious Kelson right up to the time of his own death in 1901. In the photographs of Traherne that havecome down to us, in Kelson's book, in The Fishing Gazette, or in the short-lived Sporting Celebrities, he looksout at us, past his muttonchop whiskers, the very picture of the decent, stalwart, phlegmatic, and reliable British gentleman of the old school - Dr. Watson, to the life! In his relationship with the volatile Kelson,Traherne's role was clearly that of the faithful Watson ministering to the all-consuming ego of the ebullientHolmes. Kelson's sins were many and scarlet, and when he was well and truly taken through the mill byMarston in the famous "Little Inky Boy" controversy of 1907-8, the reader could not but feel that he had it allcoming to him. Still one's heart goes out to poor Kelson when he writes in extremis, replying to Marston'slatest and only too telling attack, how much he wishes Major Traherne were alive, to defend him, and rebuke theupstart Marston.
Had Traherne still been alive in 1908, it is doubtful that even he could have rescued Kelson from all the limbs hehad climbed out upon, but the Major might well have intervened to separate the combatants and still the furor Kelsonicus. Traherne would probably have succeeded as peacemaker since his moral character and his tremendous knowledge and experience of salmon fishing commanded the respect of both combatants.
In 1886, in The Fishing Gazette, Marston wrote a profile of Traherne's angling career, obviously informed on the details by Traherne himself. He caught his first salmon in 1850, and from then until the time of his death fished, throughout the long British season, most rivers in the United Kingdom. Major Traherne either himselfheld a lease on, or fished regularly as a guest: in Scotland: the Naver, Thurso, Helmsdale, the Aberdeenshire Dee, Spey, Cuve, Annan, and the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee; in Wales: the Conway, Usk, and Wye; and in Ireland: theMoy, the Galway Ballinahinch, Boyne, Shannon, Carah (Kerry), Laune, Lee, Suir, and the Blackwater (Cork). Hehad fished all of these, each for "several years in succession," by 1886. In addition, between 1862 and 1869,Major Traherne held leases on a number of the best salmon rivers in Norway, including the Lyngdal, the Maals, the Namsen, and the Alten.
After 1886, the River Reports in The Fishing Gazette indicate that Traherne continued his lease for some yearson the Stanley water on the Tay, and fished the Boyne and the Lee regularly. His principal salmon fishing locusin the last twenty years of his life, however, was certainly the three mile stretch of water which he leased atKillaloe on the River Shannon. It is depressing to contemplate the fact that it is no longer possible to fishMajor Traherne's water, which was submerged beneath a hydroelectric project in 1929.
The Shannon possessed the peculiar characteristic that apparently no fly could be dressed too brightly for itssalmon. In fact, the brighter the fly, the better it worked. The accumulated historical evidence is that theelaborate"gaudy" style of salmon fly dressing originated in the West of Ireland, and most particularly around the Shannon. As the premier Irish salmon fishery, its environs had long been a center of angling commercialenterprise and export. The world famous O'Shaughnessy hook, preferred above all others for salmon flydressing, was the product of a Limerick maker.
Through the 19th century, the "gaudy" salmon fly supplanted in fashion and use the drab local favorites on riverafter river. Younger tells us this development occurred early, circa 1830-40, on the Tweed, which rapidly itselfbecame the leading site of salmon fly invention. On lesser, more provincial rivers, the process took place later.Taverner quotes John Waller Hills's account of the changeover on the Eden as late as the 1890's. As "gaudy" flies became popular on every river, Shannon flies grew more gaudy still (cf. Ephemera's "Three Graces", circa 1850).
Major Traherne's patterns represent the pinnacle of achievement in the Victorian Era of the Shannon style ofsalmon fly dressing, and it was his role to act as the vehicle of transmission to angling posterity of theShannon school of fly dressing, through Kelson's articles on his patterns and Kelson's emulation of his style insalmon fly design. When today's most talented and creative salmon fly dressers, individuals like PaulSchmookler and Ken Sawada, invent "exhibition" or "artistic" patterns utilizing the rarest and most valuable ofmaterials and requiring the greatest command of tying technique, the Shannon tradition lives on.
Only slightly less gaudy flies were the standard on the Erne, where Michael Rogan achieved world-wide fame asa salmon fly dresser by the middle of the century. Rogan, like Traherne, was famous for avoiding dyed material.Evidently, the peat-stained highly acid waters of the Erne bleached out the dyes of the period. The Erne wasIreland's second finest fishery, and, sad to say, it, too, has been completely submerged by a hydroelectricscheme built between 1945 and 1950. The angler cannot but marvel that Ireland chose to destroy both of her finest salmon rivers.
Despite his love of the Shannon, Traherne seems to have departed from the usual local practice of "harling".Long, top-heavy-actioned Castle Connell rods, made by John Enright right next door, were employed to impartaction to flies towed to and fro across the river in peculiar high-ended boats, called "cots," which somewhatresembled Venetian gondolas. Traherne preferred less passive forms of salmon fishing and employed a three sectioned greenheart rod with a more even action, better suited to long casts and spey casts. He lent his favorite rod to Farlow's so that they could duplicate its action for a "Traherne" model to be offered to the public.
Traherne's taste in salmon rods was worth following, for at The Fishing Gazette Tournament in 1884, Traherne found himself, as one of the publication's favorite "experts," called upon to perform under weather conditionswhich Marston described at the time as "remarkably adverse," Major Traherne calmly proceeded to make whatwas for years the world's record cast of 45 yards and one inch. He used a spliced Farlow-made "Traherne" rodof 17 feet 4 inches. The cast was made July 26, 1884. How many of us today, I wonder, could equal that distance?
Traherne also held some of the records for fish catches, recorded without guilt back in that more generousage. On the Namsen, in August of 1864, Traherne caught 165 fish in fifteen days. On the best of those fifteendays, he caught 23 fish, 12 grilse and 11 salmon, the largest weighing 38 lbs. Writing in 1886, Kelson believedTraherne's Namsen score had never been equaled. Fishing from March 10 to March 25, 1885, on the Boyne,Major Traherne caught fish weighing 33, 28, 24, 22, 17, 18, 19, 19, 27, 19, 19, 26, and 33 lbs. The total weightwas 304 lbs, an enviable average of almost 23 and 1/2 lbs. per fish.
Regrettably, Major Traherne did not devote himself to the writing of articles for the sporting papers, as Kelsondid. He did contribute frequently to the controversies which were ongoing in the letter column of The FishingGazette. The Fishing Gazette, the contemporary reader must be informed, had an editorial policy regardingletters from its readers, differing quite notably from any periodical we are familiar with today. The Gazette encouraged lengthy debate in its letter column, and on topics which called forth strong feelings on the part ofits readership, the battle could rage for a year or even two, issue after issue. Traherne participated in many of the principal symposia of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. He played a particularly prominent role in the debate as towhether the parr is, in fact, a salmon (in the 1870's many were convinced it was a separate fish: Traherne wasproved to be right), and the debate on the practice "of striking from the reel" (i.e. setting the hook on a takingsalmon while not touching one's reel, thus allowing the drag to apply sufficient, but not too much force, inhooking the fish).
His only book, "The Habits of the Salmon," published in 1889, was a study of the natural history of the salmon,and though it was a valuable contribution to the understanding of Traherne's contemporaries, its conclusionswere largely accepted universally so long ago, that the reader today will probably not be very interested. It isinteresting that Traherne believed salmon did feed in fresh water, and disgorged their stomach contents uponbeing hooked. He is probably the originator of that frequently-quoted theory.
Of more interest to the contemporary student of salmon fishing and the salmon fly is his essay on "SalmonFishing with the Fly", which he contributed to Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell's "Salmon and Trout" volume of Fishing, published in the Badminton Library series in 1885. It is typical of Traherne's modesty that hedelegated the selection of salmon fly patterns at the conclusion of his essay to his friend, George Kelson.Traherne's observations on technique and fly selection are still pertinent today. It is particularly interesting to find that though Traherne believed the color of the fly and its size influenced the angler's success, he believed that more or less any pattern of the same color would produce the same result. Traherne did not subscribe toKelson's pseudo-scientific theories which posited a guaranteed result from the use of a specific fly patternunder specific circumstances.
He clearly tied his complex and elaborate patterns simply for the pleasure of exercising the technique which heloved and at which he so excelled. He wrote: "Fly tying is a most interesting, and I might almost say excitingoccupation, and many a dull rainy day, during the winter months especially, may be thus pleasantly, and as faras salmon fishing matters are concerned profitably, passed. Doubtless a man will feel much prouder when he has landed a fish with a fly of his own making, than one he has bought, and I would recommend every fishermanwho has the time to try his hand at it.
But the Major did not dogmatically insist that tying one's own salmon flies was for everyone: "I have heard itsaid that a man cannot rank as a first class fisherman unless he can do so; but I think this is hardly fair.Many people's fingers are 'all thumbs,' and they could not tie a fly in a year of Sundays, as the saying goes;other salmon fishermen are professional men with no time to spare from their duties… It might just as soonbe said that to rank in the first class a fisherman should be able to make his own rods and reels.
It is also interesting to find that Traherne, despite his own remarkable accomplishments in pattern invention,writes: "With regard to patterns of flies, my favorite is the Jock Scott, and if I were told that I was only allowed to fish with one pattern that is the one I should choose.
Major Traherne died Monday, January 28, 1901, from a stroke. He survived Queen Victoria by only six days. In the obituary in Fishing Gazette Marston wrote: "With the death of Major John P. Traherne has passed awayone of the best of salmon anglers and most genial of men… his death has cast quite a gloom over Killaloeand Shannon salmon anglers, for during the many years he had visited the district he was as Mr. Hurley putsit, 'simply idolised and loved by everyone.'" Marston remembered Traherne carefully hand-tailing a kelt Marstoncaught on his first salmon fishing trip, on the Dee at Banchory in 1884, so that it could be released: "He hated the idea of using the gaff on a kelt". It was typical of Traherne's sportsmanship, at a time when most anglerssimply slaughtered kelts indiscriminately.
Written by David Zincavage