In his 1924 publication Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, Lieut-Col William Keith Rollo made no bones about being a “Wet Fly” fisherman in an age of “dry Fly” supremacy. And in this now largely forgotten slim volume, he reprints some of his earlier Fishing Gazette articles, together with wider thoughts on suitable tackle and techniques for wet fly fishing the rivers and streams of northern England and Scotland.
Very much the product of empire, William Keith Rollo was born on October 10th, 1879 on the Ingurgalle Estate in Ceylon. His Scottish parents originally emigrating from Aberdeenshire to become affluent tea planters. And it is here in the empire’s wider reaches that Rollo informs us through his introductory chapter that he first took up the sport of bait fishing in Ceylon. Before later turning to traditional wet fly fishing at the age of eleven, when the family returned to Scotland.
“On arrival in Scotland from Ceylon in 1891, my father took a house for the season in the Forest of Birse, near Banchory, in Aberdeenshire, and gave me my first lessons in fly-fishing for trout.”
And it is here in the introductory chapter to Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, that Rollo clearly states what defines him as a “Wet Fly” man, whilst at the same time conceding that “dry fly fishing is more artistic and more difficult than the chuck and chance it method of downstream wet fly fishing. But moreover, it is the nature and beauty of the northern rivers and landscape that has made him the confirmed wet fly angler.
“The fat sleek chalk stream of the South of England do not appeal to me, but give me instead, the rushing, rocky streams of the north, flowing through a country of grassy slopes, stone walls and heather, with here and there snug grey stone villages. One’s only companions, perhaps, are the black-faced mountain sheep, or the curlew, who hovers above you with his weird and desolate cry. How one longs to hear it again after an absence, perhaps of years, in foreign climes.”
After leaving Ceylon Rollo was educated at Cheltenham College, where he would follow the school’s proud military tradition and later attend the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, becoming a “career” soldier. He first joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment in 1899 and saw action in the Second Boer War, becoming a Lieutenant in 1901. Later he served in the Indian Army from 1903 to 1909 before eventually joining the 2nd Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) being made up to the rank of Captain and company commander of D Company during the First World War. And it is in his chapter entitled Fishing at Warcop that Rollo evokes memories of his time in the trenches and the ultimate sacrifice of his generation.
“I remember fishing one day at the end of April 1915 at Warcop, on the Westmorland Eden. I happened to be on sick leave from France after having stopped a bullet at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. I was not likely to forget it, as it was my first day’s fishing after the horrible Flanders mud, the squalor of the trenches and the nauseating smell from the unburied dead lying there in no-man’s land on the other side of the barbed wire. It was a glorious spring day, just after some rain; the sun was out, and the birds were singing. What a relief it was to get away for a short time from the dreadful turmoil that was going on incessantly not 24 hours distant from where I was standing on the river bank that morning. I remember the lines of Herrick and felt cheered:-
“Let the world slide, let the world go,
A fig for a care, a fig for a woe.”
Well on that particular day the fish took a fancy to my point fly, which was a blue dun hackle tied to hair.”
It is through his brave actions at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle that Rollo was mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir John French. Later being assigned the Military Cross in King George V, 1915 birthday honours list “for an act of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy”. Leaving the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, Rollo became a more frequent contributor to the Fishing Gazette. And with his 1931 publication, The Art of Fly Fishing, Rollo cemented his reputation as one of the country’s leading fly anglers of the inter-war period. His writings and popularity leading to a commission from Hardy Brothers for the design of a split cane rod, which went into production in 1932, and continued in production until its discontinuation by the company in 1957.
In his Prefatory Note to Fishing in Northern Streams, his good friend and famed editor of the Fishing Gazette R. B. Marston pays tribute to Rollo and his written articles. As well as Rollo’s keenness for hair casts over the gut which Marston himself favoured. And even though in the book’s first chapter Rollo goes on to describe the ideal length and taper of the gut cast. He unequivocally stands on the side of the more traditional material, even to the extent of using the now rarer horsehair for his points and droppers when fishing gut casts.
Despite in later years turning over his preference entirely to gut, he nevertheless still extolled the virtues of horsehair, and even mentioned his old sources for this rarefied material in his later book The Art of Fly Fishing.
Good strong horsehair being now practically impossible to obtain, I have recently, much to my regret, given up using it.
When I used to get it fairly regularly in the past, I used to keep my source of supply secret, as otherwise, it would very soon become exhausted. However, one can still get some very fair horsehair in some of the villages of Yorkshire, and as I have now given up using it, I do not mind giving one address: Mr Nat Hunt, River Keeper, Horton-in-Ribblesdale. He is getting an old man but still ties a beautiful fly – for killing and not for show purposes. I used also to get some very nice hair and beautifully tied flies from the late Mr William Brumfitt, of Otley, a well-known Yorkshire fisherman.
The Upstream Wet Fly
When reading his many publications and angling articles, it becomes immediately clear when the discussion turns to wet fly fishing, that Rollo was a strict disciple of Stewart, and that he favours the upstream presentation above all others.
“Taking all things equal, I don’t think there is any doubt that upstream fishing is the most profitable form of wet-fly angling.”
Later in a piece published in the Fishing Gazette of August 1930. Rollo not only extolled the virtues of the upstream wet fly but also paid tribute to its practitioners, with a thorough and thoughtful consideration of the merits of the upstream technique.
“There is no doubt that upstream wet-fly fishing is a natural gift, and unless one is born with it one can never be really expert. Anyone with practice and a little observation can become a good dry fly fisherman or an “across and down”, wet fly man, but the hallmark of efficiency is the up-stream genius. He can hold down his own in any water.”
My favourite wet-fly streams are in the north of England and in Scotland. All these streams flow swiftly through delightful country, peopled by black-faced sheep where one Is thrilled by the notes of the curlew and oyster catcher. Apart from their skill, upstreamers are strong and active men who fish hard for ten or twelve hours a day and make big catches. Men who complain of their non-success when fishing down impart drag to their flies by casting too much upstream. One disadvantage of the across and down method is that one can only search one bank, and in consequence, a longer length of stream is required, whereas the upstreamer searches both banks and every hole and corner.
To sum up, if one wished to take up wet-fly fishing seriously one should try to master the upstream method.”
Wet Fly Patterns
Throughout most of his books, Rollo sticks to the traditional tried and tested north country patterns, and lists only seven, which includes one of his own modern dressings. Even in Fly Fishing in Northern Streams, he went to the extent of saying that for wet-fly fishing, seven hackled patterns are all that is required, with the exception of the Greenwell Glory. And with one glance at his fly list, it becomes obvious to any reader that Rollo had that intrinsic feel for fishing the northern rivers. His fly selection is stripped of the superfluous, a testament to a skilled and practised angler, one who had served his apprenticeship and distilled the economy of experience.
1. My particular fly, which for a name we will call the “Blue dun hackle,” which is somewhat like the “blue upright.” Mr H.J. Thomas, 19 New Station Street, Leeds, usually strikes the right shade for me.
Hackle – Grizzly blue dun hen, with a nice sheen on it.
Body – Peacock quill.
Tail – Three whisks of blue dun cock hackle.
2. Dark partridge and orange, ribbed with gold wire.
3. Light snipe and yellow
4. Dark snipe and purple
5. Waterhen bloa
6. Brown owl
7. Greenwell glory
The Northern Rivers
Although as a well-known writer and angler, Rollo inevitably received numerous invitations to fish far and wide. He nevertheless kept returning to the swiftly flowing northern rivers that had clearly captured his heart, with his principle rivers being the Eamont, Eden, Swale, Wharfe, Don, Whiteadder and Lossie. He was a member of the Yorkshire Fly-Fishers’ Club and also for a brief period a member of the Kilnsey Angling Club. He also fished extensively on the Appletreewick, Barden and Burnsall Angling Club waters of the River Wharfe. And it is on the lower beat at Barden, that the main photograph showing Rollo fishing the Wharfe in Fly Fishing in Northern Streams was taken. Known famously as the Colonel’s Pool, this enchanting and productive spot has captivated many anglers, with its background of high wooded hills and Gamsworth Farm nestled in rolling pastures.
Though for many modern anglers Rollo’s opinions on fishing, coupled with his military rank, will smack of the pomposity of a bygone age. He is nevertheless as relevant today as he was in the 1930s. For he was very much the precursor of today’s modern celebrity angler, with frequent articles in the leading publications of the day, numerous books, and insights on tackle and rod design. Thankfully, unlike today’s celebrity anglers, he kept his integrity intact by steering clear of opportunist product placements and transient endorsements. In his writings, Rollo also pointed to the fishing technique that would come to in many ways dominate modern river fly-fishing. Like Dr William Baigent of Northallerton, Rollo saw the merits of fishing two dry flies of the same cast. However, he took Baigent’s fishing method one step further by initiating the “Duo Method” of fishing a sunken nymph or wet fly below a dry fly acting as an indicator.
“If trout are nymphing, a nymph or wet fly could be mounted on the point, whilst a dry fly could be mounted on the dropper.”
Lieut-Col William Keith Rollo died 5th October 1939 at the Edenhall Hotel, and is buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edenhall, beside his beloved River Eden.
Author of The North Country Fly. Wharfedale flyfisherman and flytyer.