Most fly fishermen would have heard of G.E.M. Skues and F.M. Halford.
Skues is best known for his pioneering work in developing the art of fishing with a sunken fly (nymph) and Halford as the self- appointed high priest of dry fly fishing. The public battles between the two are legendary.
However spin (or threadline) fishing had a pioneer equal in stature whose contributions seem to have been lost in the annals of time. His name was Alexander Wanless and he came to prominence between the late 1920’s – early 1950’s.
Alexander Wanless was a rebel. Rather than simply kowtow to the accepted dry fly tradition he advocated that the newly developed spinning reels and nylon lines could be used to fly fish for trout and salmon. He was immediately branded as a heretic yet he wrote prodigiously and went on to prove that the fixed spool spinning reel enabled lighter lines to be used which meant it was actually a more sporting proposition.
As a lowland Scot, plainly could not tolerate class distinction, snobbery or elitism in angling and this probably stemmed from the fact that it was still rife in his homeland, especially when it came to salmon fishing. He agreed that dry fly fishing was more enjoyable than spinning but only when the conditions suited.
Wanless above all was a pragmatist. He wanted to simplify fly fishing so that it was available to the average angler and showed how to do this using spinning tackle. He was an innovator and shaped the face of angling as we know it today.
To illustrate the impact that Wanless had on spin fishing I am going to summarise a few of his achievements:-
• Conducted experiments to determine the ideal weight of lure for a specified thickness of line.
• Established the basic principle that the more pliant the rod, the more it can absorb the powerful lunges of large fish and the less likely it is that the line will break or the tackle fail.
• This lead to the principle of test curves and the development of balanced tackle. Wanless fundamentally understood the physics of rod design and how to fish with light lines. He showed that big fish could be caught on light lines and led the charge landing salmon up to 40 lb. on 6 lb. nylon.
• Wanless invented the term threadline to cover the thickness of the lines he advocated using to catch salmon. Lines which were thicker than domestic sewing thread were not classed as threadlines and he eschewed their use.
• Demonstrated that salmon will run against the pressure that an angler exerts. If this is excessive then the fish can become unstoppable. In order to catch big fish on light lines it is necessary to exert steady, light pressure and coax the fish to exhaustion.
• The famous UK tackle maker Hardy produced a range of light tackle spinning rods named after him (see image below). These had test curves ranging from 6 oz. to 2 ¼ lb. Specifying test curves was a first.
• Wanless advocated the use of a large butt ring on spinning rods to cope with the wide spirals of line coming off the fixed spool reel during casting. He also recommended that rods be ringed closely to improve performance. This is the basis of most modern spinning rod design.
• Developed a floating weight that he called a controller to propel the fly great distances on spinning tackle. This innovation allowed him to fish many more salmon lies and stretches with a fly than traditional fly fisherman as he was unaffected by bankside vegetation. Controllers are still used today in the UK.
• He sought the advice of ICI on how to use a newly developed plastic, Alkathene, to make better floating controllers. He was always looking to embrace technology to gain an edge.
• Developed a sinking controller for use in wet fly fishing and an airborne controller for dapping flies.
Just like G.E.M Skues and many angling innovators, Wanless was pilloried by the conservative establishment. The elitist dry fly purists who dominated the angling landscape at the time. They could not understand that he was using exactly the same flies as them, just delivering them onto and into the water a different way.
They alleged his methods were ruthlessly efficient, condemned them as unsporting and outlawed them. This myopia spread across the commonwealth and probably explains why anglers are still not allowed to use spinning tackle to present flies to trout, even in some catchments in New Zealand. They lost sight of the fact that Wanless was using 2 – 6 lb. nylon and his approach was entirely sporting; often more so than the standard fly fishing techniques that they employed.
Wanless wrote numerous books on spin fishing. They are readily available, even locally in New Zealand. He was an enthusiastic angler and his books convey this enthusiasm and his passion for the sport.
His admirable lack of class distinction permeates his writing and you quickly realise that the books are writing by a first class angler, a man at the top of his game. My only recommendation is that you start with his earlier works as the latter books do not describe the controller in sufficient detail. I’ve attached a brief description of the controller to help overcome this shortcoming.
Much of the content above was gained from an article entitled “Fly fishing for salmon with a fixed spool reel”. Written by Ron Sturdy and published in the magazine Angling History in May 2002. Excellent magazine – highly recommended.
5 thoughts on “ALEXANDER WANLESS – FLY FISHING INNOVATOR”
Excellent article. I live in Alexander’s home town and often wonder if he fished the same pools as me. This article has encouraged me to locate and buy some of his books. I have a Hardy Wanless rod, perhaps I should give it a cast one day. It’s slightly unfortunate that controllers are banned on his river otherwise I would try that as well.
Really glad that you enjoyed the article and humbled that it has inspired you to go fishing. Wanless was an innovative thinker, a real talent and his achievements deserved greater recognition. Good luck and tight lines. Alan.
I am reading Alexander Wanless’s book “Rods on fast Rivers” at the moment,nice to put a face to the man, and good to hear that he was such an innovator and thinker in our sport. I live 12 miles North of his hometown which adds further interest for me in the article.