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James Chetham Black Gnat

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James Chetham's Black Gnat as tied by more recent ancestor Stephen Cheetham James Chetham's Black Gnat as tied by more recent ancestor Stephen Cheetham

Stephen Cheetham searches for his roots this month and comes up with a fly fishing ancestor that dates back to the late 16th century with a literary background and plenty of fishing tips and fly dressings!

A couple of years ago I turned 60 and those years seems to have flown and like some of you readers, maybe, I often wonder about my ancestors. I come from an old Yorkshire family who had Goodalls Saddlery and fishing tackle shop in Shipley which was established in the 1800’s. I can still remember, as a young lad, standing gawping for many hours at the array of hooks, lines, flies and rods. I still recall the fascination of putting my hands into a gallon bucket of maggots, the feel of them wriggling between my fingers, and the smell of leather, hen and dog food - ah happy days.

My mother, who was 95 when she passed away last year, worked in the shop and often talked about the old days and mentioned names like Greenwells Glory, Allcocks, Millwards, Partridge, Hardy Brothers. Close interrogation of my Mum revealled that I am related to Oliver Cromwell and Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. Pocahontas has also been mentioned but I choose to ignore that, sorry Mum.

You can imagine my surprise some time ago when I came across the name of James Chetham who wrote a book about fly fishing in 1681. Could this be an ancestor? I doubted if there was a book available, but investigation on the Internet showed that a facsimile edition was available from the Chetham Library in Manchester.

Woodcut from the Anglers Vade Mecum by James ChethamJames Chetham (1640-1692) was born in Lancashire, but I will forgive him. His book The Angler's Vade Mecum according to the Chetham Library “Is universally agreed to be one of the most significant works on the subject, his descriptive account of the art and science of fly-fishing is written with experience, clarity, and an acerbic wit”. First published anonymously in 1681, the volume deals with every aspect of the sport, containing his observations on the most commonly encountered fish, descriptions of the flies to be used each month, and an appreciative chapter on roasting, broiling, or stewing one's catch, which even includes an 'excellent French bread to eat fish with'.

The book I managed to obtain is a facsimile, (reprinted in 2005 by the Chetham library), of the third edition printed for William Battersby in 1700. As the extended title of the book tells me, his work discusses “the aptest methods and ways, exactest rules, properest baits, and choicest experiments for the catching all manner of fresh water fish, together with a brief discourse of fish-ponds, and not only the easiest, but most palatable ways of dressing all sorts of fish whether belonging to rivers or ponds; and the laws concerning angling, and the preservation of such fish”.

He goes into great detail about hazel rods and horse hair lines, the tying of the fly (which confused me first time I read it and still does to be honest) not forgetting the flies were tied without a vice or eye to the hook. He stresses the importance of the size of hook and the colour of materials some of which we will have problems obtaining today.

The book draws to a close with chapters about the angling laws and the preservation of fish, and then to cap it all he gives recipes on how best to cook all types of fish which Nigella Lawson would be proud of.

Well done great, great, great…. Uncle James. A very interesting and meaningful reference book, even if, for coarse fishing to keep my worms in tip top condition I have to “take the bones or skull of a dead man, at the opening of the grave, and beat the same into powder, and put this powder into moss wherein you keep your worms, but others like grave earth as well” I will stick to fly fishing thank you.

I decided to have a go at the James Chetham Black Gnat and followed the tying instructions as well as I could with the materials he used. Surprisingly a very drab but neat fly was the result, an absolute killer according to James, so I shall certainly be giving it a try.

"Dub-flies for March.

Little Black Gnat.

Is taken from the Tenth, until almoft the end of this Month, made either of the Fur of a black Water Dog, or the Down of a young black Water Coot, the Wings of the Male of a wild Mallard, as white as may be, the Body as little as you can poffible make it, and the Wings as fhort as the Body.  Some make the Body of the cop, or top Feather on the Head of a Plover or Lapwing."

James Chetham's Black Gnat

Stephen Cheetham - GAIC Trout, GAIC Fly Dressing

Stephen Cheetham is a qualified member of the Game Anglers Instructors Association (GAIC) and member of the Angling Development Board (ADB). He has fished for trout all his life and runs various fly fishing courses for the Salmon andTrout Association and is also a demonstrator and a course tutor at Otley Prince Henry's Grammar School in Fly Dressing. Stephen, a published author to various magazines, is heavily involved in a monthly fly fishing column in The Yorkshire Post newspaper. Stephen is a firm believer that: "Fishing should be fun".

See Stephen Cheetham's Instructors page for further information.

Read more articles by Stephen Cheetham

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