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History of Speycasting – Alexander Grant

March 22nd, 2010 - steffen

If speycasting had a hall of fame,it would surely include many past and present names that have all made a tremendous contribution to the evolution of this wonderful discipline of fly casting.

Individuals who have helped push the boundaries of casting ability and performance of rod and line technology to a higher level by sheer talent and in-depth appreciation of their chosen skill. Although the list would include some hefty names, there was one man who was the epitome of the above and the godfather of modern-day speycasting.

Ironically, one of the greatest ever exponents of the art of Spey casting was a man few present-day salmon anglers will even have heard of. Alexander Grant was a native of the Spey valley and through the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century set a standard in Spey casting, which has only relatively recently been surpassed by modern day legends like Scott MacKenzie. By combining an unorthodox technical approach to tackle design and unquestionable ability as a caster, in his lifetime, Grant took the art of Speycasting to an unprecedented level.

Born in 1856 at his family’s croft at Battangorm near Carrbridge in the Highlands of Scotland, Grant began his illustrious fishing career in the silvery waters of the River Spey system. As a young boy he was also exposed to his other great passion in life – playing the fiddle. So much was his early interest in the acoustic properties of these instruments that he once refused to attend fiddle lessons from the local school teacher because he disliked the tone of his tutor’s fiddle. This early appreciation of tone and vibration was something he used in later life to outstanding effect in the design of his famous ‘Grant’s Vibration’ range of fly rods.

As well as being a gifted caster, he was also an accomplished fly dresser and in 1884 started a large-scale fly making business in his hometown of Carrbridge. This was to prove a challenging way of making a living and the following year he took up the position of fisherman to Lord Burton of Glenquoich Forest on the River Garry. In 1887 Grant moved from Carrbridge to Inverness to start up another tackle business and at the back of the premises, a hairdressing shop. To subsidise his income he also continued to ghillie for Lord Burton and during the same season became a member of a very small group of anglers that can lay claim to landing an Atlantic salmon in excess of 50lbs. Whilst fishing the River Garry in September at the outlet of Loch Quoich, Grant hooked this creature of the deep on a Thunder & Lightening. After much heart-pounding runs and a titanic struggle, the fish finally gave in to the greenheart and his prize lay at his feet – the salmon weighed 55lbs.

It was at his tackle shop in Baron Taylor’s Lane in Inverness that Grant began crafting his famous ‘Grant Vibration’ rods. Many anglers believed that the notable performance of the rods came from the revolutionary lap joints, which he applied for a patent (Patent No 10,385) on the 28th of May 1894 and was accepted on 4th of May 1895. Each joining section of the rod was shaped to a point, and the touching surface planed flat to allow a close and tight fit. The sections were then overlapped by about 6-8 inches depending on which sections were being bound and strapped together using linseed-treated leather lace (the leather lace was eventually replaced by insulating tape). This lap joint system allowed the rod to flex as one unified spring, with none of the dreaded ‘flat spots’ that have plagued rod builders throughout the course of fly rod making history. His intention, and indeed his achievement, was to make a rod behave like a newly cut sapling before it dries out – in other words, to distribute the load of the fly line evenly throughout the course of the rod. The inspiration for the lap joint is thought to have come not from the front of his tackle shop, but from the back room where he practised his trade as a barber. Although there is no documented evidence to suggest this, it is believed that the concept of the jointing system was conceived whilst Grant was a making a diagonal cross-section cut through the length of a customer’s hair.

Another unique feature of the ‘Vibration’ rods were the ‘Drop-Down’ rod rings, which folded as the rod was lifted from the horizontal into the backcast. As the rod tip neared the vertical, the oscillating rings clasped against the rod, thus trapping the fly line and preventing any little bellies of line forming between each ring. Grant argued that as the rod completes the backstroke of the spey or overhead cast, the caster momentarily loses tension with the line as gravity tries to kicks in. With his folding rings the line was held close to the rod and as the rod was flexed forward, no valuable energy from the rod spring was wasted straightening any pockets of slack. Bearing in mind that Grant never shot slack line into his forward delivery, this meant the line was always under tension resulting in no loss of power on the forward stroke.

The real secret to success of the greenheart rod however, was the rod’s specific taper, which was worked out acoustically, rod by rod. As a talented musician, Grant also handcrafted his own fiddles and in doing so began experimenting with the principles of vibration frequencies. The information he learned was applied with great effect to his rod making room. He realised that as a natural product, the density of wood varied. This meant that two rods made to the same length, diameter and specifications different actions. Grant tuned each individual rod section as such that he could produce a rod that flexed in total unison. This meant that instead of each section ‘springing’ slower or quicker than the others, the rod’s action was totally married, resulting in a very powerful through-action.

Like many great inventions, the ‘Grant Vibration’ rod was born out of necessity. Grant’s home water was his beloved River Ness, which runs from Loch Ness, through the town of Inverness. The Freeday on the Ness was open to residents of the town every eighth day of the season and like all town water, had many anglers of notable casting skills. To cut the mustard on a river like this, you had to be able to throw a long line, not only to cover as much of this immense river as possible, but also to cast farther than fellow anglers. At this Grant excelled.

It was recorded that the rod’s maiden voyage on the Ness, Grant outcast his fellow anglers by at least ten yards. This additional water coverage resulted in several salmon falling to his fly and his reputation as a caster and an angler grew with each cast. After that day, he became renowned for taking salmon at extreme distances and would often be summoned to the river by fellow anglers unable to reach a repeatedly rising fish. On one occasion, Grant summoned to the ‘General’s Well’ on the town water to cover a fish many of the local worthies had unsuccessfully tried to hook. The salmon was still rising from the same lie as he arrived at the river and as word of the challenge spread among the town’s angling fraternity, a healthy crowd of spectators began to gather. As Grant began lengthening his line, words of both encouragement and ridicule echoed from the riverbank. With a long length of line hanging straight on the ‘dangle’, he lifted the rod, switched the angle of the line and belted out a huge cast, with the 4/0 double iron landing just above the rising fish. As the fly began to swing, the line jumped tight as the salmon intercepted the 2” double. The fresh fish was swiftly landed and dispatched and stretched the scale to 8lbs. Afterwards the distance from Grant’s stance to the backwater where he hooked the fish was accurately measured and recorded as 47 yards.

In 1895 Grant was invited to participate in a local casting competition organised by the local magistrate and angling author, Mr J.H Corballis. Mr Corballis, whose best-known work was Forty Five Years’ Sport, was a keen sportsman and resident of Moniak Castle on the River Beauly. His intention was to invite a selection of notable casters from across the Highland region to take part in a competition to be held from an anchored boat on the River Ness. There would be no switching of the line involved and the cast would simply be executed straight downstream alongside a measuring board, which had been specially constructed for the event. Using a 21ft rod, Grant’s main competitor took his turn from the suspended boat and with a colossal effort, roll cast the great distance of 56 yards. One by one, each remaining competitor took his turn until finally Grant was rowed out to the suspended casting platform. With his trusty bonnet turned back to front (his trademark), he stripped the entire fly line from his reel and made the first of his allocated casts with his 21ft ‘Grant’s Vibration’. It would be fair to say that not only did he win, but he blew the competition clean out the water. His longest cast was officially registered at a staggering 65 yards and was his longest ever recorded cast. What makes his achievement that day on the River Ness so unbelievable was he lifted the entire 65 yards clear from the water and returned it onto the dangle without shooting a single inch of fly line on the forward delivery – pure genius!

Such was the increasing interest in Grant as a caster and his revolutionary Vibration rods, the following year he was invited to London to demonstrate on the River Thames in front of a selected audience of angling journalists. The setting was Kingston-on-Thames and the audience included Mr Crawshay and Mr Wilson from the “Rod and Gun” and the angling editors of the “Land and Water” and “The Field”. The night before the exhibition, Grant attended a pre-arranged appointment with a selected panel of these journalists, for what was basically an interrogation about the casting qualities of his new rods. He asked the distinguished panel “What has been the longest recorded cast ever made?” Mr R.B Marston replied “Forty nine yards and one foot.” (The record held by the then world record holder John Enright from Castle Connell and was overhead in style) Grant suggested for a rod to cast that length in a practical fishing situation, should have a lifting power of twenty yards or more on grass. Mr Marston then said “Do you mean to say you can lift and throw 70 yards of line? Grant replied “ I mean to say that, if I can cast practically 49 yards 1ft, I shall certainly lift and throw 20 yards more”. The following morning the challenge was set. After a brief warm-up, the line was laid out on the grass and lifted into the backcast. Without shooting any line on the forward delivery, when the end of the line touched the grass again, it was 74 yards away from where Grant stood. He asked if an official would walk to the end of the line to find how taut it was. The official duly obliged and on pulling the line, found there to be only six inches of slack line!

John Enright witnessed this amazing spectacle and Grant’s subsequent demonstrations over the three days. The next time they met was three years later at a casting tournament in London. On asking Enright why he was not competing in the event, he informed Grant that he had not cast competitively since witnessing his demonstrations at Kingston-on-Thames. He further asked if he could come to Scotland to learn more about Grant’s methods and also if he could be an agent for selling the ‘Vibration’ rods. Unfortunately Enright was never able to make the journey north to Inverness as very soon after their meeting, the big powerful Irishman succumbed to a fatal illness and died shortly there after.

In the early 1900s, Grant sold the patent rights to the ‘Vibration’ rods to Charles Playfair of Playfairs of Aberdeen for an undisclosed amount, with a royalty payment for each rod made. During the crafting process, Playfairs did not utilize the acoustic principles with each individual rod as Grant did. With the characteristics of greenheart being fairly consistent, the company’s rod makers simply copied with great accuracy from a master version of each size of rod. During the first half of the last century, Vibration rods became the must-have salmon rod, and sales continued to grow steadily until the advent of man-made fibres for fishing rod construction in the early sixties. The ‘Vibration’ rods simply became too heavy and too expensive to make as rod technology advanced and rods became lighter and cheaper.

From an angling point of view, the underlying principle of Grant’s fishing techniques was the desire to present the fly through a pool with the minimum of disturbance to a holding fish. In other words, his intention was to try and keep the distance from his position to the salmon as great as was possible, hence his desire to cast such distances. To do this, he used almost exclusively his Grant’s switch cast. A detailed description of this cast can be found in Jock Scott’s excellent book ‘Fine and Far Off’ where actual cinematic footage of the great man demonstrating the cast was used to show its correct execution. It would be fair to say that the Grant switch cast was the forefather of what modern-day anglers would recognise as a Single Spey cast, but unlike our modern version, Grant shot no slack line on the forward delivery. He kept a uniform length of line through the pool and did not believe in induced taking techniques like hand-lining. He preferred to utilize the stream to present the fly by using mending techniques

Another foundation of his fishing technique was the desire to at all times control the swim speed of the fly through the stream by keeping the fly line dead straight from his reel to the fly. His intention was to have the fly under control and fishing as soon as it pitched on the water. As a result, many fish fell to his fly early on as it swept through the pool.

It’s also worth noting that Grant rarely, if ever, struck into a salmon, rather allowing the fish to take up the tension in the line to hook itself. He strongly believed that the fly, when fished on a long line, presented slower to the fish than a shorter line, resulting in a firmer hook-hold. In the vast majority of cases, he basically allowed the salmon to hook themselves. He is reported to have said “The surest-hooked fish, all being equal, is with a long line and none of this nonsense about “Hitting a fish on the rise!”

He was also very critical about the effectiveness of greased line fishing, believing that a floating line put the fish down. He argued it was alright if only the fly came within the fish’s optical window, but in his own words “ no fish would like to see a big, black snake floating over its head as the line would look dark to a fish looking up at it against the light”

Known to his family and friend as simply ‘The Battan’, during the course of his working lifetime, Alexander Grant was a ploughman, a draper, a hairdresser, a forester and a tackle maker. During his lifetime he found fame in two walks of life – music and salmon fishing. His fiddle making and playing drew high acclaim around Scotland and in addition to being a top class soloist, he led the Highland Strathspey and Reel Society from its founding in 1903 to his death in 1942.

But his immense contribution to the progression of modern day speycasting is what we must remember him for. This modest Highlander lived during the greatest era of salmon fishing history and through his ability as a caster and his innovative tackle making, played a major part in the development of our sport. Alexander Grant lived the rest of his life as a farmer at Tomnahurich farm and died at the ripe old age of 85 on 6th of July 1942 at Inverness Royal Infirmary. That day saw the passing of one of the most gifted individuals to ever put two hands on a fly rod. Living in a world of lighter, faster, stronger, it’s a humbling thought to think how much this angler achieved during his long and illustrious fishing career and for my mind, there’s one question begging to be asked – what distance could he throw with modern tackle!

I want to direct my biggest thanks to Eoin Fairgrieve by letting me using this article

Steffen