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All-Rounders - No. 1

Charles Cotton
Walton and Cotton Fishing hut
Walton and Cotton's fishing hut in Derbyshire.

Angling All-Rounders No1 - Charles Cotton

with apologies to C.V. Hancock

“Cotton an all-rounder? A float angler? Are you sure?” You can hear the mutterings in the Fly Fishers’ Club rising to a crescendo. You would have thought he would be chasing mullet with hair like that. The redoubtable Charles ‘fine-and-far-off’ Cotton, is certainly regarded as one of the mountain peaks of fly-fishing - with his supplement to The Compleat Angler, and by his own considerable practice, he raised the sport to heights it had never reached before. All honour then, to Cotton the fly-fisher. But very few modern anglers think of him as a bit of a maggot drowner - a real float and bait fisherman - as well. Those who have read and re-read his fly-fishing exploits, with their great profusion of artificial fly dressings, have usually skipped over his final two chapters that contain instructions for ‘angling at the bottom’ and ‘angling in the middle’.

It's all there, however, in those final unturned pages of
The Compleat Angler - not only fishing clear water with the upstream worm, but bait fishing with float tackle, leger and paternoster. Cotton, it should be noted, was not an all-rounder in the sense of fishing all ways for all fish, like the mighty Sheringham (more about him in another article). His native Derbyshire streams gave little scope for that. But he did give scholarly directions for all lawful methods of taking trout and grayling, whether or not his ‘clear streams’ were actually clear or running high and thick.

Yet for all his ways of angling (with fly or bait), it appears that Cotton used the same rod for everything. And he didn’t use a reel - at least, he never mentions one. For fishing a trout river he recommends: ‘A rod five or six yards long and longer, though it ought not to be if you intend to fish at ease, and if otherwise, where lies the sport?’ Where indeed!

He didn’t care for London-made rods and cockney flies, which he hung in his parlour window for people to laugh at. Though fishing in Dovedale he found the best rods of all came from Yorkshire, which were spliced, and so light and pliant (if we take his word for it) that an angler could manage the longest of them single-handed. Various woods went in to the making of these rods, and they were made from as many as twelve sections. At the end of each season the joints were separated, and for durability, ‘laid in oil and colour, according to your master Walton’s instruction'.

The line was tied to the rod tip. To avoid the delicate tip snapping when playing a heavy fish Cotton wound the end of his line for some distance down the top joint, and whipped it tight with waxed silk. He goes on to say (modestly) that he never once lost a fish from a broken rod-tip. The length of line varied with the kind of fishing; for a leger or paternoster, half-a-rod’s length; for float-fishing, nearly as long as the rod; for the clear-water upstream worm, up to one and a half yards longer than the ‘light one-handed rod’. This last method Cotton describes with an expert’s gusto.

How did he land a good fish with all these yards of rod and a line of fixed length? ‘That is a job,’ Cotton says ‘which everyone that can afford to angle for pleasure has somebody do it for him.' Just as ancient civilisations were based on slave labour, so Squire Cotton’s methods of angling required a boy with the landing-net. Easy when you know how.
Cotton always fished extremely fine in clear water when float fishing. He advised a single brandling for bait and a hook whipped to a single hair on the hook length, and just two or three hairs for several lengths above it. When baiting with a grub or caddis (which he also strongly recommended), he suggested the angler is never to use ‘above one hair for two or three lengths next the hook, and with the smallest cork or float and the least weight of plumb you can that will sink'. And remember, any fish caught still had to be played without a reel!

For fishing a minnow, Cotton refers his readers to directions given by Walton, who he thought without doubt the best minnow angler in England. Cotton, though, insisted on a fresh, not salted, bait whenever possible and often caught grayling, even quite small ones, with a natural minnow. Here and there Cotton gives his reader hints that he knows of kinds of bait and methods that he won’t describe ‘Because I would not corrupt you, and would have you, as in all things else I observe you to be, a very honest gentleman and a fair angler’.

You can imagine an angling purist finding the great man fishing for Dovedale trout with float tackle and grubs, calling him ‘nothing but a damn’d poacher, sir’. I suspect old Cotton would have responded in truly cavalier style.
Charles Cotton fly fishing
Stacks Image 859
The image above shows Charles Cotton tying a fly, from Andrew Herd's The History of Fly Fishing, where you can read more about Cotton and his fly-fishing adventures. For a complete list of Cotton's fly dressings see Trout Fly Patterns 1496-1916, also by Andrew Herd.