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The Wizard of the Ness

The Wizard of the Ness

By Eoin Fairgrieve

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 discipline of flycasting. 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 very epitome of the above and undoubtedly 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 even to this day has
not been equalled. By combining an unorthodox technical approach to tackle design and unquestionable
ability as a caster, 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 Carr Bridge. 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 Carr Bridge 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 was 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 (histrademark), 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, it 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 thereafter.

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 wouldrecognise 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 friends 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!

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