I was introduced to the work of Dr William Baigent, by the author Nicholas Fitton, who sparked my interest in Baigent’s “Variant” flies and at the same time rekindled my love of flyfishing. After a brief hiatus away from the sport in the 1980’s, my enthusiasm was regained through a combination of both Fitton’s and Baigent’s writing. It was his little-known book “In Search of Wild Trout: Flyfishing for Wild Trout in Rivers” and his accompanying two-part series of video tapes “In Pursuit of Wild Brown Trout” and “In Pursuit of Yorkshire Trout” that Nicholas Fitton not only rekindled my passion for flyfishing but also ignited my interest in the work of Dr William Baigent, a Northallerton based G.P. who, at the turn of the last century, held radical ideas on both fly design and presentation.
For a time after Fitton’s publication, Baigent’s most famous fly pattern the “Baigent’s Brown” became my dry fly of choice, and accountable for some remarkable catches before the pernicious drought of 1994. Even to this day, it still holds a residence in my dry fly-box and regularly gets a cast on the fast runs and pool tails which are a feature of the dales freestone rivers. Indeed, so much of an impression did Baigent and Fitton make on me, I even undertook several fishing trips up to the River Don in Aberdeenshire to pay homage to my two great influencers.
Dr William Baigent the Angler
From a young age it appears William Baigent was a dedicated and thoughtful angler. For as early as 1878 at the age of fourteen, he was keeping a detailed notebook on aquatic flies and their relationship to trout fishing. Contained within these juvenilia was an essay on “The Trout” complete with detailed hand-coloured illustrations of the various insects alongside artificial flies tied to represent the natural. Whether it was this early curiosity in the relationship between trout and their food source that ignited Baigent’s radical thinking on hackle selection and fly design, it is impossible to tell. However, what is without question is that this son of County Durham became one of the most radical thinkers in flyfishing, with a legacy and influence that is still felt to this day.
Born on the 18th December 1862, in the large market town of Darlington, the son of Thomas George Baigent, a druggist and grocer. Young William’s early tutelage as an angler seems to have come from his Uncle George, who was a well-known and highly regarded angler on the river Tees. In an article contained within a 1976 edition The American Fly Fisher Magazine, Baigent’s daughter Shona Lodge, also recounts that his early holidays as a young boy were spent shooting and fishing the Border rivers – Tweed, Till, Coquet and Ettrick Water.
Baigent went on to study medicine at the University of Durham’s College of Medicine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Graduating with a M.B. in 1885, before obtaining his M.D. five years later in 1890, with the award of a gold medal as the most distinguished graduate of the year, and with a highly regarded thesis on Multiple Peripheral Neuritis.
After his marriage to Jane Thornton Garbutt in 1894, he and his wife settled in the North Yorkshire market town of Northallerton, where Baigent went into General Practice for many years until his death on April 12th, 1935. During this time the good doctor regularly fished many of the northern dales rivers such as the Swale and Ure, but more especially the Tees, where a relative held the riparian rights between Middleton and Cotherstone.
But it is the Castle Forbes water on the Aberdeenshire Don where he is most associated, and it is here where his most famous pattern, the Baigent’s Brown, is said to have been invented. On this most majestic of highland rivers Baigent mastered the art of fishing two dry flies placed 24 inches apart, and later used the “wry fly” method. An interesting and effective fishing technique, where a wet fly is fished on the point, and a dry fly on the dropper. A technique that, in many ways, precedes today’s Klink and Dink obsession.
Dr William Baigent and the Genetic Hackle
Also, whilst living in Northallerton, Baigent started to experiment in his search for the perfect dry fly hackle. Breeding his own strain of Old English Game Cocks, and then crossing them with Andalusian hens which added a blue hew to the various hackle colours his roosters produced. And in turn, he became one of only a small handful of Victorian anglers specifically developing their own genetic stock of cock hackles for flytying. These gently tapering, long glassy hackles featured a surprisingly high barb count, and would come to be utilised first in his “Variant” and the later his “Refractra” series of patterns, whilst also becoming instrumental in the invention of his most famous fly pattern the Baigent’s Brown. Sadly however, Baigent left us no information regarding his experimental breeding programs, though it is known that his personal hackle preferences were for hackles he termed “Blue-reds”, a subtle combination of the glassy red sheen of the English Game cocks and the dark blue gained from his Andalusian hens. From his experimental breeding program, he would also produce a range of “Rusty Blue Dun” hackles which he utilised in several of his distinctive Refractra dry fly patterns which were later marketed and sold by Hardys.
An important and distinctive feature of all Baigent’s dry fly patterns was the use of his homebred Old English Game Cock Feathers, either wrapped singularly or intermixed with differing shades. His style of dressing with long hackle fibres produced a very buoyant fly, which stands proud on the water’s surface. Thus, allowing light rays to be refracted through the steely iridescent hackle fibres provide a better imitation of fluttering wings than a conventional fly, thereby produce a more attractive silhouette to the waiting trout.
In an area of the country where the soft-hackled wet fly ruled supreme, William Baigent, was in every sense a lone practitioner and experimenter with the dry fly. And, we can see from his many letters published in the Fishing Gazette that he was pretty much alone in fishing what can be termed the modern dry fly on the North Yorkshire and County Durham rivers and streams of the 1890’s. In a letter to W. K. Rollo, Baigent remarks about the qualities of the Baigent Brown and the trout response to it.
“It may be of interest to you to know that the Baigent’s Brown was built up after many years of trial, fully twenty, and is based entirely on what the trout think themselves, that it is something that will interest them, and cause them to rise when there is no rise on the water, but more particularly so when fishing “blind,” and not covering rising fish. It was made by finding out what combination of dry fly hackles would easily stimulate what Pavlov calls the trout’s “investigating reflex,” and what amount of each in the make-up of a floater when fished by my method, will so excite this curiosity or light up this desire to investigate, that the trout may be tempted to the surface where there is no actual rise, and at the same time to be equally useful during a rise of fly, and so doing away with the necessity of changing your flies when perhaps the rise is a fitful one, and so save valuable minutes.
This fly will start such ocular reflexes when properly presented, which will more often than not get the other reflexes in motion, and so the fly is taken in lamb-like fashion without suspicion and fuss.”
Hook: 10 –12
Body: thick yellow floss silk
Wings: woodcock or hen pheasant tail, tied forward of the hackle
Hackle: large dark furnace
Whisk: optional, as hackle
Although, in the intervening years since his death, Baigent’s fly patterns have become unfashionable and forgotten by a generation of modern flyfishers, his influence and legacy are far more reaching than first expected. And this son of County Durham’s thoughts on hackle selection, dry fly design and light refraction gained a wider and somewhat unexpected audience overseas.
Dr William Baigent and the Catskill tradition of fly-tying
Before his death in 1935, Baigent corresponded with two of American’s most influential anglers, George La Branch author of The Dry Fly and Fast Water, and Preston Jennings, author of A Book of Trout Flies.
Both La Branch and Jennings had become fascinated with Baigent’s theory on light refraction and had fished his pattern with a huge degree of success on their native Catskill rivers. No doubt influenced by the fact that Baigent’s close friend L.R. Hardy had been distributing his fly patterns to the leading fishing tackle shops in North America. And where his Dark Blue Dun Variant, Red Variant and Baigent’s Brown had been best sellers. In his publication Nymphs, The Mayflies: The Major Species (Volume I). Ernest Schwiebert attests to the fact that La Branch “Had a handsome cedar chest, which measured approximately twelve by ten inches, and eight inches deep, with stacking trays of cedar that were stuffed with Baigent’s variants, although one finds no mention of them in The Dry Fly and Fast Water.”
Both La Branch and Jennings also took the opportunity to correspond with the affable Baigent before his death, particularly Preston Jennings who’s own 1935 publication A Book of Trout Flies went on to set the standard for American publications on fly-fishing entomology, and in turn influencing a generation of American flyfishers. Along with his systematic identification of the important Catskill aquatic insects, Jennings also included in his 1935 publication, the Blue, Cream, and Grey Fox, which were his own three interpretations of Baigent’s “Variant” flies, with an accreditation to Baigent’s influence. The most famous being the Grey Fox Variant.
Grey Fox Variant (Preston Jennings)
Hook: 10 to 14
Tail: Ginger cock hackle fibres
Body: Flat gold tinsel
Hackle: Ginger cock and grizzly cock
Also, Jennings’ thinking on how light refracts off an insect’s wings and how the trout perceives such light on the water’s surface, can be seen to be heavily influenced by Baigent’s experiments of a few decades earlier and Baigent’s invention of the “Refractra” series of flies, and the philosophy behind them.
“A letter to Dr Baigent telling him of the excellent work do by this pattern, brought forth the following reply. “I am very pleased and much interested to know that the “Baigent” flies kill so well in America. I receive letters from New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, France; in fact, all over the world with nothing but praise as to their killing powers. This is exactly what I anticipated and can quite understand the reason. Thirty years ago or more I commence with the new idea of making flies according to the wishes of trout rather than an bench exact copy of the natural, by practical test to find out what would stimulate.” ~ Preston Jennings 1935
It is also known that for a period before Baigent’s death, Preston Jennings imported several Game Cock eggs from Britain to start his own breeding stock of birds. Given his correspondence with Baigent, and Baigent’s fame as a breeder, it is probable that this part of Jennings’ brood stock originates with William Baigent.
Later, the great entomologist and Catskill flytyer Art Flick would build upon Jennings earlier work. And in his seminal work Streamside Guide to Naturals and their Imitations, Flick presented a selection of variant flies, which were all modifications of earlier Jennings’ patterns. Included within this is his own version of the Grey Fox Variant, which became Flick’s favourite fly pattern. But Flick it seemed, was oblivious to Baigent’s invention of the earlier “Variant” patterns and his correspondence with both La Branch and Jennings. A correspondence which not only brought the idea of the “Variant” style of dry fly, with its combination of two different subtle shades of long hackles, into the fledgling Catskill flytying tradition. But, also an influence into the beginnings of the Catskill and later American genetic hackle tradition.
Grey Fox Variant (Art Flick)
Hook: 10 to 12
Tail: Ginger cock hackle fibres
Body: Light ginger or cream cock hackle quill, stripped, soaked, wound and lacquered.
Hackle: Light ginger, dark ginger and grizzly cock hackles. “Wound over each other and bunched as much as possible.”
A Book on Hackles for Fly Dressing
Long before his death in 1935, family and friends of Baigent had urged him to write a book about his fishing methods and the importance of light refraction in fly design. Unfortunately, William Baigent died before being able to fully collate and publish his ideas. But in 1937 his wife with the help of a few close family friends managed to privately print a limited run of A Book on Hackles for Fly Dressing by William Baigent. This rare publication housed in a blue calf folding box, features 11 cards with 164 mounted hackles complete with an additional slim volume of accompanying text introduced by is friend Lieut-Col W. Keith Rollo. In many ways Rollo was the ideal man to write the introduction and summarise Baigent’s philosophy on both flytying and flyfishing. A keen student of Baigent’s in all things flyfishing, Rollo championed Baigent’s methods of fly design and presentation in several of his own publications during the interbellum years.
Dr William Baigent and the Two Dry Fly Technique
In his excellent 1931 publication The Art of Fly Fishing, Lieut.-Colonel W. Keith Rollo gives us an insight into Baigent’s reasoning and tactical approach to simultaneously fishing two dry flies whilst offering his own conclusions on the merits of Baigent’s presentation technique.
“The writer does not wish to appear too dogmatic or egotistical in extolling the virtues of any particular method to the exclusion of any other.
However, he has recently changed his views regarding the use of one fly, thanks to that skilful and observant angler, Dr W. Baigent, of Northallerton, who first initiated him into the use of two flies for dry fly fishing, placed about twenty-four inches apart.
The advantages of two flies are:
1. It gives the fish a choice of two flies.
2. It minimises drag, as two flies help to balance the cast.
3. If one fly is lost to view when fishing rough water its position can be roughly gauged if the other is visible.
4. The cast falls more lightly on the water, as the two flies, forming miniature parachutes, check to a certain extent the violent striking of the cast against the water.
5. If trout are nymphing, a nymph or wet fly could be mounted on the dropper.”
Like Nicholas Fitton before me, I can attest to the effectiveness of Baigent’s idea of fishing two simultaneous dry flies. It is a method that I myself sometimes employ when fishing through short turbulent pool tails on the freestone rivers of the Yorkshire dales. Often in these situations when fishing a single dry fly takes are often missed due to the commotion of the river’s surface. However, it is quite surprising how the use of two dry flies allows the angler to focus on a small area of the river’s surface and spot takes to either fly. And whilst i’m not entirely convinced by Baigent and Rollo’s rational that the two flies minimise drag, it is nevertheless quite surprising to often see the two flies dead drift independent of each other.
Hook: 10 – 12
Body: black ostrich and peacock herl
Hackle: Black cock or coch-y-bondhu
Whisk: optional, as hackle
Sadly, many of Baigent’s ideas based around light refraction have been largely discounted by a generation of modern anglers and flytyers. And his opinions on fly deign and presentation thought of as little more than an Edwardian curiosity. It can still be seen that Baigent’s influence lives on in the most unexpected of places, namely in the range of Catskill dry flies developed by Preston Jennings and refined by Art Flick. But thanks to Nicholas Fitton and his book, Baigent’s influence lives on in my flybox in the form of the Baigent’s Brown and the two-fly technique. Though his patterns and style of fishing are in many ways limited to boisterous freestone rivers, where the turbulent currents often limit the trout’s ability to prudently inspect the presented fly. They nevertheless merit the modern angler’s attention, particularly his Wryfly and Two Dry Fly presentation methods which at times work unerringly well in the freestone environment. Though there is now little information available to the modern angler in regards to Dr William Baigent and his flies, A good starting point would be Nicholas Fitton’s excellent little-known book “In Search of Wild Trout: Flyfishing for Wild Trout in Rivers”.