The Nottingham style

Until the last few years of nineteenth century, "spinning" meant fishing with a dead bait mounted on a flight and there were two different ways of doing it, "Thames" or "Southern" style and "Nottingham" style. The most obvious difference between the two methods was that the northern anglers cast directly from the reel, while the Thames anglers stripped line from the reel before making their cast and then shot it in much the same way as a modern fly fisherman shoots line from coils laid on the ground, or held in his hand. The style of retrieval differed between the two methods, with the Thames men retrieving line by hand and the northern fishermen winding in using the reel. Although most spin fishermen standardised on a twelve foot rod, if you fished Nottingham style, you would normally have settled for a wooden reel without a check, while the Thames men used a metal reel with a check. Another difference was that Thames fishing was done with conventional silk lines, while the Nottingham method required the use of a much finer 'Derby twist' silk running line, scarcely thicker than cotton, according to J. W. Martin. The Nottingham reel therefore has a valid claim to be the first wide-arbour design.

This description of the Thames or Southern style is from Cholmondeley-Pennell's The Book of the Pike, 1865, p 136 - 141 (you can download this from the library by following this link). It is one of the best descriptions of the method ever written. The image shows an angler spinning off a weir in classic Thames style, right down to the tiny brass reel that was standard equipment for the method.

Thames style spinningPresuming the rod and tackle to be arranged as already described, and the bait, say a Gudgeon, placed on the flight according to the directions given at page 90, and hanging about 2 yards from the top of the rod, the spinner unwinds from the reel as much line as he thinks he can manage, allowing it to fall in loose coils at his feet ; and giving the bait one or two pendulum-like movements, swings it vigorously out in the direction in which he wishes to cast, at the same time letting go the line altogether, and permitting the bait to run out to its full extent. After allowing a few moments (according to the depth of the water) for the bait to sink, he lowers the point of the rod to within a foot or so of the surface, and holding it at right angles to the bait begins drawing in the line with his left hand, making with his right a corresponding backward movement of the rod, between each "draw." The object of this movement of the rod, which to the spinner soon becomes a sort of mechanical see-saw, is to prevent the bait being stationary, whilst the left hand is preparing for a fresh ' draw ;' and in order to accomplish it satisfactorily the most convenient plan is to hold the rod firmly with the right hand just below the lowest ring, letting the line pass between the upper joints of the middle and fore-finger, and resting the butt of the rod firmly against the hip. In spinning from a punt an agreeable change of posture is obtained by standing with the right foot on the side or well of the boat and partially supporting the elbow and rod on the knee. The " draws " or pulls, and the corresponding movements of the rod must of course be varied in length and rapidity according to the depth of water, size of bait, and other circumstances, but a good medium speed, when the left hand, or rather the line, is carried well back, is about 40 "draws" per minute ; and a cast for every 2 yards of stream fished is the allowance which on the whole will generally be found the most advantageous.

The bait should not be taken out of the water until brought close up to the bank, or side of the boat, as it is not at all an uncommon circumstance for a fish, which has perhaps been following it all the way across, to make a dash at it at the last moment, when he appears to be about to lose it.

The proper play of the rod, which is one of the most certain tests of a good spinner, is highly important, not only to prevent the stopping of the bait between the draws but in order to give it its full glitter and piquancy. It produces a more life-like motion, as it were, than that imparted by the mere pulling in of the line by hand, whilst for some reason or other probably the greater elasticity of the lever used the spin of the bait is also far more rapid and brilliant.

So that is the Thames or Southern style of fishing - now let's see what Pennell has to say about the Nottingham method, part of which is in the form of a quote from William Bailey, then a very well known Nottingham fisherman. As you will discover, Pennell was no fan of the technique, which may have been because perfecting the method took longer than it did to learn the Southern style. We start with the quote from Bailey, taken from his popular book, The Angler's Instructor. The reel shown here is a typical Nottingham of the period, showing the wonderful brasswork that was fitted to the best products.

Slater Nottingham

"You cannot have a reel too light or that runs too free. The best is a four-inch common wood reel, varnished to keep the rain from swelling the wood the only brass about it being the hoop for fastening it to the rod. Brass inside and out adds to its weight and lessens its utility.

To cast a long line you must have a free and easy running reel. . . . A line made wholly of good silk, well plaited, is the best for Pike-fishing. Fifty yards of such a line ought to weigh no more than three quarters of an ounce. . . . Well, having cast your bait as far as possible, allow it, if you are fishing in a pond, or lake or deep water, to sink a little, say two feet, then wind away at a brisk rate, holding your rod on one side rather low ; if no run wind out and throw again, but this time wind brisk four or five yards, then all of a sudden stop a moment, then off again, doing so three or four times in one cast. I have often found this a good plan. If you still have no run try another throw and wind brisk as before, but occasionally giving your rod a sharp but short twitch. I have also found this an excellent method of using the spinner, but should it prove unsuccessful, here is another style : Throw as before, but on this occasion wind slow four or five yards, then with your rod drag the bait one or two yards sharp through the water, stop a moment and wind slow again ; you will sometimes find when resuming the slow winding process that your bait is brought to a dead stop, which of course you must answer with a jerk of your rod. If you feel you have got a fish give him one or two more as quick as lightning, for you can seldom put the hook firmly in at the first strike. When you have got a run you will sometimes feel a sharp tug, but you will invariably be apprised of it by your line coming to a sudden stop, as if you had hooked a clump of wood. When you do hook a fish give him line, but keep one finger on the reel so as to preserve the line taut, and play him artfully. . . . When spinning in rivers where there is a strong current, take care to wind very slow, otherwise your bait will be always on the surface of the water."

Now Pennell gets his critical faculties into gear, or more accurately, files his teeth down to points and does his best to rip the Nottinham method into shreds. Most of what follows is sheer prejudice, but I have included it because it shows just how seriously at loggerheads the Thames and Nottingham men had become by that stage. I will bet a quid that the average Nottingham man who read this found it hard to resist throwing Pennell's book into the fire, but no doubt it pleased the London audience. Incidentally, Pennell's cast of over 40 yards was something few southern anglers could have aspired to using light terminal tackle and all it really demonstrates is Pennell's skill as an all-round angler.

The peculiarities of this system, it is to be observed, are the substitution of a plain wooden, for a metal check reel ; the throwing from the reel (that is leaving the momentum of the bait when swung out to unwind by its own impetus as much line as is required for the cast) ; and the winding-in of the line on the reel, instead of the pulling of it in by the hand and rod and coiling it loosely on the ground. This plan has doubtless some merits, and in the hands of really good spinners (and not a few such have adopted it) it may have a very slight advantage in bank-fishing where the rough or scrubby nature of the ground renders the ordinary loose coils of the line liable to catch or tangle. But it may be doubted whether, even under these exceptional circumstances, the method not unfrequently practised by Thames spinners of winding in the line rapidly over the finger and thumb, or coiling it in a ball in the hollow of the hand, would not be at least equally efficacious, whilst the employment of a wooden unchecked reel is liable to a vast number of disadvantages as explained in chapter viii., pp. 112-113. Added to this is the loss of attractiveness in the bait, above referred to, consequent on the substitution of a monotonous mechanical motion, for the elastic play of the rod and hand. To test the fact that such a loss does actually take place, the following simple experiment will suffice ; drop your spinning bait into the water, and wind it in as fast as possible, on the Nottingham plan (that is by the reel only), keeping the point of the rod stationary ; then draw the bait through the water at the same pace using the rod only, and it will be found that whilst a rapid spin is gained by the one, the effect of the other is little better than a "wobble."

These are the obvious theoretical objections to the Nottingham style, as a system, which must occur to anyone accustomed to the Thames method of spinning. It is much to be doubted, however, whether practically it would be found even feasible with the small baits and very light leads and traces constantly used on the Thames and other fine waters. With such a bait and trace, weighing together exactly 1 oz. 2 scruples, I have made a cast of 42 yards, which I should say would be entirely out of the question if the bait were thrown from the reel. The weight of the bait and trace used by Mr. Bailey, and of which I obtained patterns from him, is 3 1/8 ozs., or nearly 3 times as much.

Pennell, normally a reliable commentator, had completely missed the point, since the whole point of the Nottingham style was that it allowed fishermen to cast light baits a long way. At best Pennell was being economical with the truth - at worst, these paragraphs are a repeat of his attempted assassination of the upstream method used by fly fishermen. If there is a lesson in here somewhere, it is that fishermen have been bitching at each other in print ever since movable type was invented!

But the man who was associated with the Nottinham style of fishing above all others was J.W. Martin and to read more about him, you will need to visit this link.