SKUES, WET FLIES, NYMPHS AND THE ANGLER
"Rising from the perusal of "Dry-Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice,"on its publication by Mr. F.M. Halford in 1889, I think I was at one with most anglers of the day in feeling that the last word had been written on the art of chalk-stream fishing---so sane, so clear, so comprehensive, is it, so just and so in accord with one's own experience."
G.E.M. Skues, from the Forward of Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, 1910
An historical look at the angler who developed nymphing tactics for mayflies and the lessons we may have overlooked
George Edward MacKenzie Skues was born on August 13th 1858 and passed away on August 9th, 1949 within a few days of his 91st birthday. In his life-time he was to offer changes that would rock the fly fishing world, and these changes were to echo long after his passing.
There is little information on the early life of G.E.M. Skues and what information is available can be found in the pages of G. E. M. Skues, The Man of the Nymph, published 2013 by Dr. Tony Hayter, it is enough to say that Skues was raised to be a Victorian Gentleman. He was by profession a solicitor and very accomplished. However, he was not a trial lawyer; he spent a lifetime dealing with other areas of the legal profession. Skues the man, avoided personal confrontation but was a lion in print, later this fact would cause him distress.
Skues, the angler, was slow to develop but once he set his own personal course, his keen mind, fire and passion for the sport of fly fishing never dimed until his life was over. Like many anglers before him Skues began his fishing chasing after a variety of species using methods other than fly fishing.
If any man could claim to have started Skues Chalk Stream fly fishing career it would have been Irwin Cox who was one of the owners of the Field (A sporting journal of the day), who held the lease on the Abbot Barton section of the Itchen. He first invited Skues to fish his section of water in 1883 and later issue him a pass to fish whenever he wished. This arrangement lasted until 1917 when Cox's lease expired. Skues then became a member of the new syndicate leasing the same stretch of the Itchen and remain on the stream until he gave up his rod at the end of the 1938 season. Skues began his serious fly fishing career in 1883 and began to fish the Cox's water at Abbots Barton on the famous Itchen Chalk Stream, this water is located above the town of Winchester.
This section of Itchen at that time was very flat with very clear water and the trout were able to clearly see the imitations, this was indeed daunting water for a new fly angler, but once Skues figured it out he was to prefer the difficult and challenging water for the rest of his life. During the early years of Skues fly fishing career his days on the Itchen were limited and during this time period Irwin Cox allowed no Sunday fishing, so Skues fished many other streams. However by 1890 and 1891 Skues felt that he was becoming an effective angler recording over thirty days on the Itchen and being successful on each outing.
As Skues was developing his skills, in 1887 he began to read Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, which had been published in 1886 by Frederic M. Halford and soon after began his own experiments with constructing artificial flies. In 1889 Halford published Dry-Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, and Skues like many other anglers of the time, became followers of the dry fly doctrine.
Skues was a product of his times and when exposed to the theories, tackle and practices of the day followed those practices because by following them he was successful as an angler and throughout his life he continued to fish dry flies when the situation dictated.
From 1887 on Skues began to educate himself to theory of fly design by spending hours in the reading hall of the British Museum which would be in time called the British Library and it contained all of the known texts on the subject of fly fishing and fly tying in England. By 1900 Skues had become one of the most knowledgeable person in Britain on the theory and construction of artificial flies.
At first Skues acknowledges that he followed the dictates of Halford, later he began to question the Halford doctrine as his own observations showed areas that the Halford doctrine didn't cover or areas where he felt that Halford was wrong in his conclusions.
Also in 1888 Skues began to send letters to The Fishing Gazette, the early letters were of little value, except you began to see the writer he would become. In a letter date November 26th, 1887 Tony Hayter reported in G.E.M. Skues, the Man of the Nymph, "He wrote a somewhat ill-tempered letter objecting to the manner and content of the articles in The Fishing Gazette. The followed a list of commonly appearing details that ought to be discarded, such as tired and misplaced humour, long descriptions of eating, drinking and angling accommodation, railway journeys and descriptions of scenery. The important thing, he insists, is the fishing – all else is unnecessary padding. Skues went on to layout a formula for written fly fishing articles and it was a formula that he would follow almost without fail throughout his life.
Skues views on fly fishing articles happens to be thoughts that I happen to agree with and that is the contents of an article on how to fish, should be full of information on the subject, which assists the reader in understanding a certain, skill set, method and thoroughly explains the intent of the articles subject. Of course articles on fly tying and history must follow a somewhat different path.
As time progressed Skues found that his observations were at odds with the written words of Halford, furthermore if you study the works of Halford you come away with the feeling that experimentation wasn't necessary or desired.
Throughout his life Skues suffered from low-self esteem, was shy, had a bad wrist and suffered poor vision in his left eye. Yet his observations and conclusions would change how the anglers fished the Chalk Streams and his theories would sound around the fly fishing world and forever changed the world of fly fishing. But this was still in the future.
To understand the development of Skues the angler you have to understand the times that Skues began his serious fishing career in, Halford's work with the dry fly in 1886 and 1889 dominated the fly fishing landscape on the Chalk Streams and was sweeping through the fly fishing world in general.
Halford was a dominant type A personality in person and as a writer and he had studied and written the doctrine and from his (Halford's) point of view there was nothing left to chance and no reason for further experimentation.
Remember Skues began his serious fly fishing career under the shadow of Halford and was in fact a follower of the Halford doctrine. Skues was not a man of science by his own admission and during his period of intense reading I think he by-passed or didn't retain those parts which contained science. However when it came to entomology he sought assistance from some of the brightest and most renowned entomologist of the day.
As we look back on events of the past it is sometimes hard to understand how some notable points were missed or why did the situation developed so slowly and if you apply our present day knowledge we will often totally misread the events of yesteryear.
An interesting fact is that Skues kept no daily fishing journal and in spite of the contributions he was to make, he was not on the water on a daily basis, but like many of us had another profession and was subject to all the problems in life we all face.
In Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, which was published in 1910, Skues himself chronicles his own path of development and even questioned why it had taken so long to shake off the shackles of the Halford Doctrine. In his own words he claims that the journey to achieve this lasted twenty years. Many anglers at the time were to be influenced by the writings of Halford and the effective of his doctrine would echo into the mid-20th century.
Again in Minor Tactics Skues tell you how he experienced success several times before the veil lifted and he seriously began to understand what he was seeing and through his observations he was able to develop a workable solution to the fact that many of the feeding trout were beneath the surface of the water and they were in fact ignoring any of the dry flies that he presented to them.
It is also interesting to note that the wet fly imitations that Skues used had wings in the upright position rather than wings that were tied back and down over the body, we will return to the subject of the wet flies later in this narrative.
Even before the publication of Minor Tactics Skues realized from autopsies that the insects in the trout had no wings, so he began experimenting with shorter hackled imitations that had no wings.
However, not all were excited about the methods and patterns that Skues was recommending for use on the Chalk Streams, by the 1880's with the dry fly firmly established and with the publication of Halford's first book Floating Flies and how to Dress Them appearing in 1886 and Dry Fly-Fishing in Theory and Practice being published in 1889, the dry fly was considered to be the only method to use on the Chalk Stream.
If you read the works of Halford you will find he has great respect for the skills of the wet fly angler, as long as they were not using them on the Chalk Streams. Skues was observing that not all of the pronouncements found in Halford's books were what he was seeing on the water.
Being an angler of common sense and a mind open to the challenge, he began his experimentation to solve the riddle of the feeding trout that appeared to be feeding toward the surface but continually ignored the artificial duns that were cast to them.
This experimentation alone flew in the face of the Halford Doctrine and when the methods proved to be so effective that they couldn't be ignored they were deemed as not sporting and unethical by the narrow minded purist fishing the dry fly.
Never the less, Skues on continued on with his work and refined his patterns and method. On March 5th 1914 Frederic Halford passed away, however the Dry Fly Doctrine that he established would live on through his followers and would come back to bedevil Skues throughout the years.
In his volume entitled G.E.M. Skues, The Way of a Man with a Trout, which was published in 1977, the author T. Donald Overfield had this to say about the publication of Minor Tactics, "The publication of Minor Tactics, prompted by H.T. Sheringham, if not actually opening the minds of anglers to a new method of fishing, did at least cause many to rethink their approach to chalk stream angling, relearning many things the northern schools of angling had known for hundreds of years."
Of course, some did rethink their methods and again for some they opened their mind and their eyes and seen what Skues had observed and reported, but for many, their minds were already made up and nothing would change their beliefs.
Skues, like many others faced issues brought on by the events of World War I which began on July 28th, 1914 and ended on November 11th, 1918. Skues brother and many friends and sons of friend served in the War and there were losses.
Skues began fishing the Itchen at Abbot Barton in 1883 at the invitation of Irwin Cox who control the lease and this arrangement continued until 1917 when Cox's lease expired and a syndicate was formed of which Skues became a member and the syndicate held the lease for many years.
During the First World War the fishery suffered from lack of manpower to cut the water weeds, net out the pike and keeping the poachers off the water. Also during the years that Cox controlled the lease there were no restrictions placed on how Skues fished and therefore he was prove this methods on some of the most difficult water on the collective Chalk Streams.
However, after the new syndicate was formed and with the ups and downs of the fisheries, some of the members began to openly oppose Skues method of fishing, primarily because he and his friends continued to be a success, while the strict dry fly anglers were not doing as well, and in truth they choose to attack Skues and his methods rather than figure out why he was successful and they weren't.
Throughout his life Skues stayed on top of all the new publication and was very interested in the work of Dr. Francis Ward who published Marvels of Fish Life in 1911 and Animal Life Underwater in 1921. Dr. Ward's captured images which allowed creative angler to begin to understand what the trout might see in regards to the insect they are feeding on, Skues was very interested in this work and spent time with Dr. Ward and this understanding would be reflected in his next volume.
During the next ten years Skues continued refining his methods and nymph patterns and his thoughts on fly fishing for the trout of the Chalk Stream and continued to publish a string of articles in The Field, The Fishing Gazette and the Journal of the Fly Fisher's Club of London.
This culminated in the publication of The Way of a Trout with a Fly in 1921. Which is considered by many to be Skues best work, and I agree that this classic volume belongs on the book shelf of any fly fisher who is interested in nymphing or the history of the sport. However Skues, later in life would produced another work, which fully explains his nymphing methods and the patterns that he devised for the hatches found on the water he fished. I will discuss that body of work later in this missive.
In 1921 Skues discovered the marrow scoop which made autopsies no longer necessary, which was a practice that he found messy and distasteful. The enlightened so followed Skues lead and began to better understand what the trout were feeding on and coupled with observation told the angler where in the water column the trout were feeding.
In 1931 Colonel E. W. Harding published The Fly Fisher & The Trout Point of View, which was another volume which Skues thoroughly enjoyed and championed, hoping that the additional information and theory provided by Hardy coupled with the work of Dr. Ward would enlighten and open the eyes of many anglers.
Skues continue to publish article in the various fishing journals, but it wasn't until 1935 that his next book appeared which was entitled Sidelines, Sidelights and Reflections which was a collection of articles that had been previously published in the journals. Interestingly enough, Skues professed a dislike for this volume, which others thoroughly enjoyed.
Beginning in 1937, members of the syndicate more openly opposed Skues method of fishing the nymph and on February 10th, 1938 the "great debate" as it is often called was conducted at the Fly Fisher's Club of London and the topic was the use of nymphs and wet flies on the hallowed dry fly waters of the Chalk Stream. There were no real winners or losers and it actually wasn't a debate as one would think of a debate today, but the end result was that at the end of the 1938 season G.E.M. Skues resigned his rod and left his beloved Itchen were he had fished for fifty six seasons, he was eighty years old.
In 1939 Skues published Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout, which I happen to believe is his finest and most complete work on nymphing, fully describing his methods and sharing his best nymph patterns. Skues took a rod on another Chalk Stream in 1939 and in 1940 moved his family away from London as the Second World War, which began in September of 1939 and bombs were falling in London in 1940. With advancing years Skues continued to fish until 1945 and at the end of the season he finally gave up his rod as advancing years had diminished his physical powers.
However, right up to the end of his life he maintain massive correspondence with anglers in America, Europe and all over Great Britain, but as things must end, on August 9th, 1949 G.E.M. Skues depart to fish those great chalk streams in the heavens.
Throughout his life Skues was never dogmatic and was always open to the ideas of others, never dogmatic and disliked being referred to as an expert or authority on and phase of fly fishing.
After his passing two more books were published the first being Silk, Fur and Feathers in 1950 and the second was Itchen Memories in 1951.
Skues was one of the most knowledgeable fly tier in Great Britain for much of his angling career as he took the time to educate himself on the patterns of others, studying their methods and techniques and doing a thorough job in his research and education. He was also very selective on his fly tying materials, often to the despair of those who sold such materials.
Now I will discuss a subject that was often raised by Skues detractors and my several authors and historian of a more modern era. The subject is Skues continual referring to the works of Halford, some would claim that he continued his attack on Halford's theories throughout his entire career and seeing as how Halford had passed away in 1914, it seem that these attacks were unnecessary.
However, I have always found these statements to be actually funny, Skues was criticized for pointing out the flaws in Halford's theories, but those who attack the work of Skues used Halford's theories and pronouncements to make their case.
Nothing like having two standards and I think some writers and historians failed to examine all of the evidence and consider the time, place and situation before rendering their opinions.
I fully understand the lure of the dry fly and since the angler first cast a feathered artificial to a trout if was the angler's task to float the fly on the surface, many wrote about it but most anglers found it easier to take trout with wet flies. During the 19th century the advancements in tackle began to make it easier to float the artificial.
As the tackle advanced so did the interest in the dry fly, and on the chalk streams the interest in the dry fly was even greater due to the prolific mayfly hatches.
Enter Frederic M. Halford, G. S. Marryat, Henry S. Hall and their friends and the interest in dry fly fishing increase beyond measure and then Halford began to publish, first Floating Flies and How to Dress Them in which dry fly patterns were redesigned and it revolutionized dry fly fishing. Then in 1889 Halford published Dry Fly-Fishing in Theory and Practice which was another excellent volume, except suddenly fishing wet flies on chalk streams was frowned upon.
Now, in my opinion the moment you draw a line in the sand or make pronouncements that are absolute in nature you are asking for someone to come along and prove you wrong. Halford did just that and furthermore he was inflexible and unwilling to adapt to new ideas and methods. When Halford and later his followers could discredit the effectiveness of Skues methods and patterns, they were deemed unethical and non-sporting! Well I guess that is one way to win a disagreement or carry the day and force everyone to do it YOUR WAY. In the end the dry fly purist lost, as many angler world-wide have embraced and expanded on the art of nymph fishing.
Furthermore his opinion were not historical based, as wet flies had been effective for centuries and he even discounted the attempt of the northern anglers who fished wet flies up stream. This fact I have never understood!
It was never Skues intent to replace dry fly fishing with wet fly or nymph fishing, rather he showed that both had a place in the fishing day and did so with acute observation and proven patterns and methods. He believed that the nymph and basically emerger fishing were excellent supplements to the dry fly and would enhance the fly angler experience on the water.
The Missed Lessons From G.E.M. Skues
When the name of G.E.M. Skues is mentioned most anglers think of fishing the nymph, however Skues also contributed dry fly patterns and insights to the lore of the fly fishing. Most anglers who are familiar with the published works of Skues most often mention The Way of a Trout with a Fly, when asked to name his best work.
However, on his way to developing the nymphal patterns and before the publication of his most noted work, Skues published Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream in 1910, even by the time the book was published Skues was moving more toward true nymphs and the clearer understanding of how trout were feeding in the upper third of the water column.
However, Minor Tactics only has about five pages which deal with the nymphs and the rest of the text deals with wet flies. Of course Skues was on the track of the nymphs and I personally don't believe that he truly realized what he had accomplished with Minor Tactics and his upstream methods using wet flies during the emergence of mayflies.
Now Skues wasn't the first to fish wet flies upstream, many anglers had discussed this method down through history and the most recent in Skues day was the efforts of William C. Stewart who published The Practical Angler, in 1857.
However, since the time of Stewart the fly rods, reels, fly lines and tippets had improved and imitations including the wet flies that Skues constructed were tied on eyed fly hooks. Today I don't believe that most fly tiers can really understand the difference that the eyed fly hooks made to the fly tier of the era when they became easily available.
Unfortunately, many anglers of the day ignored Skues contributions of course the dry fly anglers mostly ignored Skues work that dealt with the Wet Fly. However, so did many of the wet fly anglers who traditionally fished wet flies across and downstream. Sometimes, tradition can be a wonderful thing, at other times, tradition causes anglers to ignore anything with is beyond their scope of tradition and thus many of the tips and methods that Skues employed with wet flies was ignored by a great many anglers. This was unfortunate, because what Skues was accomplishing, was a modernization of the wet fly tactics that were being used on the Chalk Streams, which was what Halford had accomplished with his work on the dry fly.
Years ago I read Minor Tactics and Skues work with wet flies caught my interest and I realized the importance of what I was reading and how I could incorporate the methods of short accurate cast to trout that we visibly feeding into my own fishing.
Soon I was using Skues methods on the Spring Creeks of Paradise Valley Montana and soon I was using these methods on the Big Horn River, The Missouri River below Holter Dam and on many other rivers and streams in the area that I fish.
Now the key is having reasonable imitations of the insect that are on the water and to approach closely so you can see the trout, learning to understanding where in the water column the trout are feeding, judge the speed of the currents, so you know how far ahead of the fish to cast. This all sounds very complex and hard to accomplish, but it really isn't, over the years I have taught many anglers to accomplish this technique and when they begin, they are almost always making to long of a cast and often place themselves in positions where they really can't see the trout clearly. Once those problems are addressed most anglers soon realize that these methods are not impossible and they truly do supplement the efforts of the dry fly, nymph or streamer allowing the angler to be a more complete angler on the water and enjoy a better and more complete understanding of the wonderful sport of fly fishing.
From a historical point of view and even in the current times and places that I fish today I find the debate between the different types or styles of fly fishing to be silly and pointless. Fly fishing is sport where you can choose your own personal styles and ways to fly fish and be very happy. There is wrong method, now there may be method which you choose not to use, and that is fine, that is your personal choice. However that doesn't make other methods wrong or unethical or whatever, I believe that fly anglers should fish the methods they want to and they should enjoy their day on the water allowing others to do the same.
Personal Note: In preparing to write this selection I reread and took notes from all of G.E.M. Skues published books and then read every book published about Skues that I could find, along with all of Frederic M. Halford works concerning the Dry Fly. It has been both educational and delightful to undertake this research and have given me a clearer understanding of one of the pivotal events in fly fishing history. Below I have list all of the books I have used in my research some of which can be found on-line and downloaded in a PDF format or in some case to a Kindle. Other volumes can only be found through dealers in fly fishing books which are out of print. I must note that Amazon.com can be of great assistance in finding some of these volumes at reasonable prices.
1857 The Practical Angler W.C. Stewart
1886 Floating Flies and How to Dress Them Frederic M. Halford
1889 Dry Fly-Fishing in Theory and Practice Frederic M. Halford
1910 Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream G.E.M. Skues
1911 Marvels of Fish Life Dr. Francis Ward
1921 Animal Life Underwater Dr. Francis Ward
1921 The Way of a Trout with a Fly G.E.M. Skues
1931 The Fly Fisher and the Trout's Point of View Col. E.W. Harding, this particular book was not well received in England at the time of its publication, however it did very well in the United States and later inspired many of England greatest anglers in the next generation.
1935 Sidelines, Sidelights and Reflections G.E.M. Skues
1939 Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout G.E.M. Skues
1950 Silk, Fur and Feathers G.E.M. Skues*
1951 Itchen Memories G.E.M. Skues*
*Both of these volumes were published after his death and at his request, his brother C.A.M. Skues seen to the publishing.
1956 The Angling Letter of G.E.M. Skues Edited by C.F. Walker
1977 G.E.M. Skues, The Way of a Man with a Trout - Edited by T. Donald Overfield
1998 The Essential G.E.M. Skues Edited by Kenneth Robson**
**This volume contains a map of the Abbot Barton's Section of the Itchen when G.E.M. Skues was fishing it. A few years ago I was able to fish the Itchen and it was a wonderful day spent in the shadow of angling giants.
2008 Skues on Trout Edited by Paul Schullary
2013 G.E.M. Skues, The Man of the Nymph Tony Hayter
Plus the countless authors of the past one hundred years, who have mentioned or had short selections in their own books which explains the contribution of Skues to the art and science of Fly Fishing.
I gathered over two hundred and fifty pages of notes while researching this subject, which of course had to be reduced down to something under twenty pages in length, by doing so, many facts were left out, but they are there listed above for the individuals who have an interest.
Next time you are one the water and fishing a nymph, stop and reflect just for a moment that all this nymph business really began on the Chalk Stream of Southern England in the late 19th century and then enjoy your day on the water, Skues would have!
Enjoy & Good Fishin'