Reference:
G.E.M. Skues

Born 13th August 1858, died 9th August 1949

eorge Edward MacKenzie Skues was, without any doubt, one of the greatest trout fishermen that ever lived. His achievement was the invention of fly fishing with the nymph, a discovery that put a full stop to half a century of stagnation in wet fly fishing for trout, and formed the bedrock for modern sunk fly fishing. Skues' achievement was not without controversy, and provoked what was perhaps the most bitter dispute in fly fishing history.

He was the eldest child of William MacKenzie Skues, at the time surgeon to the Newfoundland Companies. His mother's maiden name was Margaret Ayre. When he was three, his parents returned to Britain, his father's work resulted in fairly frequent moves for the young Skues, until 1872, when he won a sholarship to Winchester. In 1874 he bought some hooks in Hammond's to catch minnows, and his first attempt at fly fishing was made that year using an eleven foot rod, a silk and horsehair line, and a Wickham's Fancy. It was a long time before he caught his first trout. His first day on the chalk streams was the result of an invitation to fish on the Itchen in 1887, and his first article in the angling press appeared the following year under his pseudonym "Val Conson."

His first book, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, was published in 1910 and was a careful exploration of the possibilities of nymph fishing at a time when the dry fly school reigned supreme. He followed it in 1921 with The Way of a Trout with a Fly, a classic work. Numerous dry-fly men (including Halford) had observed that traditional winged wet flies represented no known underwater insect and declined to explore the possibilities - a blinkered decision as it turned out. Skues, on the other hand, was the first fisherman to make the point that the bulging rises which marked the first stage of the rise were caused by fish taking nymphs - nymphs that could be imitated if new patterns and a new method were developed. He pointed out that it was only later that fish began to take duns, and that on occasion the fish were so surfeited with nymphs that the rise was insignificant. Skues ‘third stage’ was the mopping up of stragglers by fish taking a mixture of duns, damaged or drowned flies and nymphs. He made the point that fishing wet to first and third stage fish didn’t spoil dry fly fishing in the second stage and his most crucial discovery was that nymphing trout had to be struck, and that the timing of the strike depended on very subtle observation.

Skues’ ground-breaking ideas left him exposed to a great deal of criticism, which he bore with good grace. He was saved from serious personal attack partly because he was a lawyer with an assertive character and partly his new technique meant that he could catch fish under circumstances that defeated everyone else. But, on February 10th 1938, an extraordinary event occurred. The years prior to the war had seen a resurgence of dry-fly purism, and Skues and his supporters had come under heavy and sustained attack. In a typically British development, the committee of the Flyfisher’s Club called a debate on the subject of the ethics of nymph fishing in chalk streams. The debate drew a huge audience that read like an honour-roll of British fly fishing. Despite the support arrayed in the dry fly corner, the only serious opposition to Skues was mounted by Sir Joseph Hall, in a closely reasoned argument which questioned Skues’ somewhat partisan quoting of Halford. Ultimately, the field was left to Skues, then aged 80, who must have reflected that it was an odd thing for all this anger to be vented on the ethics of fishing a tiny fly under water, when the world stood at the gates of Armageddon itself. The position of the nymph was assured, although the ripples of the debate are still spreading, and many English chalk stream fisheries still have special nymphing regulations.

 

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