What follows is the text and images from illustrated talks in South Africa Simon J. Ward gave on the evolution and the development of fly fishing on

the Chalk Streams of Southern England.

First in Cape Town for ‘The Cape Piscatorial Society’ on 13th October 1997

and then in Johannesburg for FOSAF the ‘Federation of South African

Flyfishers’ on 22nd October 1997.

Good evening gentlemen (ladies). What I would like to do tonight is to give you something of an insight into the chalk streams of Southern England. How they evolved in pre-history, how fly fishing developed in the nineteenth century, and how we fly fish them today.

The way fly fishing has spread around the globe over the last 120 years or so, coincided with the introduction of the brown trout — Not only to your upland streams, but also to the streams in Australia and New Zealand, and North America. A new method of fishing for them followed shortly after. This was "The Dry Fly".

The slides as they roll through (some old some new) show how diverse the chalk streams are; but their make up, so far as they all come from the chalk, are the same. The rivers illustrated tonight are the rivers Test and Itchen in Hampshire, and the two Dorset rivers the Frome and Piddle.

Map of the River
The River Test
Map of the River Itchen
The River Itchen
The River Test
The Test
The River Itchen
The Itchen

Map of the River
The River Test
Map of the River Itchen
The Rivers Frome and Piddle
The Frome
The Piddle

 

What is a chalk stream?

The River Test at Mottisfont AbbeyThe River Test at Mottisfont Abbey

To find the true origins of the chalk rivers of Southern England we have to travel back in time somewhere between 70 and 90 million years. This was the latter half of the Cretaceous period. Countless billions of bi-valves, ammonites, and minute marine creatures, which together with the skeletal parts of the de-composing coccoliths, became compressed to form the vast deposits of chalk.

Portsdown Hill in HampshirePortsdown Hill in Hampshire

A material consisting almost entirely of calcium carbonate. Deposition completed, the Cretaceous period ended about 65 million years ago bringing to a close the Mesozoic era. The transition into that section of geological time was marked by a major recession of the sea,

Portsdown Hill

 

leaving extensive outcrops of the younger chalk some of which were almost sixteen hundred feet deep.

Chalk Deposits

 

Although comparatively minor fluctuations of sea level followed the water failed to raise to a depth which would again submerge the upper chalk. Excessive precipitation, particularly in the winter, soaks through the thin layer of soil to be absorbed,

Picture of Eroding Top soilEroding Top Soil

and held within the cool depths of the porous chalk, subsequently liberating this water sometimes months later, through springs located lower down the catchment area. This subterranean region of saturated chalk is known as the 'aquifer'.

So far as Southern England was concerned, the series of glacial epochs began a little over half a million years ago

Map

 

It was to be and for that matter still is, (as even now we exist within a glacial transition), an era of considerable climatic fluctuation. These ice-ages, the most recent of which began about 75,000 years ago, lasted until almost 9,000 BC., produced long term modification of drainage patterns due to varying rates of erosion. This also of course, caused an associated rise and fall in sea-levels

This is part of the flood plain of what was the “Solent River System”, and this is Portsmouth Harbour today. This is part of the flood plain of what was the “Solent River System”, and this is Portsmouth Harbour today.
This is part of the flood plain of what was the “Solent River System”, and this is Portsmouth Harbour today.

 

which was responsible for the final disruption of the supposed "Solent River System" about 8,000 years ago when the sea level rose by about 45 metres. The Hampshire rivers and streams were once tributaries (as were those of Dorset and Wiltshire) of the ancient "Solent River", which flowed east-ward from its source in Dorset.

From what we know today as the river Frome.

The River Frome at Maiden Newton Way to the East would have been the Estuary.
The River Frome at Maiden Newton
Way to the East would have been the Estuary.

It joined the sea somewhere near Littlehampton, way to the east of the Isle of Wight which then was part of the mainland. Since it was first formed more than 230,000 years ago the Solent River would have been disrupted numerous times due to fluctuations in 'sea-level'.

The large body of water that is Portsmouth Harbour. The large body of water that is Portsmouth Harbour.

A wet and warming climate generated afforestation on a grand scale. During the Iron Age more and more land was cleared of trees and then settled, cultivated and grazed. The mainstay of the agricultural policy was growing wheat and it is fairly certain that the grain was ground laboriously by hand. Clearly the principle of grinding grain by squeezing it between a revolving stone and a stationary one was a highly significant development and one that had possibly occurred in Britain before any Roman sandal first set foot in Hampshire in AD 43.

It seems fairly certain that it took the Roman engineers to bring the Hampshire rivers under control and install the first watermills.

Ramsbruy Mill on the River Kennet. Ramsbruy Mill on the River Kennet.

 

Roman Hampshire would have provided ideal conditions for the establishment of mill sites. It therefore seems likely that before the Romans departed they would have engineered numerous mill sites, some of which undoubtedly exist to this day. Also, it is probable that the Romans introduced some form of fly fishing into Britain from Macedonia.

The Saxons would have needed to maintain the watercourses associated with the mills, perhaps even building and maintaining more than their Roman predecessors. Twenty years after the Norman Conquest (in 1066) our Domesday Book recorded over 300 mills in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

One further development was to come which would so substantially modify the pattern of drainage with in these valleys, as to make their appearance even more artificial and contrived. Around or before the beginning of the seventeenth century, the little river Wey in Hampshire witnessed the installation of a primitive system for improving the drainage and irrigation of alluvial meadows.

Ramsbruy Mill on the River Kennet. The River Piddle Valley (an alluvial meadow) at Culeaze.

By the mid-eighteenth century, many thousands of acres of wet valley pastures, considered agriculturally poor, had been converted to water meadows. Although not confined to Hampshire, it is true to say that as a specialised agricultural method, these systems enjoyed such popularity that the character and appearance of a substantial part of the country was radically altered.

 

Utilising a complex arrangement of weirs and hatches,
Highland Burn, Abbotts Barton Hatch Hole
Sluices and Hatch Holes
a series of progressively diminishing carrier streams led water to the centre of the meadows, from which it flowed in a continuous sheet across the turf, to be collected by a complimentary set of drains,
Upper Barton Carrier at Abbott’s Barton The Black Pipe, River Itchen
Upper Barton Carrier at Abbott’s Barton
The Black Pipe

 

which then directed the water back to a point lower down the river.

The men who operated these systems for the farmer were known as "Meadsmen" or "Drowners". It was their duty to ensure that every feature of the system was well maintained, concentrating in particular on the efficiency of the drainage channels. Borne in the water from the river were a rich supply of nutrients and during its passage through the grass these nutrients were deposited in the turf providing rich grazing for sheep and cattle.

There can be no doubt that the water-meadow system of agriculture, had the most radical environmental influence. It was almost certainly the single most significant factor which formed the Test and Itchen valleys and the other chalk valleys of the south country, as well as generating a biological environment, uniquely rich and very specialised.

 

The Itchen Valley The Lower Main river Itchen, at Abbott’s Barton (circa 1994)
The Itchen Valley
The Lower Main river Itchen, at Abbott’s Barton (circa 1994)

 

Somewhere between the outset of the nineteenth century and its mid point, angling and more particularly angling with the fly, underwent a metamorphosis.

The author fishing on the Mill Reach at Tolpuddle on the River Piddle.
The author fishing on the Mill Reach at Tolpuddle on the River Piddle.

 

Fly-fishing came of age and the intellectuals moved in. The ten years covered by "The fishing Diary (1809 to 1819) of the Rev. Richard Durnford", paint a picture of a relatively quaint 'country pursuit', with little or no apparent attempt to manage the river as a fishery. Contrast this state of affairs with the more ordered fisheries of fifty years later and it is very evident that a revolution had taken place.

The closing years of the 1830s gave Hampshire its first glimpses of the very latest technology, Steam Traction. By 1839, the London to Southampton Railway had the 'bones' of a service between the two cities, with completion being achieved the following year. Victorian sportsmen were at once liberated from London's stuffy, week-end streets. Suddenly, Hampshire was the place to be and the clear chalk-streams were an inevitable attraction for anyone with a 'penchant' for running water and its fishing, assuming they had the price of a train ticket.

Newton Stacey on the Test Simon Ward
Newton Stacey on the Test
SJW

 

There followed a period where dedication to this new art form of 'exact imitation' grew almost manic, and the dry fly purist school became a cult, a fact probably more attributable to his followers than to Halford himself.

It took the logical legal mind of G.E.M. Skues and twenty years to calm the excesses of these piscatorial zealots.

George Edward Mackenzie Skues.
George Edward Mackenzie Skues.

 

Skues re-told the angling world that the trout which had seized the wet-fly a century earlier, had not done so by accident, and that the fishes predilection for the nymphal form had not been influenced by the pronouncements of any purist. Skues bequeathed to angling a balanced philosophy of dry-fly fishing, complemented by a blameless and wholly ethical means of imitating the sub-surface insect.

The southern chalk streams, where the dry-fly was rehearsed and finally given its command performance, were spoken of in almost hushed tones by the bucolics who fished them. The dry-fly pioneers were an extraordinary band of wealthy dedicated fly fishermen. The Victorian fly fishing country gentleman's leisure time was long but they were not idle.

 

What number of individuals can be classed as the modern dry-fly pioneers? Frederick Michael Halford must automatically spring to mind, if for no other reason than his was the first book on the subject now judged to be a classic work. But how did he arrive at his conclusions? Sadly his books will not help us.

Frederick Michael Halford
Frederick Michael Halford

 

My research has lifted the veil which had hitherto, obscured a triumvirate; three significant minds in this developmental epic. One was angling editor of the Field, the second a school master at Bristol's Clifton College and the third an ex-cavalry officer and country gentleman. They had started their fly fishing life with the downstream wet-fly. These key players, Francis Francis, Henry Sinclair Hall, and arguably the greatest angler of them all, George Selwyn Marryat, they were the real pioneers of what we identify today as 'The Chalk Stream Dry-fly'.

Francis Francis
Henry Sinclair Hall
George Selwyn Marryat.
Francis Francis
Henry Sinclair Hall
George Selwyn Marryat.

 

However, there were others who assisted, but in a more peripheral role, and others whose contribution was supportive and significant. Chief amongst these was Dr. Thomas Sanctuary Jr., eminent physician and life-long friend of Marryat; George Holland, tackle shop proprietor and accomplished fly dresser; William Senior, who succeeded Francis at the Field in 1882; R.B. Marston, proprietor of the Fishing Gazette and co-founder of the Flyfishers' Club, and finally Major Carlisle, 'South-West' of the Field and Hon. Secretary of the old Houghton Fly Fishing Club.

They were a close-knit circle of friends who spent many glorious summers fishing in each others company, but all working toward a common and united goal.

GSM, David Wilson, Nat Lloyd, and Halford on the Sheepbridge (circa 1893)
GSM, David Wilson, Nat Lloyd, and Halford on the Sheepbridge (circa 1893)

 

Francis Francis was the senior player, having cast his first wet-fly on the chalk streams in 1840; the year Marryat was born. His and indeed the role of the others mentioned, is not only important, but fascinating.

Francis Francis (circa 1880)
Francis Francis (circa 1880)

 

Francis Francis became one of England's leading all-round fishing authors and journalists, and in 1856 he joined the Field as fishing editor, a post he held for over twenty-five years. Within two years he was writing about the dry fly in his articles, in 1857 he called the dry-fly "an established institution on that river"; he was referring to the river Itchen. In the middle years of the nineteenth century our British fly fishing was largely uncontrolled. Journalists like Francis through their writing were instrumental in banishing unsportsmanlike behaviour and introducing rules and etiquette that are still upheld by any self-respecting angler, no matter what discipline or method of fishing he follows.

Eighteen fifty-seven was Marryat's final year at Winchester College. Francis was 35 and Marryat a 17 year old perhaps became acquainted at this time seems not beyond the bounds of possibility. Marryat would have been, I think, a regular reader of Francis articles, and, college work notwithstanding, fished on the Old barge water of the Itchen whenever he could. Francis came down from Twickenham frequently to fish the same water. It is not hard to see that their paths must have crossed sometime. I would suggest these meetings quite possibly were the catalyst that started M to work on the floating fly.

 

The Old Barge
The Old Barge

 

The third member of this hidden triumvirate was Henry Sinclair Hall, an old boy from Clifton College in Bristol. He joined School House the first boarding house at the college, in 1865, aged 16. He returned to Clifton as an assistant master in 1873, the first ex-pupil to do so.

H.S. Hall
H.S. Hall

 

Hall has down the years become known as the gentleman who re-invented the eyed hook, for which he claimed most if not all the credit for himself. The truth is somewhat different. In the mid 1870s Hall was working with George Bankart who solved many of the problems to do with the eyed hook. Bankart, probably through exasperation, gave up the unequal struggle of trying to work with Hall, and probably I suspect, just went fishing. The same can be said of the split-winged dry-fly to.

A 000 GSM Ginger Quill A GSM Ginger Quill
A 000 GSM Ginger Quill
A GSM Ginger Quill

 

Hall was quick to point out as well in many letters written between 1882 and 1885 to the Field and the Fishing Gazette, that he worked it all out all by himself and wanted all the credit. It was only years later (after Marryat had died) that he owned up about the way his Hooks were married to the new fly dressings using this new up-eyed "Snecky Limerick" hook. Marryat's criterion for the perfect hook was; "the temper of an angel and the penetration of a prophet; fine enough to be invisible, and strong enough to kill a bull in a ten acre field". The split-winged floater

A GSM Little Marryat
A GSM Little Marryat

 

(both single and double dressed) evolved under the hand and watchful eye of Marryat in the mid to late 1870s and early 1880s. Viewed from today, Hall is seen as the originator; Marryat's pivotal roll seems to have been largely forgotten.

Hall's early writing, first in the Fishing Gazette and later in the Salmon and Trout edition of the Badminton Library, were the result of all the work done with Marryat on the Test and Itchen between 1876 and 1885. In 1883 Hall penned three articles for the Fishing Gazette called "Fly Fishing on some Southern Chalk Streams"; these articles are the first comprehensive explanation of fishing the dry fly.

One man who was to become the person to buy your dry flies from, read these early letters and articles of Hall's in the fishing papers of the time. He was George Holland and lived far away from the chalk streams of Hampshire,

Roy Darlington fishes the Longstock Mill pool on the Test.
Roy Darlington fishes the Longstock Mill pool on the Test.

 

at Failsworth near Manchester. Using Hall's written descriptions, Holland set about tying some of these new flies, which in due course he sent to Hall for his opinion. They entered into a lengthy correspondence about the merits of the new hooks and the dressing methods for them. Poring over Hall's articles of the time, one might think that he alone was responsible for Holland's expertise at the tying vice but this is not so. It was Marryat and Dr. Thomas Sanctuary Jr. who were instrumental in bringing Holland south to Salisbury in the latter half of 1885, (soon after Marryat had moved there himself.) They housed Holland and his family in Bridge Street. This was Marryat's most scientific period of fly tying, in which every detail was studied and worked out by Marryat himself and Holland under Marryat's instruction. It was under Marryat's sole tutoring that Holland was inducted into the world of the commercial dry-fly dresser. It will be noticed that Halford's name is not mentioned in any way with this work.

Nor does Sanctuary ever talk of Halford in connection with this work, all he says is, "Halford was an occasional visitor to Marryat's house in the Close." Before Holland moved on to Winchester in 1893, Salisbury was the centre of the dry-fly world. Sanctuary spent many hours of many days with Marryat dissecting and mounting specimens for the microscope; Sanctuary states that Marryat, "got bitten by a mania for microscopical research." This research went in concert with the work Marryat was involved with while teaching Holland the intricacies of fly dressing, and, it has to be said, the work Marryat was doing with Halford on the river Test.

A 0Marryat’s house in the Cathedral Close The Shop where Holland moved to in Winchester
Marryat’s house in the Cathedral Close
The Shop where Holland moved to in Winchester
River Test above Stockbridge.
River Test above Stockbridge.

 

Holland is important, more so than is generally realised. He became the purveyor of the split-winged dry-fly. He was to become so good at manufacturing these flies, that Marryat felt he could largely give up tying this own flies, preferring to concentrate on his entomological studies with his microscope. With the coming of Halford's first book in 1886 and his second in 1889, the amateur fly dresser could now make his own split-winged dry flies.

A GSM Ginger Quill (circa 1883)
A GSM Ginger Quill (circa 1883)

As is the case today, there were many who could not or did not have the time to tie their own flies. Holland's tackle shop in Salisbury became the place to order these new floaters.

He employed a team of woman who were also perhaps taught by Marryat, and these ladies turned out hundreds of dry flies for this growing market.

The split-winged dry-fly might not have been generally available in the tackle shops in 1877, but make no mistake about it Marryat was using it for his own fishing, and talking to Francis about it. Dr. Sanctuary Jr. has told us how famous anglers of the time used to travel into Winchester with the sole purpose of watching Mrs. Cox dressing flies in her Parchment Street emporium. She used to tie in the wings using bunches of feather which sometimes split; from this method of winging Marryat set about refining it as the upright single and double-dressed split-wing.

Two Ginger Quills from the hand of Marryat.

 

By the time Marryat had made the acquaintance of Hall in August 1879, the dry-fly was gathering momentum; but it would be least another ten years before many, if not all, the south country fly fishermen would know of these split-winged sensations.

Several generations of fly-fishers have bumbled along thinking that the Halfordian period and attitudes set the techniques and the guidelines for our current use of the dry-fly,

A Modern CDC Emerger
A Modern CDC Emerger

including the mechanics and ethics, and that will and has always been good enough for them!!! The important point to remember about Marryat & Co., is that he and they, originated the contemporary upstream chalk stream dry-fly approach, long before Halford appeared, and with a much more open mind. The "straight-jacketed approach, would never have been Marryat's hope or intent.

I would suggest that Halford and his disciples robbed the fly fishing world of some, much earlier, extremist evolution. For over one hundred years the modern chalk stream fly fisher has been enclosed within an Halfordian "straight-jacket". Halford lost whatever opportunity he had to free the fly fishing world of the parasitic, ultra-purists of the dry fly cult, who clung to his every word. He could have condemned them, but this he never did.

 

Frederick M. Halford (circa 1910)
Frederick M. Halford (circa 1910)

 

Up to about 1938, the dry-fly reigned supreme, but it suffered much criticism. First the dictatorial stance that Halford's disciples took. Then in 1910 along comes Mr. Skues with his minor tactics; now that did upset the dry-fly apple-cart. Skues at one time was as devoted to the dry-fly as Halford. By the time of Marryat's death, Skues theories about the use of the wet-fly on the chalk streams were gathering momentum, finally evolving as realistic nymphal imitations.

A Skues nymphal imitation.
A Skues nymphal imitation.

 

Among all the famous men of the chalk streams, Halford after 1896, and his devotee's stand out alone as the ones who were devoted to the pursuit of the dry-fly as the be all and end all of methods for the southern chalk rivers. From his days on the river Wandle, and later on the Hampshire streams, the dry-fly was always for him the first and only way of catching trout. His narrow minded followers and there were quite a few of them, regarded Halford as some kind of deity, and really set up the dry-fly as the absolute dictum for the chalk streams. In reality it was the all-round fly fisher who should be classed as the complete chalk stream angler. Had Halford and his followers concentrated their efforts solely on the dry-fly, and left the wet-fly/nymph to those who knew how effective it could be.

Whitchurch Mill on the Test. A brace of beauties from Abbott’s Barton
Whitchurch Mill on the Test.
A brace of beauties from Abbott’s Barton.

Then, history would have marked him down as a master of the dry-fly. Instead of which he is remembered more for all the muddy-water he created with all his various pronouncements that derided the sunk fly, "the floggers" and the "chuck it and chance it" fly fishermen, (he called them) in favour of the dry-fly purist in his later writing.

George Edward Mackenzie Skues

George Skues fishing his beloved main river at Abbott’s Barton.
George Skues fishing his beloved main river at Abbott’s Barton.

 

championed the case for both wet-fly and dry-fly on the chalk streams; he did this for over fifty years, first with letters to the periodicals. Skues then had the temerity to write a book, in 1910, on the effectiveness of the upstream wet-fly (nymph) on the chalk streams, calling the book "Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream". Many of the Halfordian ultra-purist believers must have seen this book as some kind of blasphemy on their sheltered existence, but Skues had not yet finished. He followed this up in 1921, with "The Way of a Trout With a Fly".

I find it hard to think that Halford was so misinformed and faithless about this. Surely he could not have been so blind, obstinate yes! He knew all right, but by admitting, perhaps, that brown trout and grayling could be caught, and caught fairly, upstream with a sunk fly, he would have devalued the impact of not only the new dry-fly, but therefore, also the value of his books.

A 3lb 2oz brown trout 2lb 10oz grayling
A 3lb 2oz brown trout and a 2lb 10oz grayling both taken with a tiny pheasant tail nymph at Abbott’s Barton.

 

The very essence of the upstream dry-fly as evolved by the downstream wet-fly fishermen in the middle years of the nineteenth century was that it was always intended to be another string to the fly fishers bow.

The dry-fly was never contracted to displace the established method. The dry-fly enabled the angler to present a fly upstream, in bright calm conditions, to rising fish; which had hitherto been seen as all but impossible, using the tackle they had available to them. And yes, they did fish just like Skues was to do many years later, in and below the film, with primitive nymphal imitations. Whereas before the modern dry-fly hatched, the wet-fly was cast up or downstream using whatever wind there was, this only worked if half-a-gale was blowing and it was raining torrents.

Pudding Farm, Abbott’s Barton
Rise Form
Whitchurch Mill
Pudding Farm, Abbott’s Barton
Rise form
Whitchurch Mill.

 

The dry-fly made for comfortable easier fishing, but this split-winged device was only one of a number of things that made it easier. Rods and fly lines were subjected to as much development as the fly. With the coming of the shorter-stiffer rods made of split-cane, and the tapered and oiled silk casting lines, the fly fisher was now at last independent of the wind. Fishing the dry-fly upstream against a breeze was practicable, but if it made the dry-fly effective upstream, surely this new independence from the wind made casting the wet-fly (nymph) upstream to fish bulging at nymphs even more advantageous. Wet-fly (nymph) and dry-fly fishing were always meant to compliment each other, which they did, until Halford and his disciples decided otherwise.

Over the decades since Marryat's death the memory of this mighty fly fisher has rested on the testimony and memory from a close circle of his friends.

On 14th February 1996 we finally found his final resting place, one hundred years to the day.
On 14th February 1996 we finally found his final resting place, one hundred years to the day.

 

The word charismatic springs to mind as the right way to think of him. But I am sure he would have been embarrassed to have been thought of as having charisma. As far as he was concerned all he did was to go a-fishing for his own pleasure, that he could impart his knowledge to others only added to his enjoyment.

Apart from a very few writers today, the modern view is that he took a very secondary roll in the development of fly fishing, especially dry-fly fishing in the second half of the nineteenth century. Granted that, it was Frederick Halford who wrote the definitive books on the dry-fly discipline; first in 1886, with Floating Flies and How to Dress Them; following this up in 1889 with Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice. But. All the ideas and new pronouncements on the dry-fly were by no means all from the pen of Halford. My view, and it is a view that is being endorsed by growing numbers of my contemporaries on the chalk streams — Halford was very much just the dry-fly historian and the first dry-fly codifier and Marryat's mouth-piece. Although this view is still seen in some blinkered circles as being heresy on my part; to these dogmatists Halford is still the god — which is not true.

We can see that after Marryat died in 1896, Halford changed his outlook quite radically on how he perceived the right way to go about deciding what was right and what was wrong with the exact imitation theories he had worked out years before with Marryat. I believe Marryat had such an influence over Halford that he, Halford, had no way of knowing what was the best way of progressing. The books that Halford penned after Marryat passed away showed he had lost his way and became dogmatic and entrenched.

Right up to Marryat's death in 1896, (he was only 56); these two giants on the stream remained the closest of friends sharing more than just the fishing. Halford was a regular house guest of Marryat's at The Close in Salisbury.

Marryat’s home for eleven years.
Marryat’s home for eleven years.

 

There is no evidence that I can find to support the widely held view that, Marryat and Halford had a parting of the ways after the first two books were published. Having said that I am sure, just as in any partnership there were differences of opinion. This was for the most part a harmonious and very fruitful association. Halford was always ready to listen and learn from Marryat, Halford would refer to himself as the pupil and take his lead from all the information that came from his friend. Halford freely admitted to Marryat in 1879, who was without doubt the finest fly fisher/entomologist of his time, that he was having serious difficulties with the mechanics of tying a trout fly.

Glass of lemonade on a hot day
Glass of lemonade on a hot day.

 

Marryat aware of his companions growing knowledge of entomology, agreed to help in any way he could. Marryat was a hard man to get to know really well; he was reserved by nature, and essentially, a loner who minded his own business. But, if the first contact was favourable and the new-comer was a friend of a friend of Marryat's. Then, as in the case with his first meeting with Halford a long and fruitful alliance was possible.

Marryat stayed on the periphery of the public goings on around the dry-fly; but in private, I have discovered, it was a different matter, he was the hub, everything revolved round him. Many were the times that he was the life and soul of the party.

Major Turle (of Turle knot fame); called him "unconventional, vigorous, and vivid." In fishing messes all over Southern England and especially at the Mill in the small village of Houghton, hard by the river Test; Marryat could be relied upon to entertain his friends, he was something of the court jester. And was a great practical joker.

Houghton Mill
Houghton Mill

 

It was during the days and nights spent at the old Mill and after the time that Marryat was introduced to Halford in 1879. Although Marryat, coming up to his fortieth birthday was still full of sprits and harmless jokes as a boy would have been. Francis Francis (who at the time was coming to the end of his period as angling editor of the Field) he was late down for breakfast; Marryat had placed empty boiled-eggshells with the unbroken ends uppermost in the egg-cups upon Francis plate. Loud was the explosion of laughter when the latter discovered the little trick that had been played upon him. He knew at once who the author was, and with "what a confounded child you are Marryat", joined in the merriment.

The Mill was a hot bed of angling fervour and long were the discussions waged over the properties of hackle and hair and how best they could be used to imitate the natural insect. Halford's growing knowledge of entomology and Marryat's expertise at the vice were just the right combination for the mammoth task they had set themselves. To have been a fly on the wall at the Mill during those long summer evenings, dinner over, with the port flowing and their pipes burning, what stories the old place could tell.

Marryat's life had been a busy one. He had gathered an enormous amount of knowledge on his travels, and in a more serious vein could be persuaded to expound on his theories, not just on fly fishing but on natural history and even more obscure subjects of science. What he called "the teleology of the infinite". In the convivial atmosphere at the Mill, and surrounded by his friends, this was one of the places where Marryat felt comfortable.

Breakfast at the mill over, M and H would set off on foot or bicycle for the river, and the water meadows. Loaded down with bug nets and specimen jars, magnifiers, and all the other equipment they needed for collecting the insects upon which the fish dine. In the course of the morning hundreds of winged insects would be collected for further study back at the mill. This was the first time that such a comprehensive study had been undertaken on the invertebrate life of the chalk stream.

Mayfly E. danica (male)
Roy Darlington and Stewart Newell collecting samples from the Nuns Stream.
Mayfly E. danica (male)
Roy Darlington and Stewart Newell collecting samples from the Nuns Stream.

 

When the two piscators ventured out with their rods, all the trout and grayling caught would go through an autopsy for examination of the stomach contents to see how good the choice of artificial fly had been when compared with the natural insects the fish had consumed. The main study was of the order Ephemeroptera, the olives, the nymph, the dun and the spinner (you all I think, know them as small mayflies).

Many of the artificials had bodies made of quill which helped with adding extra buoyancy, it must be remembered that no fly flotant was used. The natural oils that were left in the hackles after washing and dying, and frequent false-casting were the only aids available to them. The way these dry flies were dressed was to get the best and longest drag-free float over the fish possible, they required a bushy hackle. The hackle helped trap air in between the barbs of the feather.

A Marryat ginger quill
Mayfly spinner (male)
A Marryat ginger quill
Mayfly spinner (male)

 

They both realised that to try and duplicate a mirror image of the delicate natural insect using the materials they had available was all but impossible. What they concentrated on was trying to carry through the colour, and the general size and shape of the natural. The exact imitation theories and practices so often talked about today, were all about achieving the perfect colour match between the artificial and the natural. Many hours were spent at the mill looking through the eyepiece of a microscope studying the variations of colour that even the same species had.

This was a period of great experimentation; every day brought new problems that needed solutions. M and H sat down and made up a long list of questions relating to the dressing of the artificial dry-fly, and the host of other related work they had to do on the habits of the natural insects. One by one they would try to the best of their means, answer these questions how ever long it took.

Only when Halford had proved it to his own satisfaction would it be set in concrete. This I think has been the problem and why Halford stands accused of dogmatism in his later books. Marryat however, kept an open mind about imitation, as we know today season by season things do change. What works this season will not necessarily work the next, it must always be an on going process.

If there were major differences of opinion between M and H — and I think there may have been

right from the start of their collaboration, Halford in his wisdom considered that the dry-fly fisherman needed an artificial fly dressing for every natural insect likely to be encountered when on the stream. Marryat, I think, thought otherwise, as can be seen be this statement of his. "The quill dyed olive with onion dye, and a blue dun hackle dyed in the same dye in three shades and sizes, no fisherman should ever be without.

A Marryat olive dun as described in his letter to the Field
A Marryat olive dun as described in his letter to the Field

 

I should not be afraid to back it against any other flies that can be tied." Three shades and sizes, this is what a fly fisherman today would call a system fly,

Picture of an olive dun tied by Marryat
Picture of an olive dun tied by Marryat
Two more olive duns from Marryat’s hand.

 

to be used for the variation in colour and size of Ephemerid insects. Marryat tried to persuade Halford that the endless (well over one hundred) list of fly patterns that he dressed, were not needed to be successful. Marryat’s genius with the fly rod is well documented. It was this that was the key to his fly fishing, presenting the fly to the fish with perfection.

 

The Perfect cast results in a hooked fish
The Perfect cast results in a hooked fish

 

It is now just over 101 years since Marryat passed away. The modern fly fisher (wherever he fishes in the world) should remember him always as the father and our patron saint of the dry-fly; for without his immense contribution to developing all the many different aspects of fishing the floating fly, it is doubtful even if Halford would have written his books. George Selwyn Marryat (1840 to 1896) thank you, I for one, will never forget you; may you rest in peace.

The Author
The Centenary of his passing 14th February 1996.

 

As the sun sets over a Mid-Summer river Test I conclude my presentation — Thank you very much for your interest.

 

copyright © Simon J. Ward 1997