George Selwyn Marryat Remembered (part 2) by Simon J Ward

We regard today the books written by F.M.Halford as the bench mark for chalk stream dry fly fishing as practiced over one hundred years ago. Even today his book's still offer much that we can learn from. Halford made the acquaintance of G. S. Marryat in the Spring of 1879. Halford's first book 'Floating Flies and How to Dress Them' was still seven years away.

Long before this however, through the pages of The Field and The Fishing Gazette, the upstream dry fly on the chalk streams was written about before Halford even fished on the Test, let alone him writing about it. The pen of Francis Francis in The Field, regularly wrote about the dry fly, (he was the angling editor from 1856 to 1881). Also, Francis and Marryat were old and very dear friends. They fished together as often as they could. I am in no doubt that some of the articles that Francis wrote for The Field about the chalk streams and the dry fly came from the mind of Marryat. — Marryat spoke, and Francis wrote the words! Francis always referred to my friend M in his articles.

Article in The Field

One such article in The Field from Francis appeared in the Christmas number 1880, where, amongst other things, Francis wrote about quill bodies for flies. This three thousand word article inspired George Selwyn Marryat to put pen to paper, and, for perhaps, the only time in his life wanted to share first-hand, his fly dressing knowledge with his fellow readers. Marryat's inspiration to write came from the following paragraphs of the article, and no doubt some gentle persuasion from Francis.

"The fly on which there has been a very unusual run this year has been the brown dun, or "light hare's ear," I suppose it would be called, though hare's fur, particularly when wet, does not give the colour at all. I may state here that we are gradually weeding out the old materials which we used for bodies of flies formerly, and fur and silk bodies are more and more falling into disuse among first-class trout fishers, being gradually ousted by the introduction of "quill", &c. Fur, and more particularly silk bodies, and especially floss silk bodies, are always many shades darker when wet than dry; and, though you may seek to allow for this, yet you cannot always be at all sure to what shade the wet silk will darken. There are one or two flies with light watery, semi-transparent, washy bodies, which floss silk alone, when wet, will give a decent imitation of; for all the others, and particularly darker bodies, we are rapidly eschewing it. The difficulty for some time in respect to quill was to get it the right colour; but of late the practice of dying and staining has been resorted to, and beautiful and accurate effects have been the result. And there is this further benefit in quill bodies, vis., that they hold no water, and float so much better than fur or silk; and as the dry fly is now so very much in favour, that is no small advantage. It is quite surprising how you can see a good, well-tied, quill body float like the natural fly. I have seen one often in the dark, all across the Itchen, as plainly as I could see the real fly, or almost more so; and when a fly floats like that, any reasonable, well-disposed fish which is well on the rise and at fly (not larva) will often take it, even though it be not the precise fly which he is taking at the moment my friend M., who is sure to spot any prominent fly, has his imitation of it too, and a very good one it was, and killed lots of fish this season on the Itchen; but his was open to the same objection as mine—it had a fur body which darkened when wet. The other day, however, he had some flies something like it, only hardly as dark as the original in the water as regards the wing and redder in the legs, but tied with a brown quill body. It was a very pretty fly indeed, and he gave me three; and so as we now stand on an old wooden bridge, looking down, a charming shallow, we will put it up. Just here the other day M., who was standing on the bridge putting up, said, "There's a three-pound grayling gone up—a real big one". A short time after this, Francis after an epic battle, landed this 3lb grayling using one of these brown duns that Marryat had given him."

Eight hundred words, and written using very long sentences, with no paragraphs, which was so typical of the written word one hundred and fifteen years ago perhaps for the first time since publication, Marryat's letter sees the light of day again:

"Quill Bodies for Flies".
"It may be advisable, for the benefit of the enthusiasts in fly-fishing who still tie their own flies, to give a few hints on the material mentioned by Mr. Francis, in his charming article in the Christmas number of The Field as "Quill". Let no one suppose for a minute that he can get it from his "grey goose quill," or any ordinary feather. It requires careful selection and careful dying to arrive at a satisfactory result. It is obtained from the feather of the peacock; a single herl is disvested of the metallic fur which adheres to it by repeatedly drawing the strand sharply downwards, from the point to the heel, between the ball of the forefinger and the thumb nail of the right hand, the end of the strand being held in the left hand. The strands from the eye of the peacock's feather are those selected; those from below the eye of the feather will be found to be of uniform dark dun, and are of little use, as they are too dark to take the light olive-yellow or brown tints required for the bodies of the duns and spinners, for which alone they are useful. The strands from the eye of the feather are of a lighter dun (if obtained from a good feather, those with the largest eyes are the best), having one edge of much lighter colour than the other. It is this that gives the ribbed appearance to the body of the fly when tied, which constitutes its killing quality. I remember a fisherman on the Itchen telling me one day that he had killed with a particular quill gnat which he showed me, having this rib, while he could not do anything with any of the rest of the half-dozen which he brought with it, though they were otherwise exactly the same in hackle and wing. But to return to our quill. Having, as I have said, selected a good feather, cut off the eye about half an inch below the metallic green; the rest is valueless for quill bodies. If on stripping a strand, it shows nearly all the width a pale colour, you are right; if not, go higher up the eye. For the grey quill gnat the natural is right, and with a light blue dun hackle, and light starling wing, it is a deadly fly on a bright day; the same with darker wing and hackle is better for a cloudy day. 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. I should not be afraid to back it against any other flies that can be tied. For the brown dun mentioned by Mr Francis I use Judson's olive-brown, which looks purple when mixed with water, but, mirabile dictu! dyes olive-brown. This, with ginger-brown hackle, and starling (or for a change coot) wing, is a nailer for the autumn months. A fine red spinner is tied by using Judson's light red for the quill, with a cock-y-bonddu hackle and light dun hackle wings. This fly should be ribbed with fine gold wire. Of course, these flies may be varied to any extent by dying to match any required shade. If a fly is required of a uniform colour, the quill should be so laid on that the light edge of the quill overlaps and hides the dark edge. This lightens the colour of the fly considerably, but does away with the ribbed look of the body. I think white peacock herl would make a good body dyed, but have been hitherto unable to procure any, though I have been promised some by several friends. The roots of some of the strands of the longest tail feathers of the peacock are sometimes nearly white for an inch or two from the base. I have used them for light/brown/duns with success. For all the dyes the feather should be soaked in hot alum mordant before attempting to dye them, and they should be well washed in cold water when the tint required is obtained, or the quill will rot. I do not agree with the theory of Ronalds, that a fish spits out a hard-bodied fly of quill or hair quicker that a soft-bodied one of fur or dubbing. Any way, if he does, it is good enough for me if I can get him to take it into his mouth at all; and that takes some doing on parts of the Itchen and Test nowadays".

All that Marryat did, by way of signing the letter, was to add his initials to the bottom, but instead of G.S.M., he put G.T.M., this was possibly a printer's error, or it could have been his desire to keep his identity unknown to all except his close friends. As a footnote to the letter Francis Francis wrote the following:

"[Our correspondent is a past master in the art, as may be easily seen, and all his advice can be relied on. Can any correspondent oblige us with the eyes of a few tail feathers from a white peacock?-Ed.]"

I wonder if they ever did get any white peacock eye feathers sent in by readers?

Francis Francis was the granddaddy of chalk stream fly fishermen, having fished them for over forty years. By 1880 he had become very mixed up in the matter of fly selection. He wrote this in The Field:

"After about forty years or more of fly fishing I thought I knew all about it, and fancied myself an Authority. But one never knows all about fly fishing and would not even if he lived to the reputed age of Gaffer Methuselah. There is always something to learn, and the less you lay down the law at one time, the less you will have to recant thereafter. So "give everyone thine ear, but few thy voice." For, though you may occasionally "meet a fool i' the forest," still even fools pick up facts, if you know how to use them; and the further I go, and the longer I live, the more I get puzzled and confounded, the experience of one year so often differs from that of the next."

These words of Francis could almost be Marryat's reason for not wanting to get too involved with book writing. That, it is very important to keep an open mind in everything to do with imitation and the selection of fly, season on season. Success during one season does not necessarily mean that you will have the same success in succeeding seasons with the same flies and artificials.

Over six years after Marryat had his letter published, Halford had his first book published, Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, (1886), and after all the work Marryat had put in, helping Halford acquire the entomological and fly dressing knowledge contained in the book. The author wanted nothing more than to have Marryat's name alongside his own on the title page. Marryat wanted none of this, and being the open minded fly fisherman that, I think he was, it is easy to see why he refused. Halford's ideas on dry fly imitation had, in the six years of their work together, become so set, and Marryat being the free thinker he was, could not apply his name so finally to a subject that was, and is still, always changing and evolving.

Marryat, as he was always at pains to point out to his friends, was not so much interested in the beauty of nature, but in the wonderful mechanism of all things living. This is what fascinated him, and held his attention. He told Major Turle one day:

"That when he took up a subject he could not rest until he had made something of it."

The dry fly was always his principal study. After George Holland had moved to Salisbury in 1885, and took upon himself the task, under the tutelage of Marryat, the tying and selling of the dry fly. Marryat felt he could concentrate solely on the study of entomology, this is what he did after moving to "The Close" at Salisbury in January 1885. When Francis Francis the elder statesman of the chalk stream passed away in 1886, friend M. as F.F. liked to call him, lost a very dear friend, who very early on in their friendship, became the sounding board for Marryat's early ground-breaking deliberations on the dry fly.

In 1857 Francis Francis, the then thirty-five year old angling editor of The Field first wrote about the dry fly on the Itchen, calling it:

"an established institution on that river".

My view is, the seventeen year old Marryat read these articles in The Field, and chanced one day to be on the Old Barge water of the Itchen at the same time as F.F. This is not so far fetched as it might seem at first. Marryat, nearing the end of his time at Winchester College, probably fished there every day, and Francis came down regularly to fish the same water. It is not hard to see that their paths could have crossed at sometime. He almost certainly fished with the floating fly at this time. It was not a fly with upright split-wings, using slips of feather, possibly it was just a wound hackle, or, the wings were made with two upright bunches of feather fibre, which was quite a common method of winging at the time.

The split winged floater might not have been generally available in the mid-to-late 1870's, but make no mistake about it, Marryat was using it for his own fishing and talking about it. Dr. Thomas Sanctuary, Marryat's life long friend, 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, to what we know today, as the single or double dressed split upright wing. Marryat had already made the acquaintance of H.S. Hall by 1876, by 1879 their common interests had drawn them much closer together. Marryat with his new winging methods and Hall with his up-eyed "Snecky-Limerick" hook. By putting the two together, the wheel of the dry fly mill really started turning, it was only a matter of time before many, if not all the south country fly fishermen would know of the split winged sensation.

Rightly or wrongly, it is still variations of the split-winged floater (or the hackled floater), that first saw the light of day about one hundred and twenty years ago, and still are the first and only choice for the vast numbers of fly fisher's world wide today. First from the vice of Marryat at Shedfield Grange, then Hall working at Bristol, and then Halford in the mill at Houghton, when he finally complicated everything with his endless list of dry fly dressings, that set everything in stone. More dry fly's have caught fisherman over the counter in the tackle shop than ever caught fish in the stream.

In 1883 Hall penned three articles for the Fishing Gazette, (March 1883), called "Fly Fishing of the Southern Chalk Streams". (They were reprinted in the Summer, Autumn and Winter 1992 numbers of FLYDRESSER.) These articles were the first comprehensive explanation of fishing the dry fly. In the second of these articles, Hall gives due credit to the assistance and advice he received from what he called "experienced amateurs", (looking back Marryat can hardly be called an amateur). Hall admits that he never, either then or since, (Hall passed away in 1943) claimed any invention in this business. All he did was to freely make use of the information given.

Even now we should be reconsidering the modern view-point of Marryat and his place in the history of the dry fly. No longer should we think of him as that tall, gaunt, almost ghostly figure, unknown to all but the closest of confederates. There is no doubt, he was the key man in the game of the dry fly. Consider this. Marryat was teaching gentlemen to dress flies, and to fish the dry fly on the chalk streams over nine years before F.M. Halford came down to fish the Test for the first time in 1877.

George Selwyn Marryat Remembered (part 3)

copyright © 2010 -