I like a man who uses pseudonyms. It suggests there’s more to him than meets the eye. Especially one who sparks off perhaps the bitterest dispute in fly fishing history.
George Edward Mackenzie Skues didn’t hold back, that’s for sure. When contributing to the sporting press he wrote under an eclectic array of names including: A Butt, Current Colonel, Simplex Munidishes, Spent Naturalist, W.A.G and Unspoiled Child. Marvellous.
GEM Skues, the second in our occasional series of legends, joins Hugh Falkus as one of the finest fly fishers and writers of the twentieth century.
Skues on his beloved Itchen
Born 1858 in Newfoundland, Skues was shipped over to his Aberdeen grandparents aged just three. It was whilst at Winchester College that his zeal for fishing came alive. With four and half miles double bank of the famed River Itchen, the Hampshire college has inspired many a fisherman (my octogenarian father-in-law included).
As the Oxford University Press chronicles: “Skues’s place as one of the greats in fly-fishing history centres on his discovery that trout in chalk streams feed largely on nymphs, even during hatches, and not on the adult, emerged flies. His dressings of artificial nymphs specifically to represent larvae were new and radical.”
He began exploring his theory on the Itchen, after noticing that trout weren’t taking the floating natural fly. These discoveries culminated in the publication of his first book, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream (1910).
The River Itchen at Abbots Worthy
This forward-thinking approach directly challenged the dry fly wisdom of Frederic Halford (pseudonym Detached Badger), the oracle of the day.
The Halfordian school claimed that upstream nymphing, although effective, was unethical and bad for the chalk streams, and in 1938 the ‘nymph-debate’ was staged at the Flyfishers’ Club of London. Skues valiantly fought his corner but with Halford’s dry fly doctrine reaching cultish levels, the club found against the new fangled nymphs.
The disillusioned Skues, at the age of eighty, published a final defence with his 1939 book Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout. Simultaneously, with his modernist thinking putting syndicate noses out of joint, he despondently switched his allegiances to the local River Nadder.
Dr Andrew Herd, the eminent British fly fishing historian, describes Skue’s impact on the sport: “He 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.”
The man himself, a forward thinker of his day.
Skues died aged 90 and his ashes were scattered on the banks of his beloved Itchen by his old friend William Mullins, the long-serving head keeper of the syndicate.
A modest and humorous man, he subsequently had the last laugh as his nymph techniques were widely adopted by trout fishers both sides of the Atlantic.
Skues even has his own Facebook appreciation page, click here to show your own appreciation.
With the Tay experiencing record spring catches, join Greig next time for some Tay talk.
And yes, before you ask,Will Holt is my real name.
Until next time….
P.S. For this of you who have not seen our Hooked UK series, here is the link to the latest show from the River Helmsdale in Scotland where Greig discusses spring tactics and Ron Sutherland ties the Super Snaelda.