The lures used by fly-fisherman fall into two general categories, dry flies and wet flies. Both are meant to trick fish into biting on the hook by imitating the look and behavior of the insects that fish feed on. Dry flies imitate insects that land upon the water’s surface, while wet flies imitate those which live beneath the water’s surface. In either case, success hinges on the angler’s ability to mimic both the look and behavior of an insect the fish is interested in eating.
The use of dry flies is challenging. The fisher must cast with pinpoint accuracy and be able to land the fly gently on the surface of the water. A splash-landing is likely to frighten off the very fish being targeted. The selection of fly is also critical. Surface insects represent the final stage of development and matching the fly to the specific type of insect maturing at any given time is required in order to offer the fish what it expects to find. Choosing a fly that is not currently hatching will result in the fish taking every other insect off the surface while disregarding the angler’s fly. However, the fisher that chooses the correct fly and manages a cast that closely imitates the behavior of a live insect may be rewarded by seeing the fish surge out of the water as it strikes at the fly.
Known today as the “Father of Modern Dry Fly Fishing,” Frederic Halford (1844-1914) was an avid fly fisherman and prolific author on the subject. He felt that pursuing fish striking at the surface was the purist form of angling and developed a full range of floating flies to mimic the downstream drifting of real insects floating on the surface of the water. He would become the recognized authority on the tying and use of dry-flies on the chalk streams of southern England. He also enjoyed a good argument and frequently participated in debates with other anglers in which he insisted that the dry-fly technique was superior to any other form of fly fishing.
The Library holds all of Halford’s books on dry-fly fishing and fly tying. The volume seen here is the second volume of the deluxe edition of Dry Fly Entomology. The first volume contains the text and the second comprises boards displaying actual specimens of the artificial flies described in the first volume. NSLM’s copy is signed by Frederic Halford.
Fishing with a wet fly is generally more forgiving for beginners than fishing with a dry fly. In this technique the targeted fish are feeding underwater, not at the surface. Fish feed on submerged insects much more frequently than on those at the surface, providing more opportunities for the angler to catch a fish. The heavier wet flies are easier to cast and a sloppy cast is less likely the scare off the targeted fish which are deeper in the water. However the fisher must still imitate the kind of insect the fish expects and be able to land his fly at the correct depth in the water column in order to succeed. It can also be difficult for the angler to know when a fish has taken the bait. The strike takes place out of sight, under the water, and the pull of the current can easily be mistaken for that of a fish.
George Edward MacKenzie Skues, usually known as G. E. M. Skues (1858–1949), was a British lawyer, author and fly-fisherman. He developed the method of wet fly fishing known today as nymph fishing. Rather than tempting trout with imitations of flying insects at the water’s surface, he advocated for imitating nymphs, the earlier developmental stages of the same insects. Most of the insect’s life occurs underwater and Skues felt that limiting fly fishing to imitating only the final adult stage at the surface caused anglers to miss out on many opportunities for success below the surface.
As Skues perfected his technique and others began to adopt it, tension grew between the nymph, or wet-fly fisherman and the dry-fly fisherman. Although the wet-fly technique that Skues used was successful, the school of dry-fly fishing described it as, unethical and bad for the chalk streams. The debate would continue for many years but in the end both techniques have survived and are widely used today.
The Library holds several books by and about G. E. M. Skues including his, The Way of a Trout with a Fly (1921) which is considered the seminal work on nymph fishing. This deluxe two-volume set contains 20 nymphs that were tied to the stringent specifications of G.E.M. Skues by famed English fly dresser, Jim Nice. Only 150 sets of the deluxe edition were made. In total, 3,000 nymphs were tied for the 150 sets. The NSLM owns set number 75.
To see either Dry Fly Entomology or The Way of a Trout with a Fly plan to visit the Library before the end of August. Both books are included in our Angling in Special Collections exhibition which features a number of rare books on angling, a large collection of mounted flies from the George Chapman Collection, and angling related artwork from the Museum’s permanent collection. If you can’t make it to the Library, the exhibition may be viewed online.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, fly fishing, wing shooting, other field sports, and country life.