We flyfishers just love the story that dry flyfishing is the pinnacle of our art
Words and Pictures: Tom Sutcliffe
Without wanting to give away my age, I was around when dry flyfishing for trout made a serious appearance in this country, around the early 1960s. I was a student at the time, fishing the Cape’s crystal trout streams whenever I could, seemingly tramping along riverbeds a lot more than I was plodding the corridors of learning.
Then I happened to meet up with a devotee of the dry fly, a Yorkshireman named Mark Mackereth, who played the double bass in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra and was a flyfishing legend. He showed me the ropes, and I took to it in a big way, was intrigued by the dry fly and utterly swamped by its charms. But why all the fuss around dry flies?
Well, to understand it all we need to go back to the turn of the previous century when dry flyfishing in the hallowed chalk streams of England was more a religion than a sport, and its principle disciple was one FM Halford.
The dry fly to those fishermen back then imitated the adult mayfly, an insect that could now lay claim to being the unofficial emblem of flyfishing. To imagine taking trout on a sunken fly was to them not only ludicrous, it also bordered on the immoral and unethical. As writer John Gierach says, ‘anything else was poaching’.
It was from these roots that the dry fly assumed its mantle of elitism and adopted for itself a position of needless superiority, at least insofar as sportsmanship and skills go. For years, people thought that fishing the dry fly was a cut above fishing the wet fly; that the dry fly was the covenant of purists and the only gentlemanly way to fish.
But it took one man to burst the bubble. He was G.E.M Skues, who argued around the early 1900s, that a sunken fly imitating the mayfly nymph in its sub-aquatic lifecycle in chalk streams was as, if not more, effective, and so began the contest between Skues with the sunken nymph and Halford and his acolytes with their sacred dry flies, a war that lasted nearly 20 years and shook the very temples of flyfishing.
To make matters worse, Skues’s favourite water was among the most elite of all chalk streams, the hallowed upper Itchen, arguably the world’s most desirable trout stream even to this day.
There are still pockets on English chalk streams that retain a dry-fly-only rule. I have fished one such beat, on the River Test in Hampshire, but this isn’t a universal rule for chalk streams any longer. In fact, the beat of the sacred upper Itchen, which I’ve been lucky enough to fish on two occasions, allows the use of the nymph or the dry fly.
The choice is yours. And so it should be, because fishing the nymph can be every bit as exacting as fishing the dry, often more so, and every bit as sporting.
*Read the rest of Tom’s evaluation of these distinct methods of fishing in our September 2014 issue.