Monday, 26 March 2012

Frank Sawyer and G.E.M. Skues and all that

I ran across this interesting video from the 1950's of of Frank Sawyer tying a pheasant tail nymph and a dry fly. Following G. E. M. Skues, Frank Sawyer has always been something of a hero of mine and it is quite special to see him tying - it is like seeing a ghost from a long lost time.  You can see him talking, it's too bad the sound is not here.

I recently bought a copy of George Daniel's book Dynamic Nymphing: Tactics,  Techniques and Flies from around the world.  Daniel is a product of the George Harvey and Joe Humphreys fly fishing program at Penn State.  His book provides an insiders view of the technical world of nymphing techniques developed by the competitive fishermen of the  Fédération Internationale de Peche Sportive Mouche.  In his book Daniel presents pages of leader formulas and describes the Czech, Polish, French, Spanish and American nymphing techniques. He is a US "champion" fly-fisherman.  Be that as it may, the introduction to Daniel's book was written by the English angler Charles Jardine who makes the following rather provocative claim:

I was fortunate that my first formal tutor was Frank Sawyer, the man that rocked the cozy foundations of traditional fly fishing by advocating the use of nymphs on chalkstreams. And these were deep nymphs, not those namby pamby, soft hackled, Flymphy things of Skues -- we are talking heavy metal here, people!  Sawyer's utilitarian and distinctly ordinary-looking nymphs, made of pheasnat tail and copper wire flew in the face of others' delicate creations of thread, gossamer, hackle and dubbing.  It was a bolt of fly-tying common sense, fished with  devasting brilliance, and the slimplicty and effectiveness of Sawyer's nymphs shook the polite UK-society fishing world.
Sawyer spent a lifetime as a river keeper on the Avon, from 1925 until his death in 1980. He was a great naturalist and fisherman and I recommend his books.  Here, I think, Jardine exaggerates Sawyer's influence, relative to Skues. Sawyer's books were published in the 1950's while Skues Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Kindred Studies was published in 1910. Sawyer was only 4 years old when Skues wrote Minor Tactics.

Color plate of trout flies from Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream by G.E.M. Skues, 1910
I first ran across Skues book when I was a graduate student in the Mann Library at Cornell University. A first edition of Minor Tacitcs. Nearby on the shelves were others by F. M. Halford, Alfred Ronalds, W. C. Stewart, Frank Sawyer, Ewen M. Tod, J. C. Dunne and others.  I checked them all out.  As a graduate student I had privileges for six months. I devoured them all and, when I tried to obtain my own copy of Skues' Minor Tactics, I discovered that I had at least eight thousand dollars worth of books checked out of the library.  Shortly there after I received a recall notice for all of them. I begrudgingly took them back.

A few weeks after the recall  I went on a mission in the hills around Ithaca, trying to find the legendary "culvert pool".  I had heard its name reverently mentioned more than once by old time Ithaca fly fishermen and, with only the vaguest impression of its actual location I set out to find it.  As I heard it, it was a large pool on a tiny creek full of native Brook trout, some as large as 16 or even 18 inches. What was not told was how insanely dense the willow and alders were along this trickle of a stream. There was no way to walk down this stream and I had to literally crawl downstream through the tunnel of brush over the tiny creek.   Eventually, the tunnel opened and the creek I was following merged with a slightly larger stream on a large slate slab which formed a small waterfall.  To my utter surprise, sitting on the rock ledge on the far side was another angler, a tall skinny Icahabod Crane character. He was wearing a fishing vest and a long brimmed hat, carrying an Orvis rod and wading wet in a pair of Chuck Taylor basketball shoes with felt soles glued on. He was as surprised as I to meet someone in this astoundingly wild place.  Our missions were the same. As we talked I learned that  he was a librarian at Cornell. I gushed about the fabulous fishing collection at Mann Library and complained bitterly about the bastard who had recalled all my books.  It was then that I learned that in fact, he was in charge of the collection had recalled all my books. Recognizing the rarity and value of the books he'd established a special collection of fly fishing which, among other things, meant the books have since been removed from circulation.  Never-the-less, we became friends and fishing partners.


  1. Can't wait to wet a fly around here. Soon. Sea run browns are running at the moment but I am busy with work

  2. As thrilled as I was to see the video of the film of Ole Frank tying the cantakerous to tie PT nymph with the unobtanium right size copper wire, the real gem in the entry was your pursuit and discovery of the "culvert pool" and its denizens including the librarian. When I was student, I mined the geology building for typo maps of remote streams and haunted our library for old flyfishing books and magazine articles. Nothing as precious or rare as your findings, but what I found still beat studying for college courses.

  3. By the way - tiny motors are a good source for extremely fine copper wire. I have a couple of spools that are perfect for the sawyer PT nymph. I'm trying to think where I got mine - perhaps a broken toy car.