SUMMER is the time of year when beside a chalk-stream you might encounter a man (generally) wearing an eccentric hat and waistcoat festooned with confections of fur and feather. Or it might be a young man (generally) patrolling the few public areas of a river, carrying a rod and float or a shiny spinner. Both will be carrying a sizeable landing net.
There is, as you might expect, an interesting history to fishing. The problem is that if you get two fishermen in a room, you are likely to get three opinions, or more. The undoubted importance of fishing in the county is, however, apparent from the 1,200 or so relevant documents of all kinds in the Hampshire Record Office.
Dedicated fly fishermen are well versed in the lore of their sport and understand what people are doing when they seem to thrash the air with what looks like a whip. Others need the mystery to be explained. And then there is the Great Debate, which after more than a century still lurks beside the waters.
For many years this was a major topic in fly fishing circles. In recent years it has been the subject of serious enquiry by retired military historian Dr Tony Hayter, who has written biographies of two heavyweights of fly fishing, both with strong links to Hampshire, namely, F.M. Halford and G.E.M. Skues.
Halford became known as the “high priest of the dry fly”. He was fortunate enough to be able to retire at 46 and devote his time to sport. In a series of influential articles under the pen-name Detached Badger and in several books he expounded the idea that the only acceptable way to fish on gently flowing chalk-streams – as opposed to faster northern waters –was to identify the flies being taken, then cast a dry fly upstream, engineering it to alight gently on the surface, just upstream of a rising fish. Anything else was sacrilege and to the dry fly purist unethical.
It must be admitted that Halford was something of a fanatic – not a man imbued with anything approaching modesty. Some modern commentators see him as more arch-publicist than ace fisherman. The next generation of chalk-stream fishermen produced another exponent of fishing methods, G.E.M. Skues, a solicitor, blind in one eye, who was also capable of vigorously arguing his case.
His fishing started when he was at Winchester College, but later developed on a stretch of water above the city, at Abbotts Barton, which was inherently difficult to fish. Like others, he used dry flies but in addition developed an upstream method that differed fundamentally from Halford’s in that it used an artificial “nymph” – that is, the underwater creature from which the “floating fly” emerges.
Not only had Skues done what was “not done”, according to purists, but he had demonstrated how to catch fish effectively when trout were not feeding on the surface as was often the case. He also had an extraordinarily analytical mind, which was resented by fellow fishermen. Halford and his acolytes declared a “foul” and the ensuing row occupied columns of the fishing press for years. It was sparked by a book published by Skues in 1910 and entitled, with typical English understatement, Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream.
The Great Debate continued to dominate thinking amongst fishermen long after Halford had died in 1914. It came to a head on February 13, 1938, at the Flyfishers’ Club in the London. Skues defended his corner, whilst Sir Joseph Ball and others acted for Halford. There was no vote, but at the time Skues was deemed to have lost. Modern fishermen would probably have reversed the odds.
The Great Debate is today often seen as a pointless spat between well-heeled men. It would all have been a mystery to that famous angler Izaak Walton, buried in Silkstede Chapel in Winchester Cathedral, who never was a fly fisherman. In1660 he came to live in Winchester as Bishop George Morley’s steward. Later he probably also lived at Droxford beside the Meon, with his daughter Anne and son-in-law William Hawkins, who was the rector there as well as a Winchester canon.
Walton might have been pleased to find that fishermen today are as interested in conservation as catching fish and exponents like Simon Cooper at Nether Wallop and George Mann at Martyr Worthy are writing new chapters in the history of the sport.
This story has been helped by a friend as retiring as the quarry he stalks. For more on Hampshire history, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk.