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Nymph Fishing - A History of the Art and Practice by Terry Lawton

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Reviewed by Chris Knowles

Over the last few years, a new breed of angling writers has emerged on the scene, who handle weighty historical matters with a light touch. Andrew Herd's The Fly is a classic example; Hayter's account of F.M. Halford and the Dry fly Revolution, though more traditionally academic, is another. Painstaking  research, factual accuracy and new insights are counterbalanced by lightness of style, resulting in easy reading. Now another author has joined their ranks, with a comprehensive work on the popular subject of nymph fishing.

The book does what it says on the dust jacket: it gives a historical account of the development of the nymph and offers much useful practical advice on fly patterns and fishing techniques. The long struggle for the acceptance of nymph fishing may come as a surprise to many fly-fishermen in the 21st century, for nowadays we regard the nymph as a regular part of our armoury to be used according to the conditions of the day. We forget that the antis of yesteryear were a vociferous and bigoted bunch, whose spurious opposition succeeded in delaying the widespread adoption of nymph fishing by almost half a century. No event is more illustrative of the moral (yes, moral) dilemma with which our great-grandfathers wrestled than the famous debate on the use of nymphs, staged at the Fly-fishers' Club in London, between Skues, then in his eighties, and Sir Joseph Ball - the first a retired solicitor, the second a practising barrister. And this inglorious battle of lawyers over the pleasant art of angling took place in 1938, less than 70 years ago!

Lawton investigates all the usual suspects - Halford, Skues, Sawyer, Kite - but also unearths new influences and re-assesses familiar ones. J.C. Mottram, known as Jim-Jam, played a crucial part in devising nymph patterns, but then, famously, did a U-turn after the Great Debate. William-Powlett, who fished the nymph on the Usk in the early 20th century, is re-instated as an important contributor. The relationship between Sawyer and Kite - one of the chestnuts of fishing history - is given a new twist involving a woman and a white car, but I'm not going to spill the beans: you must read the book for yourself.  Lawton does not neglect the influences outside the British Isles - far from it. More progress was made in the United States, New Zealand and Australia than in an England hide-bound by the dominant and stifling influence of Halford. Of particular interest are fishermen like Dick Wigram who were born in England but spent most of their lives abroad, in his case in Tasmania. Free of the strictures of their native land and faced with the challenges of unfamiliar waters, the ex-pats had no alternative but to work from first principles by observing new conditions and devising fresh approaches. Outside the English-speaking world, the Czechs and the Poles have had most influence, strikingly original in concept and methodology. Yet, it is only in the last 20 or 30 years, that the importance of short-lining has been fully appreciated on these shores - all the more surprising, because Skues, the giant who dominates the story of nymph-fishing, witnessed the technique as far back as 1897, when he visited Croatia and Bosnia!

For a book which treats the subject in such depth and at such length, there are remarkably few errors. But there are one or two. The caption to one illustrated letter attributes the founding of the CAA to Eastham (who wrote the letter). It was Eastwood who founded the CAA. But the thing which surprises me most, and perhaps, in a funny way, it is a back-handed tribute to a book which has left virtually no stone unturned, is what is left out. It would have been interesting to have seen greater investigation into the state of scientific research into nymphs and its effect (or lack of it) on fly-fishing and into the reasons why coarse fishing (which has employed weights since time immemorial) had evidently so little influence. The early history of fly-fishing is a minefield for any investigator and Lawton, keen not to indulge in speculation, restricts himself to rational argument from facts - and does it refreshingly well. But that remarkable 17th century author, Robert Venables, whom Lawton discusses in other respects, described, quite indisputably, a caddis larva pattern with a body made of chamois and a black head, which does not get a mention. And it is clear that 18th century fishermen fished lakes (stillwaters) with teams of flies far more often than we think. In the 19th century, the hybrid Welsh border and Derbyshire pattern known as the Grasshopper came the closest to the nymph as we know it, being a coloured shaped lead weight on a hook with a live grasshopper or other live bait on the point, fished sink-and-drawer. However, perhaps the biggest omission in modern times is the development of realism in nymph design championed and spear-headed by Oliver Edwards.

The book is illustrated with excellent photos, ancient and modern, and Lawton has expended much effort in tracking down new shots of familiar faces, Sawyer, Kite and Schwiebert, as well as presenting images of less well-known figures like Wigram, Trueblood and "Polly" Rosborough. There is no shortage of pictures of flies and there are some charming illustrations of nymphs drawn by Sawyer himself.

This is a work of major importance, the most comprehensive and thorough treatment of the subject to date, and a delightful and thought-provoking read. It is certain to become a definitive reference book and no serious fly-fisherman can afford to be without a copy on his book shelves.

Chris Knowles

Nymph Fishing, A History of the Art and Practice, by Terry Lawton is published by Swan Hill Press at £19.95. Hardback, 194 pages.

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