Below me, the ghostly grey shape hovered over the gravel in the rain-stained chalk stream, occasionally darting left or right, intercepting invisible nymphs. I glanced at Keith and he gave me the nod. I tapped my rod and the non-descript nymph dropped off the penultimate rod ring. I breathed slowly, trying to calm my nerves. I was in the middle of Wiltshire on the stretch of the River Avon once tended by the renowned riverkeeper Frank Sawyer – the creator of the very nymph pattern I was about to cast. Time was short and history weighed heavily upon me.
For many years, Frank Sawyer was the riverkeeper on the Avon in Wiltshire, for the British Army Officer’s Fishing Association. Now known as the Services Fishing Association, it still has the same 6½ mile stretch river on Ministry of Defence (MOD) land. It starts above the town of Bulford and ends at Netheravon. The Association’s members are serving and ex-serving MOD personnel; however fortunately for me, guests are also allowed. Hence Keith, an accomplished fly tier I have known for over 15 years, was able to arrange for me to spend the day poking around the Avon and soaking up some of the history.
Frank Sawyer invented one of the most enduring and well-known fly patterns; one that most flyfishers probably have and use regularly when fishing for trout. Known as the Pheasant Tail Nymph or PTN for short, it is tied with two materials only: the fibres from the centre tail feather of a cock pheasant, and fine red copper wire that provides weight and doubles as tying thread. Frank Sawyer followed up the work of G.E.M Skues who was one of the first to write about and popularise the use of nymphs or sunken flies for feeding trout. Whereas Skues focused on rising and bulging trout, Sawyer developed and refined the technique of using weighted nymphs fished upstream to trout and grayling feeding at depth. It is also quite likely he invented the tuck cast – he described such a cast in his book ‘Nymphs and the Trout’:
“To make a nymph pitch and sink quickly, the best method I have found is to stop the rod on the downward stroke in casting, and check the running line passing through the left hand just when it is extended horizontally over the water. This check has the tendency to make the nymph curl downwards with the cast and then penetrate the water before the line falls.”
Before heading to the Avon, Keith and I visited the town of Bulford, where Sawyer lived in a farmhouse until his death in 1980. The farmhouse no longer stands and was replaced by some non-descript townhouses. However on the opposite side of the street is Owl Cottage, which was once the house of Major Oliver Kite, a contemporary, a friend (and possibly later an enemy) of Sawyer’s.
Whilst Kite credited Sawyer with the development of upstream nymphing, “These wire-bodied nymphs, an original and imaginative construction evolved by Sawyer, are the very foundation of Modern Nymph fishing”[ii], Kite himself probably did more to popularise the method. Kite was known for his communication skills, having worked for the Army re-writing training manuals, and he made a number of television series. Kite describes in his own book how he caught his first trout on a nymph in 1957, one of Sawyer’s own, at the suggestion of Sawyer himself. Despite both being advocates for the upstream nymph techniques, it is said that their initial friendship soured into “an uneasy relationship”[iii]. Keith tells me he believes that Sawyer, at the end, would not even speak to Kite. It must have been quite a strain for them as they lived opposite each other in Bulford up until Kite’s sudden death in 1968. We visited the final resting places of both Kite and Sawyer. Kite had a formal churchyard burial in Bulford while Sawyer had his ashes scattered on his beloved ponds at Netheravon. We visited the member’s hut and ponds, a very peaceful resting place indeed.
After the rest of tour, we headed for the Avon, passing a quaint brewery and a thatcher at work repairing one of the roofs typical of the area. We were soon walking the banks of the Avon with rod in hand in search of a fish or two. It was about 11:00 am, and despite the warm day, there was very little insect activity. Ambling along, we cast to a couple of oncers but either our drifts were off, or the trout were not interested in our offerings. It was probably not a great day for the dry fly.
We soon came to a seat that overlooked a quiet pool. The seat bears a commemorative plaque to Frank Sawyer and marks the place of his death in February 1980. We both sat for a while and gave silent thanks to a man that added a great amount to world of flyfishing, and was fortunate enough to spend his last moments doing something he loved. It was at this point I felt it was only fitting that I tie on one of Frank’s nymphs.
Rather than his PTN, I selected another of Sawyer’s famous flies that is, in his own words, ‘a miserable concoction of wire and wool, a thing anyone could make in less than a minute, and which to the human eye has not the slightest resemblance to any living creature’. Frank called it the Grayling Bug, and used it to great effect on his home river, as well as others in England and abroad. Lee Wulff, the great American angler, called it the Killer Bug and the name stuck. The wool from which it was made, Chadwick’s 477, was discontinued even in Sawyer’s time, and became highly sought after, such was the fly’s fame. It sells on eBay for $100 or so a metre. Keith had given me some Chadwick’s several years back, but I could never bring myself to use it all up. Recently, however, I used it to good effect by visiting a knitting shop and finding a ball of wool extremely close in colour and texture. My Killer Bug was tied with the substitute and indistinguishable from the real thing – well to me anyway.
The grayling agreed, although I’m not sure Frank would have agreed with my use of a bright yellow yarn indicator. The water we were fishing was too deep to spot fish (that’s my excuse, but in reality I am lazy; an indicator is easier to watch than the entry point of the leader as Frank would have).
Grayling are native to European rivers, and one of my favourite fish to catch. They are relatively easy to find and they are tolerant of anglers, soon resuming feeding after being spooked. However they are not so easy to catch. They are very quick, and take and reject a nymph faster than any trout. Any delays in setting the hook will mean missed fish. All this means grayling are a great fish for learning nymphing.
Keith soon found me a deep green pocket close to the bank, where I missed the first two takes before my third turn of the wrist set the hook into some weight. We shared the rod and water and over the next hour managed to catch a few more grayling from that stretch. Keith, showing his experience and technique, hardly missing a take.
We eventually moved on to a beautiful run below a road bridge where Keith graciously allowed me to fish the entire water, sledging every missed fish with the skill of one of his beloved test cricketers. Despite his best efforts, I did end up landing a couple; however, I missed more than I landed. I like to think it was because I was obliged to fish from more than 20 metres away, due to the depth of the water and my use of hip waders. In my defence, I submit that Frank himself was not a fan of fishing from a distance, believing it spooked or poorly hooked more fish than it caught. Based on his great experience watching others fish he wrote that, “at 25 yards… to hook a fish when its mouth is closed, one should start the tightening of the line before the fish … has opened its mouth to take a nymph”.[iv]
With little time remaining before I needed to catch my train to London, we wandered upstream and found a grayling darting left and right on a gravel bed, presumably taking nymphs. Now was the time to fish as Frank advised: no indicator, just a weighted nymph.
My tuck cast was less than elegant, but the Killer Bug plunged vertically a metre or so ahead of the fish, disappearing with a satisfying plop. With my nymph invisible, I watched my leader and the fish in hope, trying to imagine my fly drifting towards it. The fish moved, snapping its jaws. In a panic, I flicked the rod back and by some miracle the line tightened. I soon had the grayling at the bank. My (Frank’s) Killer Bug was firmly lodged in the corner of its mouth.
I could not imagine a better time to wind in and head home, and said so to Keith, thanking him profusely for such a great opportunity to experience flyfishing history, and to walk in Frank Sawyer’s footsteps.
[ii] Nymph Fishing in Practice, 1963, Oliver Kite
[iii] Nymph Fishing A history of the Art and Practice – Terry Lawton 2005. Swan Hill Press.
[iv] Nymphs and the Trout – Frank Sawyer 1970 A & C Black