George M Kelson Salmon Fly

In the obituary section of the Times on April 3rd. 1920 there was an entry that started:
“Mr George Mortimer Kelson, a famous Kent cricketer of a bygone generation, died on Tuesday at Surbiton. So far as can be remembered, he played his last big match in 1873.”

It then went on to list the highlights of his time with Kent, including that he was the county’s best batsman for the year 1863. 1864 and 1865. In 1863 he played the innings of his life. Kent required 192 to beat Surrey at the Oval, which they achieved with George Kelson scoring 122. He was a brilliant fielder and a good change bowler.

The last line of the obituary read, “Mr Kelson was also an ardent fisherman.”

That is a slight understatement. George Mortimer Kelson was, amongst many things, a fishing fanatic. His book “The Salmon Fly: How to Dress it and How to Use it” was published in March 1896 (it was dated 1895, but a delay in the production of the colour plates kept it back until 1896) caused a furore. It was and possibly still is the most comprehensive work ever written. It came in for much criticism from many people. Some accused Kelson of indulging in flights of fancy.

George Kelson author of the salmon fly

George Mortimer Kelson

This was probably because, to the majority of salmon anglers, the patterns were unknown. However, to the circle of his friends, they were standard flies. R.B. Marston, the editor of the Fishing Gazette, first met Kelson at the Great International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883. Kelson was a juror on the Salmon Fishing Tackle section, and Marston was a judge for the Salmon Fly Tying. The case that Kelson displayed showed that he was indeed a master of the art of salmon fly tying. One criticism of his flies was that they were “over-winged”. This was probably because the colour drawings of his flies always showed each strand of feather used. This gave the impression of the flies being dense.

Kelson offered to write articles for the Fishing Gazette at this exhibition, and Marston accepted. After two or three years of producing regular articles on salmon fly tying and fishing, he was “head hunted.”

A rival publication offered him considerably more money than Marston could pay, so he left with Marston’s blessing.

He became the angling editor of Land and Water, producing one of the most sought-after items of angling ephemera. Unfortunately, the set of coloured chromolithograph prints of salmon flies on one side, and the tying instructions on the other are rare. I know of only a few complete sets in existence.

Switch cast Illustration from the salmon fly book

Switch Cast illustration from the Salmon Fly book

In March 1888, he resigned from Land and Water and did salmon fishing articles for a magazine called Fishing.

Fishing is a scarce magazine because it lasted only a short time. Kelson stayed with it to the end and then published his second book “Tips.”

He continued to write for various magazines and papers, including the Field and the Fishing Gazette. He also taught many people to tie flies, and one of his faults, according to some critics, was that he was dogmatic. Nevertheless, he was considered the world’s leading expert on the salmon fly for nearly fifty years. With that amount of experience, he was entitled to.

Having seen other ways of dressing flies, some of his students in later life would pull him up on his technique. Speaking in 1914, he said, “There’s a way of doing things and always a best way. Sixty years ago – it may be a little more – James Wright showed me how to put on stripped wings of teal.”

James Wright was the famous fly dresser at Sprouston on the Tweed. He is attributed with inventing the Silver Grey, Silver Wilkinson, Durham Ranger and the Ranger variants. These were the first flies to involve jungle cock in the dressing.

In 1849 aged 14, he made a greenheart trout rod for fishing on the river Darenth. His favourite river was the Usk, and in its prime, as many as four thousand salmon would be taken each year. It is hard to comprehend today when one hundred fish is considered a good year.

His second favourite river was the Spey, but he also fished all over the country on many other rivers. He was well known as a helpful angler and would often not only advise his fellow fishermen on the best lies but also offer his favourite ones.

Illustration from the Salmon Fly by George M Kelson 1895

Illustration from the Salmon Fly by George M Kelson 1895

However, he was not only famous as a fisherman but also participated in many other sports. As we have said earlier, he was a cricketer with Kent and captained them for many years. The county gave him forty-nine various trophies during his time with them. In 1871 he scored four consecutive centuries.

He was a well-known horse rider, riding with the West Kent, Surrey, Lord Portman’s and the Radcliffe hounds. In 1863 he took part in a steeplechase race over a very demanding course in Buckinghamshire and beat the then-famous John Tilbury by a neck. He was a champion swimmer winning the first prize in the 1864 Herne Bay race. This took place over seven miles.

In 1860 the champion shot was Mr Preston. Kelson took him on in a match and won. Mr Preston presented Kelson with his silver-mounted gun.

He played Billiard and took on the champion J Dufton, receiving a two-hundred-point handicap, and won. He also had a collection of homing pigeons who participated in many competitions. One of his birds was the famous blue chequered cock that came second in the Rome to Brussels race.

However, it was for fishing that we remember him. He lived for the first thirty years on the banks of the Darenth and would fish for all kinds of fish.

He moved to Marlow on the Thames and caught the following fish in one year: live baiting, Pike 24lbs, Trout 10 3/4lbs. fly fishing, Trout 9 ¼ lbs., Chub 6lbs. He also caught an eleven-pound barbel and took seventeen Thames trout with an average weight of four pounds.

He caught his first salmon in 1844, aged nine, on the river Tweed at “Hempseed Ford”. The event nearly ended in tragedy when George’s eldest brother, anxious to gaff the fish, got out of his depth and was carried away by the current. Eventually, the fish and boy safely landed.

He came to prominence as a fly dresser by winning the first prize for his case of flies at the International Fisheries Exhibition in Berlin. He also won first prize at the Norwich Exhibition.

He was considered the best amateur fly dresser of his generation, and few, if any, professionals could surpass him.

It is to the Field on April 10th. 1920 that I leave the final word.

“It is hardly necessary to remind readers of the Field of Mr Kelson’s renown as a salmon fisher and fishing theorist – our columns have from time to time borne testimony to the vigour of his pen, and the freshness of his ideas remained till the close of his life. There are few books in the angler’s library which have produced more discussion, evoked more disagreement, and, we may add, stimulated more thought than “The Salmon Fly.”