Fly fishing History

Throughout recorded history men have fished in an effort to provide food for themselves and their families. However, fishing for food is not the only motive man has. The fascination that millions of individuals have for fishing can be ascribed to a desire to outwit the fish. It also provides an escape from the tribulations we all experience everyday. Sports-fishing is popular in almost every country of the world and is a pastime practiced by millions. When man first began to fish he used a Gorge rather than a hook (hooks came later). A Gorge consisted of a piece of wood, bone, or stone that had been sharpened at both ends. The earliest hooks were made from bone about 3000 years ago in the south of Europe. They were of a simple design, but similar to modern-day hooks. Early references to fishing with rod and line can be found on the ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. The first flies were produced after man discovered, much to his surprise, that covering the hook with feathers tricked the fish to take. The technique used by these early fishermen was to simply lay the artificial fly on the water's surface.

In the beginning, fishermen did not use a rod at all; they used simple hand lines instead. They found that the most efficient way to use a hand line was from boats. The next development was to tie the line to a short branch. And this was how rods remained for many years. It wasn't until the 4th century that longer jointed rods were used. The first references to fishing with flies originated in England in the 13th century. The fly was described as a hook tied with feathers and was used for fishing trout and grayling. Many credit the first recorded use of an artificial fly to the Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century. He described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River: “...they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft. . . . They fasten red wool. . . round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.” In his book “Fishing from the Earliest Times”, however, William Radcliff (1921) gave the credit to Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis), born some two hundred years before Aelianus, who wrote: “...Who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudful flies...”.

According to the writers of the time, it was not until the end of the 15th century that fly fishing was practiced as a sport by the upper classes of England. An exact date when fishing and fly fishing were first practiced for sport is difficult to establish. However, an article entitled “The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle” which by tradition was penned by the known Dame Juliana Berner, prioress of a nunnery near London, and published in the Book of St Albans in 1496 is often used to date the birth of sport-fishing. It is the earliest essay on fly fishing and a remarkably full argument and manual for fly fishing and tackle making. It included dressings for twelve flies for trout and grayling that are almost certainly intended to suggest naturals of English rivers–a watershed concept in the history of the sport. The foundations of fly fishing are here. “Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite” was written in Britain in 1600 by John Taverner who observed and was the first to write about the phases of mayfly development from nymph to dun and to note how trout feed on the nymph. The earliest English poetical treatise on Angling by John Dennys, said to have been a fishing companion of Shakespeare, was published in 1613, “The Secrets of Angling”. “The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation” was written in 1653 by Izaak Walton. No sport had before been the matter of a literary masterpiece. Walton established a benchmark, and ideal of angling as a lyric, pastoral, and philosophical idyll that has inspired and largely determined angler consciousness to this day. In 1676, Charles Cotton, Cavalier poet, aristocrat, and companion to Izaak Walton, became the founder of modern fly fishing and fly making with the twelve chapters titled “Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream” that he contributed to Walton’s fifth edition of The Compleat Angler. He advised anglers for the first time to fish “fine and far off.” This admonition was crucial to all that was to come in the future.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Spanish silkworm gut replaced horse hair as the leader material. Silk also replaced the horse hair for lines. The reel came into use and made possible the use of modern fly lines. In England the majority of reels in use at this time were Nottingham reels. They had no gears and they were employed to float baits and lures downstream. Guides appeared on rods, replacing deadoff attachment of line to the top of the rod–thus making possible longer lines and their control. Until this time fishing-lines were simply lengths of uniform-section horsehair and it wasn't until the advent of the first reels that people realized that the lines could be tapered. This discovery led to lines of different tapers being produced which made them easier to use and more accurate when casting too.

“The Art of Angling”, written by Richard Bowlker and published in 1747, marked the beginning of modern fly dressing and dominated angling technique and fly tying in the second half of the eighteenth century. “The Fly Fisher’s Entomology” (1836) , by Alfred Ronalds, was the first and still impressive, beautifully illustrated, study describing and classifying the insects that trout and grayling feed upon in British waters. “Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout” (1841), by George Pulman. Was the first to define the complete method of fishing a dry, floating fly. Samuel Phillippe built the first split-bamboo section for a fishing rod in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1846. This process would make possible, in the hands of Hiram Leonard in the 1880s, the light, fast, stiff modern rod of sufficient backbone to cast modern silk lines into the wind to considerable distances.

British fly fishing continued to develop in the 19th Century, with the emergence of fly fishing clubs, along with the appearance of several books on the subject of fly tying and fly fishing techniques. In southern England, dry-fly fishing acquired an elitist reputation as the only acceptable method of fishing the slower, clearer rivers of the south such as the River Test and the other chalk streams concentrated in Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset and Berkshire. The weeds found in these rivers grow very close to the surface, so it was necessary to develop new techniques that would keep the fly and the line on the surface of the stream. These became the foundation of all later dry-fly developments. However, there was nothing to prevent the successful employment of wet flies on these chalk streams, as George Edward MacKenzie Skues proved with his nymph and wet fly techniques. To the horror of dry-fly purists, Skues later wrote two books, “Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream”, and “The Way of a Trout with a Fly”, which influenced the development of wet fly fishing. In northern England and Scotland, many anglers also preferred wet-fly fishing, where the technique was more popular and widely practiced than in southern England. One of Scotland’s leading proponents of the wet fly in the early-to-mid 19th century was W.C. Stewart, who published "The Practical Angler" in 1857.