The History of Fly Fishing: A Short Guide

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No one knows who invented fly fishing. The history of fly fishing is as old as humankind itself. And while the distinct origins of fooling fish with an imitation meal pre-dates a recorded account, we know that we evolved to be masters of problem-solving and tool-making. These two skills continue to shape our interest in and love for modern fly fishing. 

Earliest Records of Fly Fishing in Roman Times

Two of the earliest references to fly fishing come from the 2nd Century. It was then that Roman author and rhetorician Claudius Aelianus described the use of red wool and feathers affixed to a hook, along with a fishing rod and line that was six feet long, used by Macedonians to “attract” and “snare” fish. Additionally, in 1921, William Radcliff authored the book “Fishing from the Earliest Times.” He stated that two centuries before Aelianus described fly fishing by the Macedonians, Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis wrote, “Who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudful flies.” 

One can imagine that other civilizations which relied on fish as part or all of their diet may have attempted some form of fly fishing. Though, it is clear that early fly fishers, in what is now Europe, were using artificial flies to catch fish from these recordings. What is certain is that fly fishing continued to evolve throughout the world and over time. 

Fly Fishing In Britain and Europe

Literature from Britain chronicles the history of Fly Fishing techniques through the 13th and 18th centuries. In 1496 the first account that focused on teaching fly fishing was published within a larger composition called The Boke of St. Albans when in 1496, The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle offered instructions on fly fishing equipment and tactics. 

In 1653, The Complete Angler, written by Isaac Walton, described the introduction of fishing, including fly fishing, to an inexperienced traveler. Within the book, which is still available today, the sport of fishing is described in detail from the types of fish and bait used for fishing travel, where the two anglers stayed in an inn and were served the cooked fish of the day’s catch. The Complete Angler is a descriptive and expansive account of angling in Britain and Europe during that time and is a fascinating and enjoyable read for anglers today.

Fly Fishing in the 19th Century

In the United States, fly fishing was popular in New England and upstate New York, where a small stream fishing method for brook trout was mastered.

The popularity of British fly fishing peaked in in the late 1700s as the sport became a favored pastime of the wealthy, which joined exclusive fly fishing clubs. It was not until the Industrial Revolution paved the way for the expansion of the railroads in Europe that fly fishing became an accessible recreation opportunity to middle and lower-class citizens. 

As the popularity of fly fishing grew, dry fly fishing emerged in fly fishing clubs first out of necessity due to the weedy rivers in Northern England, but also became the most culturally acceptable form of fly fishing, placing wet flies out of favor with many European hobbyists. 

Fly Fishing Crosses the Atlantic

Elsewhere, fly fishing was not as elitist; both dry and wet flies were used widely. The popularity of the sport grew in the Northwestern portions of North America. Later, fly fishing spread to the Midwest in the driftless region of Wisconsin and westward.

Fly Fishing Across the US

In the United States, fly fishing was popular in New England and upstate New York, where a small stream fishing method for brook trout was mastered. Anglers caught new species on the fly, and many believe that American fly fishing adapted dry flies to pursue largemouth bass, the bass popper being an example of a contemporary bass lure with fly fishing roots. Fly fishing even made its way to saltwater fly fishing as described by author Ernest Hemmingway, notably in his book, The Sun Also Rises.

Advances in Fly Fishing Equipment

History of Fly Fishing Hooks

Hooks that were stronger, lighter, and sharper sum up the advancements in hooks for fly fishing. Early hooks were made with shafts made of wood, bone, and even bird beak, attached to a flint tip. Later, hooks were crafted from bronze, copper, and softer steel. 

Fly Rods Then and Now

Early fly rods were long poles with fixed line lengths. The length of the pole offered reach. As reels were invented and the ability to cast a line, as opposed to relying on wind, rod rings were introduced, and the types of materials to build rods went from local woods to bamboo and fiberglass. Today, fly rods are primarily made from carbon and offer superior strength and flexibility.

The Evolution of Fly Reels

As fly fishing moved away from fixed lines, the need for controlling line became very important. Early reel options were based on the winch system. Fly Anglers mainly used these reels to hold and dry the silk line. Later, what became the design for most modern fly reels were created by Orvis and Illingworth. These reels built upon the winch design, increasing line retrieval speed, and began to incorporate the ability to apply resistance to the release of fly line.

Fly Line Advancements

Looking back in the history of fly fishing, fly line was originally a fixed line of twisted horse hair, the fly line has evolved to become a diverse array of high-tech synthetic fly lines designed to suit any fishing environment. Early fly line, like horse hair and later silk, was fixed to the end of a rod and utilized the breeze to carry the fly across the water to fish. As fly fishing evolved, ensuring the line lands smoothly, did not waterlog, and could cast artificial flies and was needed.

Early Flies and Fly Tying

While early fly fishing authors described types of aquatic insects that could be imitated to catch fish, it was not until Charles Bowlker’s Art of Angling and Alfred Ronalds’s The Fly Fisher’s Entomology that the importance of fly fishing entomology was discussed. It is believed that this book was the first effort to provide hatch charts for rivers and stressed the need for fly tying artificial flies to match the hatch to be successful.

Modern Fly Fishing

Despite the innovations in fly fishing technology, the challenge, pursuit, and joy of fly fishing remain the same as in the 2nd Century or before.

Today, fly fishing is more popular than ever. In 2013, the fly fishing industry in the US was estimated at $750 million. Since then, the interest in fly fishing has only grown, and with it, a dizzying variety of fly fishing business, products, services, and destinations have spread and worked to popularize fly fishing. Despite the innovations in fly fishing technology, the challenge, pursuit, and joy of fly fishing remain the same as in the 2nd Century or before. Humans are fascinated and passionate about matching wits with fish of all kinds. Today, more people are trying fly fishing and catching trout for the first time, including women and people of color in a space that has traditionally and continued to be skew heavily towards white males.

While the fly fishing gear may have advanced, fly fishing continues to entertain evermore generations of fly anglers. History teaches us that fly fishing’s current popularity, growth pains, and challenges are not unique to the sport. However, the art of fly fishing continues to offer a pure escape from the hustle and bustle, no matter where you wet a line.

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Andy is a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, he's fished it all. Andy enjoys helping other anglers catch more fish and sharing his passion for the sport.
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