Looking back in all recorded history, it has some form of fishing in it. Initially, fishing was an essential lifeline for the supply of food to a family or village.
But over the centuries, man has developed a fixation of trying to outsmart the fish by enticing it to eat. In ancient time’s bones and rocks were used as hooks or gorge’s as referred to back then.
The gorge would be tied on, baited, and thrown out, hoping for a fish to eat and get hooked. Fly fishing involved a little more work and perseverance, and it wasn’t long before fishers realized its potential.
The addition of a few feathers to a hook and the simple method of allowing the feathered hook to float down the stream changed the way the world saw fishing, and fly fishing was born.
Fishing as a method of catching food dates back over 3000 years, while the first recorded hook and rod setup is scripted in the ancient Egyptian tomb paintings.
The first recorded artificial fly with feathers dates back to Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century. Still, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the first forms of fly fishing were described on the English chalk streams.
The Roman Claudius Aelianus describe the fishing method of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River as snare-like. The method used on the Astraeus River was to fasten red wool and two waxed cock feathers from under the cock’s wattles to the hook.
Using a stick with a line the same length, the angler would throw out the wool fly, and fish would eat it out of anger, maddened by the color. In “Fishing from the Earliest Times” by William Radcliff (1921), the earliest forms of fly fishing with a feather should be given to Marcus Valerius Martialis, was recorded to be fly fishing for trout some 200 years before Claudius.
Where it all started
Who invented fly fishing and the history of fly fishing are debatable topics and have patriotic trains of thought, especially from the historic fly fishing clubs around the world. One thing is sure, and that is the first recorded documents of fly fishing for a sport, come from the 15th century, 1496 to be exact. Early literature documents how the English upper class practiced the sport of fly fishing.
The article ‘The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle’ written by the known Dame Juliana Berner, prioress of a nunnery near London, best describes these sporting events and goes into detail about tackle building and fly construction.
The content of the fly construction included the dressing of twelve trout and grayling flies. Although this was all wet fly fishing, this was the basis of what’s is known as the fly fishing sport today.
The history of fly fishing and the documentation of the life stages of the mayfly and other aquatic insects started in the 1600s by John Taverner. John noted the life stages of these insects and how the trout reacted to them and fed on them; this would later be known as a fly fisher’s entomology and led to the first record of dry fly fishing.
Dry fly fishing is arguably the most traditional form of fly fishing techniques and probably one of the most unchanged forms in fly fishing history. In 1676, Charles Cotton and Izaak Walton advanced the fly fishers sport and put British fly fishing on the map.
“Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream” was the published document that detailed fly fishing history, methods for catching trout, and fly pattern constructions.
Spanish silkworm thread moved into the 18th and 19th centuries and replaced the horsehair for the leaders and later the lines. Over this period, British fly fishing continued to advance. The introduction to fly reels allowed the fly fisher to hold more line and gave the angler the chance to cast and control the more sensitive silk thread fly line. The traditional silk line is still available and used by dry fly purists.
Modern fly fishing
The ‘Contemplative Man’s Recreation’ was written on the first documented modern fly fishing techniques founded n England and later practiced in the USA in the later 1600s. Fly fishing peaked over this period and became a sport on its own.
It’s pretty remarkable looking at the transformation of fly fishing gear from where fly fishing started to the new fly patterns, synthetic lines, and modern silk lines.
With the brief history of fly rods originating from long sticks with the same length line, it was only in the 18th century that fly rods started to get guides on them because fly lines began to get longer and lighter and were attached to the reel and not the rod tip.
Jointed rods and the hollowing out of fly rods made them lighter and more user-friendly; the concept of joining sections of wood together to build a strong, flexible blank was born. This later led to the first recorded split cane rod made by violinist Samuel Phillipe in 1845. This would change the fly fishing world forever.
In the 19 century, companies like South Bend, Hardy Brothers, and Montague took this knowledge and started to produce exceptionally strong, flexible split cane fly rods using beveling machines. The introduction to new resin advancements and understandings led to fiberglass fly rods in the late 1900s.
These companies were able to produce cheap fiberglass rods that could be used in all sports fishing.
The breakthrough of the use of graphite to make fly rods came around in 1973 when both Hardy and Fenwick claimed to be the first. The older split cane and glass producers either changed with the times or continued to make their product for the purist fly angler.
Graphite brought about a revolution to the fly fishing industry, influencing how anglers use the rods for specific techniques and certain conditions.
The earliest reels used in England were Nottingham reels and had no gears or anything fancy. The reel merely used to hold the line. Reels progressed from brass to wood, hard rubber and nickel silver, and today’s lightweight magnesium or aluminum.
The focus on appearance and drag systems is what the modern designers look at when working on new reels. Most modern drags use concealed systems, with the best drags still being cork disc drags that can be opened and cleaned after the fly fishing trip.
Reels are a pretty sight on the beginner fly fishing setup (especially a nice one) and are one of the more traded pieces of fly tackle.
The advancement of fly lines has been the most progressive. Starting from joined horsehair to Spanish silk thread to modern synthetic fly lines.
With numerous tapers and weights in production and more weight-specific heads being designed for certain conditions, companies like Rio, Scientific Anglers, and Cortland are at the forefront of this fly fishing line technology.
Forms of fly fishing
Covering the different forms of fly fishing, they are more adaptions of the main technique with the use of the surface ‘dry fly‘, bottom ‘wet fly,’ or a combination of both.
These are known as dry flies. Fly fishing dry flies involves the use of buoyant natural materials tied to imitate a specific insect. Fishing this fly during a hatch of the particular insect with the hope of the trout rising to eat it is the basic approach.
Wet fly fishing has two subsections nymphing and streamer fishing.
Nymphing makes use of weighted flies that imitate the nymph stage of the insect. They are fished near the bottom or in the lower water columns. Nymphing with a singular or multiple flies is the usual method.
Streamer fly fishing makes use of an attractor pattern that doesn’t imitate anything specific but instead plays a more suggestive role in getting the fish to eat. Streamers are usually thrown downstream and retrieved upwards through the column. Streamer patterns are especially effective when fly fishing on still waters such as lakes and reservoirs.
Looking back at who invented fly fishing and the history of fly fishing, and the fisherman’s craft, it’s clear that it was a culmination of thought processes and methods that helped the sport fly fishing get to where it is today.
To catch fish and to continue catching fish with artificial flies was how fly fishing originated, and it has evolved over the past two centuries to the point that one often wonders how much further fly fishers can take the sport.
One thing is for sure, the poetic approach to the sport and the ever-burning desire to attract fish will remain a constant and forever lure the enthusiast into giving it a go.