Evolution of Fly Fishing

Evolution of fly fishing.
Evolution of fly fishing.

Evolution of Fly Fishing – An interesting look back in time

By Monty Wright

The artificial fly is quite ancient as a means of deceiving trout. trout. For as early as the third-century anglers were using flies on the unsuspecting trout of the Macedonia River. Although this is just the first time it was recorded in written history, it may well have been earlier than this period. In this article, we take a look at the long evolution of fly fishing.

The philosopher Aelian tells us in his book “De Natural Animalium” that a fly of wool and hackles was fished effectively on the Astraeus River, and that these crude flies were the first attempt at matching the hatching insects on the water.

A female author by the name of Dame Juliana Berners described several methods of fly-dressing and fly-fishing in her book, surprisingly called “Tretyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle.” You may think that the spelling is wrong, but this is written in the style of the language of that time. Some of these historic patterns are still used today to fool the wary trout.

In 1653, an Englishman at the mellow age of sixty years, Izaak Walton, published “The Compleat Angler” and endeared himself forever to the angling fraternity and will always be an important figure in the evolution of angling. This little volume is not just a discourse on fishing methods. It expresses a philosophy of life as well. Anglers fished the quiet British rivers with the long rods and horsehair lines described by Aelian centuries earlier, and it appears that only minor improvements had been made in the tackle used.

A very interesting example of a double fore edge painting. One painting shows a portrait of Izaak Walton and a view of Angler’s Inn, Hoddesdon, framed within a border of fishing rods, lines, etc. Courtesy of Boston Public Library - picryl.com
A very interesting example of a double fore-edge painting. One painting shows a portrait of Izaak Walton and a view of Angler’s Inn, Hoddesdon, framed within a border of fishing rods, lines, etc. Date 1835. Courtesy of Boston Public Library – picryl.com


In the fifth edition of “The Compleat Angler,” which appeared in 1676, we meet for the first time in angling history Charles Cotton, who contributed a section devoted to the artificial fly and its use. With this work, he firmly established himself as the father of the sport of angling. Although Walton was thirty-seven years his senior, the esteem that these two men had for each other was apparently great. The little fishing house on the Dove River, with its inscription “Piscatoribus Sacrum,” is preserved today much as it was in 1674. It stands as a shrine for anglers and has stood through the centuries as visible evidence of the brotherhood existing between them.

Some centuries later, in 1836, we find the serious study of insects creeping into angling. Alfred Ronalds was the first author who wrote about insects in his classic “The Fly Fisher’s Entomology.” This was a book about insects and how to tie their imitations. It was written for the Swift River in the North of England. Four years later, John Younger contributed “River Angling” to the literature of fishing.

Four years later, John Younger contributed “River Angling” to the literature of fishing. The most significant facet of this work was the speculation on the Nymph in the trout’s diet. Unfortunately, Younger did not pursue his theories but continued to fish the traditional wet flies instead of exploring nymph fishing.

Evolution of the Dry Fly

The eyed hook for fly tying is almost unquestionably of British origin, and we know that it was perfected in 1879 by Henry Hall and George Marryatt. This opened up a new dimension as previously the cotton used to tie the fly also formed the start of the cast. This meant that the fly could be built in a different style and it was their work that made the Dry Fly possible as we know it today.

A famous gentleman angler by the name of Frederick Halford perfected the Dry-fly technique by casting a line through the air above his head as we know it. He also wrote several good books about using the dry fly and that aroused American interests in the 1880s. His writings included “Floating Flies and How to Dress Them,” “Dry Fly Fishing in the Theory and Practice,” “Dry Fly Entomology,” and “The Development of the Dry Fly.” Not long before his death in 1914, Halford compiled the dressings for some thirty-odd patterns imitating those insects he had found most important in a lifetime of fishing British trout waters. He was truly a great man and contributed a great deal of good work to our sport.

The bulk of the credit for the development of the Dry-Fly technique on our streams must go to Theodore Gordon, who is considered the father of the dry fly in America. He was first attracted to the Dry Fly method by Halford’s “Floating Flies and How to Dress Them” in 1886. He picked up on the method, and once wrote that Dry Fly fishing became an obsession with him about the year 1889.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Edward Ringwood Hewit came onto the scene and is one to whom we owe much. His development of Nymph techniques for our streams, and his Dry Fly innovations, stand high among the outstanding contributions to trout law.

The perfection of the Nymph technique is the work of G. E. M. Skues, the well known British angler who made the nymph popular. His excellent writings include “Nymph Fishing for Chalk Stream Trout,” “Minor Tactics of Chalk Stream” and “The Way of a Trout with a Fly.” There is much excellent theory in these works. Indeed the evolution of fly fishing.

Another excellent angler who contributed no written law was Richard Robbins of the Beaverkill in New York. Although he did not write, he influenced many of the younger men who frequented that river. According to William Schaldach, in his exquisite book “Currents and Eddies,” Robbins was the Dean of the Beaverkill in the ’20s. He died in 1937 at Roscoe. This is the junction of the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, and he is buried in River-view Cemetery, overlooking the famous Junction Pool.

The challenge of fly fishing to the angler embodies all that is best in the sport. In the addictive pastime, trout have to be enticed, deceived or tempted by their greed or lured by their curiosity.

There have been thousands of ingenious artificial flies built to achieve such a result. Some have long pedigrees, others more recent in construction. One man has brought the fly of the world together in a pocket guide book covering more than 1200 patterns. John Buckland, a keen angler and journalist, has fished all over the world and his book “Trout and Salmon Flies” gives the country of origin and short history with a colour photograph of each fly. Although he is only one of the many writers to have published a modern book on flies, it is important that this information is written for the future.

As we know, the spirit of those early anglers lives on today, on the rivers of the world. Their Fly-tying and fishing have become a legend with the anglers of all freshwater. Please pass your information on to the next generation and take a friend fishing.

Research for the Evolution of Fly Fishing from the book “History of Fly Fishing” by J. W. Hills.