The History of Fly Fishing

The History of Fly Fishing

Fish have been a source of food for millennia. At some point, fishing evolved from fulfilling a basic human need to a fun and relaxing pastime.

The early days

The oldest fishing hooks ever discovered were made from shell and found in East Timor. These hooks are old! Some have been dated to be 11,000 years old and others to be up to 23,000 years old. References to using a rod and line to fish have even been found on Egyptian tomb paintings.

Before fishermen used rods, they utilized hand lines, eventually tying these lines to a short branch (the earliest form of a fishing rod). It wasn’t until much later, around the 4th century, that a long, jointed rod came into play.

The earliest flies were feathers tied to hooks, mimicking a fish’s favorite snack.

The first mention of fly fishing

While we may never know for sure, there are many references to Claudius Aelianus, a Roman from the 2nd century, as being the first to use an artificial fly. The fly was made from red wool to which two feathers were attached and tied around a hook.

There are also references to Marcus Valerius Martialis, another Roman born two hundred years earlier, as being the first to use artificial flies.

Fly fishing throughout time

Beginning in 15th century England, fly fishing saw a slow but steady evolution.

The 1400s

Fly fishing was initially practiced in the rocky and fast waters of Northern England and Scotland. A description of fly fishing comes from the book The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle. This book was the first manual for how to make tackles and fly fish.

Near the end of this century, the English upper class began to practice fly fishing as a sport.

The 1500s

England continued to improve upon its knowledge, creating longer and sturdier rods and making use of hand-crafted lines. This is also when casting began to take shape and further develop the sport.

The 1600s

Fly fishing is still mostly contained to Britain, with additional literature being added to the canon. One such book, Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite, detailed the phrases of fly development and made notes about which stages seemed most appetizing to the fish.

The sport first appeared in a literary piece in 1653 when Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation.

Charles Cotton, often considered the founder of modern fly fishing, wrote twelve chapters on the subject entitled Instructions for How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream. His advice in these pages formed many of the tenants still in use today.

The 1700s

Fly fishing gained interest around the world with the formation of fishing clubs and an increased number of manuals. It carried somewhat of an elitist reputation and was considered the best way to catch fish in a slow river.

Richard Bowlker shaped modern fly tying with his book The Art of Angling in 1747.

The 1800s

Silk replaced horsehair for lines and the first split-bamboo section was built by Samuel Phillippe in 1846, paving the way for lighter, more accurate rods. In Britain, techniques for dry-fly fishing, or fly fishing in clear, slow waters, were developed.

The sport gained popularity in America as Europeans migrated and the technologies continued to improve. This century saw the invention of the first free-spooling fly reel which opened the way for more efficient line storage and longer drifting casts.

Fly fishing began to lose its elitist reputation and was picked up by more and more people. It also began to transition to a leisurely activity.

In the late 1800s, dry-fly fishing found its home on American soil in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Ray Bergman and others wrote about this practice, invented new flies, and continued to draw new anglers to the area.

The 1900s

By the 1920s, fly fishing was gaining momentum across the entire U.S. As synthetic lines and fiberglass rods became available, their cheaper price allowed even more people to participate. Writers like Ernest Hemingway made the sport even more popular.

Present-day fly fishing

Fly fishing as we know it today first came into the picture in the 1940s with the development of new, cheaper rods and improved fly presentation.

Those who continue to practice fly fishing enjoy that the sport is conservation-friendly, helping to preserve countless rivers that may otherwise have been damaged by overfishing.

Today, fly fishing is known by people around the world as both an art form and a form of leisure. It’s the perfect hobby to get away from the hubbub of the city and take in the fresh, quiet air of idyllic lakes and rivers.
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