Fly fishing as we know it today has descended from several fishing traditions, all with fascinating backgrounds and histories. While the fly fishing we’re most familiar with comes from British traditions, the act of making an artificial insect, tying it to a line, and casting it out across the water isn’t unique to British or American culture.
Knowing the sport’s history can deepen your appreciation and understanding of just how much fly fishing has changed since the first person attached bait to a hook and tossed their line into the water. Even if you’re an absolute beginner to the sport, knowing the history can be fun and interesting!
In this article on the history of fly fishing, we break the history into historical eras where we break down these eras into literature and culture, and the equipment used or developed during these eras.
Ancient Fly Fishing
There are references to fly fishing in ancient cultures throughout the world. While fishing has been a major part of every human society, most ancient cultures used longlines, nets, fish traps, or other methods of fishing that allowed them to catch fish for food quickly without as much effort.
Fly fishing can of course be used to catch food fish, but today it’s often purely recreational. The time, skill, and effort involved are never going to be sufficient to catch fish on a population-sustaining level.
But fly fishing had to come from somewhere, and there are ancient fishing styles that share elements with fly fishing.
References to fly fishing may come as early as the 1st century AD. The oldest of these references is a line in one of the Roman poet Martial’s poems, frequently translated as: “Who has not seen the scarus rise/Decoyed and killed by fraudulent flies?”
Many believe this may not actually refer to fly fishing, and it certainly doesn’t refer to fly fishing as we know it today. The scarus is a reef fish that doesn’t typically take flies, and the last line may not actually refer to an artificial fly but rather to a piece of mussel used as bait.
However, by the 2nd century AD, a solid reference to fly fishing appears. In his book De Natura Animalium, a Roman man named Claudius Aelianus described a specialized form of fishing done in Macedonia on the Astraeus River. According to Aelianus, the Macedonians used hooks dressed with red wool and feathers that are “colored like wax” taken from under a rooster’s wattle to catch fish. This was specifically done to mimic local insects that fish liked to eat.
It is interesting to note that the description of the feathers points to them being hackle feathers– the long feathers on a rooster’s neck, straight down from the wattles. These feathers are still used in modern fly tying as a component in many fly patterns.
In Japan, fly fishing was developed specifically for the ayu fish, known as the sweetfish in English. Ayu fishing was practiced by samurai more than 400 years ago and was refined in the Edo period between 1603 and 1867 when samurai were forbidden to practice sword fighting.
The prohibition on martial arts of any kind meant that the samurai had to find a new way to occupy their time. To make their lures, the samurai would bend sewing needles into hooks and fashion their own flies. Bait fish were also frequently used.
Japan is also known for tenkara casting. Tenkara uses a very stiff rod and a horsehair line. Tenkara casting, which is still practiced today, uses an extremely long rod and no reel. Modern tenkara adheres to this tradition.
Additionally, tenkara uses fewer fly patterns than what we use in the sport we typically think of as fly fishing. Neither ayu fishing nor tenkara had much influence on the development of modern fly fishing as we practice it today. However, tenkara has gained some popularity outside of Japan in the past few years; its deceptive simplicity is appealing to many anglers.
A Timeline Of Modern Fly Fishing
Fly fishing’s evolution can largely be traced back by looking at how people have written about it over the centuries. While no one person or even one easily identifiable group of people can be said to be responsible for fly fishing’s development, there are several key figures and writings in the history of the sport’s development.
We will be tracing the evolution of fly fishing back through some of these key historical figures. Some names may be familiar; others may be new to you. But all are associated with the development of the sport we love.
Here’s a quick timeline at a glance:
- 1400s to 1640s: First written description of fly fishing, start of fly fishing entomology.
- 1650s to early-1700s: Fly fishing as a philosophical pursuit, fish hook development, gut-based lines, gaffs and landing hooks, Kirby hooks.
- Mid-1700s to mid-1800s: Modern fly tying, further development of entomology, reel development, bamboo split rods.
- Mid-1800s to 1920s: Formalization of wet fly versus dry fly fishing, trout introduction programs, Catskill fishery development in the USA, Orvis reels, coated silk lines.
- 1920s to modern day: Fly fishing spreads in the US, all technologies develop further, synthetic lines, fiberglass rods, synthetic fly material, catch and release movement.
Era 1: The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle and Other Foundational Texts
The first written description of the fishing that evolved into modern fly fishing is a text from 1496. Published in a collected volume called The Book of St. Alban’s, the description is part of a series of essays about fishing, hawking, and hunting called The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle. While the authorship is unknown, it is typically attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, who was likely the prioress of the Priory of Saint Mary of Sopwell, near Saint Alban’s.
Dame Juliana was brought up in court, which meant that as a young woman she enjoyed hunting, hawking, fishing, and many other outdoor sports. This was typical of the English upper classes during this time; men and women both participated and enjoyed these field sporting activities. Dame Juliana also has treatises on hunting with hounds and hunting with hawks attributed to her, but none are as famous as her essay about fishing.
This first era of fly fishing was characterized by the first major shift in the way people thought about fishing. The Treatyse talked about fishing as not just a way to feed yourself, but to enjoy yourself. British nobility enjoyed fishing for fun, not just for sustenance, and this idea has carried forward ever since.
We can also see the early development of fly fishing entomology in this first stage of development. In 1600, a man named John Taverner wrote Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite, which was the first formal study of the phases of mayfly development and to notice how and when trout feed on the nymphs and emergers.
In 1613, another instruction manual was published, this time in verse. John Dennys, who was said to be a fishing companion of Shakespeare, published a three-volume poem called The Secrets of Angling. It promised to teach the “choicest tools, baits, and seasons for the taking of any fish, in pond or river,” and its cover illustrations gave fishing advice like “Hold hook and line and all is mine,” and “Well fares the pleasure that brings such treasure.”
Fly Fishing Equipment
We don’t know much about the fishing equipment that was used during this period. We do know that before the mid-1600s, a wire loop was attached to the end of fishing rods for running lines and that a simple fishing reel was developed. Rods of this time were made in sections that could be broken down and transported. However, significant advancements in tackle wouldn’t come until the mid-1600s.
Era 2: The Compleat Angler
After the English Civil War, fly fishing took a great leap forward as a recreational pastime across England. Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation was written in 1653 and was considered a masterpiece. Walton didn’t just write about how to fish, he wrote about why people should fish.
Walton idealized the British landscape and thought that people’s lives could be greatly improved by spending time communing with nature. For him, fishing was a pastoral and philosophical ideal. He saw a certain poetry in the sport and encouraged this attitude in his friends and audience. Walton was the first person to write about fly fishing as an art, rather than just as a way of getting food.
In 1676, Walton’s friend Charles Cotton added an additional twelve chapters to The Compleat Angler, solidly creating modern fly fishing. His appendix, titled “Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream,” included instructions for fly tying and a piece of advice that’s still heeded today: Fish fine and far off. In other words: Be careful in your fly presentation and cast out far.
The second half of the 1600s was also a time of great innovation in fishing technology. Samuel Pepys noted that gut string was in use by 1667, and lute strings were in use by 1676. Also in 1667, gaffs and landing hooks were recorded as being in use.
The biggest leap forward was arguably the Kirby bend. Charles Kirby was an English inventor who devised improvements to fishhooks, and the Kirby bend was his distinctively-shaped hook with an offset point. Even today the Kirby bend is a common hook style, and the town where Kirby set up shop in the 1730s, Redditch, is still the center of fish hook manufacture in modern Britain.
Era 3: The Art of Angling
The 1700s and 1800s saw more development in fly trying traditions stemming from new techniques and new knowledge about the life cycles of insects and understanding how fish feed on them.
In 1747, the modern fly tying tradition was solidified in Richard Bowlker’s The Art of Angling. This work defined fly tying for the next two hundred years and the principles it sets out are still used today.
Almost a hundred years later in 1836, The Fly-Fisher’s Entomology was published by Alfred Ronalds. This was the first wide-scale illustrated study of the insects that trout and grayling eat in British waters. Around the same time, George Pulman’s Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout defined the method of fishing a dry fly.
Fly Fishing Equipment
Between the 1740s and the 1840s, numerous technological innovations came into the field of fly fishing. This period saw one of the biggest changes in angling when Spanish silkworm gut replaced horse hair as leader and line material. This made much longer casts possible.
Guides replaced the simple wire loop on the top of the lines, which made controlling the line much easier. Reel technology advanced as well, and winch-style reels were developed.
American innovations started making a difference in the sport of fly fishing during this era, too. Up to this point, American fly fishing had largely followed British traditions, but there were two major points of divergence. First, Americans widely adopted a type of geared reel that never caught on in Britain.
Secondly, Samuel Philippe of Easton, Pennsylvania, built the first split bamboo rod. This would be improved by Hiram Leonard to create the first light, fast, stiff modern rod that could cast silk lines to great distances.
Era 4: Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Wet Flies Emerge
In the 19th century and early 20th century, fly fishing clubs began to pop up across England. Up until this point, dry fly fishing was the only acceptable way to fish the slow, clear rivers and chalk streams of southern England. This began as a question of practicality; the weeds in these rivers grow close to the surface, and techniques that kept the fly and the hook above the weeds meant fewer snags. Unfortunately, dry fly fishing began to develop an elitist reputation.
This reputation was enhanced when G. E. M. Skues began developing the theory of wet fly fishing and nymphing. Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Kindred Studies and The Way of a Trout with a Fly, written in 1910 and 1921 respectively, were major influences on the development of wet fly fishing. This technique was preferred in northern England and Scotland, but the dry fly enthusiasts in southern England did not appreciate Skues’ methods!
Another important influence on nymphing was W.C. Stewart, who published The Practical Angler in 1857. Stewart popularized upstream nymphing as a technique. He also introduced several new fly patterns, including the Stewart Spider, that are still in use today.
This era also saw the first trout introduction programs. These began as introductions in British colonies so that ex-pats could enjoy the hobby they’d developed at home. The programs spread from there and eventually led to our modern trout stocking program in the United States.
The first of these projects was Edward Wilson’s brown trout introduction in Victoria, Australia in 1864. The goal was to “provide for manly sport which will lead Australian youth to seek recreation on the river’s bank and mountainside rather than in the cafe and casino.” Rainbow trout were introduced 34 years later in 1894.
Brown trout and rainbow trout are now well-established in Australia. The Australian fishery commission still stocks some waters with these species, along with fast-growing but sterile triploid trout and a genetic line of heat-tolerant rainbow trout that thrive in warmer Australian waters.
In the United States, devoted fly fishers found trout in the Catskill Mountains and streams all over upstate New York. The western trout fisheries had not been popularized yet, and most developments in fly fishing happened on the East Coast. Brown trout were being introduced to American streams as well, and American anglers were developing their own identity. Both wet and dry flies were popular on American waters, but American fly fishing wouldn’t really come into its own for a few more decades.
Fly Fishing Equipment
Tackle improved massively during this era of fly fishing. In 1874, Charles Orvis released and popularized the first modern fly reel. The founding of the Orvis Company helped organize fly fishing in the United States by supplying fishing gear throughout the United States. Orvis also published tackle catalogs, becoming the first mail-order outdoor retailer in the United States.
Silk lines were improved and made more aerodynamic with coats of oxidized linseed oil. Line tapering became more common during this era of fly fishing, especially because gut and silk lines could be much lengthier and stronger than horsehair lines. Rods were made of bamboo or lightweight imported wood from South America, Africa, and Australia.
Era 5: Trout, The Sun Also Rises, and Modern Fly Fishing
Fly fishing had always had a devoted following in America, but in the 1920s, it really took off on the East Coast. Maine and Vermont were the new fly fishing hot spots, as were the spring creeks of Wisconsin in the Midwest. In a few short decades, fiberglass rod technology and synthetic fly lines were developed and caused a further boom in the sport’s popularity.
In 1938, Ray Bergman’s seminal book Trout was first published and remained in print for 50 years. Trout is one of the top 10 bestselling sporting books of all time, and is the only sporting book to be in continuous publication for five decades. Trout educated generations of fly fishers and helped the sport reach new audiences.
Another boost to fly fishing’s popularity was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and his other works of fiction. Hemingway was a consummate sportsman who loved fishing. Both deep sea fishing and fly fishing make frequent appearances in his works of fiction, and The Sun Also Rises features a scene where fly fishing is pitted directly against bait fishing. The character who goes fly fishing catches bigger and better fish. This also marks the start of a trend in fiction featuring fly fishing: Fly fishing as a metaphor and a meditation on relationships.
Fly fishing provides the kind of contemplative headspace that allows fictional characters to decompress and work through stress. This is perhaps best demonstrated in A River Runs Through It, published in 1976 by Norman McLean and adapted into a movie in 1992. The emotional weightlessness of fly fishing can be traced back to Izaak Walton– even in the 1600s, fly fishing was seen as good for the soul. No wonder Hemingway’s characters liked it so much, and no wonder Americans were drawn to it through fictional narratives!
Catch and release fishing also became popularized in this period. In 1939, fly fisher and conservationist Lee Wulff stated that “game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” This became the basis for the catch and release movement that rose and popularity over the last decades of the 20th century and continues to this day.
Fly Fishing Equipment
From the late 19th to the 20th century, fly fishing equipment was modernized. Fiberglass rods were lighter and less fragile than any rods that came before; synthetic line could be tailored for performance. Feathers and natural materials were still the fly-tying materials of choice, as they are today, but synthetics began to enter the market. Fly fishing also led to advances in bass fishing; fly tyers developed synthetic bass baits, which affected an entirely different fishing discipline.
Era 6: Fly Fishing Today
Today’s fly fishing is both entirely different and yet extremely similar to the fly fishing developed in the 1600s. Fly fishing is a sport that combines modern technology with timeless sensibilities. New techniques are developed without losing sight of what makes the sport special and have attracted anglers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
If you would like to know more about the history of fly fishing, we recommend the following resources:
- The History of Fly Fishing in Fifty Flies by Ian Whitelaw
- Notes from an Old Fly Book by Gordon Wickstrom
- The American Fly Fisher, the journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing
- A Concise History of Fly Fishing by Glenn Law
- American Fly Fishing: A History by Paul Schullery
- The Fly-Fisher’s Craft: The Art and History by Darrel Martin
If you’d like more information on learning how to fly fish, we have a beginner’s guide here that’s a great place to get started.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about