Bullet Points in Fly Fishing History

If you want to study fly fishing history, study the hook! The earliest hooks were discovered in Okinawa, and made from snail shells. Wikipedia says they are anywhere from 22.360 to 22,770 years old. Man has been looking to the ocean for food for quite some time!

Inshore, it probably didn’t take long to figure out there was food beneath a rise. All early man had to do was figure out how to get it. It took a while for technology to catch up with fly fishing, because it would be difficult to dress a snail-shell hook!  The first record of true fly fishing comes from the Roman author Aelius in 200 AD, from his book On The Nature Of Animals. In volume 17, he tells of Macedonians attaching red wool and two feathers to a hook, to imitate the Hippurus fly. The fly was attached to a 6’ rod that held a 6’ line. He called it the Macedonian way of fishing.

It’s important to note Aelius didn’t stumble upon this the first time it was done. This method of fishing had been in place for a while. While we date the first true fly fishing documentation as 200 AD, the tradition had been established before then. No one had bothered to write it down! Also note this is a Western version of history. As the world shrinks, and we get more information from China and Japan, the earliest date of fly fishing may change. The Chinese and Japanese have their own history of fly fishing that is just coming to light. We shall see!

Fly fishing was present throughout the Middle Ages. Reference to using a Vederangel (feathered hook) is found in German literature in the 13th century. If was known well enough to be a literary device, the idea of fly fishing was firmly established. Fly fishing is also referenced in Britain and Spain, as well as Japan. The writings are clear about fly fishing, but not very clear on details. But the seeds are there for Dame Juliana and her landmark achievement.

The first book on fly fishing to be published with moveable type was A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle,credited to Dame Juliana Berners. She was a nun, and an avid fly fisherman. It was the first manual for fly fishing, detailing building rods, weaving horsehair into lines and listing 12 flies, one for each month of the year. The fly for May was an Ephemerella, or a Mayfly. The impact of this book still resonates with us today.

In 1496, an angler’s tackle consisted of a rod anywhere from 12-16 feet long, made of 3-4 pieces of solid wood, angled at the ends and spliced together with twine. The horse hair line was approximately the same length as the rod, and attached to the tip. Flies were dressed on hooks, which were often shaped pins, and the horsehair leader was snelled into the fly as part of the tying process. If you hooked a smaller fish, you yanked it out. Hook something bigger, and you tossed the rod in the water and let the fish tow it around till it tired. It was not an easy sport to pursue, as the angler had very few places to procure tackle. The very wealthy had gillies (someone hired to do nothing but maintain tackle and do stream keeping if applicable) but most made their own tackle.

Interestingly, Tenkara today is almost a carbon copy of the angling enjoyed in 1496. Of course, Tenkara rods are graphite, the line and tippets are polyvinyl and mono, but the concept is the same. The Missoulian Angler fly shop hasn’t fully embraced Tenkara- its simplicity doesn’t seem to appeal to the tackle junkies who work here! But there’s no doubting the ease of taking a Tenkara rod backpacking, or the thrill of sneaking close enough to feeding fish to make the technology of 1496 work today.

Change came slowly over the next 350 years. Rings (metal hoops held by a band and wrapped on with thread) were the first guides, which allowed the line to extend and retract. Silk was a new material, and it was incorporated into lines. Gut replaced horsehair as the leader of choice, and would remain so until 1945. With a moveable line came the reel. As the world expanded, the woods used in rod building became more varied, and as bamboo came from China, anglers knew they had found something that held some promise.

Initially, bamboo was used as it came from China, like a cane pole. It was lighter in weight, with some flexibility in the thinner sections. Ferrules were a tricky business in the early 1800’s, as anglers tried to get away from splicing rod pieces into place every time out. The metallurgy still hadn’t caught up with the need. But by 1847, rod tips were being made with 3-4 strips of shaved bamboo, though the process hadn’t come close to being perfected. That was done in America by Samuel Phillipe and Hiram Leonard. Both were originally gunsmiths by trade, and both helped revolutionize fly fishing. They moved to 6 strip construction (hexagonal) which is still the preferred design to this day. They built rods that truly cast, and were significantly shorter and lighter than their predecessors. Reels continued to improve, as did the silk lines. Rod action was now controllable and expanded, with lines manufactured in different thicknesses (weights) to enhance the now controllable action.

An angler in 1939 was decked out waterproof pants made of canvas sandwiching a layer of rubber. They used a hexagonal cane rod, either hand or machine planed. The reel was steel or aluminum, and the line was made of silk. The leader was still gut, which needed to be soaked the previous day or it had no flexibility. The picture our Missoula fly shop bathroom called Grandpas Tackle shows an aluminum gut soaker. The flies had integral metal eyes, and were dressed with much thinner thread than used in the 1800’s. The 1939 angler would be quite recognizable today, with tackle we would easily recognize and be comfortable with.

Then came WWll, and the world fought in ways that had never been experienced. From that carnage came plastic, fiberglass and Poly Vinyl. Rods went from cane to Fiberglass. Leaders went from gut to monofilament, and fly lines went from silk to poly coated. Spin fishing came from the technological explosion during the war. Fly fishing became easier and much more accessible. Tapered leaders were now extruded, not hand tied. Rods didn’t wear out, and required less maintenance. Lines lasted well over a year. Fly fishing was simplifying.

This blog writer learned how to fly fish using a cane rod with a plastic reel seat. When it was built, plastic was a marvel. Waterproof, almost unbreakable- it was a miracle of the modern age. I learned to spin fish before I learned to fly fish, and my grandfather provided me with a left-hand spinning reel.  I cast with my right hand, and reeled with my right hand, as I do today. In the early 1900’s, you cast right and reeled right, which made sense. A big bass or salmon rod weighed 9 ounces, and the reel might weigh 15. When you hooked a fish, you fought the fish with your “fresh” arm. By the early ‘60’s, left hand wind in fly fishing carried a stigma with old school fly fishers. It meant you started out spin fishing, and then moved to fly fishing. No grandson was going to go through life with that black mark on his head! So I reel right handed. Don’t sweat it, that thinking is long gone!

Things progressed until 1973, when Orvis introduced the first graphite rod. Talk about an upgrade! With graphite, rods became casting tools, built for power, accuracy and distance. New vistas opened up for fly fishing in the salt, as well as on streams and rivers. Rods weighed less, and reels soon followed suit. Fly fishing was getting easier and easier.

October 9, 1992. Brad Pitt stars, and Robert Redford directs. Fly fishing goes mainstream, and there’s no going back. In 1993, at the Fly Tackle Dealer Show, I got collared by Jim Murphy, president of Redington Rods at the time. You must try this rod. So I did. He asked me how much I thought the rod I’d just cast retailed for. I said $400-$450. He said $129, with a lifetime warranty. I said Bullsh*t. I said he cherry picked it- he brought me 5 more and they were all good rods. It was my introduction to overseas manufacturing of fly rods. In 1986, when I entered the fly fishing industry, I could say without hesitation that a good fly rod would cost you $375- half that if you put it together yourself, as I did. That changed in 1993. Fly fishing became (relatively) affordable, and the industry has never looked back.

I still have some of my grandfathers old tackle- rods, reels, flies and other assorted paraphernalia. I can say this without hesitation- we argue the finer points of rods like it makes a difference. Use one of my Grandpa’s “sticks”, and you know how they got that nickname. You’ll run back to your modern tackle so fast your head will spin. We’re in the Golden Age of fly fishing, and don’t let others tell you different. Our tackle is so far beyond what my grandfather used in 1978, it’s science fiction. Fly tying materials have never been better or more varied, The Feather Thief be damned. Be glad you have access to the best it’s ever been, because that’s what we have. Enjoy!!!!

George Kesel