A Quick History of Fly Fishing: Is Fly Fishing Just For Trout?

It’s a good bet that many modern warm-water anglers have been frustrated at one time or another by a well-meaning person’s Angling-Impaired assumptions about fly fishing . Many’s the time that a person has seen my fly gear and immediately said, “Oh, you’re a trout fisherman, huh?” I’m sure they mean no harm.

But why is Angling so tightly associated with trout? I have a few ideas on the subject.

Please bear in mind that they are strictly my own ideas, rather than proven fact.

Read our complete guide: “The Art Of Fly Fishing

Beware Of Greeks Bearing Flies…

The Greek historian Aelean described fly-fishing in its infancy with the Macedonians quite well Considering it was a second-hand account, and he himself was not a fisherman, he did a pretty good job. This was around AD 200, the dawn of sophisticated fishing. Short rods (6′) of Hazelwood with horsehair line and delicate hand-tied flies were used to catch local trout in streams  since the live flies were too delicate to impale.

There were no ring-guides or reels and no casting as of yet. The flies were just dangled in the water.

But why just trout? I believe that anything other than trout in small streams would have easily out-classed the equipment.

Do trout taste good enough to be worth the extra trouble? Absolutely! Was the thrill and satisfaction worth the extra effort? Undoubtedly yes. I believe that ancient anglers were no different from us in that respect.

Moving Forward… Fly Fishing 1000 Years Later

Moving forward to 1210 AD, Wolfram von Eisenbach described a man wading barefoot in a stream, fishing for trout and grayling with a “feathered hook”. This was obviously a Feudal-Era angler (and a tough one, if streams were as cold then as they are now). Again, no reel, no casting, no tapered line. Just Horsehair and Hazelwood.

Fly patterns were described, but nothing that would be recognizable by a modern angler. It does appear that angling at this time was the preferred method of fishing in Western Europe by the common people.

Trout, by necessity, were still the main quarry due to the delicate nature of the equipment.

It appears from writings that salmon were infrequently caught, but imagine the difficulty of playing a salmon on a 6′ rod, with only 6′ of delicate horsehair line. By this time, trout fishing with flies had become a tradition.

Who says fly fishing is just for trout?

By the late 17th century, improvements in gear began to make their appearance, greatly expanding the versatility of angling gear. Commercially manufactured equipment became available. Rod lengths had increased to 14′-16′ and two-handed spey-type rods of even greater lengths were being used.

Line length had increased to double the rod length, and the forward cast was adopted. Ring-Guides for more precise line-control were introduced, along with tapered horsehair lines. Reels were invented, although they were basically just ‘bait-casting‘ reels with brass bearings that disintegrated when placed under any strain.

About this time, Dame Julianna Berners wrote the immortal  A Treatise of Fyssgynge with an Angle, the oldest known book on fly fishing.  1653 AD gave us The Compleate Angler, by Izaak Walton, found in almost every fly anglers book collection. Trout was still the king, but other species loomed on the horizon.

The Invention of the Dry-Fly

The 19th century was a hey-day for angling innovations. The dry-fly was invented. Split-bamboo rods arrived. A Kentucky watchmaker, George Snyder, invented the modern single-action and multiplying fly-reels. Braided silk began to be used for fly-lines and various different tapers became available. Salmon fishing and classic Salmon and Steelhead fly patterns came into their own, with thousands of devoted followers. The 1890s were the ‘Golden Era’ of classic Salmon patterns, Now, they had equipment equal to the task. Bamboo rods, waders, modern fly patterns, and the introduction of ‘silkworm gut’ for fine leaders revolutionized the sport! The first books on fly-tying were published, standardizing the art.

One of the biggest boons to angling was the development of the railroads. Leisure-travel was now within the means of most people, and the more affluent began to travel abroad in search of ever more exciting quarry. Norway was the destination of choice, with its unexploited huge populations of really large and aggressive salmon. It started a trend that continues today. Norway is still a salmon anglers Mecca! In the US, bass and other large aggressive species were now available to the average angler. Mass production had brought the price of equipment to within almost anyone’s means. More rapid travel left more time to fish. By the mid 19th century, the false-cast, dry-fly technique, marine angling, and most other modern concepts had come of age. Trout was still the major quarry due to the 700+ year head start it had, but the sport was flourishing and expanding.

Modern Day Fly-Fishing

In the 20th century, the invention of vulcanized rubber, neoprene, monofilament, the automobile, the airplane and many other inventions combined to bring angling into the modern age. Now, every fish species that ever comes near the surface are subject to our attacks, and no area of the planet that contains piscatorial prey is safe from our endeavors. Trout are still the traditional quarry by default, but our non-traditional numbers grow daily. With the invention of the Internet, ideas are shared instantly, to the betterment of all. Warm-water angling has, and is growing due to the fact that modern angling equipment is equal to the task-at-hand. Gar, Carp, Peacock Bass, Pirahna, Striped Bass, Bonefish, Sharks, Tarpon, Shad, Pike, Bass, and even Marlin are taken regularly on modern Fly-Gear. It is probable that the romance of stream-trout will forever be linked to fly-fishing by the uninitiated, but is that really such a bad thing? After all, we know better…

Happy Fishing

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