“They have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman’s craft…. They fasten red wool… round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”
Were these the words of an English country gentleman? Actually, they were credited to the Roman Claudius Aelianus near the end of the 2nd century as he described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River. Other authors give credit to another Roman some two hundred years before Aelianus who wrote “who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudful flies…”
Other than a few fragmented references little was written on fly fishing in Great Britain until the late 1400s. The earliest English poetical treatise on Angling by John Dennys, said to have been a fishing companion of Shakespeare, was published in 1613. Imagine how a tragedy could have been averted had Shakespeare written these words instead of his more famous ones… “O Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou, Romeo?” “I’m down here, Babe, but I’m going fishing with the guys”.
British fly fishing continued to develop in the 19th Century, with the emergence of fly fishing clubs and the appearance of several books on the subject of fly tying and fly fishing techniques. Dry-fly fishing gained an elitist reputation as the only acceptable method of fishing the slower, clearer rivers but to the horror of dry-fly purists, nymph and wet-fly techniques were developed and actually became more popular especially in Scotland and northern England. In Scandinavia and the United States, attitudes toward methods of fly fishing were not nearly as rigidly defined, and both dry- and wet-fly fishing were soon adapted to the conditions of those countries.
The traditional Japanese method of fly-fishing is known as “Tenkara”, which literally means “from heaven”. Tenkara is the only fly-fishing method in Japan that is defined by using a fly and casting technique where the line is what is actually being cast. Primarily a small-stream fishing method that was preferred for being highly efficient, where a long rod allowed the fisherman to place the fly where fish would be.
Another style of fishing in Japan is Ayu fishing. Fly fishing became popular with Japanese peasants from the twelfth century onward … fishing was promoted to a pastime worthy of Bushi (warriors), as part of an official policy to train the Bushi’s mind during peacetime. Ayu was practiced in the lowlands (foothills), where the Bushi resided while Tenkara was practiced in the mountainous regions.
In the United States, fly anglers are thought to be the first anglers to have used artificial lures for bass fishing. After using fly patterns and tackle designed for trout and salmon to catch smallmouth and largemouth bass, they began to adapt these patterns into specific bass flies. Many of these adaptations are still used today.
In the late 19th century, American anglers, such as Charles F. Orvis, continued to develop and distribute novel reel and fly designs. His 1874 fly reel was described by reel historians as the “benchmark of American reel design”, the first fully modern fly reel.
Participation in fly fishing peaked in the early 1920s in the eastern states of Maine and Vermont and in the Midwest in the spring creeks of Wisconsin. Along with deep sea fishing, Earnest Hemingway did much to popularize fly fishing through his works of fiction, including The Sun Also Rises. It was the development of inexpensive fiberglass rods, synthetic fly lines, and monofilament leaders, however, in the early 1950s, that revived the popularity of fly fishing, especially in the United States.
In recent years, interest in fly fishing has surged as baby boomers have discovered the sport. Movies such as Robert Redford’s film A River Runs Through It, starring Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt, cable fishing shows, and the emergence of a competitive fly casting circuit have added to the sport’s visibility.