Fly Fishing for Beginners – Part 2 – The History of Fly Fishing

Welcome to episode #2 of the Fly Fishing for Beginners blog and video series. In episode #1, I answered the question, “What is fly fishing,” as there are many misconceptions. In this second installment, we’ll take a look at the fascinating history of fly fishing, which will hopefully give you a better understanding of how it has developed throughout the decades, as well as give you a greater appreciation for this beloved outdoor activity.

The Historical Foundation of Fly Fishing

The pursuit of we humans catching fish goes back to the most ancient of times. It was primarily done as a means of harvesting food, but it also developed into a recreational activity where one could spend quality time relaxing in the great outdoors, as well as test one’s skills. Humans first started fishing with a variety of gorges, which were basically small sharpened sticks, and later began using actual hooks. The first fishing hooks emerged around 3000 years ago and while very crude in design, worked similar to our modern-day hooks.

In primitive times, fishermen commonly used hand lines to fish with, which they would either cast out from the shore or from a boat. As fishing techniques developed, fishermen began tying their line to the end of branches. In fact, some of the first references to fishing with a rod are found in the world of the ancient Egyptians, as depicted in tomb paintings from this period. As time went on, longer rods and eventually segmented rods were used and developed.

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Many fishing historians state that the first recorded use of an artificial fly can be found in 2nd century Rome, where Claudius Aelianus described the practice of Macedonian fishermen crafting artificial lures from red wool and feathers and going after fish on the Astraeus river with six-foot long rods. Along with this reference from Claudius Aelianus, some historians claim that there is evidence of fly fishing in Rome several hundred years earlier. The first references to catching fish such as trout with what we now refer to as “flies” can be found much later though, in 13th century England. These first fly patterns were simply hooks covered with feathers that were fished on the surface of the water to entice a strike.

The Development of Fly Fishing as a “Sport”

As humans continued the pursuit of catching fish with feathers and hooks throughout the centuries, fly fishing began to evolve into a recreational sport reserved for the upper class of society. This phenomenon can be found in the culture of 15th century England, which perhaps is one of the reasons that fly fishing, in general, began to become associated with the wealthy and elite.

It’s commonly held that an article published in 1496 entitled The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, written by Dame Juliana Berner, an English nun, gave birth to fly fishing as a sport. It’s the earliest known article on fly fishing which also served as a detailed fly fishing manual. Many other foundational fly fishing publications emerged in the years and centuries that followed, including The Secrets of Angling by John Dennys in 1613, The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton in 1653, Instructions on How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream by Charles Cotton in 1676, The Art of Angling, by Richard Bowlker in 1747, The Fly Fisher’s Entomology by Alfred Ronalds in 1836, and The Practical Angler by W.C. Stewart in 1857. These and other timeless books and articles continued to help fly fishing develop and expand across the globe.

During these formative years, fly fishing tackle also continued to develop. Fly rods, fly reels, fly line, leader material, and other critical components all evolved over the years in both design and materials. As fly fishing gear advanced, so did fly fishing techniques, as the more modern designs and materials enabled fishermen to cast further, fish different depths, and greatly refine their presentation techniques.

Fly rods started out as just long, hefty branches, and were later crafted from joined pieces of wood. As time went on, split cane and bamboo fly rods began to emerge, which are still very popular today. In more recent times, fly rods have been made from materials such fiberglass and graphite, to modern materials such as nano titanium resin. Also, thanks to the gear configurations and drag systems that developed in fly reel designs, fishermen have been able to fight and land fish much more successfully, as well more ethically for catch and release fishermen.

Yes indeed, fly fishing gear has come a long way throughout the centuries, but again, many modern-day fly fishermen and fly fisherwomen still enjoy using some of the older designs, such as the slit cane bamboo rods, as using the more traditional gear can be a fun way to reconnect to the long, rich history of fly fishing.

So there you have it my friends, that’s a quick lesson for you on the history and development of fly fishing. In the next episode in this series, we’ll take a look at the many species of fish that you can pursue with a fly rod, many of which may surprise you!

Check out the video below to see more…