Published Feb 1. 2000 - 22 years ago
Updated or edited Mar 26. 2016

Book column February 2000

A Selective Historic Overview of Fly Fishing

There's a lot of mythology to the history of fly fishing. Time tends to embellish things and through selective interpretation of facts, events take on a life of their own. However you want to look at it, the end result is we are stuck with a situation we can do little to verify, so we live with and incorporate this into the fabric of our sport's "reality" and history.

I'm going to skip across the surface of the history and give the orthodox significant events. Serious students are referred to the "required reading" at the end of this potential academic snooze-fest.

Everybody's favourite starting point is The Book of St. Albans of 1486 by Dame Juliana. Variations of the spelling and arguments about the gender abound, but lets leave this for discussion over some beer and wings. The significant thing is that this document is important because it lists the flies, their sequence of emergence and how to tie a fraud for the trout. It is impressive because it was the first document of this type ... maybe.

Next we'll look at the "Patron Saint" Mr. Walton and his book of 1653, The Compleat Angler. Again there are spelling permutations for both the author and the book so at least things are consistent. There had been a long-standing tradition of plagiarism in early writing and it was not considered to be a big deal in those days. Old Izaak took the substance and style of other writers and embellished it, rolled it up and presto a hit! Subsequently Izaak's biggest fan, Charles Cotton who owned a nice stretch of trout and grayling water added his section in the 5th edition which focused on fly fishing and filled out the "Angler". Again there is a charge of plagiarism to deal with, but who cares, today the book is a classic.

Next is Stewart in 1857 with his "Practical Angler" he thought about the sport and said "fish upstream". That's what most people rightly discuss; but his spiders are the seminal "soft hackle" of much subsequent writing on patterns. Thank you W.C.!

Meanwhile across the pond in the good old USA Thad Norris put out a book in 1864 titled The American Angler's Book that influenced the sport in America. A great book that deserves a read for the character of the author as well as to get an idea of the spirit of the sport in the "colonies", just before they decided to go on their own and be "independent". It's a good book and deserves a read. Maybe someone will reissue it, who knows? Hint to Justin Knowles; check it out for the American market.

Next is a fave of mine. Maligned and insightful Fred Halford a giant of a fisherman, remembered for fighting with George Edward Mackenzie Skues also a brilliant guy and a Canadian by birth I might add with some pride. Halford codified dry fly fishing upstream in "Floating Flies" of 1886 and the world has never been the same. He made it simple as "see a fish, cast to a fish, and set the hook when the fish rises to your visible floating fly". Wow !!! Fishing finally made simple thank you Fred! No wonder the man was worshiped, he was like the Henry Ford of the fishing masses. It was all put in reach of the "average man on the street".

Skues said "wait a minute this dry fly stuff is becoming religion not sport and anyway I catch em the way the old wet fly fishers did" in his 1910 "Minor Tactics" and a whole new dimension was added. Skues gave us his own significant development, the nymph.

Skues the "student" who was influenced by Halford and Halford the guru ended up squaring off. Initially, I believe due to politics of clubs more than anything but it eventually became serious....too bad.

Meanwhile a little guy living in the Catskills of New York started writing to both of these giants. It would be interesting to see the look on Freddie's and GEM's face if they both found out they were writing to Theodore Gordon. So Gordon took the Halford concept and in typical Yankee style adapted it to North America. Who says Freddie isn't important? Not me. Gordon also corresponded with the master of the nymph, Mr. Skues right up to his own death. No book came out of Gordon but he changed American fly fishing, no doubt about it.

Lee Wulff an American from Alaska started his powerful body of work with The Atlantic Salmon in 1958 and went on to tear up the waterfront of the sport of fishing with a fly. Really think about what this man did in his lifetime in terms of tackle, patterns, conservation, and ethics.

These are significant contributors to the sport and deserve a read or at least a skim from those who operate on quality time as opposed to quantity time mode. Along the way you will encounter others mentioned by these authors and if time and interest permits read some of their works too. Oh and by the way the list is not even close to complete, I know it so don't take offense if I have omitted a favourite of yours. They will probably show up sooner or later. I like fringe stuff. But space is a factor here.

The Old Fly fisher

Reading & reference:
American Fly Fishing a History:Paul Schullery
A History of Fly Fishing for Trout:JW Hills
The Fishing in Print:Arnold Gingrich
Notable Angling Literature:James Robb
Bibliotheca Piscatoria:Westwood & Satchell
The Complete Fly Fisherman:John McDonald
The Origins of Angling:John McDonald
The Atlantic Salmon:Lee Wulff
Lee Wulff on Flies:Lee Wulff
Floating Flies and How to Dress them:Halford
Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice:Halford
The Practical Angler:WC Stewart
Minor Tactics of the Chalkstream:Skues
The Way of a Trout With a Fly:Skues
The American Anglers Book:Thad Norris


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