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A Brief History of Fly Fishing

There’s something indescribable about a perfect cast, a big strike, and gently pulling in a beautiful fish. Fly fishing has long been a popular hobby – but how long have anglers been using flies to catch trophy fish? The local tackle shop may be loaded with brand new rods and reels manufactured from cutting edge alloys, but people have been fly fishing for dozens of generations.

To help you better appreciate the sport of fly fishing, let’s look back on its origins and how it evolved to the popular hobby of today. You may be surprised that while that equipment you’re using has many bells and whistles, it’s not too far removed from the fly fishing of yesterday.

When was Fly Fishing Invented?

It’s estimated that our ancestors have been angling for fish for at least 40,000 years. Angling helped our elder families get the protein they needed, but what about fly fishing specifically?

References to fly-like fishing comes as early as the 2nd century AD. In a letter, Roman Claudius Aelianus described a specialized form of angling by Macedonians on the Astraeus River. According to Aelianus, the Macedonians used hooks dressed with red wool and feathers taken from under a rooster’s waddle to catch fish.

The history of western fly fishing is much more recent than ancient angling with the first written record of flies found in 13th century English records. The earliest flies were described as tufts of feather tied around hooks used to catch grayling and trout

Farther east the Japanese developed a method of fly fishing known as Ayu fishing which is more than 400 years old. Like western fishing, Ayu fishing used flies and a longer rod but unlike western fishing Ayu did not utilize specialized casting we associate with modern fly fishing.

Who Invented Fly Fishing?

It’s difficult to assign modern’s fly fishing’s invention to one person and date but sportfishing began in earnest in 15th century England with the publishing of ‘The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle.’ Written by Dame Juliana Berner, the article was one of the first to promote fishing for pleasure instead of food. The publishing of the article is widely considered to be the birth of modern angling.

Further developments were collected and released in ‘The Art of Angling” by Richard Bowlker in 1747. While ‘The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle’ is considered the birth of modern sportfishing, The Art of Angling marks the start of modern fly fishing techniques including dressing flies for certain species and specialized casting techniques for different situations. The Art of Angling was followed by ‘Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing Trout’ in 1846 which was the first published work to describe how to tie a dry fly.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw much more progress towards modern fly fishing with Spanish silkgut replacing horsehair for leaders and lines, the development of reels, the appearance of guides on rods, and the tapering of lines.

Fly fishing continued evolving mostly in the United Kingdom with the emergence of angling clubs, several new books on technique and how to tie flies, and new methods for fishing thanks to the weeds that grew close to many British riverbanks. The Victorian era of fly fishing is also the era fly fishing jumped from a practical form to haul in dinner to an art. Fly tiers used feathers and other materials from around the world to tie elaborate salmon ties. There’s still a large market of Victorian salmon tie collectors today.

Fly Fishing History

Fly Fishing Today

Fly fishing has slowly grown over hundreds of years from practicality, to fascination, to its modern status as a soul-pleasing hobby (that can lead to some good meals too.) Fly fishing has become a popular way to escape reality for a few hours or days and to reconnect with the country’s natural beauty.

Though modern fly fishing is connected to pastoral scenes there have been some serious technological advances in fly fishing gear. Rods and reels previously constructed from heavy aluminum or steel are now made of lightweight high strength materials that are more durable than their predecessors. Organic fly lines and tippets are now manufactured from high strength plastics to give anglers more strength with less visibility. Modern fly fishing is lighter and faster.

Fly Fishing Today

The Next Step in fly Fishing’s Evolution

Where does fly fishing go from here? If recent trends are a good barometer, the next evolution in fly fishing is a move into more urban environments.

One of the biggest obstacles to fly fishing’s growth is access to fly fishing destinations and equipment but thanks to online ordering and the development of urban green spaces fly fishing is more accessible than ever before. No matter where you live you can order the world’s best fly fishing gear directly to your doorstep and a great fishing hole might be a few blocks away compared to a few hours away.

If you’ve held off trying fly fishing because you can’t take a couple days off to drive to a spot, try searching “Your city” followed by “urban fly fishing” and you’ll be surprised how many fly fishing opportunities are closer than you think. Many fly fishing shops near urban hot spots offer lessons and equipment rentals to get you on the water right away.

A Timeless Hobby

It’s hard to pin the exact date fly fishing was born but it’s estimated our angling ancestors have been using flies for hundreds of years to reel in their catch. The Victorian period brought a more modern form of equipment and techniques to lead fly fishing into the pastime it is today.

The next steps in fly fishing see people moving from the woods and meadows into more urban spots, making fly fishing more accessible than ever. Fly fishing is evolving everyday but since before recorded history it’s always been about a line, a fly, and scoring some big fish for food or fun.

When someone says fly fishing is a timeless hobby – they aren’t joking.