The Beauty (and history) of Flyfishing

Fly fishing is a very special event to those dedicated to its intricacies.

As one of people responsible – and devoted to – this web site, I spend a lot of time talking to people about fishing. Add to that the fact that I work in a retail tackle shop environment, continue to run a sports fishing guide service, and work on stories, emails, image selection, and a thousand other site-related things, it is amazing even to myself sometimes that I spend time talking to fishing clubs, school clubs, and anybody, really, willing to hear about our wonderful sport. This article was born from a presentation I did for a local fishing club, but it applies to anywhere in the country people use what we lovingly call “long rods” – flyrods.

Flyfishing is a very special event to those dedicated to its intricacies. Where you and me using a spinning or casting rod toss the weight of the lure or bait, somebody with a flyrod is casting the line. The hand-tied and hand-made lure is attached to the line, and follows it – if you're good – to drop gently and silently on the water below. The lures themselves – often simulating the tiniest and most fragile of insects (the primary protein source for many freshwater species, trout/salmon primary among them) – are made of feathers, foil, string, and skin; fur and fake eyes, and foil and flashers. Often hand-made by the anglers using them, their manufacture – a hand-done, eye-straining artform – is by-itself the special and private domain of many. My partner Gary Poyssick tells stories of tying flies for Orvis when he was a kid. The #18 black ants he tied a simple task for his 14-year-old eyes.

Bugs on a hook?

Flyfishing might very well be one of the most ancient of all fishing methods. There are hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs showing the Pharaoh with what looks like a cane pole dipping baits to fish in a tank. The actual sport itself showed up first in Roman legion journals – a method of catching those tasty mountain fish introduced to them in what is now modern Serbia. “Dapping” – the modern, post-Renaissance version, showed up in Europe in the 1400s. It was the precursor to modern fly fishing, and caught fire as a sport – a pure sport – in Ireland in an area called the Connemara. It made use of an eighteen foot rod made of greenwood, no reel, and a line made of braided horsehair. The bait was 2 mayflies stuck on a hook made of metal, or in some cases bone.

Mayfly and Caddis flies are the primary source of protein during their breeding season, when the nymphs hatch at the surface. Dapping was a method of simulating the natural (unhooked) fly. It worked like a charm, and became flyfishing as we know it. The first tournament was held in Loch Levaen Scotland on the First of July, in 1880.

The angler would allow the flies to touch the surface of the water, without the line touching. In many ways it is what we attempt to do fishing with kites. Without a breeze, the flies would not “dap” on the water, and fishing was saved for another day. If it was too windy, they failed to touch. But if you did it right, the trout would boil up from below, chasing a natural live bait, and the sport caught on. Mentioned in one of the greatest works of literature the world's ever seen, author Izaak Walton gave the world fishing, and called his landmark The Compleat Angler. The book was published in 1653 and copies still exist.

Flies to Buy

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03 fly fishing flies to buyBass Bug Collection - Set of 12 Bass Fly Fishing Flies - Poppers Divers Crawdad


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05 fly fishing flies to buyTerrestrial Trout Fly Fishing Flies

The history of flyfishing started with “Dapping”, when the first fly anglers used rods as long as 14' or 15' with a horsehair braid and a hook on the end. Two flies – mayflies or caddis – were hooked on and dappled on the surface of the water. The line not touching the surface simulated the natural food, and soon after people started making artificials with string, hair, fur, and feathers. Now let's talk about flies.

Dry Flies

Dry Flies started in trout fishing, but certainly extends now to anything that pops, bubbles, or breaks the surface in our saltwater (or largemouth bass and bluegill in freshwater) world. Dry flies came about when fishing rivers that had weeds growing close to the surface. It was necessary to develop new techniques that would keep the fly – and the line – on the surface of the stream where the trout were waiting to be fought, landed, and eaten in an appropriate amount of delicious butter.

To this day, dry fly fishing acquired an elitist reputation as the only 'acceptable' method of fly fishing. Like all fishing, we think fishing is good – fly rod, spinning rod, or cane pole with little bugs hooked on. But so be it – think you're special and you will need to find special friends. In the case of dry fly fishing, you can find them anywhere in the world.

Terrestrials and bottom-crawling flies

A lot of the year there are no flies battering around on the surface of America’s streams and rivers. That’s when terrestrials come into play. They are designed to sink below the surface and even bounce on the bottom. Depending on the depth of the water you may benefit from line that sinks or at least line that has a tip that sinks. This lets you work the flies near the rocks. They are designed to look EXACTLY like the bugs that the trout eat, which in most cases turn into the flies that will later let you use topwater during their spring and summer and fall spawns. But the bottom bugs – nymphs or flying insects in many cases – are on the bottom all year long.

Claudius Aelanus

Many credit the first dry fly to a Roman legionnaire named Claudius Aelianus in the year AD 200. He described how people fished with a fly in the river Astracus in Macedonia. Yet in 1921, in a fishing book called Fishing from the Earliest Times buy author William Radcliff, it credits another Roman named Marcus Valerius Martialus with this distinction born some two hundred years before Claudius' time. Nevertheless, it caught on from Roman times, through the use of Dappling rods and dead flies stuck on metal hooks.

After that, other than a few fragmented references, little was written on fly fishing until The Treatyse of Fysshing with an Angle, published in 1496. The book contains instructions on making your own rod, reel, weights, and hooks. It includes “dressings” – essentially a catalog of recipes – for different flies to be tied and used in different seasons for different fish. Almost like an ink-on-paper version – in the Middle Ages – of TheOnlineFisherman.com. Maybe we should secure the URL TheOnlineFyssherKnight.


To the horror of dry-fly purists, a guy named George Edward McKenzie Skues used his nymph and wet flies on chalk streems successfully. Skies then wrote two books which greatly influenced fly fishing, introducing the world to wet-flies, nymphs, and streamers – fish lures we use to this day to catch everything from snook to tarpon to hungry bonefish. Today crabs, crustaceans, and animals that do not exist in nature catch fish tied to the end of a long rod.

Chalk streams are spring-fed rivers which are crystal clear with the majority found within a 50-mile radius of Stockbridge in New Hampshire. A chalk stream is heightened version of what Floridians and many Americans call a “Limestone Spring Creek”. We have them here.

Good light transmission and constant flow in water like that dramatically enhance plant grown, providing both shelter and feeding stations for trout, as well as habitat for invertebrates such as freshwater shrimps and the nymphs – pre-flight versions – of the winged flies which thrive in this environment. This combination of clear water and abundant food provide some of the world's most exciting wet fly fishing, where large fish are individually spotted, stalked, and cast to. This highy-visual aspect of chalk stream fishing, along with the stunning surroundings in which it all takes place, makes it one of the most desirable forms of our sport. It is closely related in style and technique and skill sets to what we do in our local waters. More on that – sight fishing – as the series develops.

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