A historical look at fly fishing

Fly fishing gear, just like the sport itself, has a long and ever-evolving history. (Photo by L. Woodrow Ross)

Authors recorded details about the practice of using fur and feathers attached to a fish hook for use as a lure as early as the third century AD.

Claudius Aelianus, a Roman author, talks about anglers using wool and feathers tied on a hook to attract and catch fish. They had no reel, and used short rods of approximately 6 feet. But the practice must have been successful to attract a notable following.

Writers of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe made reference to fly fishing. It stands to reason that fly-fishing was in practice during years prior to these records.

In the United States, the 17th century saw the rise of the practice of fly-fishing. And retail establishments began to offer tackle and flies to sportsmen.

The Northeastern part of the U.S. became known for the abundant streams that held trout, which could be taken with fly-fishing gear.


The earliest rods consisted of wooden shafts, but swiftly evolved to bamboo as a preferred material. Bamboo was preferable due to being hollow and lightweight. It was replaced by hollow fiberglass rods that were even lighter than bamboo. I well remember these two choices. As I recall, bamboo was prone to warping, but was a good choice for casting delicate dry flies.

Hollow fiberglass rods came along in the 1940s and 50s, and they were welcomed as the best choice, due to their light weight and because they were not as delicate as bamboo.

In the 70s, carbon fiber or graphite was introduced, and is the rod of choice at this time. The graphite rod is strong, light and responsive. Today, rods of various weight and length are available. Rods are designated by a numerical method, with a 1-weight being an ultra-light rod, and the heavier rods, on the other end of the numerical spectrum.

A specific method identifies the rod weight and the line weight so that the correct weight line can be paired with the correct rod weight. These may range from a 1-weight rod and line (the lightest) to as much as a 15-weight (usually for heavy saltwater species).

Some experts suggest pairing a slightly heavier fly line to a lighter rod to aid in “loading” of the rod for casting. This definitely helps, but is the angler’s choice, based on experience.


In fly-fishing, the reel is often only a device to hold excess line, making management easier. When larger species are involved, they may be played directly from the reel. At that point, it becomes a more important part of the gear system. In the case of the latter, the reel should have an excellent drag system to aid in playing larger fish.

Early reels, intended for smaller species, had automatic retrieval systems to aid in managing excess line. Unfortunately, if the activation lever was inadvertently touched, it would result in swiftly reeling the line onto the reel and possibly spooking fish.

In reality, when fishing for smaller species, the reel is merely a mechanism for holding excess line. When fishing for larger species, the necessity of having an adequate reel becomes increasingly important.

Fishing methods

Dry Fly: This is considered the most challenging method of fly fishing, and many elite fishermen will only use this method. It involves using only flies that float on the surface. The fly may be allowed to “dead drift” on the surface, or on still water, activated with a slight twitch to imitate a fluttering insect.

A sub-category of the dry fly method uses poppers that float on the surface and create a splash when retrieved. This method is used frequently for warm water species such as bass or large bream.

Wet Fly: These flies sink and are usually cast quartering upstream and allowed to “dead drift” downstream. They imitate drowning insects and are deadly in certain situations.

Nymphs: Similar to wet flies, except they imitate the nymphal stage of aquatic insects and may or may not be weighted. If deep pools are encountered, the weighted flies will improve chances of success.

Streamers: These flies imitate small minnows and are usually applicable for brown trout or for saltwater species.

As an avid follower of the fly-fishing community, I would guess that 99 percent of my time on the water involves the use of a fly rod. It is a wonderful tool, and the development of the skill is an ongoing process that never ends.

Ever evolving:

The art of fly fishing has evolved over decades, along with the materials and technology used to make gear. It’s a never-ending process that most fly anglers enjoy almost as much as reeling in a big fish.

The post “A historical look at fly fishing” first appeared on CarolinaSportsman.com.

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