Origins of Fly Fishing
Fly fishing is one of the newer forms of fishing. Nobody is quite sure when it originated, but writings about a similar practice date back to Roman times. Humans have long understood that fish (specifically trout) rely on bugs for part of their diet, but only a few groups of people learned how to harness this for fishing.
There are multiple origins stories to fly fishing and a few possible inventors of the fishing fly itself. Here are a few early mentions of fly fishing, along with the possible source of the fishing fly.
Origins of Fishing with Hooks
The hook is one of the most important developments in the history of fishing. The hook itself makes fly fishing possible, though it’s also a relatively recent arrival on the scale of human history.
Initially, people fished with spears or nets. Fishing became practical for feeding large groups of people once humans developed ways to catch multiple fish far from shore. Humans fished with nets for thousands of years before the advent of the hook.
The first fishing hooks probably originated in Europe around 1000 BC, when humans figured out how to craft bone into a small device for catching fish. Fly fishing itself would appear relatively soon after.
The rod is another key development in the history of modern fly fishing. Prior to the invention of the rod, people often fished with sticks, spears, or simple lines held ashore. The rod may have originated in ancient Egypt, perhaps around the same time.
Early Fly Fishing
One of the earliest mentions of fly fishing dates back to the second century AD. Roman intellectuals observed Macedonian fishermen baiting fish with shiny organic lures made with chicken feathers. The color of the lure baited the fish to the surface, and a snare caught them as they tried to slap it down into the water.
The English were experimenting with fly fishing around the same time, and their lures were fashioned to look a lot more like flies. England would later become a major center of fly fishing development, so the English origin theory holds quite a bit of weight.
Fishing Fly Development in Japan
Around 400 years ago, historians believe that fishing flies were developed independently in Japan. Despite developments in Europe, Japanese craftsmen may have perfected the fishing fly long before it was popularized in Europe.
Fly making is still a celebrated local craft in the mountainous regions of Japan, and these flies more closely resemble modern flies than many of the European flies did at the time.
Fly fishing and its historical use are well-documented in Japan. The practice, known as “Tenkara,” was practiced by mountain-dwelling people for sustenance and by nobles and warriors for leisure and ceremonial reasons.
Origins of Modern Fly Fishing
The 15th and 16th centuries saw major development in fly fishing. By this time, aristocrats in England were commonly engaging in the practice as a form of leisure. This early form of uniform fly fishing was likely also practiced by many people due to its effectiveness, but this isn’t known for certain.
By 1600, fly fishing was well documented in England. At the time, English anglers and writers actively referenced mayflies when referring to this unusual form of fishing, stating that the lures were developed to mimic mayfly nymphs.
Trout were clearly attracted to these bugs during this stage of development, so English anglers made lures from silkworms that resembled nymphs.
Modern Fly Fishing and Sport Fishing
Modern fly fishing developed when rod and reel technology reached its early mature stage. By the 1800s, fishing rods were available with almost every component you’d find on a modern fishing rod. They had guides and simple mechanical reels, which helped anglers increase their fishing precision.
Throughout the centuries, the fly had developed extensively as well. Sportfishing as a hobby had developed into a popular pastime in England, and many very creative sportsmen developed flies of their own volition. Many different types of flies from this era have been found, and they consist of a range of materials, including silk and a host of dyes and colorings.
Fly fishing was mentioned by name in texts from the era, and the sport was a well-established and separate class of fishing by the 1850s. Since then, most major fly development has occurred gradually. The rod and reel reached its modern form by the end of WWII when the hobby spread across the world and became a mainstay of recreational fishing.
Who Invented the Fishing Fly?
Nobody knows who invented the fishing fly. The earliest fishing flies, which were made of wool and feathers, were probably used about 3,000 years ago. The modern fishing fly was developed around the same time in Europe and Japan, and its evolution has occurred in many countries across the world.
Was Fly Fishing Popular?
Fly fishing has always been a popular sport. Since its inception, people across multiple cultures have used fly fishing as an art for mastery and for practical purposes. Fishing clubs first appeared in England in the 1800s, and many people brought the sport with them to the United States at the same time.
How Fly Fishing Spread
Fly fishing was highly popularized by Alfred Ronalds’s 1936 book, “The Fly-fisher’s Entomology.” In this book, where fly fishing itself is named, Ronalds discusses both the methods and uses of fly fishing. The book was the first large documentation of fly fishing and flies, and it represents a turning point in the history of fly fishing.
The book illustrates many things about fly fishing at the time. Notably, the sport itself was very advanced by the early 19th century. Ronalds portrays an extremely high level of understanding, and the book suggests that modern fly and fly fishing techniques were in widespread use at the time.
Illustrations in the book detail several fishing flies and compare them directly to the actual species of flies. From these illustrations, we know that anglers at the time had developed extremely good replicas of preferred species. Additionally, facsimiles of many of the flies described in the book are still produced today.
When did Fly Fishing Start in America?
American fly fishing likely originated in the 19th century. At this time, anglers in New York’s Catskill Mountains were known to use rudimentary flies to catch brook trout and other elusive fish species in shallower waters. The method spread into the Appalachians as well and eventually made it's way west with the settlers.
By the 20th century, fly fishing was well-established around the country. It became the plot of movies in the 1930s and 1940s, which further spread awareness of the sport. By the 1950s, an entire industry had developed around fly fishing, and equipment was available in sports stores and catalogs in all 50 states.
When were Factory-Made Fishing Flies Introduced?
Factory-made fishing flies have been around since the industrial revolution. However, the majority of fishing flies were handmade by craftsmen until after World War Two. By the mid-20th-century, most entry-level fishing flies were mass-produced to mimic many fly species.
Today, handmade fishing flies are still available, and many of the best come from Japan. Fishing flies have been produced locally almost everywhere that fly fishing takes place, including in England and the United States.
When did Fly Fishing in Colorado Start?
Colorado (and the Rocky Mountains as a whole) is one of the world’s most famous and desirable fly fishing destinations. As a result, there’s a fair bit of interest regarding the history and origins of fly fishing in the region.
Modern fly fishing probably began in Colorado during the 1880s and rapidly grew in popularity. Anglers from the eastern seaboard, who’d spent a century depleting local fish populations and dealing with increasingly polluted rivers, were astounded by the beauty and ecological diversity of the Rocky Mountains.
Since then, conservation efforts have kept Colorado’s 5,000 miles of rivers and numerous lakes healthy. Fly fishing continues in the region, and the local fish populations are in relatively good shape.