A brief history of fly fishing
If you have read the page about the distinction between "game" and "coarse" fishing in Britain and Ireland, you will already understand that the history of game fishing only really stretches back to the middle of the 19th century at the very most. On the other hand, most game fishermen either use a fly or a lure and it is the history of those methods that dominates the story of game fishing in the UK, which is worth bearing in mind as you read on - of the two, fly fishing appears to be the older method. What follows is a very condensed summary of the history of game angling in Britain.
The first mention of fly fishing is in The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, published in 1496 and a book which you will come across repeatedly on this site. If you want to read more about The Treatyse visit the "origins" page. The Treatyse listed 12 flies, but had nothing whatever to say about spinning, or trolling, as it was originally known. The 12 patterns in the Treatyse remained more or less the only ones in print for over 150 years, although it is almost certain that there were many other flies in use and that other lists, in manuscript form, existed, but have been lost. The bodies were tied with wool, the wings were created with feather fibres from species that were common to the UK then and the hand-made hooks were tied onto horsehair, like the pattern that has been recreated here, the Black Leaper. It is very hard to say which species of insect most of the flies represent, although many attempts have been made to do so.
The invention of the reel was a crucial development as far as salmon fishing was concerned and if you would like to read more about that, we would suggest taking a look at this page. But trout fishermen continued to use short (six foot) rods with fixed horsehair lines, as well as longer 'loop' rods (up to sixteen feet long, with a running line that passed through a loop at the top) right into the early years of the 18th century. Their flies were fished close enough to the top that they could literally dangle them in the surface layer, which is where most of the takes occurred and they fished upstream or down depending on which way the wind blew.
During the 18th century, use of the reel became widespread and the use of the short rod became less common, until by the beginning of the 19th century it was quite unusual to see a trout fisherman with a rod much shorter than 11 or 12 feet. Pure horsehair lines gradually gave way to mixed silk/horsehair, which in turn was replaced by braided silk lines from about the second quarter of the 19th century. The problem with the longer braided silk lines was that they sank and this, together with the lack of stiff rods encouraged most trout fishers to fish downstream - and the technique that we know as the wet fly was born.
In 1836, a landmark book was published by Alfred Ronalds, who had had the inspired idea of linking illustrated dressing of his set of patterns with illustrations of the insects they were supposed to imitate and this book, The Fly-Fisher's Entomology went to over a dozen editions and became the benchmark for all the works that followed it. Ronalds also provided a classification of all the insects he had tried to imitate, which was a huge breakthrough, because prior to that, stream side insects were given different names in different parts of the country - in some cases there were more than a dozen different names.
During the same period, salmon fishing became very fashionable, the real breakthrough being the invention of the railways, which improved travelling speeds from ten miles an hour at best to nearly modern rates. Improvements in tackle meant that catching salmon on a fly became a practical proposition and fishermen began to travel to Scotland, Ireland and Norway to catch fish using a glittering array of brilliant patterns which were created in vast numbers to suit the rapidly growing demand.
Although the value of the floating fly had been known since at least the 17th century, trout fishermen began to develop a new technique, known as the "dry fly" method, from approximately the middle of the 19th century onwards. The difference between the dry fly and the floating fly method was that dry fly fishermen always cast upstream, using a floating line and an artificial that had been specially treated to float - and that most of them only cast to rising fish. This technique was well established by the 1870s and was popularised by Frederic Halford (shown here) in a series of books published around the end of the century. Variations of the method are still in use today and if you want to read more, click this link to visit the page on the dry fly.
The combination of dry fly fishermen who only approved of upstream fishing and wet fly fishermen who by and large fished down led to a great deal of controversy during the late 19th century, but ironically it was during this period that lake and reservoir fishing came of age, with anglers increasingly taking to the water in boats to fish for trout, something which had been done since at least the late 18th century, but not on such a wide scale. However, the next really big development was the discovery of nymph fishing, which was done more or less single-handedly by George Skues. In the early years of the 20th century, Skues realised that trout spent most of their lives taking insects under the surface, not on top of it (as the dry fly men thought) and he began fishing imitations of Ephemeroptera nymphs upstream, just under the surface. These patterns were a big departure from the traditional winged wet flies that were ubiquitous at the time and modern nymphing is entirely derived from his experiments.
Meanwhile, salmon flies were evolving too, and having reached a peak of sophistication in the form of built-wing patterns like the fabulous Jock Scott, they were being simplified, as anglers at last learned the lesson that salmon care more about size than pattern and could be caught just as well on simple hairwing patterns as they could on the beautiful "fully dressed" flies of the late 19th century. The illustration here shows a hairwing modification of the Jock Scott, tied by Carcraig Classics.
Both salmon and trout anglers benefited from a stream of developments after the end of the Second World War. The first was the mass production of cheap nylon fishing lines, which replaced gut (which had been used for leaders) and made spinning using fixed spool reels a practical proposition. During the 1960s and 1970s spin fishing nearly wiped fly fishing out and although fly fishing made a recovery in the 1980s, the vast majority of salmon are still caught using lures. The second key invention was plasticised fly lines, which were virtually maintenance free and could be made in a variety of densities, allowing deeply sunk patterns to be used. Synthetic materials also began to find their way into fly patterns, with the result that some modern fly patterns don't have a single naturally occuring component in their dressings - which can be altered to make patterns sink or float virtually at will.
Synthetic materials have also had huge impacts in other areas of tackle development, notably reels, which, if they are not made of aluminium, are made of advanced plastics; and rods, which are virtually all made out of carbon fibre. The contrast with the 15th century could not be more complete: then, an angler cut his own rod from his hedge and plaited his own line from the tail of his horse; now even our flies are tied in China.