The Fascinating History of Fly Fishing: When Was Invented?

History of Fly Fishing

Today, we know fly fishing mostly as a recreational activity, where anglers around the world enjoy nature while engaging in the “purest form of fishing”.

This activity has been around for a long time, and it slowly spread around all corners of the world.

The history of fly fishing began in the 2nd century and remained almost the same until the 16th century, when some changes started, which eventually led to modern-day techniques that we know today.

At the time it was created, it was completely new and revolutionary. Presenting flies to fish on top of the water surface quickly gained popularity.

At the beginning of the 19th century, technology started to develop faster and here we are today. 

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When Was Fly Fishing Invented?

When was fly fishing invented is a matter of debate, as history tells us that it appeared in both Europe and Asia.

The time that can be historically confirmed suggests that this technique appeared during the 2nd century AD. However, some say that it is even older than that.

Of course, at that time, fly fishing was very primitive, and it was used solely as a way of harvesting fish for food.

History of Fly Fishing - When Was Invented

Origins of Fly Fishing: Who Invented It?

So, it is clear when it was invented, but where did fly fishing originate?

The origin of fly fishing is frequently said to be in Rome, however, that is not exactly true. First historical writings originate from Rome, but those writings mention Macedonia as the birthplace of European fly fishing. The technique was later adopted by the Romans. 

Roman author Claudius Aelianus clearly describes Macedonians practicing this technique on the Astraeus River.

However, some modern authors do not all agree. William Radcliff wrote in 1921 that fly fishing originates from the times of Marcus Valerius Martialis, who also mentioned this technique in his books, more than a hundred years before Aelianus, and gives credit to Romans as inventors.

In Asia, fly fishing appeared in the mountains of Japan, roughly 400 years ago, unrelated to Europe

Although it is unclear who was really the first, that does not change the impact this invention had on modern-day fishing.

And when it comes to that, in 1676, Englishmen Charles Cotton described what seems to be a modern fly fishing, in his book The Compleat Angler.

Soon after, especially during the late 18th century, it started becoming a sport for wealthy citizens.

History of Fly Fishing - Originate

When Was the First Fly Fishing Rod Invented?

The development of fly fishing wouldn’t be possible without the fly rod. But, in history, there were no fancy reels, tapered fishing line, and special rods. 

So, when was the first fly fishing rod invented, and how it looked? 

At the beginning of fly history, anglers used a line with a hook bated with primitive flies. Some of them had simple wooden poles, while others used just the line held in their hands. The line was, according to history writings, the same length as a rod.

Sometimes, a hole was drilled through the rod length to make it lighter. In Japan, bamboo was used instead of wood

When the development of modern gear started? In 16th century in England, sturdier and longer rods were invented, while extra line length was held in hand, but it was still very simple. At the same time, casting techniques started to develop. 

The biggest advancement came in 1870 when the split cane rod was invented. This took place in Main, USA, and the rod design made of bamboo with cedar wood inlets became a modern standard at the time. 

In the 1940s, the first fiberglass rods appeared on the market. 

Fly reels are believed to have been invented in England and soon after found their way to America. The very first models were made from wood, but brass soon followed. It enabled excess line storage and longer casts. Fast development of reels started in the 19th century, and it keeps on evolving today.

History of Fly Fishing - Rod

History of Artificial Flies and Fly Tying

The very first flies were made from two feathers taken from cocks wattle tied by red wool.  As fly fishing gear developed throughout history, so did the flies.

Those feathery flies were drifting on the surface. Floating flies were cast downstream and the water did the rest. In addition, they were used with lines that didn’t float.

Wet flies are the ones that appeared first. Besides feathers, fur and yarn were widely used in fly manufacturing. Those were able to float or sink below the surface and were imitating aquatic insects. This technique became widespread when lines evolved from horsehair and horsehair-silk mix to braided silk. Casting was done downstream.

Dry fly fishing was developed in the 19th century, and dry flies enabled upstream casting. Of course, this modern technique wouldn’t be possible without floating lines, and at that time, vinyl-coated lines and their modern development took off. Dry flies are designed to resemble terrestrial insects

Modern fly anglers today have many types of flies to choose from, not just wet and dry. Fly fishing is done anywhere from streams to oceans, and fly fishing techniques evolved to be much more sophisticated. From nymphs and streamers, even to live bait, options are much wider today. Synthetic materials enabled hundreds of flies to be mass-produced around the world.

Fishing lines evolved from horsehair to silk, and finally modern materials we know today.

During the 19th century, fly fishing clubs appeared, and at that time, books about techniques and fly tying spread among fishermen.

Basic fly tying was almost unchanged from the 2nd until the 19th century. But, then professional fly tires appeared together with the popularization of fishing clubs and the availability of modern materials.

History of Fly Fishing - Flies

Fly Fishing Around the World: America, Europe, etc.

As it appeared in Macedonia and Rome, it was just a matter of time before it spread further ways from its origins. 

Fly fishing found its way around Europe, mainly in England. Around the 16th century, it even started advancing in terms of equipment and rods. British are the ones who made the most improvements and modernized this technique. Without them, fly fishing wouldn’t be what it is today. A fun fact is that British anglers invented the term “field sportsman” during the 19th century, which made a clear distinction between fishing for survival among the lower classes and fishing for sport among the wealthy.

When European settlers arrived in America, they brought fly fishing techniques with them. Some historical writings suggest that even native Americans learned how to practice it.

At approximately the same time, from the late 18th century, wealthy Americans practiced it as a sport, mainly in coastal areas of New England. After that, it slowly started spreading across the country.

History of fly fishing in America may be the shortest, but today, this continent has the biggest population of fly fishermen in the world.

But, with world migrations, fly fishing also found its way to Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Asia.

History of Fly Fishing - America

Popularity of Fly Fishing Today Among Fly Fishers

In this modern day and age, it is not a sport for wealthy people only.  It spread through all populations equally, starting from the 19th century.

From rural areas to cities, from children to the elderly, and from rich to regular citizens, the advancement of technology and widely available gear made it possible for anyone to enjoy this hobby. 

It is a growing industry that generates millions of dollars every year. With better and cheaper manufacturing processes fly gear continues to develop. You can find new models of rods, reels, and lines every year, from all manufacturers.

This development made the technique easier and more efficient, at a reduced cost.

But, despite growing popularity and increasing numbers of anglers, fly fishing still holds its original spirit of pure fishing, where the angler is one with nature. 

Conclusion

The fascinating history of fly fishing is what made this activity what it is today. It began as a way of obtaining food and it developed into a hobby.

Modern technology enabled anglers to choose among huge numbers of specialized rods, reels, lines, and hundreds of flies.

What makes it the “purest form of fishing” is the fact that anglers must follow the natural life cycles of local bugs and imitate nature in its tiniest form.

About Me

Slo-fishing - About Us

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I am Siniša Pintar (friends call me Sina), the guy behind Slo-fishing.si and eBook writer. This site is base camp for fishing enthusiasts from all over the world. I love fishing and want to share all my stories, knowledge and my experience with any and all potential anglers. Read more ...

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