Eye of the Guide


Tom Travis - January 16, 2012

"History reveals how generations of our fly fishing predecessors dealt over the course of their fishing lives with the same problems and challenges we face today"
Paul Schullery, Fly Fishing Secrets of the Ancients, 2009

The day was overcast, a thin mist was gently falling and yet the air was warm, with no noticeable wind. A day like this is the exception rather than the rule here on the waters of Montana. We sat on the edge of the drift boat watching the smooth flowing flat before us with eager anticipation for the first signs of the emergence.

The trout were beginning to flash and move as they fed on the nymphs starting to move off the bottom. I rose to move into position to better observe the working fish and to determine how deep in the water column they were feeding. Soon I was into a rainbow that ran and leaped several times before I could slide the net under him. After a quick moment with the stomach pump, the trout was properly revived and released with a couple of underwater photos of the trout being taken while he was swimming off. I checked the stomach contents I had extracted and determined that my pattern selection did, in fact, resemble the natural nymphs in size and color that the trout were eating. As I was preparing to move into position to cast to the next trout I noticed that my fishing partner was still sitting on the edge of the boat carefully watching the surface of the water.

I pointed out that were several trout actively nymphing right in front of him. He said, "I know, but I am waiting for a surface riser." He went on to tell me that he was thoroughly enjoying himself and would soon get a chance at these trout. "With weather like this, the duns will ride a long time on the surface, drying their wings and the trout will surely notice them." He was soon proven correct! My fishing partner is an experienced angler who has mastered the various methods of fly fishing.

On this day he had decided he was going to fish dry flies on the surface of the water. Therefore, he had prepared a box of dry flies, filled with the various styles of Pale Morning Duns that he was going to use that day. I thought to myself "There sits a happy and contented angler who is sure of himself and his own abilities and has the patience to wait for the fishing he desires". As the hatch progressed the mist turned into a gentle rain and the duns began to hatch on the surface. They floated for a long distance before their wings were dried and they could take flight from the surface of the water.

Soon the surface of the flat was alive with the rings of rising trout partaking of the bounty and easy feeding afforded by the heavy hatch coupled with the weather conditions. Before long we were both fishing dun imitations and sharing a wonderful morning of leaping trout, missed takes and of course one or two trout that were stronger than our tippets. Mornings like that are few and memories of them are always treasured.

My fishing partner's love of dry fly fishing is not something new. Rather, since the early origins of fly fishing, man has been obsessed with the fish that were taking floating naturals off the surface of water.  Let us travel back through the pages of history and take a hard look at the facts.

Some historians say that the origins of the dry fly have been lost in the mists of time. I do not believe this to be true. I think that the facts and evidence have been in front of us right along, only many chose to ignore it or drew the wrong conclusions from the information they had compiled.

All who wander down the long path of fly fishing history is bound by the written (recorded) word. I believe that it is the job of the angling historian to gather the facts and present them in an organized manner. They may present their own conclusions, however they should not present their conclusions in a way which would skew the historical perspective or the facts.

For years I believed, as did most, that the wet fly was developed and used long before the dry fly came on the scene.

One of the very first books that I read on fly fishing history was written by John Waller Hills and was entitled A History of Fly Fishing for Trout. The book was originally published in 1921. I had purchased a reprint and read it in 1975. It contains much valuable information and is indeed a charming volume, and is the book which sent me charging down the path of fly fishing history. I believe to better understand the methods of today, we must understand the development and methods of those who came before us. As charming and informative as Hills' book was, I also believed that he did a great disservice by assigning a definition as to what dry fly fishing was, and what it was supposed to entail. Also by discounting all facts and evidence that did not fit with his theory of dry fly fishing.

Consider this; man, by nature, is a curious creature. Show him something that he does not understand and he will contemplate and study it, trying to gain mastery over it.  When you are writing a history of a subject you must also be aware of all of the developments in and around your subject matter that may have influenced the development of that subject! Case in point - there is no doubt that long before the first artificial fly was cast upon the waters anglers were already using hooks, lines, rods and baits to catch various species of fish. The practice of fishing dates back to the early Paleolithic period, around 40,000 years ago.

Some of the painted tomb scenes from Egypt hint at fishing as a pastime, though it must be recognized that much of the early fishing was based on the hunter/gatherer life style. These early anglers were either filling the larders or using the fish for trade goods. It was known that these ancient anglers used various baits to catch fish. If we accept the fact that various forms of natural baits were used, then we must accept that some of those baits (e.g. Grasshoppers, Frogs, Toads and the like) may have floated on the surface of the water.

Now let's move on to what is, at this time, the first recorded (written) event of fly fishing.  The event took place on the rivers of Macedonia. The author was Claudius Aelianus and the volume was entitled On the Nature of Animals. The time was 200 AD. In this volume Claudius wrote a passage not only on the earliest known attempt at fly fishing, but also about the first known attempts to fish with a dry fly.

"When then the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above, lest it should scare away its prey; Then coming up by the shadow it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle, a goose from the farmyard."

In my opinion, this is an observation of a fish rising up to the surface to a fly. John Waller Hills was aware of the writings of Claudius Aelianus, but claimed that it had no bearing on the development of fly fishing, and quickly skips ahead to 1496 and the publication of Dame Juliana Berners' The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle. Claudius also wrote about the fly that was constructed to fool the rising fish that was observed. His description is as follows;

"They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix unto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax."

Now at first glance one might think that a fly tied with wool would sink. However remember, the wool of those times was natural wool and still covered with lanolin which would have helped it float. Next, any fly which is tied on a hook without extra weight will float for a period of time before it absorbs water and sinks. Finally, what was observed? A fish feeding on wet flies? NO, a fish taking insects off the surface of the water!!!  Thus, in my opinion, that early angler was attempting to fish with a dry fly.

I believe that the intent to imitate the floating flies was with us from the beginning, but I also believe that many anglers assumed that all flies were originally wet; even when the answer was dangling right in front of them at the end of their line - so to speak.

In John Waller Hills', A History of Fly Fishing for Trout, he suggests the "Intentional drying of the fly, for until that is done the invention is not complete". With this statement he was able to discount any of the early work on dry flies. Why did Hills discount this account?  Possibly because little was written about fly fishing during the middle ages that has survived.

Much of what we learned about fishing in the Middle Ages has been brought to attention during the past few years.  It is possible that with this gap in the time line he did not want to try to explain it. It is also possible that he wanted his version of fly fishing to begin in England. In his 2001 book entitled The Fly, Dr. Andrew Herd (A renowned British fly fishing historian) gives an interesting dissertation on why Hills chose to ignore this early account.

Who knows when and where fly fishing started? There is a mention of writings in China from 2300 B.C. that has some bearing on fly fishing. But we will go with 200 A.D. simply because there is a written record of the event. In his volume entitled A History of Fly Fishing, Conrad Voss Bark talks about experimenting with the tackle recreated from the time of Walton and Cotton. During these experiments some interesting facts came to light and a more complete understanding of those ancient anglers was achieved. The following is a quote from Conrad Voss Bark.

"I had not expected the elasticity of horsehair. When I tried to break the fly off from the tippet of three strands of twisted horsehair it required a considerable pull. The hair link stretched for what seemed like several inches."

"But the greatest surprise of all was that the flies would not sink. This explains why our ancestors never bothered to talk about dry fly or wet fly fishing, there was no need. Their flies did both."

"No question about it our ancestors were attempting with the limits of their technology to fish their artificial flies on the surface of the water where the natural flies were hatching."

A little research shows us that the rods used during the time of Dame Juliana Berners (1496) were around 18 feet in length. During Cotton's time (1676) the rods were 15 feet in length. During the time of Francis Francis (1867), the rods were still 12 feet in length and by World War One; 10 foot rods were still in use by a great many anglers. The rods of Berners, Cotton and Francis were constructed by using various sections of wood, like yew and greenheart. Cotton wrote about and fished his flies both wet and dry. He studied the aquatic insect and, being observant, matched his methods to suit the angling situation he encountered. Cotton was also the first to mention the term "wet flies".

Let us backtrack for a moment and consider what happened between 200 AD and the rise of angling literature in England in 1496. Was there no fly fishing? That might be assumed as there appeared to be little in the way of a written record. However, let us be realistic and consider that during the time period in question, much of the known world traveled through several wars and through the Dark Ages, also that the vast majority of the people were illiterate and furthermore the printing press was not yet invented. Therefore, what books did exist had to be hand copied and were available to only a few individuals. However, as a historian, Hills should have considered those facts, but failed or chose not to do so. Furthermore, he failed to do a complete study of the tackle, methods and practices of those early anglers, thus drawing the conclusions that were flawed when explaining their theories and methods and, in part, diminishing the contributions of many of those early anglers.

Since the publication of John Waller Hills', "A History of Fly Fishing for Trout", [1921] much new information has come to light and at some point, the history of fly fishing will have to be reexamined and rewritten. I just hope that is done by someone who studies, researches and examines the facts with an open mind and without an agenda other than stating the truth backed up by the facts.

John Waller Hills was not the first historian or author to have an agenda. In today's world it is more the norm than the exception. However, Hills further compounded the problem by assigning his own definition to what was or wasn't dry fly fishing. By doing so he discounted the contributions of a great many anglers as it relates to fly fishing.
Let us move forward and discuss the most famous book in fly fishing history. In 1496, "The Book of St Albans" was edited and published by Wynkyn De Worde. The book contained a section entitled "The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle" and the author was Dame Juliana Berners. Now I know that there is an ongoing controversy over Dame Juliana Berners as the author, but that is not the purpose of these pages to discuss that issue.

However, let us look at the text and the flies. Does the text say that these flies should be fished as wet flies? 

Would these flies float for a reasonable amount of time if not presoaked? The answer is yes! Furthermore, in the text the talk is of flies on the water, not that the trout were observed feeding under the surface. Once again the observation is that the trout are taking flies off the surface. Also understand how the flies were fished in those ancient times. Those anglers fished long rods with braided horsehair lines and leaders and the flies were dapped on the water, thus these flies could have remained dry for quite some time. Roger Fogg in his 2009 book entitled "Wet-Fly Tying and Fishing" stated that he also thought that the dry fly came first, and clearly states his reasons.

I could go on with many more pages of justification, but I think that would be pointless. I clearly state my position and my reasons; now, it is up to you, the reader, to make your determination to accept my conclusions or to challenge them.   


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