WHICH CAME FIRST
We have all been presented with the question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" I'm certain that I know but since I was not there my belief is only a theory. Much of what we believe is at best based on speculation, especially when it concerns things that cannot be reproduced.
In fly fishing, at least among angling historians, there is a discussion about the origins of fly fishing, and more to point, the origins of dry fly fishing. Pouring over musty old tomes they attempt to assign meaning to words that are written in languages that have long been lost to the mists of time. They extrapolate time lines, they assign dates and they devise a theory. They give us a neat package all tied up with referenced footnotes but the question still remains, which came first?
Aelianus, a Roman from the second century, recorded an incident in Macedonian where the people observed "spotted fishes feed on insects peculiar to this countryside, which flutter over the river." The natural flies were too delicate o use as bait so: "the fisherfolk wrap ruby-colored wool about their hooks, and wind about this wool two feathers, which grow under a cock's wattles and are the color of dark wax. Their rods are about six feet, with a line of similar length attached. With this they cast their snare, and the fish, attracted and made foolish by the colors, come straight to take it" [Taken from Trout, Volume 1, Ernest Schwiebert, 1978] Sounds like dry fly fishing to me.
However, John Walter Hills in his book, first published in 1921, entitled A History of Fly Fishing for Trout seems to have attempted to define what constitutes dry fly fishing. His criterion was that dry fly fishing involved not only a fly that was floating upon the surface but the method of delivery of that fly. Listen to what he wrote in his history; "but what is the dry fly and what are we to call its invention? The test I suggest is the intentional drying of the fly, for until that is done invention is not complete." Note that he was not concerned with how the fly floated on the water but only how it was delivered. According to Hills this, "occurred in 1800, but its use did not become common till 1860, nor was it till after the publication of Halford's books in the eighties that it spread to more than a few rivers." While Hills made note that very early writers, including Mascall in 1590 wrote that the Red Spinner was, "a good Fly to angle with aloft on the water." He recorded many other instances of early anglers that evidently fishing flies on the surface of the water but he concluded they were not dry flies. He was even aware of the account of Aelianus and fly fishing in Macedonian in the second century, but he discounted it since they apparently did not "intentionally dry the fly," even though it appeared that they were fishing with a fly that was presented on the surface.
Hills gives credit to Pulman who wrote in his 1851 edition of his book Vade Mecum of Fly Fishing for Trout, "Let a dry fly be substituted for the wet one, the line switched a few times through the air to throw off its superabundant moisture, a judicious cast made just above the rising fish, and the fly allowed to float towards and over them, and the chances are ten to one that it will be seized as readily as a living insect." Hills stated that "This is the earliest mention I know of the intentional drying of the fly."
It seems that Hills applied an arbitrary standard to arrive at a determination of not only when men began to fish for trout with dry flies but what the standard was for determining what actually constituted dry fly fishing. He conceded that trout were likely caught with flies that floated on the surface and they were even cast to visibly rising fish, but since they were not "switched a few times through the air" they were not truly dry fly fishing. I would consider that he was cutting a really fine line with his definition; however it seems to have been accepted by angling historians down to this day.
It was left to F.M. Halford to complete the codification of what constitutes dry fly fishing. Halford concluded that the dry fly was superior to all other forms of flies, and those that thought otherwise were either ignorant or incompetent. Halford's method required, with only a very few exceptions, that one must only fish with a dry fly, upstream and to a visible fish. Fishing the water was not allowed, and fishing across or downstream was generally frowned upon except in those very limited situations where no other approach was possible. Even then the fly was always dry. What Halford accomplished was the beginning of the codification of the ancient sport of fly fishing.
One of the characteristics of human development is the codification of any activity. If you are a hunter you likely were taught that it is not sporting to shoot ducks on the water, pheasants on the ground and grouse sitting in a tree. Who established these rules? Certainly, when a man was hunting to fill his stomach many ducks were shot on the water, and likewise pheasants were shot on the ground and grouse sitting in a tree. However, a man with a full stomach and a full larder could afford to limit the way that he killed wild game. The rules made the process more difficult and thus more sporting. Fishing with a wet fly, fishing the water was presumed to be unsporting like shooting ducks on the water. Dry fly fishing, fishing upstream to visible fish with a fly that is tied to imitate the food that is available for the fish to eat is considered sporting or more correctly; it is morally correct. Further, a dry fly is not just a fish that floats on the water but a fly that is tied specifically to be fished dry; it must be switched [false casting] back and forth in the air and then cast upstream to a visible fish, preferably one that is rising. This is the correct, this is the proper, and this is the moral way to catch a trout with an artificial fly.
Thus fly fishing came full circle. It was irrelevant whether or not the earliest fly anglers were actually fishing dry flies; real dry fly fishing was determined to be a complete method – the fly, the way it is cast, and the target. Anything less is not dry fly fishing.
Practically, the entire argument is pointless since it has no impact on how or why we fish today. Few anglers, except in a few places like some of the chalk streams in England, ever give any thought to the "proper method" of fishing a dry fly, or any other fly for that matter. We fish upstream, across stream, and downstream with impunity. We fish flies that are dry, flies that are damp, and flies that are drowned. We bounce nymphs on the bottom with weight attached to the leader; we drift soft hackles and emergers slight below or just under the surface. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I love the debate but really, who cares? As long as we have eggs for breakfast and fried chicken for dinner it doesn't matter which came first.