November 26th, 2007

Defining the Sport
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

The Nineteenth-Century was a pivotal point in the history of fly-fishing, and many of the practices that we employ today were first codified during this period by the English anglers whose names have become synonymous with the sport.

In 1836 Alfred Ronalds published his classic book Fly-Fisher's Entomology, ushering in the scientific age of insect identification. So popular was this book that it was reprinted twelve times with the last edition being published in 1920, nearly a century after the first edition. Ronalds did not merely write about entomology, but his work included numerous observations about trout behavior, and his diagrams on the refraction of light entering the water were revolutionary for their time. His watercolor plates set the standard for later writers to follow, and his work is one of the milestones in the history of fly-fishing.

During this period the dry fly method of angling began to appear in print and practice on the English chalkstreams. It is important to understand that fishing with a dry fly was not a 'eureka' moment when someone suddenly discovered that they could make an artificial fly float on the surface like a natural. There has been much debate among angling historians concerning when and where the first dry flies were used, but it was George Pulman who first described the dry fly method in his book Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout first published in 1841. Pulman does not merely mention dry fly fishing in his book, but he describes it in detail mentioning the need to imitate a specific insect as to size and color. He understood the need to have the artificial float naturally on the surface of the water without unnatural drag and that it must come to the trout from upstream. While it is possible that some of these observations were original to Pulman, most angling historians do not believe that he was the first to observe or practice them. Pulman never claimed to have invented dry fly fishing, and it seems best to understand that he was merely reporting a practice that was already well advanced by his time.

Whatever Pulmans' role was in the evolution of the dry fly fishing method, it is clear that his writings about this method were foundational in the later development our sport. With the scientific approach to insect identification set forth by Ronalds' and the dry fly method codified by Pulman, all of the foundational groundwork had now been laid for the anglers that would follow.

The fact that the technique of fishing with a dry fly developed in a variety of separate places is illustrated by several facts. Pulman lived in a small Devonshire town of Axminister, and he fished on rivers in that area, principally the Barle, Exe, and Axe. Halford wrote that he first observed the dry fly method at Charhalton on the Wandle, and Francis Francis published an article in The Field in 1857 recommending the dry fly method for fishing when the surface was flat and smooth. He further commented that both matching the hatch and dry fly fishing had been in practice on the Hampshire chalkstreams for many years. However, William Stewart in his classic book Practical Angler published in 1857 makes no mention of the dry fly method on his home rivers around the Tweed.

Stewart was a skilled wet fly angler, his book is an angling classic and remained in print for nearly a century. He was an attorney and could afford to spend considerable time angling and thinking about angling. He established the philosophy of the upstream school of presentation of wet flies and was a champion of the soft hackled wet flies that are still copied today. While Stewart did not invent the upstream method of presenting the wet fly, he was the first to set forth in print a well reasoned case for the practice.

In 1867 Francis Francis published A Book on Practical Angling and attempted to establish a balanced approach between the two developing philosophies of angling; the wet fly and the dry. He argued that a skillful angler needed to master all the methods, but his arguments did little to dampen the battles between to two positions that were soon to erupt onto the peaceful stage of the gentle and contemplative sport perceived by Izaak Walton over 200 years earlier. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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