Fly-Fishing History, Part I

Gordon M. Wickstrom

Gordon M. Wickstrom at the London Fly Fisher’s Club.

photo by Linnea Wickstrom

Editor’s note: For the next few months, we will be featuring entries from Gordon M. Wickstrom’s The History of Fishing for Trout with Artificial Flies in Britain and America: A Chronology of Five Hundred Years, 1496 to 2000. In this chronology, Gordon marks significant events—the publication of seminal books, tackle developments, important social changes, the dissemination of trout species beyond their native ranges, etc.—on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Wickstrom is the author of Notes from an Old Fly Book (2001) and Late in an Angler’s Life (2004), editor of The Boulder Creek Angler newsletter, and writer and director of The Great Debate—A Fantasia for Anglers, an imagined debate between Frederic M. Halford and G. E. M. Skues.

The History of Fishing for Trout with Artificial Flies in Britain and America: 
A Chronology of Five Hundred Years, 
1496 to 2000.

Introduction: A Theory of this History

Lest the reader of this chronology wonder that the history of fly fishing appears confined to the British Isles and North America, it should be remembered that artificial flies must have been in use in Europe from Antiquity; though documentation is fragmentary. In the modern era, in Germany, for instance, vederangle or “feathered hooks” and their dressings are well documented in the sixteenth century. It is possible, too, though only a conjecture, that flies for trout and grayling came to England with the Normans between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Still, the influence of other countries on the development of fly fishing has been peripheral to that of Britain and America. Fly fishing may be said to have had its development within the English language where it became the matter of a rich, ample, and sustained literature. In fact, fly fishing can be imagined as the material expression of that literature.


An illustration from Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Saint Albans.

1496, in Britain
The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle. Though the artificial fly is mentioned in Roman Antiquity, this Treatyse, 1300 years later, is the earliest essay on fly fishing and a remarkably full argument and manual for fly fishing and tackle making. It contains dressings for twelve flies for trout and grayling that are almost certainly intended to suggest naturals of English rivers–a watershed concept in the history of the sport. The foundations of fly fishing are here. The Treatyse, by tradition the work of Juliana Berners, prioress of a nunnery near London, was added to the second edition of Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Saint Albans.

1600, in Britain

Certaine Experiments Concerning Fish and Fruite, by John Taverner who observed and was the first to write about the phases of mayfly development from nymph to dun and to note how trout feed on the nymph.

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