Fly-Fishing History, Part II

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. 

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

1653, in Britain
The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation, by Izaak Walton. No sport had before been the matter of a literary masterpiece. “Father” Walton fished bait, not the artificial fly. But he established a benchmark and ideal of angling as a lyric, pastoral, and philosophical idyll that has inspired and largely determined angler consciousness to this day.

1676, in Britain

Charles Cotton, Cavalier poet, aristocrat, and companion to commoner Izaak Walton, became the founder of modern fly fishing and fly making with the twelve chapters entitled “Instructions How to Angle for Trout and Grayling in a Clear Stream” that he contributed to Walton’s fifth edition of The Compleat Angler. He advised anglers for the first time to fish “fine and far off.” This admonition was crucial to all that was to come.


  • During this period, Spanish silkworm gut replaces horse hair as leader material. Silk replaces horse hair for lines. Innovative mixtures of hair and silk were sometimes used.
  • The “winch” or reel comes into use and will make possible the use of modern fly lines.
  • Guides appeared on rods, replacing dead-off attachment of line to the top of the rod–thus making possible longer lines and their control.

Ttile Page to The Compleat Angler

The title page from the original 1653 edition of
Izaak Walton’s
The Compleat Angler.

1747, in Britain

The Art of Angling
, by Richard Bowlker, marked the beginning of modern fly dressing and dominated angling technique and fly tying in the second half of the eighteenth century.

1830, in America
American sport fishing was gaining popularity, dependent as it was on its origins in British method and theory and on supply of tackle.

1836, in Britain

The Fly Fisher’s Entomology
, by Alfred Ronalds, was the first and still impressive, beautifully illustrated, study describing and classifying the insects that trout and grayling feed upon in British waters.

1841, in Britain
Vade Mecum of Fly-Fishing for Trout, by George Pulman. Pulman has been generally credited as the first to define the complete method of fishing a dry, floating fly.

1846, in America
Samuel Phillippe built the first split-bamboo section for a fishing rod in Easton, Pennsylvania. This process would make possible, in the hands of Hiram Leonard in the 1880s, the light, fast, stiff modern rod of sufficient backbone to cast modern silk lines into the wind to considerable distances.

Previous Installments:

Fly-Fishing History, Part I

Gordon 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *