Fly-Fishing History, Part VIII: The Six Periods in America

Gordon M. Wickstrom

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

photo by Linnea Wickstrom

[Editor’s note: For the past couple months, we have featured 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. Now, we wrap things up with an imagined after-dinner speech that Gordon wrote in an attempt to sum up American fly-fishing history by dividing it into six distinct periods. If you’ve been reading this series, you know that Gordon is an iconoclast who never hesitates to go his own way, and this piece is no exception. So sit back and imagine the tall, elegant man in the photo above delivering this speech at “the Club.”]

I think, dear reader, that I should be able to make a rather good twenty-minute, after-dinner speech about the division of the history of American fly fishing into six periods. I suspect, though, that I shall not

be asked to make such a speech. And that may be for the best, as I might not, at my advanced age, be able to hold forth for a full twenty minutes—and in a proper style—especially after an indigestible chunk of desiccated chicken, dulled by a substantial whiskey.

And so, I turn to writing as a way to send my speech out into the world, where you may find and enjoy reading it.

An After-Dinner Speech for Anglers

Ladies and gentlemen, I began fishing in the Golden Age of Fly Fishing, in 1938, but was too young and besotted with thoughts of girls and peripheral matters to know or fully understand that great time in which I was growing up as an angler and fly tier. But, in spite of every distraction, I got well and permanently hooked on fishing and have never wavered.

Now, at the end of my fishing days, I gird my loins to declare officially that we have as of this year of grace, 2009, entered the New Period in American fly fishing.

The New Period! It has a ring to it, does it not? The word “new” in a usage like this has considerable rhetorical cachet. Many great phenomena in human history have been dubbed “the new.” Not only that, but I have been brash enough to presume to name all the periods of our sport. Perhaps, by virtue of having lived in—if not through—four of them, I can claim some bit of senior authority in the matter.

Six Periods in the History of American Fly Fishing

Periods One, Two, and Three: The Eastern Dominance

1845–1900 The Beginning:
breaking away from British traditions, New York.

  • Samuel Phillippe: the split-bamboo rod
  • Thaddeus Norris: how an American must fish
  • Washington Irving: the first modern fishing story

1900–1920 The Identity Period:
 widespread introduction of brown trout, aquaculture.

  • Theodore Gordon: the dry fly defined
  • George La Branche: the dry fly in fast water
  • James Leisenring: the wet fly and nymph

1920–1944 The Golden Age:
silk floating lines, the flies, and their style

  • Jim Payne: the fly rod perfected
  • Walt Dette: Catskill fly tying
  • Ray Bergman: story, lore, and tackle
  • Setting the Tone

Periods Four Five and Six: The Western Ascendency

1945–1960: The Transitional Period:
war, nylon, transportation, San Francisco

  • War, the spinning reel, and tailwaters
  • Ted Trueblood: the beautiful angler
  • Vincent Marinaro: the American master
  • A. J. McClane : the complete authority

1960–2008 The TU (Trout Unlimited) Period:
internationalization, conservation, and specialization; trout art, politics, science, and the Internet

  • Catch-and-release, wild fish
  • The great expansion
  • Technological advance and rise of synthetics
  • Commercialization and a global economy

2009–Present The New Period:
nativism, privatization, shortened casts—and restraint

  • The end of expansion
  • Reconsideration, reform, and restoration
  • Older and simpler methods and satisfactions
  • Tenkara, ancient minimalist fly fishing from Japan

This schematic of American fly fishing across our history, for better or worse, is all mine. Only the term Golden Age have I borrowed from unimpeachable authorities. You will note that in addition to making up names for and dating the periods, I have tried to suggest representative people, events, and processes influential in each.

That was relatively easy until I came to the Golden Age—the point at which I entered the scene as a kid—when great names, developments, and events began to overwhelm me. It only got worse passing through the critical Transitional Period, when many fly rods were pegged to garage walls while spinning reels swished.

Then, trying to put a limit on my “representatives” for the TU Period, when the fly rod was, as it were, reborn, was maddening. There is no end of persons, books, and developments that could be included here.

As if things were not bad enough, my search for a model or two for my New Period . . . well, that was tough. I first picked on those who I knew stood for something new to fill my bill, but thought it better to stick with the dead rather than annoy the living. Still, I’ll risk the mention of that woodsman par excellence, and master of the tiny fly, Ed Engle. Ed sums up for me that new/old trout fishing as he deploys his gear in the simplest way possible. His writing, more and more, hints of a New Period, of its gentleness, good humor, and modesty. And there is Daniel Galhardo out in San Francisco, introducing to these shores, the ancient Japanese fly fishing technique and tackle of Tenkara, a long rod, without a reel, a light fixed line, and exquisite flies for small waters.

Perhaps I should beg for mercy for my presumption in suggesting such a periodicity in fly fishing. But it seemed to me a job needing to be done; so I did it. And anyway, I love such charts. Look at it. Isn’t it neat and orderly? I like outlines, displays, maps, abstracts—any way to try to see at a glance the shape of things.

In closing, allow me to play the prophet: I think that, in this New Period of angling, we are part of an important cultural shift toward a deeper humanity and mercy of the good earth. We may find ourselves living quite differently, living better with less, with a greater delicacy, clarity, balance, and honesty. Fishing a fly on a clear, cold stream may well serve as a working model and inspiration for what we want. It shows forth the qualities—environmental, psychological, social, economic, and political—that we need to incorporate into our future.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I think I have done my damage. Thank you very much and good evening.

Gordon M. 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.

Read previous installments in the series:

Fly-Fishing History, Part I

Fly-Fishing History, Part II

Fly-Fishing History, Part III

Fly-Fishing History, Part IV

Fly-Fishing History, Part V

Fly-Fishing History, Part VI

Fly-Fishing History, Part VII

3 thoughts on “Fly-Fishing History, Part VIII: The Six Periods in America”

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  2. I really enjoyed this piece. I am a lover of history, as well as fly fishing. I was able to place my initial involvement with fly fishing in the TU period around 1980 — into the present where I recently took up Tenkara fishing. I do need some new waders, however, and these Silver Sonic Guide Waders look exactly like something I could really use. Please put me down for a chance to win a pair of these new waders. They would do well with the new boots and adjustable wading staff I recently purchased from Orvis in McLean, Va. I am an old and satisfied customer.

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