Fly-Fishing History, Parts V and VI: 1914 – 1952

Written by: Gordon M. Wickstrom

Editor’s note: Back in 2011, we 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. 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. Since many readers were not around in those heady early days of the blog, I thought it deserves a repost.

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 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.

1914, in America
The Dry Fly and Fast Water by George M. LaBranche. This influential book along with LaBranche’s superb casting and angling skills–made him the foremost advocate for the dry fly in American waters after the death of Theodore Gordon in 1915. LaBranche was the first to advise searching fast, broken water with the dry fly and the serious use of the dry fly for salmon.

Associated with his favorite fly, the Pink Lady–which he is said to have invented–he sometimes would fish it exclusively in order to prove the importance of accuracy and presentation in casting over pattern, color, and even size. He was also widely noted for the elegance of the figure that he cut on the stream (as evidenced in the photo above).

1921, in Britain
The Way of a Trout with a Fly by G.E.M Skues (pronounced SKEW-ees). At first associated with Halford in the development and use of the dry fly, Skues, a highly original and perceptive thinker, broke with Halford over his unbending insistence on the floating fly. Skues took up the sunken fly and, most importantly, the nymph, which he can be said to have originated. He became for the nymph and the wet fly what Halford was for the dry. Like Halford, he had marked influence in America.

1924, in America
Carrie Stevens, of Maine’s Rangeley region, tied the first modern streamer fly with hackle wings. With her prototype of what was to become the Gray Ghost, she stepped to the pool below Upper Dam–between Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson Lakes–and took a 6-pound, 13-ounce brook trout! Fly dressers following Mrs. Stevens would, in many cases, develop the streamer further with wings of hair, as in the famous Mickey Finn created by John Alden Knight in 1936. 

1926, in America
Telling on the Trout by Edward R. Hewitt, the first American to make a study of nymphs and their use. This book and his A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-five Years (1948) place him among America angling luminaries. 


  • In this period, the rainbow trout was introduced into Britain. It has been highly successful in ponds and reservoirs and popular with an increasing angling public that crosses social, economic, and class divisions. The rainbow failed to take hold, however, in the classic chalk streams of southern England.

Ray Bergman circa 1940

Ray Bergman at his vise, circa 1940.

1938, in America
Trout by Ray Bergman. Bergman’s monthly magazine columns and this comprehensive, down-to-earth and practical book may have been the fishing “manual” used by more American anglers of the mid-century than any other such book. Its approach to angling was well suited to the pragmatic, “try almost anything” American temperament. Trout is also valuable as a historical document, especially in its display of colorful plates of seemingly countless flies, as well as its account of them.

1941, in America
The Art of Tying the Wet Fly by James E. Leisenring. By the time of this publication, Leisenring was already the acknowledged master of the wet fly and the forerunner for the modern nymph, doing for the sunken fly what Theodore Gordon had done for the floater. The venerable Pennsylvanian’s sparse, delicately shaded, soft-hackle flies set the style of modern wet-fly development and sunken-fly techniques.

1945, in America
The advent of nylon in the 1930s would revolutionize fly fishing. After World War II, it made leaders of Spanish silkworm gut and its Japanese substitute obsolete. Nylon led the way to the Dacron-core modern plastic fly line.

The spinning reel (fixed spool or threadline reel) was introduced from Europe and instantly became popular—not without dislocating and unsettling fly fishing for a time. Nylon provided monofilament lines necessary to make spinning reels practical.

Early Spinning reel

Spinning reels arrived from Europe after WWII and converted many fly fishermen for a time.

photo courtesy Mullock’s Specialist Auctioneers & Valuers

1948, in America
Fiberglass cloth was developed into efficient, dependable, and inexpensive fly rods, generally superior to the “production grade” cane rods which they largely replaced.


  • In the East, focus had shifted from the Catskills to the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania where Vincent Marinaro and Charles Fox held forth.
  • The Western states were fast coming into prominence in American fly fishing, developing a new angling culture, altogether eclectic and irreverent. Western fly tiers were developing big attractor flies, wet and dry–the fly-as-lure, rather than as a natural food. They also developed dressings for the hefty naturals found in Western waters. Perhaps the Pott woven-hair flies from Montana, typified by the Sandy Mite, were the signal of this Western revolution as early as the 1930s.
  • Anglers at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Casting Club, in the post-war years, developed the shooting head fly line—thirty-foot heads spliced to monofilament shooting line. They broke all distance-casting records, thus enabling big flies to be cast in excess of 100 feet on rough Western Rivers.

    Yak Caddis

    Western-style fly tying from mid-century has resulted in many large, bushy patterns,
    such as this Yak Caddis, that reject classic methods of imitation.

1950, in America
A Modern Dry Fly Code by Vincent Marinaro opened a new world of insect imitation for the trout fisherman: the world of the terrestrial, those land-born and -bred insects that fall into the stream in numbers providing a substantial part of a trout’s diet. Experimenting on and writing from his limestone spring creeks of south-central Pennsylvania, there were few shibboleths of fly fishing that this powerful theorist and innovator did not challenge, adding greatly to American fly fishing in the process. 

1952, in Britain
An Angler’s Entomology. From Dublin, J. R. Harris provided a thoroughly modern and complete description and illustration of all the insects that trout feed upon in the British Isles.

Previous Installments:

Fly-Fishing History, Parts I & II

Fly-Fishing History, Parts III & IV

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.