Fly-Fishing History, Parts III & IV

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.

1857, in Britain
The Practical Angler, by W.C. Stewart advocated casting the fly, albeit a wet fly, upstream with a short, single-handed rod and so had a significant impact upon British angling. The angler, using Stewart’s technique, took control of the position and action of the fly on the water instead of merely casting the fly across the current and following its swing downstream.

1860, in America
Fly fishing–based on native, colorful, “fancy” wet flies, like the Royal Coachman–was becoming well established.


  • During this period, the eyed hook, essential to the development of the dry fly, appeared. Anglers no longer needed a length or a small loop of gut tied to the bare shank of an eyeless, “blind” hook before dressing. The joining of fly to leader point gained in versatility, strength, and security.

American Angler's Book

The title page from an 1865 edition of
Thaddeus Norris’s
 Angler’s Book.

1864, in America

American Angler’s Book
, by Thaddeus Norris. This popular book made Norris the father of American fly fishing. Advanced in his thinking, “Uncle Thad” Norris, as he was affectionately known, clearly described the use of the floating fly. As tackle-maker and merchant, he participated in the development of the modern fly rod. A noted writer and widely admired man, he had profound influence among American anglers.

1867, in Britain
A Book of Angling, by Francis Francis. In this influential book, Francis taught the angler to “crack” the moisture from his floating fly by false casting. True dry-fly fishing is impossible without this method of drying the fly.

ca. 1870, in America
Silk fly lines, oil-impregnated under vacuum, and with an oil finish, appeared. Invented, it has been said, in the U.S.A., they were developed and first offered to the trade in England. By 1885, tapered lines were available. These new, heavy, supple, and waterproof lines that when greased would float, made it possible to false-cast the moisture from a dry fly and cast it into the wind to previously impossible distances.

1877, in Britain
The Gaudy Fly, a colorful pattern from the west of Ireland, was the likely inspiration for the English/Scottish development of the imperial Victorian salmon flies of the nineteenth century. These flies and how to fish them were codified in the work of George M. Kelson.

1877, in America
Rainbow trout from California (the McCloud River variety) were first introduced outside California. The most adaptable, easily propagated, and most friendly to anglers of all trout, their introduction was successful all across America and worldwide.

1879, in America
The beloved brook trout, a char native to the eastern United States, was rapidly disappearing as a result of over-fishing, pollution, drought, flood, and industrial interference.

1883, in America
The European brown trout came to the United States from the Black Forest of Germany. Fertile eggs were hatched by pioneer fish culturists Fred Mather and Seth Green in New York (the legendary Green was the first to cast a fly 100 feet) and hatcheries in Michigan where the brown was first planted in public water. Spurned at first by anglers as hard to catch and inferior on the table, the brown trout gradually gained approval by increasing faster, growing bigger, tolerating moderate pollution and warmer water, and more readily feeding on the surface. The brown rescued Eastern waters from the disastrous demise of the brook trout.

1886, in Britain
Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, by Frederick M. Halford, who consolidated, defined, and argued for the supremacy of the dry fly as the only acceptable, even the only ethical, way of angling for trout on the chalk streams of southern England. More than anyone else, he is associated with the advent of the dry fly, and he developed a full range of floating flies, as well a method for tying them. The influence of his four books (including his 1899 volume, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice), as well as his powerful personality made him one of the greatest and most important figures in the history of fly fishing. 


  • In this period, George Marryat was Halfor’d brilliant, non-literary collaborator in the development and propagation of the dry fly and its dressings. Their work was based on careful entomological studies of the English chalk streams.

Theodore Gordon

1890, in America
Theodore Gordon, a finely talented angler—in mid life, in delicate health, and of straitened means—retired early to the Neversink River in New York’s Catskills. There he became the dean and grand master of American fly fishing and fly tiers. On February 22, 1890, Gordon received from Englan’d Frederick Halford a full set of Halford’s revolutionary dry flies. These flies and correspondence with Halford started Gordon on the way to defining the dry fly for America, though he steadfastly refused Halford’s dry-fly purism. His Quill Gordon pattern became the premier American dry fly and the first in a line of Catskill School trout flies representative of American insects. Gordon gave the dry fly both an American home and character. His seminal and delightful “Notes” were published in England’s Fishing Gazette and later in the American Forest and Stream.

  • During this period, the Catskill mountain streams of New York, under the inspiration and technical virtuosity of Theodore Gordon, came into ascendancy as the center and model of American fly fishing.

1892, in America
Favorite Flies and their Histories by Mary Orvis Marbury—an ambitious, encyclopedic study, principally of American “fancy” traditional flies and their origins, all beautifully illustrated in paintings—went a long way toward defining the trout, salmon, and bass flies for that time in America.

Previous Installments:

Fly-Fishing History, Parts I & 2

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.