Many “modern” anglers have little interest in the history of fly fishing. They consider it to be dull and boring having little practical value and no application to current fly fishing practice. In many ways the viewpoint is correct. Knowledge of angling history is unlikely to improve your casting, insect identification or your fly tying techniques but it’s important to know where we came from and how we got here. When you study fly fishing history you soon discover that there is nothing truly new; there are just new ways of doing the same things.
One of the keys to successful fishing is presentation. A person using an artificial fly or lure must induce the fish to attempt to eat their offerings. Anglers that fish with lures talk about the speed of the retrieve, how to impart contain action to a lure to make it more effective and many other subtle techniques which are related to presentation. Pick up any magazine that features articles about bass angling or listen to the conversation of pro bass anglers when they are discussing how to catch the big ones and those conversations are always about presentation.
Fly fishing takes this process one step further and attempts to make artificial flies look like the real thing, whether it’s a dry fly, nymph, terrestrial or streamer. While many fish are caught by fly fishers using concoctions that have no remote resemblance to any natural food many fly fishers spend hours attempting to imitate as closely as possible the appearance and color of the natural foods that fish eat. This is especially true of fly fishers that fish for trout with flies. This brings us to an interesting question, “How did those early anglers catch so many fish with such crude imitations and equipment?”
Even a cursory examination of the early angling literature will quickly reveal that those early anglers used some pretty crude equipment. Rods used for fly fishing were heavy and many were either very stiff or exceeding limp. Even as recently as the late 1950’s and 60’s many fly rods were little more than long sticks with guides attached, and more suited for poking bats out of a chimney than for casting a fly line.
Imagine using a fly line made of braided horsehair and using the same material for a leader! While silk lines were a vast improvement over horsehair they still required lots of time and effort to keep them floating. When stored for long periods of time they needed to be removed from the reel, carefully dried and dressed and stored in a cool, dry place.
Gut leaders were better than horsehair but they required soaking before they could be used and quality was always an issue. If they were not used for a period of time they needed to be carefully dried otherwise they would rot.
The flies that were used were equally crude. If you have ever looked at pictures or drawings of early fishing flies it would certainly cause you to wonder how they ever caught fish using them. Most dry flies looked like hair brushes with exaggerated wings and tails. Many flies intended for wet fly fishing looked like a gob of fur wrapped on a hook with a pair of stiff quill wings swept over the body and a few turns of webby hackle. These flies only remotely resembled anything that a fish had ever seen. Nymphs, such as they were, usually were tied with material that gave no impression of life. However, using that crude equipment and flies they caught fish, and often lots of them.
In recent conversations with my nephew Tom, he highlighted the fact that the limitations imposed by the equipment is most likely what enabled those early fly anglers to be so successful. From the very earliest recorded instances of fly fishing anglers used rods that had a fixed length of line secured to the tip of their fishing rods. Much like using a Tenkara rod today fish were hooked relatively close to the angler. A “long cast” even with a rod of 15 or 16 feet would not exceed 30 feet and would likely be much less. Thus the angler could easily see what was happening to his fly and line and easily control it; in short the angler could present his flies more naturally. It was only when we started to use rods that had guides and a reel to store the line and we started to “cast” the line and place a large amount of the line and leader on or in the water that presentation became a major issue of discussion. In addition, as we increased the length of our casts we were unable to observe either the fly or the fish’s reaction to it.
The result of this “modernization” has been a proliferation of fly patterns since modern anglers tend to change flies rather than change technique. We purchase rods that promise to allow us to cast farther with less effort when what we really need are rods that will keep us from casting further so that we have better control over our fly. We spend hours learning how to make slack line casts, how to do aerial mends and all other fancy casting maneuvers rather than learning how to get closed and cast more accurately. We worry about the fish seeing the leader when we really should be asking if the fish ever really see the fly, and if they do, does it act anything like the naturals. The control that you have over your fly is directly proportionate to the amount of line and leader that extends beyond your rod tip.
The argument about what fish see and how they see it has consumed volumes when the real issue is not what the fish sees but what do they understand about what they see. Do the fish see the leader and if the answer is yes, which I think it is, what do they think it is? In reality do they really think; reason, contemplate, reflect, ponder, deliberate? I think the answer to that is no, for if they did we would never catch them or if we did we would only catch them once. If the fish can see the leader what about the hook? If the sight of the leader scares them the sight of the hook should put them into shock! Yet the reality is that fish continue to attempt to eat flies tied on leaders they can see, with hooks that are obvious to even the least observant fish. Worse yet they attempt to eat metal lures with a mass of large treble hooks trailing out the back. Don’t they see them?
The real question about each of these issues; vision, fly patterns, equipment, leaders and a plethora of other issues related to fly fishing is one of relevance. How important is the definitive answer to any specific issue going to affect my ability to enjoy the sport of fly fishing? If I could definitely determine not only how fish see and how they process what they see would it make the sport more or less enjoyable?
Many years ago I determined that what makes fly fishing such an enjoyable pastime are the unknowable variables. I know that fish see but I’m not certain how they process what they see and I don’t believe that I ever will. I know that fish eat all kinds of strange things, many of which resemble nothing that exists in nature and I don’t know why and I don’t believe anyone else does either. It’s fun to speculate on all these things but at the end of the day if I have had an enjoyable outing, caught a few fish, lost a few fish and enjoyed being in the out of doors for one more day all those unresolvable issues are totally irrelevant.