We're Standing on Their Shoulders
Fly-fishing has a rich and varied history, but I anticipate many
of today's practitioners of the sport have little knowledge or
appreciation of the pioneers of the sport. They might recognize
the name of Isaak Walton, but I would wager few who know the name
have never read the literary work attributed to him, The
Compleat Angler. Few would know that Isaak Walton was mostly
a bait fisherman, although a small portion of his book deals with
angling with artificial flies, he spends far more time talking about
using bait. It seems to me that Walton's greatest contribution to
angling in general is defining angling as the pursuit of leisure.
Walton's book went through many printings, and it was only in later
works when Charles Cotton's writing were added.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
Unlike Walton, the name of Charles Cotton is mostly unknown to many
modern anglers, yet Cotton outlined a list of sixty-five original
fly patterns, and his words about fly tying are quite modern. His
advise on stream tactics is original and still relevant today. He
advised that to angle successfully for trout and grayling was to
do so 'fine and far-off.' Sound angling advise even in the 21st
Century, although it was written over 300 years ago!
Most anglers might know that the early artificial flies were wet
flies, but few would know of the ardent battles that developed in
the late 1800's between the old school of wet fly fishing, and the
new upstart school of dry fly angling. Although not the inventor
of dry fly fishing the man Frederic Halford was in the forefront
of the battle when he published the first of his seven books,
Floating Flies and How to Dress Them in 1886. This work codified
the dry-fly method that had been developing for over one half a
century prior to Halford's time. Few modern anglers have any idea
of the contributions made by Halford to modern fly-fishing.
Henry Hall was an engineer who worked to perfect forged light-wired
hooks, and Halford adopted and promoted their use as superior to the
snelled hooks that were in universal use in his day. W.G. Turle
invented a knot for attaching a gut leader to the eyed hooks advocated
by Halford. The Turle knot provided a relatively rigid connection for
the fly, and help set the dry fly in the proper cocked position on the
surface of the water. The Turle knot is still an excellent knot for
attaching flies to a tippet, but few modern anglers are either aware
of the knot or its origins.
The period from 1880 to 1920 was a period of rapid progress in
ly-fishing not to be duplicated until the modern era. Names like
Marryat, Ogden, Halford, Hall, Grey, and Skues rewrote the book
on fly-fishing. These men plied their art on English chalkstreams
with names like Avon, Test, and Itchen. Unfortunately many modern
anglers know little or nothing about these pioneer anglers.
Across the pond in America fly-fishing has a shorter but no less
illustrious history, and contributions made by early American
fly-fishers are equally important to our sport. Thaddeus Norris
was experimenting with floating flies as early as the 1860's, and
he also played a significant role in the evolution of the split
bamboo rod. Samuel Phillippe was a gunsmith and violinmaker who
is credited with the invention of the modern four and six-strip
construction method used to produce bamboo fly rods. The method
he perfected of putting the power fibers of the bamboo on the
outside of the rod is the same method used today.
Men with names like Gordon, Steenrod, Hewitt, La Branche, Cross,
Gill, and Rhead fished the famous Catskill streams, which are
the heart of fly-fishing in America. What a tragedy that few
modern anglers are familiar with these men and their contributions
to the sport of modern fly-fishing.
These are but a few of the giants of fly-fishing on whose shoulders
we stand on each time we put on our waders and pick up our fly rods.
Winter is a great time to come to know these men better, and if you
come to know them through their books it will enhance your
appreciation of your sport. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
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