Coming of Age
By the turn of the 20th Century fly fishing, as a sport, was
increasingly popular among the social upper crust of the day.
There are numerous volumes that detail the exploits of the
well-healed gentry spending time at their private fishing clubs
or traveling in their private railroad cars to the North woods
to spend a few days angling. Those were the days of excesses,
and success was measured in numbers of fish killed with little
regard for the resource. Fading photographs and faint writing
on the yellowing pages of old fishing diaries and angling logs
tell the sad tale.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
Fly fishing was rarely the sport of the common man. The basic
equipment necessary to pursue the sport was relatively expensive
when compared to the tackle that was used by a bait fisherman.
Much of the jargon used by fly fishermen was foreign to the
average man, and the degree of skill necessary to master the
art of fly fishing was beyond the time available to the working
class. It took little time or skill to bait a hook and heave the
wriggling offering into the nearest body of water. Much of the
equipment could be made by hand and what could not readily be
obtained around the house could be purchased for a minimal
outlay of cash. The equipment was cheap, readily available, and
the results were positive. Many an evening meal has been secured
by a hook baited with a worm attached to a cane pole by a length
With the death of Theodore Gordon in 1915 American fly fishing
entered a new phase. New names appeared, and one of the early
men that began to fill the void left by Gordon was George La
Branche. In 1914 he published The Dry Fly and Fast Water,
which helped to codify the American concept of dry fly fishing.
La Branche advocated fishing the water rather than casting to a
specific rising trout. He was a champion of casting accuracy and
control, and in his custom waders, English fishing hat, and
Leonard rod he cut quite a dashing figure on the Catskill trout
In 1916 Louis Rhead made the first American attempt to show a
relationship between natural flies and artificial when he published
his book American Trout Stream Insects. Unfortunately
he used common names, many of his own invention, to describe the
insects and his drawings were far from clear. Due to these problems
the insects that he collected and depicted in his book are virtually
impossible to identify with any certainty, and his work has little
One of the giants of this period was Edward Ringwood Hewitt. In 1926
he published Telling on the Trout, and over the course
of his life time wrote several important books including a book on
trout stream management Better Trout Streams published
in 1931. Hewitt was a tireless innovator inventing the dry-fly spiders,
bivisibles and the famous Hewitt skaters. He conducted experiments
with leader color and taper and early proto-types of flat bodied nymphs.
In addition to Telling on the Trout he authored a Handbook
of Fly Fishing in 1933, a pamphlet entitled Nymph Fly Fishing
in 1934, and A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-five Years
It is tragic to note that Edward Ringwood Hewitt spent most of
his angling career on the Neversink River in upstate New York
at the Big Bend Club. Most of his property and the famous river
are now buried under the depths of the Neversink Reservoir that
provides drinking water to the thirsty millions in New York City.
In 1934 Preston Jennings published his Book of Trout Flies,
and provided the first truly modern American book on trout stream insects.
Jennings collected insects from all the major Catskill trout streams
including the Ausable and Battenkill Rivers in northern New York.
From these collections he tied exquisite imitations in the Catskill
style, and many of his patterns are still used today.
John Alden Knight, an early proponent of the solunar theory of fishing,
published his first book, The Modern Angler in 1936.
This book paints a vivid portrait of the trout fishing practices
of the thirties and contained an exposition on the solunar theory.
In 1940 he published Theory and Technique of Fresh Water
Angling and in 1944 he published The Field Book of
Freshwater Fishing, which was essentially a rehash of his
former writings. His last book was a collaborative effort with his
son, Robert Alden Knight, and was entitled Complete Book of
Fly Casting. Despite the fact that it was published over
a half century ago it remains an excellent book on the subject of
fly casting technique.
In 1938 Ray Bergman published his first book that he simply entitled
Trout. This book was to become the most comprehensive
book on American trout fishing that had been published up to that
time, and remains the most complete work of its kind even to this
day. Bergman covered the entire gamut of fishing for trout from wet
flies to dry flies, and even bait. In a very casual, almost
conversational style this homely style of writing had a warm
personal charm that still resonates with modern readers.
There were a number of books published during this period about
fly tying. Reuben Cross published Tying American Trout Lures
in 1936, and in 1940 Fur, Feathers, and Steel. James
Leisenring published his little-known book The Art of Tying
the Wet Fly in 1941. Although a very important book it was
overshadowed by the events of World War II that ended all thoughts
of angling. In 1947 Art Flick published his little book Steamside
Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations.
In 1950 Vincent Marinaro published Modern Dry-Fly Code,
which is considered by many as one of the most important books in the
history of American fly fishing. His jassid-style imitations of
terrestrial insects and his thorax-style dry flies are innovations
that are unique examples of a brilliant mind. This was further
demonstrated in his theories of light pattern and silhouette on
insects in the surface film.
Although the publication of Marinaro's book went mostly unnoticed
it marked the beginning of the modern era of fly fishing. So
unappreciated was this book that the original printing was undersold
and the balance of the unsold books were remaindered by the publisher. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
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