The History of Fly Fishing for Trout (The Condensed Version) by Hale Harris

For those of you considering the sport of fly fishing for trout, let me just say that it is indeed a wonderful pursuit that will provide a lifetime of enjoyment. I should also add that there are others sports that are just as much fun, and trout streams are starting to get crowded.

Fly fishing was invented in ancient Macedonia. One day as an intoxicated Macedonian farmer sat staring into the clear, spring-fed stream that bordered his property, he noticed a trout rise to the surface and engulf a floating insect. The farmer pondered how he might construct an imitation which would fool the fish. Then he passed out. When the farmer’s brother came looking for him, he too noticed the exciting surface action and resolved to tie up a few caddis patterns after dragging his brother home. This, the sober brother did, and in due time he developed into an outstanding angler who wrote several books on the subject. Unfortunately, the printing press had yet to be invented, and the books, which were printed on bark paper, were read only by his wife and several migrant, farm workers. Some time after this, give or take a couple thousand years, the British became involved in fly fishing.

One of my favorite things to do during a cold Montana evening is to read my collection of old British fishing books and manuscripts written in the quaint Olde English style. It’s hard not to reach for another Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout when you’re enjoying literary treasures like the following by Eargerd of Lothlingsfife: “Iff ye fisce for trowgth with hokes of pertriche and pecoke fethers bee readee to eat fowle for dinnere.” But in the Victoria era, the British refined the sport in many ways. They crafted exquisite split-bamboo fly rods, and manufactured top quality fly reels. They studied and wrote about entomology and trout feeding behavior in such a way that you could almost understand it. And just when things were progressing “quite swimmingly” as they say, the upper class came up with an additional refinement.
“Why,” they mused over their cups of tea, “Should common folk enjoy a sport that is this bloody much fun?” So they banished the peasants from their chalk streams. To be fair, not all peasants were banished; some were retained as rod bearers and fish cleaners, and at midday were allowed to sit near the stream and eat their gruel, as long as they minded their manners. Understandably, a large portion of the lower class were upset with the arrangement and moved to America.

It was in America that fly fishing reached its greatest heights—and I’m not just talking about fly rod prices. America was a large country with many lakes, rivers, and streams full of trout just waiting to be caught. And they didn’t have to wait long because Americans not only loved to fish, they loved to eat fish as well; besides, God created trout for food, or so said the Puritans. As proof of this pervasive mindset, all of you probably have photographs in old cardboard boxes of elderly family members who, back when they weren’t elderly, are seen posing by a rope on which is strung 100 oversized trout. A huge grin splits the face of your Uncle Leland as he holds onto his fly rod and one end of the rope. Uncle Luther is on the other end, and while he’s smiling too, his expression doesn’t appear quite so genuine, probably due to the fact that his contribution to the catch involved the use of explosives.

But in the New World, Yankee ingenuity would be responsible for many innovations. Some notable ones include plastic-coated fly lines and graphite fly rods. Some of you may not be old enough to remember, but there was a time when anglers had to fish with rods made out of fiberglass. Yes, I know it’s shocking, but at that time graphite was still being testing in various military aircraft in order to determine whether it was suitable for fly rod construction. The tests proved positive and before long serious American fly fishers could purchase a fly rod that cost upwards of two month’s pay. Anglers quickly discovered that even though graphite didn’t make them better casters, tailing loops and pile casts traveled faster and farther than ever before, and this was considered a real breakthrough.

Innovations took place in the realm of fly tying as well. In the old days of under-fished trout streams, the fish seemed grateful if you gave them an opportunity to engulf any object that remotely resembled an insect. As fishing pressure increased, the intelligence of the average trout began to exceed that of the average angler. As a result, many anglers were no longer content to tie traditional fly patterns that merely suggested a particular insect species. They felt the need to create exact imitations. Over time, some fly tiers became so adept at dressing these anatomically correct patters that natural insects routinely mated with their imitations whenever their fly boxes were opened streamside. I have a friend who has taken this “exact imitation” concept one step further and creates patterns with different facial expressions. While this sounds excessive, we’ve had days on the Henry’s Fork when it seems to make a difference.

No history of trout fishing would be complete without mentioning the introduction of brown trout in this country. Even though native American species were beautiful and sporting, someone decided we needed European brown trout as well. So, in the late 1800s, we imported them. Maybe it was because they reminded us of the old country, or maybe we just figured more is better. But while brown trout are a great game fish, they have a couple of annoying habits. For one thing, they can be hard to catch (just ask Uncle Luther). And secondly, they enjoy eating all the other trout in a stream. Notwithstanding these minor personality flaws, Americans liked their style, and they were soon stocked throughout this great country, supplanting native fish wherever they went. While on the subject of fish introduction, I should mention that Americans also imported carp. Thankfully, this article is about trout because I’d have difficulty explaining that one.

As the number of anglers increased across the country and around the world, fishery management agencies were forced to adapt to the changing times. Way back when anglers were scarce, the bag limit for a certain river might be set at “All you can carry on two horses, plus one fish.” Years later it was modernized to “All you can fit in the trunk of your car—no dynamite.” Amazingly, fish populations began to decline and widespread panic ensued. Some anglers left the sport in favor of golf, while others began to drink heavily. Consequently, expensive fishery studies were conducted which basically revealed the following: If you remove a trout from a trout stream, he’s no longer there, and since he’s no longer there, he becomes exceedingly difficult to catch and the overall fishing experience is compromised.

With this newfound information, certain fishery agencies sucked in their collective breath and implemented a drastic new management policy—catch and release fishing. This involves catching a trout, and instead of quickly removing his entrails and putting him on a stick, placing him gently back into the water whence he came. The fish swims away and can be caught again. Not only were fish grateful for the new management policy, but serious anglers soon discovered it was quite effective.
Trout now had the opportunity to grow to maturity, marry and raise families. Fish populations saw an amazing increase, and morale improved for all parties involved. A new age of enlightenment had arrived.

With the arrival of the new millennium, the future looks bright. Sure, many of the trout we fish for have become selective, and for the vast majority of us, are almost impossible to catch. But, if you adopt the attitude of the Federal Government and throw enough money at the problem—in our case by purchasing lots of high-tech, sophisticated fly fishing equipment—maybe, just maybe you will be rewarded. If not, consult my friend on how to tie the Baetis dun with the wistful expression.