Fly fishing is a sport that pits person verses nature and person verses self. It embraces a wide range of human emotions and experiences that require self-mastery and a healthy respect for the natural world. A fly fisher is likely to experience joy and agony, patience and frustration, as well as a plethora of other emotions in a single outing. The art of fly tying—fastening an assortment of fur, feathers and other materials to a hook with thread—involves proportion, creativity, and precision. Reading the water, that is, locating fish, requires trial and error investigation, scientific understanding, and intuitive perception. In fly fishing, one casts the heavy line rather than the fly; this involves rhythmic coordination, accuracy, and persistence. Hiking through streams and rivers challenges one’s strength, agility, and balance. Striking and landing the fish require wisdom, patience, and instantaneous decision making. Last but not least, the telling of the “fish story” draws on the person’s sense of humor, imagination, and memory recall.
At each step in the process the fly fisher has the opportunity for success or failure. Often, as in life itself, the failures are frequent, but they only add savor to the sweet taste of success. If an angler gets “hooked” on fly fishing, there many fly fishing clubs and organizations around the world that seek to educate their members, provide camaraderie and friendship, and promote good stewardship of the environment.
The Roman Claudius Aelianus recorded the use of an artificial fly lure near the end of the second century. He described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River:
- ...they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft… They fasten red… wool round a hook, and fit on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.
Modern fly fishing originated on the fast, rocky rivers of Scotland and Northern England. The first detailed writing about the sport comes in two chapters of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, a description of fishing in Derbyshire Wye written by his friend Charles Cotton.
In the nineteenth century, British fly-fishing developed the dry-fly techniques for the slower, clearer rivers, such as the River Test and the other 'chalk streams' concentrated in Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset and Berkshire. The weeds in these rich rivers tended to grow very close to the surface, making traditional wet fly fishing impossible. The fly would snag in weeds long before it reached a trout. Therefore, it became necessary to develop new techniques that would keep the fly and the line floating on the surface. Other developments such as lines made of silk instead of horse-hair and the use of new woods in fly rods—first Greenheart, then bamboo—made it possible to cast flies into the wind.
American rod builders, such as Hiram Leonard, developed superior techniques for making bamboo rods: thin strips were cut from the cane, planed into shape, and glued together to form light, strong, hexagonal rods with a hollow core.
In the late nineteenth century, anglers such as Ray Bergman in the Catskill Mountains of New York, began using flies to fish the region’s trout-rich streams like Beaverkill and Willowemoc Creek. Many of these anglers wrote about the practice, inventing new flies and drawing more anglers to the region. It is still considered the birthplace of American dry-fly fishing. The Junction Pool in Roscoe, New York, where the Willowemoc flows into the Beaver Kill, is the center of an almost ritual pilgrimage every April 1, when the trout season begins.
Participation in American fly fishing peaked in the early 1920s in the eastern states of Maine and Vermont and in the midwest spring creeks of Wisconsin. Ernest Hemingway helped to popularize fly fishing, and deep-sea fishing, through his works of fiction, including The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. In the late twentieth century, interest in fly fishing surged as many sought refuge in the tranquil nature of the sport. Instructional and entertaining books, movies such as A River Runs Through It, cable fishing shows, and a competitive fly casting circuit added to the sport's development.
Though fly fishing was originally developed as a method for catching trout and salmon (salmonids), it now extends to warm water species such as bass, bluegill, and carp, and numerous saltwater species like permit, snook, jack, and tarpon.
The fly tier uses a thin thread to fasten hair, feathers and other materials onto a hook. These flies are created in sizes and colors to match naturally occurring food or simply to excite the fish. There are two basic types of flies typically used by the fly fisher—dry flies and wet flies.
Dry flies imitate emerging and flying insects or terrestrial bugs (grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, etc.) and are tied with materials that tend to float. Dry flies are often coated with a floatant and sit on the surface of the water. When fishing for trout, the fly fisher will often cast the dry fly into moving water and allow it to drift into the feeding area of rising fish.
Wet flies are fished beneath the surface of the water and are created to imitate various underwater stages in the life cycle of insects (macroinvertabrates), small baitfish, or crayfish. Types of wet flies include nymphs, streamers, and true wet flies.
One of the great challenges of fly fishing is choosing the appropriate 'fly'. Originally, flies were made to imitate flying insects. They have evolved to match the diets and stimulants of the targeted species. Modern flies may imitate aquatic larva, pupae, fish, eggs, worms, grasshoppers, mice, frogs, or leeches among others. Other flies are simply 'stimulators' which anger or trigger a naturally aggressive response from a certain species.
Fly rods are relatively light and long while the fly line they cast is relatively heavy. The line provides the casting weight. Some fly lines float while others sink. The line is matched to the rod according to a weighting system. The fly itself may weigh very little and is typically attached to the fly line by a two to three meter leader which may taper to a very fine line at the tip end, also called the tippet.
The main difference between fly fishing and other types of casting is that when casting, the weight of the lure is used to "throw" it out. The "fly" is virtually weightless and the fly fisher uses the weight of the line to place the fly in the desired location. A fly line can be "cast" without any fly or lure on it at all, a feat that would be impossible for a casting rod and reel. Through this method, an angler can present a fly gently and under control instead of plopping it down with a big splash and scaring the fish.
The fly angler uses a longer and lighter rod than those used for cast and spin fishing. Fly fishing rods can be as short as two meters (six ft) long or up to four meters (14 ft). The average freshwater rod is around eight to nine feet in length and weighs between two and five ounces.
Several types of casts in fly fishing are used in a variety of situations. In the most common cast, the angler whisks the fly rod forward and back using primarily the forearm and upper arm. The rod is moved from the ten o'clock position on the back cast to the two o'clock position on the forward, without letting the line touch the water or ground. This motion, known as 'false casting', can be used to let out more line, dry a soaked fly, reposition a cast, or show off one's casting abilities. False casting continues until the desired amount of fly line is airborne: perhaps as little as three meters (roughly ten feet) for small streams, but averaging around ten meters (30 feet) in most freshwater conditions. Anything over 18m (60 feet) in freshwater is likely to impress fellow anglers more than the fish, but many saltwater situations call for casts well beyond 25m (82 feet). When a 'false cast' is 'released' the line floats gently down to the water.
Landing the Fish
Once on the water, the fly may either float or sink, depending on the type of fly and the style of fishing. The angler attempts to cast in such a way that the line lands smoothly on the water's surface and the fly appears as natural as possible. After manipulating the fly through the prime locations, the angler draws the fly off the water by pulling in a small portion of line by hand (this is called 'tending' the line), and lifting the tip of the rod. The angler then makes another presentation, perhaps after a few false casts. If a fish strikes, the angler pulls in line while raising the rod tip. This sets the hook in the fish's mouth. The fish is then 'played' by retrieving the line in to the point where the fish can be netted or grasped by the angler.
Reading the Water
In his book Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass, author Harry Murray outlines a three step procedure for reading the water that can apply to most any type of fly fishing.
- Try to determine where a smallmouth will be located.
- Decide where to cast the fly.
- Where do I position myself in order to make this presentation?"
Though Mr. Murray makes this sound like a simple process, each type of fish has different habits, likes, and dislikes which help determine where in the water they may be. Also, every river, stream, or lake is different. There is no substitute for persistent study and trial and error experience when developing the ability to read the water. In many fly fishing locations, local guides may be hired to increase the likelihood of identifying the best locations and catching the object of your pursuit.
In general, anywhere there are fish there is the potential for fly fishing. As fly tiers and fly fishers become more creative and informed, they discover flies and techniques to catch almost any kind of fish. Many fly fishers find both satisfaction and nice fish near where they live. These are often overlooked and underfished locations.
There are popular locations for fly fishing all around the world. North America sports some of the premier locations for trout in the northwest, northeast and northern part of the midwest. England and Scotland, as well as many of the European countries have historic and excellent locations for fly fishing. New Zealand, Tasmania, and Patagonia are famous for their trout destinations.
In recent years, more exotic locations for native populations of species have become popular for fly fishing. Mongolia has the largest Salmonid species in the world, the taimen, and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia is believed by many to hold the largest runs of salmon species in the world. World destinations include parts of South America, on the Amazon River, as well as the Patagonia region.
Fly Fishing Organizations
Fly fishing organizations, such as the Federation of Fly Fishers, offer anglers the opportunity to increase their knowledge, learn from one another, and work together on environmental concerns. Trout Unlimited, the Smallmouth Alliance, or Carp Unlimited are just a few of the many species specific organizations that provide insight, education, and lobbying power for their environmental concerns.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Berenbaum, May R. 1995. Bugs in the System: Insects and Their Impact on Human Affairs. Perseus Publishing.
- Murray, Harry. 1989. Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass. The Globe Pequot Press.
- Radcliffe, William. 1974. Fishing from the Earliest Times. Ares Publishers, Inc.
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