Fly Tying History

Fly Fishing HistoryFly tying is a time honored tradition dating back to the 13th century when fish were caught with a “feathered hook,” but most will say the first true recollection of fly tying came from Dame Juliana Berner and her “Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle.” In this article, Dame Juliana recounts specific flies for each month and the bugs they imitated. Hooks were made of iron but did not become truly dependable until the 17th century when “smithing” came around, hooks were hardened, and The Industrial Revolution made quantities of quality hooks available to the masses at an affordable price.

Another key figure during this period was Izaak Walton, author of “The Compleat Angler,” who addressed fishing as sport as opposed to a means of sustenance. Charles Cotton updated T.C.A with a section devoted to fly fishing that included entomology, flies to imitate specific bugs and the idea of fishing upstream.

fly fishing hooksUntil the late 19th century, all flies were tied by hand using natural material found in the air or in the bush. Flies were simple and consisted of silk thread or wool, dubbed with whatever furry animals they could kill and hackled with wild game like partridge, grouse, duck or the domestic chicken.

Crude vises became available and helped the tier substantially. The development of the dry fly also became available to anglers on English chalk streams and debate sprang up on the ethics of fishing downstream as opposed to upstream. By this point anglers began to feel it immoral or unethical to fish subsurface patterns because it was becoming too easy with technological advances and more sporty or gentlemanly to fish upstream to rising fish. This is how your trout stream’s dry fly snobs evolved.

Salmon fishing helped the evolution of fly tying as well as The Industrial Revolution. Tiers started expanding their repertoire of material to include pig’s wool, seal fur, and hair wings on their flies. Fly tying across the pond in the US also took hold about this time and many new approaches and tying designs were perfected in the Catskill region of America.

The use of synthetic material, fly tying “tools” and nymphs took hold throughout the 20th and 21st century and today we are reaping the benefits. Although the traditional patterns still catch fish (and plenty of them!), advances in fly tying can be seen everywhere and in my opinion we have only touched on the potentials for creating some incredible patterns. Major fly distributors such as Umpqua, Orvis, and Montana Fly introduce hundreds of new patterns annually and companies like Hareline and Wapsi continue to break the mold with new materials to experiment with and add to the tying desk.

Take advantage of the newest technologies and material available for today’s tiers. Classic patterns still take fish and many swear by them, but keep in mind if ANY of the stuff we have today were available to Izaak Walton, Dame Juliana, and Charles Cotton, I would place money they would have no qualms taking full advantage of these materials.

References: Wikipedia,,