The History of Fly Fishing

7th of July 2022

Fly fishing is a beloved angling method that takes great technical skill and has a rich history and heritage in cultures all around the world.

For fans of fly fishing, everything from your form to your gear matters. Experienced fly fishermen know that the activity is not just a recreational sport but also a craft that must be honed and improved upon — but how exactly did fly fishing come to be so popular?

In this article, we will explore the colorful history of fly fishing including its earliest known use and who invented it. Keep reading to learn all about fly fishing around the world, the development of fly fishing gear, and what the sport is like in today’s world.

The Beginning: Where did Fly Fishing start?

The true origin of fly fishing is somewhat debated, with two of the most popular origin stories coming from ancient Rome and ancient Macedonia.

Evidence of some of the earliest known writings about fly fishing comes from the ancient Roman culture, dating back roughly to between 100 to 200 AD. This evidence comes in the form of writings from two prominent figures in Rome’s history — Marcus Valerius Martialis (more commonly known as Martial) and Claudius Aelianus.

Martial was a Roman writer and poet who was widely regarded as one of the greatest Latin epigrammatists and is often credited with inventing the modern epigram. According to H2O Magazine, one of the earliest references to fly fishing comes in one of Martial’s poems, in which one stanza reads:

“Who has not seen the scarus rise, decoyed and killed by fraudulent flies?”

Around 100 years after this poem was published, Roman author Claudius Aelianus would publish his book entitled De Natura Animalium, which translates to “On the Characteristics of Animals”.

In De Natura Animalium, Claudius remarks on his observations of the natural world, which includes a discussion of a method for catching fish used by the ancient Macedonians. Circling back to H2O Magazine once again, the publication offers several key quotes from the book that appear to be directly referencing fly fishing.

First, Claudius observes the relationship between fish and the flies that the fishermen intend to impersonate:

“ — when the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above lest it should scare away its prey; then coming up by its shadow, it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle, a goose from the farmyard; having done this, it goes below the rippling water.”

Claudius then goes on to state:

“[Fishermen] fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax. The 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 color, comes straight at it, thinking it would gain a dainty mouthful from the pretty sight.”

Who Invented Fly Fishing?

While the Romans may have been some of the first to publicize the art of fly fishing, they are not necessarily the inventors of it.

As we have seen in Claudius Aelianus’s writings, the method of fly fishing may have begun in Macedonia before coming to Rome around 200 AD.

However, the modern form of fly fishing is often attributed to Charles Cotton, an English poet and aristocrat. In 1676, Cotton and English writer Izaak Walton published one of their most well-known books: The Compleat Angler.

In The Compleat Angler, Cotton and Walton describe how to catch a trout or grayling in a stream, as well as provide insights into local freshwater fish of the time and what fish can be caught at certain times of the year.

Fly Fishing Around the World

While looking at evidence of the origins of fly fishing gives us an idea of where the sport may have come from, to get a true feel for what the sport is like both in the past and today, we must examine its presence in different cultures and societies around the world.

Three of the most prevalent places where you can find a history of fly fishing include:

  • England (especially prevalent amongst upper-class citizens)
  • The United States
  • Japan

Let’s now take a look at each of these locations and how the art and culture of fly fishing vary according to where it is happening in the world.

Fly Fishing in the Upper Class of England

In the United Kingdom — and especially in England — fly fishing has long been regarded as an activity for wealthy people to take part in.

Fishing in England and the greater U.K. region has long been a topic of discussion amongst historians. As the 19th century brought with it new opportunities for gaining wealth, as well as improved modes of transportation such as the railway, more and more sportsmen began fly fishing not out of necessity but out of love for the game.

According to The Fishing Museum, these groups of people often referred to themselves as “field sportsmen” and would cycle between fishing, hunting, and shooting depending on the season.

While in today’s society (particularly in the United States) hunting and fishing have become commonplace activities amongst rich and working-class people alike, the ability to fish for sport in nineteenth-century England was certainly an expression of one’s wealth.

As a result, fishermen were divided into two categories: game anglers and coarse anglers. Game anglers would fly fish purely for the sport, while coarse anglers did so for the purpose of catching food to either eat or sell. In turn, different quarries and other bodies of water were dedicated to either game or coarse fishing, furthering the class divide.

Fly Fishing in the U.S.

At around the same time in the late 18th to mid 19th century when the English upper class was developing a taste for fly fishing, people in the U.S. were also gaining an interest in sport fishing.

The American Museum of Fly Fishing reports that one of the earliest American references to fly fishing comes in a letter from a man named Rodney Home living in the Florida panhandle. Other early references to fly fishing in the U.S. include a 1766 diary entry from Joseph Banks, an English naturalist.

An increase in the popularity of fly fishing was seen in the U.S. as more people settled in the northern coastal region of New England. Like in the U.K., fly fishing started out as an activity mainly practiced by the wealthy class who used new and improved equipment, leading to the invention of dry fly fishing.

In dry fly fishing, rather than allowing the lure to sink, fishermen would use flies that float on the surface of the water, giving the flies a more realistic edge that was more successful at attracting fish.

Eventually, as Americans established their independence and began expanding further into the west, fly fishing became a popular sport in other regions of the country, including in the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific Coast.

Fly Fishing in Japan

In Japan, the practice of fly fishing is known as tenkara and may potentially have an origin that predates even the Romans.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of written records, historians do not have the evidence needed to confirm or deny this. What we do know is that tenkara originated in the remote mountain regions of Japan, with some of the earliest archaeological evidence including bamboo rods and artificial fly lures from 9th-century BC, according to The Tenkara Times.

While fly fishing in the western world was seen as a sports activity and game for the upper class, tenkara in Japan was a necessity for those living in remote areas to catch food to both eat and sell. Tenkara would go on to evolve alongside Japanese culture, especially after the rise of the Samurai who left a profound impact on the entire country.

Compared to western fly fishing, tenkara offers a more simple version of the gear used in the western world, placing more emphasis on the fishermen’s skill level and technique. Since it was developed in mountainous regions, tenkara also tends to be most well-suited to fishing in mountainous environments.

The Development of Fly Fishing Gear

As the popularity of fly fishing has spread around the world, the gear used for this activity has gone through its own evolution.

Here is a historical breakdown of the development of the main components of fly fishing gear (fly rods, fly lines, and fly reels):

Fly Fishing Rods

In the early days of western fly fishing, the primary material used to construct the fishing rod was wood, with one of the most common types of wood used being Greenhart wood.

These wooden rods would be hollowed out by woodworkers or other craftsmen to give the rod a lighter feel, making it easier to cast a line.

Meanwhile, in the eastern culture of Japan, tenkara practitioners used bamboo rods. Bamboo rods offered a greater advantage to wood, as they were already hollow and lightweight, as well as incredibly flexible. The use of bamboo rods would eventually come to the west around the 18th century.

One of the biggest developments in the history of fly fishing gear, however, was the invention of the split cane rod. In the 1870s, Hiram Leonard opened a fishing shop in Maine where he developed the split cane rod, also called the Leonard fly rod.

Made from Calcutta bamboo, this 6-strip rod included cedar inlays in the grip and would become the standard for fishing rods for nearly half a century in the U.S., according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

The fly fishing rods of today can be purchased in a variety of different materials, with fiberglass being one of the most popular options in modern society thanks to its strength, durability, and flexibility.

Fly Lines

Jumping back in time to Claudius Aelianus for a moment, some of the earliest descriptions of fly fishing lines are found in his writings, describing the lines as being equal in length to the rod.

However, it wouldn’t be until the 18th century when fly lines took center stage as the fly fishing industry became more commercialized. Fly lines were also greatly affected by the invention of dry fly fishing, which we discussed above, creating a distinction between floating fly lines and sinking fly lines.

There is also a third type of fly line that was developed called the sinking tip fly line.

Additionally, while fly lines have gotten longer throughout history, they still remain shorter than those used in traditional fishing. This is due to the fact that fly fishing is less concerned about the distance of a cast and more with the accuracy and presentation of the fly.

Fly Reels

Like fly rods, the early versions of fly reels were often constructed from wood. Another popular material to craft fly reels from in the earlier centuries was brass, as it was easy to come by and very malleable, making it a great material for fly fishermen to craft reels from.

As the Industrial Revolution rocked the western world between 1760 to 1840, fly fishermen and other anglers took this opportunity to experiment more with reels, using materials like hard rubber and nickel silver. Today, fly reels are often constructed from lightweight aluminum or magnesium to help maintain the light feel of the fly rod.

Orvis published an excellent article in 2020 covering the development of fly reels in the 19th century, including stunning photographs of some of these early designs.

Final Thoughts: Fly Fishing Today

In today’s world, fly fishing is a robust industry with all sorts of different gear and fishing locations all around the world.

From serving as a leisurely pastime for folks in the mountains to being the subject of several sports competitions, there is no denying the popularity of fly fishing. Improvements in technology and manufacturing have made it easier to make lightweight, durable rods at an affordable price, opening up the sport to people from all classes and economic backgrounds.

Whether you are an experienced or novice fly fisherman, make sure to check out all our online resources here at FlyFish Circle. We want fly fishers around the world to discover the best locations, learn about all species of fish, and more.

Join the FlyFish community today to stay up to date on all things fly fishing!

Share the link to this post

Save this post in your favorites

Stay up-to-date about new fly fishing content

Create an account and be the first to know about new tips, tricks, stories and fly fishing adventures. FlyFish Circle is run by fly fishing enthusiasts and is completely free!

More from the library

How to straighten a curled up fly line


How to straighten a curled up fly line

Learn how to straighten a curled-up fly line with these simple steps. Avoid frustration and enjoy your fly fishing experience again!

On the road with your fly rod: transportation tips


On the road with your fly rod: transportation tips

Learn how to carry your fly rod safely and securely, from choosing the right gear to proper assembly and travel tips, ensuring its longevity.

The full guide to fly fishing from a kayak


The full guide to fly fishing from a kayak

Explore the exciting world of kayak fly fishing with our comprehensive guide, covering benefits, essential gear, techniques, and safety tips.

Fly fishing in the rain: a guide to wet-weather angling


Fly fishing in the rain: a guide to wet-weather angling

Fly fishing in the rain has some pros and cons, but it is very doable as long as you know the tips and tricks.

Fly fishing sunglasses: everything you need to know


Fly fishing sunglasses: everything you need to know

Fly fishing sunglasses not only help protect your eyes from the sun's harmful UV rays, they'll also help you see fish in the water, making it easier to catch them.

Fly Fishing Southern Norway - Coastal Sea Trout


Fly Fishing Southern Norway - Coastal Sea Trout

Hooked on Fly Fishing (NL) and AnglerPilot together will take you on a sea trout fly fishing experience in a stunning Norwegian scenery!

View all content