Today’s fly tiers are participating in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. The tradition has evolved remarkably as new technologies, methods, and materials have been developed. However, the core of the practice looks much the same as it did in ancient China or 19th-century England. Let’s take a closer look at the history of fly tying.
Early History of Fly Tying
When looking at the history of fly tying, we can’t say precisely when the first person created an artificial fly for fishing, but there’s evidence that flies were used in ancient China as early as 3,000 BC. Chinese fishermen used a feather from a kingfisher attached to a hook. A few thousand years later, in about 200 AD, we have evidence that Macedonians used similar artificial flies. They used dyed wool for the fly’s body and a rooster’s feathers for the wings.
Medieval Fly Tying
Fly tying was clearly practiced around the world for centuries. The next printed evidence we have of the practice is a book printed in 1486 in St Albans, England, thought to be written by a prioress named Juliana Berners. Juliana wrote about hawking, hunting, and fishing, and the book included a section titled the Treatyse of fysshynge with an Angle (although this section may have been added in the late 15th century). The treatise included descriptions of different artificial flies for use in different seasons. Again, the materials were largely wool and feathers from different birds.
Early Modern Advancements
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, there were many advancements in materials and technique that enabled anglers to craft more varied, more effective flies. In the 17th century, an aristocrat named Charles Cotton published a collection of flies with a high level of detail that imitated real flies. Alred Ronalds, who was both a fisherman and an artist, continued his work in 1836 when he published The Fly-Fisher’s Entomology, which featured pictures of real flies next to pictures of their artificial copies, along with detailed instructions for tying. This enabled many other fishermen to reproduce detailed, convincing flies.
Fly Tying in the Modern World
Up until the late 19th century, flies and fishing lines were made to float on the surface of the water. At the beginning of the 20th century, fishermen began to realize that fish would also be drawn to the larval stage of the fly underneath the water, opening up a whole new realm of possibility for fly tying. Until this point, flies were also tied entirely by hand. Then, in the 1880s, anglers began using hook vises. This made complex tying techniques much easier. Since then, the basic approach to fly tying has remained largely the same. However, the constant development of new synthetic materials and patterns continues to create flies that are more realistic and more successful. While this is by no means a comprehensive history of fly tying, we hope you learned something new!