Fly Fishing in the Years 1800 - 1850


he first half of the nineteenth century was the period when the winged wet fly emerged, and marked the beginning of the evolution of the fully-dressed salmon fly. It was also a time of experimentation, with improvements to rod design being made, plaited silk lines entering into production, and silkworm gut coming into widespread use.

Early nineteenth century rods weren't much different from their predecessors, the best being made from ash, hickory and lancewood; with Calcutta bamboo being substituted for lancewood if it could be found of good enough quality. With the exception of lancewood and bamboo, these materials had been the mainstay of rod building for two centuries, and they were to remain so for another thirty years. Jointed rods were still as liable to snap off short as they ever had been. Much ingenuity was applied to finding a solution to this problem, and variety of joints were in use by the nineteenth century: a female brass socket taking a wood male end, brass female socket accepting brass-coated male end, and screw joints. The quest would not end until it became possible to manufacture strong thin-walled suction joints. Despite the many other advances that had occurred, whalebone was still in use for rod tops, a length of four or five inches being regarded as sufficient. By now, few bothered to make their own rods, but the one piece of amateur rod-making knowledge that was essential for the early nineteenth century angler was an ability to make his own tops, which broke with monotonous regularity (sometimes several a day.) The length of a salmon rod was unchanged from Walton's day, but trout rods were beginning to get shorter. The common length of trout rods was between twelve and fourteen feet, although in 1806, Mackintosh suggested that a double handed trout rod should not be less than sixteen feet long! Salmon rods were longer again, perhaps seventeen or eighteen feet.

By 1800 the reel was in almost universal use by fly fishermen. The clamp foot reel was still in widespread use, with "spike" foot reels only slightly less popular. Spike foot reels literally had a threaded spike which was passed through a hole drilled in the butt of the rod, a wingnut fixing the spike where it emerged on the upper side of the handle. There was a good deal of disagreement about whether the reel should go above or below the rod, with the experts evenly divided on the subject. The majority of the advocates of placing the reel on top of the rod fished with multipliers; a position that is still favoured for that type of reel today. By the 1830's the plate-foot reel was in fierce competition with the clamp foot winch, the spike foot having had its day. The clamp remained a firm favourite, however, and firms like Pfleuger continued to market clamp-foot reels into the last quarter of the nineteenth century. To begin with, rods had to be individually modified to take the modern reel foot, but the new design had so many advantages that it wasn't long before there was demand for a universal reel seat. Reels were still small by comparison with modern reels; typically no more than an inch or so in diameter and the same in width. There was no reason for them to be any bigger; lines were thin, there being no distinction between the running line and fly line. Apart from the development of the multiplier, reel design had barely altered since Walton's day and early nineteenth century reels were almost wantonly inadequate: the wide drum, narrow diameter reel continued to dominate the market. With rare exceptions, the British reels of this period that survive are of low quality and one can understand why they were not much liked.

Meanwhile, in America, a separate line of reel design was beginning to emerge. To begin with, the majority of American reels were home-made affairs having crude wooden spools with iron seats. In the early nineteenth century many Americans were still importing their reels, or making their own. Old timers often fished with discarded wool spools, bound into frames by the local tinsmith. But the native industry was gearing up, and single-action brass or German silver reels with curved handles soon became common. George Snyder, a watchmaker and silversmith from Paris, Kentucky, is believed to have made the first quality reels in the United States, sometime between 1805 and 1810. Snyder realised that there was a need for a reliable multiplying reel, and he set down to invent one. Within a few years, other firms had started up, including Meek, Hardman and Milam, between them responsible for the further perfection of the design of the multiplying reel. These "Kentucky reels" were distinguished from British multipliers by the fact that they worked, and it wasn't long before designs emerged that were capable of casting a line directly from the spool; a trick that you didn't try twice with a British reel. Several innovations were first seen on American reels, among them the balanced crank handle and the first free-spool mechanism.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, mass production meant that the price of shop bought lines was in free fall, but it wasn't all plain sailing. The tackle makers were low on the learning curve; some lines tapered too sharply, others were too thick, and the cheapest lines rotted quickly. The majority of lines were made of a mix of silk and horsehair, but plaited silk lines were coming onto the market. The plaited line was an important development, because it was the first step on the way to water-proof, rot-resistant fly lines. The best lines were plaited from silk, and were thinner and stronger than their twisted counterparts, being available in lengths of eighty or a hundred yards. There was another, important development. Silkworm gut "casts" (or leaders, as we would call them,) were beginning to displace horsehair. Casting distances had improved greatly. In the seventeenth century, the fixed line meant that the rod length was the absolute determinant of the distance an angler could cast. In the early nineteenth century, fishermen were beginning to take more of an interest in rod action as silk and horse-hair lines allowed them to cast further. Lines were of high enough quality that the average fisherman was able to cast reasonable distances: eighteen to twenty-three yards with a sixteen feet rod; and ten or twelve yards into the wind. But matters were complicated by the fact that it was possible to fish several flies on a cast, thanks to the discovery of gut.

Thanks to a book published in 1836 by Ronalds, trout flies had come forward in leaps and bounds. The patterns were recognisably "modern" and the palmered flies (once the mainstay of the fly fisher) had been reduced to a few token patterns - fallen from the dominant position that they had built up during the eighteenth century. Salmon flies had come of age, and the dull patterns that had traditionally been used in the eighteenth century were to be swept away by new creations, inspired by Blacker and Bainbridge , the two outstanding fly-tyers of the first half of the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that the majority of flies were still tied in the hand. The vice had appeared in the last years of the eighteenth century, but it was still regarded as a dangerous innovation.

jones_guide.jpg (41323 bytes)Leisure travel was becoming possible for ordinary people, and the railway was to play a crucial role in the development of fishing in the UK. The first track was laid in Britain in 1825, and by 1870, the country had 13,500 miles of railway open. The more affluent began to venture abroad for their fishing, and one of the favoured destinations was Norway. The big Norwegian rivers, and the enormous salmon they nurtured, were an irresistible draw for the moneyed British fisherman. They found a country which had no tradition of fly fishing for salmon, and for a while at least, rents were reasonably low.

The beginnings of the salmon fisher's love affair with Norway were celebrated in Jones's Guide to Norway , a book which has the distinction of having been written by a man who hadn't actually been to Scandinavia. Mere details like that were insufficient to hold Tolfrey back, as his backer, a Jermyn Street tackle dealer who sold high quality equipment to the rich and famous, had spotted a market opportunity that was to make the pair of them famous. As the illustration shows, Jones' patterns were complex and dazzling and they remain among the most challenging salmon flies that a tier can tackle today.

(illustration courtesy of Henrik
Strandgaard -


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