Fly fishing from 1951 to today


he modern period has been dominated by the development of new materials, and there is no doubt that without plastics, fly fishing as we know it would be unrecognisable as a sport, although the basic principles would be the same.

Glass-fibre rods first appeared in the late 1940’s, but it took a while for the new material to be adopted. Suppliers showed varying degrees of enthusiasm for the material. Hardy’s first glass fibre rod was built in 1954, and after a period in which glass and cane uneasily coexisted, their first carbon fibre rod followed in 1976. Rod weights plunged, reaching the point where line weight became a consideration in rod handling. A modern fifteen foot carbon fibre rod typically weighs around the pound mark, and a nine-foot rod three and a half ounces. A table given by John Ashley Cooper makes a useful comparison:

Rod length Greenheart Split cane (spliced) Fibre glass Carbon graphite
16 ft     30 oz  
15 ft 35 oz 28 oz 25 oz 13 oz
14 ft 30 oz 23 oz 21 oz 11 oz
13 ft 24 oz 18 oz 17 oz 10 oz
12 ft 19 oz 14 oz 13 oz 9 oz

If anyone wonders why fibreglass did not replace split cane overnight, the answer lies in the table. Glass rods weighed much the same as their split cane equivalents, and offered the fisherman few advantages other than price. Carbon fibre, on the other hand, approaches half the weight of either split cane or glass. Once the technical problems of using the new material had been solved, carbon fibre rods entered mass production and neither of the older materials could offer any contest. Cane was swept away by the mid nineteen eighties, although it is making something of a comeback on aesthetic grounds.

The Fly Line

As with rod development, the post-war period was dominated by the development of new materials. This was just as well; Japanese gut ceased to be available to the Allied countries as soon as war was declared. By 1944/5 other gut substitutes had become available from French and Spanish suppliers, but they were swept aside by a new material – Nylon. Nylon was patented by Dupont in 1938, and was made under licence in the UK by ICI. Immediately post war, two types of nylon line were manufactured; monofilament and braided. Braided nylon gained immediate popularity with spin fishermen. Early monofilament was not as popular, and suffered from memory, a tendency to spring or cut through at the knots, and excessive elasticity. The tribulations of fishing with nylon, and the fact that gut was more reliable in the finer gauges, meant that gut soldiered on for a few more years, and a few anglers used it well into the nineteen sixties.

In 1949, polyvinyl chloride became available, and the first nylon fly line appeared. As a product, it was far from perfect, but it showed the way ahead. The taper was produced by varying the amount of nylon fibre in the core, and the core was hollow, with all its attendant disadvantages. In 1952, the discovery of a method of altering the thickness of the PVC coat on the new lines allowed nylon lines to be produced relatively cheaply. The taper on these lines could be controlled to a precise amount, and the invention of methods of altering the specific gravity of the PVC coating (and hence its buoyancy) gave the product greater flexibility than anyone had ever dreamed of in a fly line.

The Reel

We are very nearly up to date on the subject of gear, but is one small piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing. At the beginning of the modern period, it was unusual to find fly reels with exposed rims. The idea was not new; for example, Nottingham reels had incorporated the feature since the mid-nineteenth century. But the exposed rim was not de rigeur on fly-reels the way a check was. With the acceptance of the exposed rim, the design of the modern reel was complete: large diameter narrow drum, with variable drag, a wide spindle, line guard and an exposed rim. Looking at my collection of reels, it is surprising how few of them accommodate all the features on this hard-won list - even my favourite Ari 't Hart only grudging concedes you might want to stop a fish using the rim, even though that old Malloch had it right a century ago. I guess style sometimes has to triumph over ergonomics.

There have been a number of developments since the 1970’s, but most have been concerned with refinements of existing design. Spools are easily interchangeable thanks to quick releases, powerful disc drag mechanisms appeared in the 1980’s (and are becoming a fad, appearing upon the smallest trout reels), and the highest quality reels are machine cut from ‘bar-stock’ aerospace quality steel, making them, in theory at least, indestructible. The eighties and nineties seem to have ushered in a renaissance of design, almost equalling Kelson’s age. The last twenty years have seen a surge of nostalgia, and it is fascinating to see the designs appearing that imitate reels of a century ago, with Vom Hofe reels qualifying for particular attention. We have come a long way since Barker’s unfathomable illustration.

The Salmon Fly

In a sign of growing American dominance in the field, hair-winged patterns didn’t take long to make the transfer across the Atlantic. The hair-wing had become a significant influence on British patterns by the 1960s, with many traditional patterns being adapted to allow hair-wing ties. The origins of the tube fly are less certain. We know that North American native people tied lures for salmon on quills as long ago as the nineteenth century, but the idea seems to have entered mainstream salmon fly fishing during the 1940s. As ever, the stories conflict. One says that the tube fly was originated in around 1945 by a fly dresser called Winnie Morawski, who worked for the tackle firm of Charles Playfair and Co. at Aberdeen. To begin with, Winnie used hollowed out sections of turkey quills, with the treble strung inside the quill. To begin with, she used this unusual base to dress traditional patterns. Then a doctor called William Michie called at the shop, and suggested that she used sections of surgical tubing as a substitute for the quill. Later development resulted in the wing being dressed in a collar right around the tube, perhaps inspired by the Waddington, and the treble was left entirely outside the tube, so that the fly could "escape" up the line when a fish took. A variation says that during the 1940s, an Edinburgh surgeon was so struck by the possibilities of surgical drain tubing that he took some home with him and tied some dark stoat’s hair onto it, before attaching a treble and created the Stoat’s Tail. Whatever the truth may be, this new development meant that every aspect of salmon fly design was up for grabs, and a new era of invention followed.

There is an interesting post-script to the development of the hair-wing salmon fly. Fishermen took a long while to give up their affection for the fully-dressed ‘gaudy’ fly, and it was commonly stocked by quite ordinary tackle shops well into the late 70’s and even early 80’s. As it became harder to find fully-dressed flies, collectors moved in, and a substantial market in "specimen-tying" began to emerge. This market is currently in full swing, with newly-tied flies changing hands for $100 or more. The result has been a revival of traditional salmon fly-tying, particularly in America, and new patterns are being devised. Some of these patterns are fishable, but many are not, being too fragile to be risked at the end of a fly-line, or even (God forbid!) in a salmon’s mouth. A tier called Steve Fernandez has taken the ‘salmon fly as art’ one stage further and many of his flies not only have extreme shapes, but are no longer tied on hooks. Whether they "count" as salmon flies any more is a matter of debate – but then there were those who said the same of young Mr. Blacker’s creations. If you are interested in modern ties of classic flies, then I can give you no better recommendations than The Complete Sportsman, Emmett Johnson, La Fine Mouche and Tom Juracek's House of Fly Tying if you want to explore further. The fly in the illustration is Henrik Strandgaard's dressing of the Butcher from the book "Jones' Guide to Norway." Imagine cracking one of those off on your backcast.


This is where our ways part, because from now on, you are in charge. Maybe you think history is boring, like I did when I was a kid. But that doesn't excuse you from your obligation to create it. Every time you wade into a river and cast a line, you are standing in the flow of history. Don't let it wash past without remembering those who went before you. Their struggles, their discoveries, their good days, bad days, triumphs and disasters, have made fly fishing what it is today. History is all around us, and you can't pick up a fly rod without taking part in it. So when you cast your line, and flick the fly into your future, remember that one day, it will be someone else's past. Time has a habit of catching up with you faster than you think.

Tight lines!


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