Special Feature:
Early Fly Fishing: the short rod


ow did the first anglers fish a fly? At first this seems to be an impossible question, given how little was written about the subject, but in fact we don't need to speculate about the answer too much. Many people still fish using the exactly the same sort of tackle as the Macedonians. Nowadays they are likely to use glass fibre instead of hazel or nylon instead of horse hair, but you can still find the occasional fisherman with gear that Aelian would have recognised.

The earliest rods we can read about in the literature, or see in paintings are all quite short, about six feet (two metres) or so. One reason for this is that six feet is about the maximum length of straight hazel shoot that you are likely to find, another reason is that anything longer is tiring to fish with, and finally, this sort of rod is ideal for fishing on overgrown rivers where there is no clear backcast. Without grazing, much more of the land would have been wooded, and the majority of rivers in northern Europe would have been tree lined. Longer, jointed rods were made, but the evidence is that they weren't that common until late medieval times.

Short hazel rods had a big advantage, they were cheap to make, and although good ones were probably treasured as much we do our rods, they were also disposable - why carry a rod a long way when you can just go and cut a new one?

Silk lines didn't appear until the eighteenth century, so early anglers fished with lines knotted from horsehair. These lines would have been about the same length as their rods, and most likely the fly was whipped directly onto the end of the horsehair, so that they wouldn't have changed it very often. The line was tied directly onto the end of the rod, and it was cast with a simple whipping action.

Many fishermen would have kept a line in their pocket all the time, cutting a rod when they needed one and throwing it away when they had to move on. When they fished, they would have fished a line like Alexander Panic is in the picture above, throwing quartering casts upstream, the fly floating at first, but then sinking to a depth of a few centimetres at most. The concept of the "dry fly" and the "wet fly" lay centuries in the future. The photo shows exactly the kind of water they would have liked to fish; a broken surface over a moderately deep "pool" of water with plenty of rocks for the fish to hide behind.

The fixed line was a significant constraint on tactics and the angler stayed out of the sight of the fish as far as possible, fishing from the cover of trees and the bank and avoiding his shadow falling on the water. When you bear in mind the length of rods and lines in use, a fisherman was unlikely ever to be much more than about nine feet (three metres) away from his quarry; very close by modern standards. This proximity was a serious handicap and while we tend to think of the early fly fishing as a clumsy affair, it can't have been, unless trout have got a great deal more wary in the last five hundred years.


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