Special Feature:
Saltwater fly fishing

 

alt water fly fishing has gone through so many renaissances that that it is easy to assume that every generation sets out with the perverse intention of reinventing it. There is a great deal of dispute about who dipped the first fly in the sea, but it happened at least two thousand years ago, because Ælian describes it quite clearly:

…one of the crew sitting at the stern lets down on either side of the ship lines with hooks. On each hook he ties a bait (perhaps not a bait in our modern technical sense, but rather a lure) wrapped in wool of Laconian red, and to each hook attaches the feather of a seamew.

After Ælian there isn't a mention of the salt until the eighteenth century, but the first detailed reference to the subject was made in 1840 - at least a century before it is conventionally assumed that the sport found its origins. This is in the form of an otherwise unremarkable entry on the subject in Blaine's Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports, which recommends fishing on an incoming tide and suggests that almost any fly will do, before casually mentioning that fly fishing for mullet was practised 'along the whole lengths of the Sussex, Hampshire and Devonshire coasts,' which means that it must have been a popular sport. In 1851, Fly Fishing in Salt and Fresh Water describes fly fishing for pollack, bass, and grey mullet, using up to seven flies at once.

But despite its apparent popularity, saltwater fishing didn't catch on in Britain. Things had not moved on a great deal by 1895, and little or nothing further was written. The author of 'Sea Fishing' (part of the Badminton Library,) was driven to remark that 'Fly fishing in the sea is a lottery.' The author accurately observed that the flies he fished imitated 'some marine insect or small fish,' but it is clear that much less thought had gone into the patterns than was the case for fresh water flies of the time. His favourite was the 'whitebait' fly, which was an imitation of a small herring. It is clear from the text that sea-trout were caught in salt water in the late nineteenth century, and it seems to have been fairly common practice in the Scottish islands, with a few flies being specifically evolved for the purpose. One Orkney sea-trout fly of the period was dressed with a palmered fiery-brown cock hackle, and was intended to represent a sand hopper; another, rather more dubious in its claim to being a fly, was assembled by mounting a mouse tail on a hook. Rubber tube sand eel patterns were also used.

One of the first American anglers to pursue salt water fish with a fly was A. W. Dimmock. He is best known for his work, 'The Book of the Tarpon,' published in 1911, but he wrote about the subject as early as 1908, in an article titled 'Salt-Water Fly Fishing,' which was published in the magazine 'Country Life in America.' Dimmock has a slightly ponderous style, almost Victorian, but he can still raise a smile with sallies like, 'My latest theory is that the best time to catch fish is when they bite, but that view is subject to change.' Dimmock would have a go at just about anything, and caught Spanish mackerel, skipjack, tarpon, channel bass, lady-fish, sheepshead, mullet, crevally and redfish. He recommended 'old flies that had been chewed up by salmon and eaten by moths,' fished on a very stiff eight-ounce fly rod, using a multiplier loaded with at least a hundred yards of line, radically light gear compared with his British counterparts.

Dimmock's writing inspired a generation and salt water fish was practised reasonably widely in the twenties, when Loving began tying flies for striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, and Abercrombie and Fitch sold tarpon flies devised by Howard Bonbright during that period, although it wasn't until the mid-fifties that the sport really began to take off. Favourite flies then were tarpon patterns with splayed wings and split brass bead heads, including Homer Rhode's bonefish and snook flies and Harold Gibbs' striper bucktail, a pattern which originated in the early '40s but which is still fished today. Rhode, incidentally, took bonefish and permit on a fly as long ago as 1930. It is interesting to recall that saltwater fly fishing for Pacific salmon was about as popular as it ever was going to be by the mid-thirties, and might have become more popular still had not the Second World War intervened.

After the war, Joe Brooks became a leading figure in saltwater fly fishing, and in the process he did a great deal to popularise the sport. Brooks started wetting lines in the sea during the twenties, and he caught a bonefish on the fly in 1946, while he was fishing with a guide called Jimmy Albright. The pair were lionised overnight, and Albright's Frankee-Belle bonefish pattern has never had any cause to look back since. Brookes wasn't the first to take a bonefish on a fly, and there is and probably always will be, a great deal of controversy about who did. J. P. McFerran of Louisville, Kentucky is one claimant, and he is recorded as having caught a bonefish in the Florida keys as long ago as 1891 . Holmes Allen of Miami accidentally landed one while fly fishing for snapper in 1924, and Colonel L. S. Thompson caught several bonefish as a by-catch while fly fishing for baby tarpon in 1926 (he used a size six Royal Coachman by the way, proving that you can't keep a good fly down.) Deciding who tied the first fly intended to outwit bonefish is even more difficult, but the honour is generally given to Captain Bill Smith, who tied a long hackle off an Islamadora chicken on a hook, and used it to catch a bonefish in 1939.

The really phenomenal growth in salt water fly fishing occurred during the seventies and eighties, when some well known fishing personalities made it an almost personal crusade to bring the new frontier to angler's attention and this is probably why most people think of salt water fishing as a rescent phenomenon. Salt water patterns have been consistently innovative, not least because of the harsh environment they have to endure, and their names roll out of the imagination and off the tongue, like the classic 'Lefty's Deceiver', a baitfish pattern invented by Lefty Kreh in the early sixties, and Bob Nauheim's Crazy Charlie, which was designed in the late 1970s. Development has moved at a breathtaking pace ever since. Even in the short history that salt water fly fishing has managed to accumulate, marked regional differences have appeared in salt water patterns. Flies from the north Atlantic and Pacific coasts of America tend to resemble freshwater streamers or bucktails, while their southern counterparts have a unique style, involving chenille bodies, bucktail or saddle hackle wings, and contrasting hackle collars. The emphasis is on brightness, and new materials; salt water fly fishing is exceptionally innovative, and as I said earlier, it isn't too hard to discern a trend for developments to percolate from salt to fresh water fly patterns.

Bonefish aren't the only creature which swims in the salt, and the sixties marked a diversification into new fields. After several years of experimentation, Dr. Webster Robinson succeeded in landing the first Pacific sailfish on a fly, using a home-made styrofoam popper tied on a 7/0 hook to take a 74 1/2 pound fish. The first Atlantic sailfish was landed two years later. With that capture, fly fishermen realised that nothing was uncatchable; there are very few species the salt water crew aren't hunting down right now.

 

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