Fly Fishing in the Eighteenth Century


here were few startling breakthroughs in the fishing world of the eighteenth century, which was a time of consolidation and incremental change. The rod is a case in point. Early seventeenth century rods lacked running rings, although they sometimes had tip rings. Running rings first appeared on rods towards the end of the seventeenth century. The invention gave anglers much more control over the line while a fish was being played, but it didn't have much effect on casting distances, since the nature of the lines in use at the time precluded much more than a minimal "shoot". Early rings were extremely unreliable, and had a strong tendency to pull out of the rod when under pressure, which no doubt contributed to their slow uptake.

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, an increasing differentiation between types of rods was evident and there was increasing sophistication in the choice of materials for the sections. Jointed rods were becoming more common, although the joints (often made of wood, sometimes reinforced with brass,) were horribly unreliable. Trout fly rods were still much longer than we are used to: as much as fourteen to seventeen feet, but the majority were shorter. Typical rods might measure twelve foot long for fishing with lines that terminated in two hairs or more; nine feet for fishing single hairs "for the small fly", and seventeen feet for salmon. Deal, ash or willow were used for butts, and hickory or hazel for tops, with the by now standard whalebone extension. "Bambou cane" was just coming into use for the construction of top sections, chiefly of salmon rods. An experienced angler might reckon to throw twelve yards of line with one hand, and seventeen with both, using a sixteen foot rod. Whether anyone would have wanted to cast single-handed with a sixteen foot six rod is another question.

Traders were in business making tackle as early as 1600. Gervaise Markham suggested to his readers that they buy their rods in haberdashers' stores, where there was a 'great choice'. By the eighteenth century, the tackle trade was well established and selling every conceivable article a fisherman might need, as well as many that they didn't. A multitude of dealers sprang up during and after Walton's time, including the great firm Ustonson, which began trading in the 1760s and which was to supply tackle to King George IV.

Making rods was one thing, but it wasn't long before the commercial possibilities of reels were recognised. Kirby was advertising "the best sort of Winches" in local papers by 1726 and brass winches of various designs were being advertised for sale throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century. It was during this second quarter of the eighteenth century that fishing became popular with merchants and shop keepers, which accounts for why the tackle trade expanded so greatly at the time.

In the last half of the century, there came an awful development - the multiplying reel. The appearance of the multiplier so early in the history of the fly reel is unfortunate, because it sentenced anglers to a century of misery. The multiplier probably arrived on the market about 1750 or so, and was a natural response to the poor design of single action reels of the day. These tended to be wide, with small diameters, and very narrow spindles that made retrieving a fish very tricky if it ran out more than a few yards of line. The multiplier gave the angler a much higher rate of retrieve, but most designs had brass gears, which ground to pieces if they were put under any kind of strain. The illustration shows a clamp foot multiplier - click on it for a better view.

From the days of the Treatyse, anglers had had to twist their own fly lines, generally out of horsehair, but the industrial revolution changed all that. The new ease with which machines could be invented and produced had its first consequences for fly fishing: a variety of tapered manufactured lines became available.

   The new lines were tapered, and could be cast with greater accuracy than hand-woven horsehair. The mid-eighteenth century marked the beginning of the end of the use of level lines which incorporated both the running line and the fly line. By 1850, tapered reel lines were pretty much standard issue and it was quite routine for fishermen to reverse a fly line when one end had worn. However, the rapid advances in line manufacture brought a new set of problems in their wake. By the late eighteenth century lines woven from silk and horsehair had appeared, and by the early nineteenth twisted and plaited silk lines had come on the market. Horsehair lines had many disadvantages: they were very light, couldn't be 'shot' easily and had awful memory, particularly when newly-wound off one of the narrow spindled reels in use at the time. On the other hand, silk lines absorbed water very quickly, wore out quickly, and became too heavy to cast with; a problem which would not be resolved until finely-plaited dressed silk lines became widely available in the 1890s. Mixed silk and hair lines were an unhappy compromise, the two materials having quite different properties, but nonetheless they were widely used. They were expensive, wore out quickly, lacked strength, kinked easily, and owing to the protrusion of numberless points of hair ran very badly through the rod rings.

By the end of the century, many fishermen were buying their flies from tackle dealers, rather than tying their own. If considerable advances in rods, reels and lines, had occurred, trout and salmon flies saw very little change in the eighteenth century. In 1790, a fisherman could turn up with Cotton's selection in his fly box and few would have remarked upon it; forty years later he would have been laughed at. It was the calm before the storm.


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