A Brief History of Fly Rods
I’ve been wanting to write a brief blog-length but relatively complete history of fly rods for a long time.
If I had to design a college course on the history of fly fishing and fly rods, it would be broken up into three parts: books, people, and technology.
The information below is a living document, if you will. That means we’ll be changing this, updating it, and adding to it as time goes on.
But we had to start somewhere so here goes nothing.
3 Historical Fly Fishing Books
1. Aelian’s Natural History
The first mention of fly fishing is in Aelian's Natural History, a work of natural history written in Greek by Claudius Aelianus around AD 200. Aelian's work provides a description of various types of fishing, including fly fishing, which he refers to as "stile fishing."
In his description of stile fishing, Aelian notes that anglers used artificial flies made from feathers and other materials to imitate insects and other prey. He also mentions the use of long rods and delicate lines, which were used to present the flies to the fish in a natural and convincing manner.
Aelian's Natural History is considered one of the earliest written records of fly fishing and provides important insight into the ancient origins of the sport. It is a valuable historical document that has been widely studied and referenced by historians, anglers, and enthusiasts.
2. Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle
"The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle" is a 14th century manuscript that is considered one of the earliest written works on fly fishing.
The author of the treatise is believed to be Dame Juliana Berners, a nun and avid angler who lived in England during the late Middle Ages.
But the treatise is anonymous, and the true identity of its author has been the subject of much speculation and debate among historians and scholars.
The treatise is written in Middle English and provides detailed instructions on the art of fly fishing, including how to make and use flies, cast a line, and play and land fish.
In the poem, she describes the use of a rod and line for fishing, with the angler casting an artificial fly to simulate the movement of live insects.
In addition to its practical information on fly fishing, "The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle" is also notable for its role in popularizing the sport.
The treatise was widely circulated in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it is credited with spreading the popularity of fly fishing throughout Europe and beyond.
The Treatyse is considered the first recorded English text on fly fishing, and it provides a detailed description of the equipment and techniques used in the sport.
It was written in the 14th century, and its language and style suggest that it was composed by someone who was well-educated and knowledgeable about the sport of fishing.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the author of The Treatyse, the treatise remains an important historical document and a valuable resource for anyone interested in the early history of fly fishing.
It provides important insights into the development of fly fishing equipment and techniques and is widely referenced and studied by historians, anglers, and enthusiasts.
Today, "The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle" is considered a classic work in the history of fly fishing and is widely recognized as one of the earliest written records of the sport.
3. The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton
The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton is considered another classic text on fly fishing, among other types of fishing. The book was first published in 1653 and has since been widely regarded as one of the most important and influential works on angling and fishing.
The Complete Angler is a philosophical treatise on the art of fishing and the joys of angling. It describes various types of fishing, including fly fishing, and provides detailed instructions on the equipment, techniques, and tactics used for each type of fishing. The book is considered a timeless classic, and its observations and advice on fishing are still relevant and widely quoted today.
In addition to its practical advice and insights on fishing, The Complete Angler is also known for its pastoral and philosophical tone, which has helped to cement its reputation as one of the most important works on angling.
The book has been widely read and studied for centuries and remains a must-read for anyone interested in the history and traditions of fly fishing.
Aelian’s Natural History, The Treatyse, and the Complete Angler are the three primary books in the history of fly fishing.
Obviously, there are numerous modern books on the sport that advance the technological understanding of the sport.
But these three works are the primary historical works that launched the interest and understanding of fly fishing.
Now let’s turn our attention to the construction techniques of fly rods through time.
Fly Rod Technology throughout History
Greenheart Fly Rods
Over the centuries, the design and construction of fly rods evolved and became more sophisticated.
Early fly rods were typically made from greenheart, a strong but flexible wood that grew in abundance in Europe.
Greenheart fly rods were fly rods made from a dense, strong wood called greenheart, which is native to South America and West Africa.
Greenheart was used to make fly rods in the early-to-mid 20th century, before the widespread adoption of fiberglass and graphite rods.
Greenheart was prized for its strength and durability, as well as its ability to absorb shock and provide good casting performance.
The wood was typically split into strips, which were then glued together to form the blank for the rod. The finished rods were often varnished or oiled to protect the wood and preserve its appearance.
Greenheart fly rods were popular among anglers because they offered a nice balance of strength and sensitivity, and were often considered to have a more traditional and classic feel than modern rods made from fiberglass or graphite.
However, they were also heavier and more difficult to manufacture than modern materials, and they required more maintenance to keep them in good condition.
Today, greenheart fly rods are considered to be a part of the history of fly fishing, and are sought after by collectors and enthusiasts.
While they are no longer widely used for fishing, they remain a testament to the craftsmanship and dedication of the anglers and rod makers who used and made them.
Bamboo Fly Rods
By the 19th century, bamboo had become the material of choice for fly rods, as it was stronger, lighter, and more flexible than greenheart.
Bamboo fly rods in the 19th century were made by a process known as rod-making or rod-splitting.
This process involved selecting straight-grained, mature bamboo stalks and splitting them into thin strips, which were then glued together and shaped into a rod.
The first step in making a bamboo fly rod was selecting the right bamboo. This typically involved looking for stalks that were straight-grained and had no knots or defects.
Once the bamboo was harvested, it was split into thin strips using a specialized tool called a rod-splitting knife. These strips were then sorted and graded based on their quality and thickness.
Next, the strips were glued together to form the blank, or rough shape, of the rod. This was typically done using a special glue that was strong and flexible enough to withstand the forces of casting and playing a fish.
The glued blank was then shaped into the desired form using a combination of heat and pressure.
Once the blank was shaped, the rod-maker would then apply multiple coats of varnish to protect the bamboo and give it a smooth, glossy finish.
Finally, the rod was fitted with hardware, such as the reel seat, ferrules, and guides, and the line was attached.
Throughout the 19th century, bamboo fly rods were made by hand and were considered highly prized possessions. They were also relatively expensive, and only the wealthiest anglers could afford to purchase them.
Despite the cost, bamboo fly rods remained popular for their strength, flexibility, and sensitivity, and they continue to be used by fly fishers today as a nod to the sport's history and tradition.
The first companies to make fly rods are not known with certainty, as the early history of fly fishing equipment is not well documented.
However, the sport of fly fishing became more popular in the 19th century, and it was during this time that the first companies dedicated to the production of fly fishing equipment emerged.
Some of the early companies to make fly rods include Leonard Rod Company, founded in 1879 in Central Bridge, New York, and Thomas Chubb, a rod maker based in London, England.
These early companies and their successors helped to popularize fly fishing and paved the way for the development of more advanced fly rods and other fishing equipment.
Any discussion of the history of fly rods would be incomplete without a discussion of Orvis.
Orvis is a privately-held, American-based company that was founded in 1856 by Charles F. Orvis.
The company started as a fishing tackle retailer, selling high-quality fishing equipment and supplies to anglers and hunters.
Charles F. Orvis was born in 1836 in Vermont, United States. He was raised in a family with a passion for the outdoors and fishing, and he developed a love for both at an early age.
In 1856, Charles established the Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont as a fishing tackle retailer, selling high-quality fishing equipment and supplies to anglers and hunters.
He was an avid angler and outdoor enthusiast, and he saw an opportunity to bring his passion and expertise to the sport of fishing.
He started the company with a focus on producing high-quality fishing equipment that was accessible to anglers of all skill levels, and he quickly gained a reputation for producing some of the best fishing gear on the market.
Throughout his life, Charles Orvis was known for his innovation and quality, and he was recognized as a leader in the fishing and hunting industry.
He was dedicated to producing high-quality fishing gear, and he continued to lead the Orvis Company for many years.
His commitment to innovation and quality helped to establish the Orvis Company as one of the largest and most respected companies in the field, and his legacy continues to be felt today.
Charles Orvis died in 1915, but his company continues to be family-owned and operated, and it is still dedicated to preserving its legacy of innovation and quality for generations to come.
Over the years, the Orvis Company expanded and diversified, branching into other areas of the outdoor industry and becoming one of the largest and most respected companies in the field.
Today, the company is known for producing a wide range of products, including fly rods, reels, fishing gear, hunting equipment, and outdoor clothing and accessories.
Orvis has a long history of innovation and quality, and it has been recognized as a leader in the fishing and hunting industry for over 150 years.
Despite its growth and success, the company remains family-owned and operated, and it is committed to preserving its legacy of innovation and quality for generations to come.
Fiberglass Fly Rods
Dr. Paul J. Howald was another American inventor and engineer who was known for his contributions to the sport of fly fishing.
He was the developer of the Howald Process, a method of making fly rods that involved wrapping fiberglass around a mandrel and impregnating the fiberglass with resin to provide added strength and stiffness.
The process involves wrapping layers of fiberglass around a mandrel, which is a rod-like tool used as a form to shape the rod.
The fiberglass is then impregnated with resin to provide added strength and stiffness, and the rod is heat-cured to finish the process.
The Howald Process was a major innovation in the manufacture of fly rods, as it allowed manufacturers to produce rods that were stronger and more durable than previous models, while also reducing production time and costs.
The process was widely adopted by manufacturers and quickly became a standard in the industry.
The Shakespeare Fly Rod Company was founded in 1897 in Kalamazoo, Michigan by William Shakespeare, Jr. The company was one of the early manufacturers of fishing equipment, and it was established to meet the growing demand for high-quality fly rods and other fishing gear.
William Shakespeare, Jr. was an entrepreneur and innovator who had a passion for fishing, and he saw an opportunity to bring his skills and experience to the sport.
He started the company with a focus on producing high-quality fly rods that were accessible to anglers of all skill levels, and he quickly gained a reputation for producing some of the best fishing equipment on the market.
Shakespeare's innovative designs, attention to detail, and commitment to quality helped the company to grow rapidly, and it soon became one of the leading manufacturers of fly rods and other fishing equipment.
Over the years, the company continued to innovate and expand, and it became one of the largest and most respected fishing equipment manufacturers in the world.
Today, the Shakespeare Fly Rod Company is a subsidiary of Pure Fishing, a global fishing equipment company.
Despite its acquisition, the company continues to be recognized for its quality and innovation, and it remains one of the leading brands in the fishing industry.
The Howald Process is still used today by some manufacturers to make fly rods, although it has since been improved and modified in various ways.
Today, the process has been largely supplanted by newer, more advanced methods of making fly rods, such as the use of graphite and other high-tech materials.
Despite this, the Howald Process remains an important part of the history of fly rod manufacturing and continues to be a valuable contribution to the sport of fly fishing.
The introduction of fiberglass and other modern materials in the mid-20th century revolutionized the construction of fly rods, making them lighter, more durable, and easier to cast.
The introduction of fiberglass and other modern materials in the mid-20th century revolutionized the construction of fly rods in several ways:
1. Lighter weight: One of the biggest benefits of using fiberglass and other modern materials was that they made fly rods lighter and easier to handle. This allowed anglers to cast more easily and for longer periods of time without becoming fatigued.
2. Increased durability: Unlike bamboo, which was prone to cracking and breaking, fiberglass and other modern materials were much more durable and resistant to damage. This made fly rods more reliable and longer-lasting, reducing the need for frequent repairs or replacements.
3. Improved casting performance: Fiberglass and other modern materials also improved the casting performance of fly rods. They provided a more consistent and uniform rod action, which allowed for more accurate and longer casts. Additionally, fiberglass rods were less likely to twist or bend, which improved casting accuracy and accuracy.
4. Lower cost: Another benefit of using fiberglass and other modern materials was that they made fly rods more affordable. This allowed more people to take up fly fishing, as they could purchase a high-quality rod at a lower cost.
5. Customizability: The use of fiberglass and other modern materials also made it possible to create a wide range of fly rods with different tapers, lengths, and actions, which allowed anglers to choose the rod that best suited their needs and fishing style.
In conclusion, the introduction of fiberglass and other modern materials in the mid-20th century transformed the construction of fly rods, making them lighter, more durable, and easier to cast.
Additionally, these materials made fly rods more affordable and accessible, and allowed for greater customization, which in turn led to the continued growth and popularity of fly fishing.
Graphite Fly Rods
Today, fly rods are typically made from a range of materials, including graphite, fiberglass, and composite materials, and they come in a wide range of lengths, actions, and tapers to suit different fishing styles and species of fish.
Graphite fly rods are typically made using a process known as filament winding, where a series of high-strength graphite fibers are wound around a mandrel, or rod-shaped form, under controlled tension.
The mandrel is coated with a resin, and the graphite fibers are then wound in a specific pattern to achieve the desired strength and flexibility for the rod.
Here is a general outline of the steps involved in making a graphite fly rod:
1. Preparing the mandrel: The mandrel is coated with a release agent, which helps prevent the finished rod from sticking to it.
2. Applying the resin: A resin is applied to the mandrel, and the mandrel is then placed in a heated chamber to cure the resin and form the basic structure of the rod.
3. Wound graphite fibers: The graphite fibers are then wound around the mandrel using a computer-controlled winding machine. The fibers are arranged in specific patterns to achieve the desired strength and flexibility characteristics for the rod.
4. Curing: Once the graphite fibers have been wound, the mandrel is placed in a high-heat chamber to cure the resin and solidify the rod.
5. Finishing: After curing, the mandrel is removed and the rod is finished by trimming the ends, sanding, and applying any final coatings or finishes.
6. Hardware installation: Finally, the rod is fitted with the necessary hardware, such as the reel seat, guides, and ferrules, and is tested for accuracy and strength.
Graphite fly rods are known for their light weight, strength, and sensitivity. They offer a variety of benefits over traditional bamboo or fiberglass rods, including improved accuracy, longer casting distance, and greater sensitivity to bites.
They are also more durable and resistant to breakage, making them a popular choice for fly fishing enthusiasts.
In addition to advancements in materials, the design of fly rods has also evolved over time.
Today, fly rods are designed with specific actions and tapers to suit different fishing styles, from delicate presentations for small streams to heavy-duty rods for big game fishing.
This variety of options allows anglers to choose the right rod for the type of fishing they want to do, whether they are targeting small trout or large tarpon.
In summary, the history of fly rods has been marked by a long and continuous evolution, from the simple wooden rods of the 14th century to the modern,