Fly Fishing's History in the United States

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin takes us back through time to the beginning of fly fishing in the U.S. and how this popular sport evolved to where it is now!

A womans hand holds a fly rod. She is wearing waders and there is a sunset in the background.

Photo by Samantha DeLeo 

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In the Beginning…

Fly fishing is believed to have first begun around the second century in modern-day Rome. It was popular in the 13th century in England, and during the 16th century, fly fishers in England had developed longer rods with hand-crafted lines. It is believed that the excess line was wound on a wooden stick. It was also during this time that casting started to take shape.

At the beginning of fly-fishing’s popularity here in the USA, in the late 19th century, information was scarce and kept secret by those learning the skills and use of the equipment it required. Only a few practitioners of the sport were willing to share their newly acquired knowledge. Thanks to them, the sport has evolved to the immense popularity it enjoys today. Who were these champions of fly-fishing, and where did all this happen?

Nestled in and around New York’s Catskill Mountains were several streams, many spring-fed, that remained cool during the warmer months of summer. Like the Beaverkill River, Esopus Creek, Neversink River, Willowemoc Creek, and West Branch Delaware River, many of these streams became the bastion of beginning fly fishers here in the U.S. as these waters held good quantities of native brook trout. These spots are still popular locations for fly fishers to test their luck and skills today.

The Early Years

Probably the most guarded secrets in the early days were the materials and methods for fly tying. A common method for learning how to tie a particular fly was to purchase one and slowly take it apart carefully so you could see the individual pieces of material used. This was not very efficient as only those who hunted might recognize a particular feather or clump of hair used.

Finding the same material to make your own copy of these early flies was only the first challenge to overcome. Rendering the pelts and skins into a condition where they could be preserved and stored, was a set of skills known to only those who practiced taxidermy. These folks were not about to give away their trade secrets freely. It took a lot of effort to gather the knowledge required to be successful.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the popularity of fly-fishing in the Catskills had become well established. Several young couples (Harry and Elsie Darbee and Winnie and Walt Dette) had mastered some of the mysteries of fly tying and produced flies in their homes in Livingston Manor and Roscoe, New York. They are all legends in the sport to this day.

A book called "The Dettes, a Catskill Legend".

The Dettes, A Catskill Legend - A great book about the pioneering family of fly fishing in the Catskill area!

Starting to Take Shape

In the very early days of fly-fishing, there were no widely known fly shops. Commercial production of fishing flies had not happened yet. There were a few folks who had developed a fly pattern that was readily taken by fish as they were realistic imitations of natural food the fish ate. In recognition of their contribution, the fly pattern was named after them.

One of these practitioners was Lee Wulff. I met him and spoke to him a number of times in my early days in the sport. The first time was when I watched him tie one of his patterns on a #14 size hook at a fly-fishing show. It was done quickly, and the fly came out in exact proportions for the hook size. What was impressive about this is he did not use a fly-tying vise. He held the hook in his fingers while tying. It was a genuine wow moment. Here are a few of Lee Wulff’s patterns.

Three flies for fly fishing. On the left is the Grey Wulff, in the middle is the Royal Wulff, and on the right is the Grizzly Wulff.

Coming up in the Catskills

The Catskill region fly fishers produced several patterns over the years that are still catching fish to this day. In particular, dry fly patterns that have remained classics were a mainstay of the Catskill fisheries. Some of the best were done by Art Flick. He was always ready to share his knowledge and wrote books still in print. He got some of his colleagues in fly tying who were specialists in other types of flies to contribute to one of his books (Master Fly-Tying Guide). This is a great book to have if you are into fly tying! Here are a few samples of Art Flick’s patterns.

Three flies for fly fishing. On the left is the March Brown, in the middle is the Grey Fox, and on the right is the Hendrickson.

These storied waters of the Catskills still get a lot of fishing pressure and have all through the last century. They have been impacted drastically at times by weather events with flooding and freeze-ups. The fish populations have remained resilient even though the water releases from dams in the area were not what they should have been.

Thanks to All, Now Let's Get Fish’n!

A group of people stand near a river.

Opening Day Junction Pool Roscoe NY. Photo courtesy of Robert Levin

Thanks to the efforts of local chapters of organizations like the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, a lot of restoration and conservation work has been done in these areas. I was able to do my part in the local chapters of both of these organizations in this area. This has hopefully helped in maintaining these fisheries. This area had been fished since the late 1800s by folks like Theodore Gordon, but at the time, their efforts were not well known by the general population. This article is by no means a complete history of this area. There were many folks who contributed to the efforts of developing this area and maintaining it. If you would like to read a more detailed account of the Catskill fly fisheries’ creation and how it evolved, Catskill Rivers: Birthplace of American Fly Fishing by Austin M. Francis is an amazing place to start. Ready to get fly fishing? Get outfitted by professional Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated, and we will point you in the right direction!

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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