Ultimate Guide • Updated Fri, Oct 13, 2023
The fly rod, while simple in structure, has quite a complex origin story. Dive into the international history and evolution of the modern fly rod in this article.
Courtesty of santypan.
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The first documented use of a rod for fishing dates back before 2000 B.C.E., although historians know fishing with nets for sustenance was born well before that. Archaeological records from Ancient Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Macedonia, Trinidad and Tobago, and China all unearth traces of fishing rods in these respective histories. These initial rods were quite rudimentary — a flexible stick with a horsehair line. Hazel shoots, willow, bamboo, and other flexible woods made for ideal rod building material.
Over the centuries, as agricultural practices progressed food security increased, and civilizations changed on a large scale, so did fishing. By the mid- 1400’s, fishing was no longer just a means of acquiring food, but also a suitable activity for recreation. The birth of recreational angling catalyzed the evolution of fishing rods from a glorified sapling into the scientifically developed tackle of today. As recreational fishing, particularly fly fishing, gained popularity among the upper class of Western Europe, rod design changed for ease of use. Rods at this juncture were typically around 14 feet long and broke down into 2 sections. Longer lines weren't developed until the 1600s, allowing anglers to cast further than ever before. What arguably progressed fishing even further was the invention of the fishing reel.
While the direct invention of fly fishing is debated, the Romans were the first Western country to document fly fishing — that is, fishing with an artificial insect imitation. Claudius Aelienus’ writings in 200 C.E. publicize fly fishing as a method of fishing, attributing its origins to an area formerly part of Macedonia. Stone inscriptions in Ancient Egypt and ancient documentation in China also mention fishing, but not in this capacity. Modern fly fishing, however, is accredited to English aristocrat Charles Cotton in 1676 — when Charles and author Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler. This book documents the first modern fly fishing techniques in freshwater and provides the first written guidance on how to catch trout using a fly rod.
In Japan, an art akin to fly fishing (known as tenkara) was necessary for people to fish to survive in remote areas of the mountains — where mountain streams ran rich with native cherry salmon, yamame, amago, and iwana. Tenkara offers a much simpler approach to fishing — one without a reel; the prototypical cane pole. While documentation is limited, archaeological evidence of tenkara’s bamboo rods and hand-tied flies dates back to the 9th century.
Fly fishing in the greater United Kingdom region became more popular and a love for the game developed as an influx of wealth and recreation changed society. With a new dichotomy emerging between sustenance fishing and recreational angling, rod builders began catering their equipment to these different markets. Over the next 3 centuries, fishing rods developed into many variations to be used for grocery-getting or sport, combining new materials and techniques to produce better rods for each intended use case. This corollary of the fly rods origin story saw the birth of the two-handed spey rod. Spey casting involves the use of a supercharged, modified roll cast. This technique was developed to maximize casting distance while fishing the rivers of England, Ireland, and Scotland for wild Atlantic salmon and sea-run brown trout.
On the other side of the Atlantic, anglers in the United States also took a burgeoning interest in fly fishing as a new activity for recreation. While fly fishing’s popularity increased, equipment improved. Rods became longer and lighter to allow for ease of use, castability, and high-stick tactics necessary on the more turbulent waters of the American West.
Most ancient rods were made of hazel shoots, saplings, or bamboo. In the American West, Greenheart wood was the most common material used for a rod. This was often hollowed out to decrease weight and improve castability. Japanese rod builders used bamboo, relying on its strength, flexibility, and hollow structure. Bamboo rods became more widely available outside of Japan with the worldwide ubiquity of the tree and its wood — as it was globalized by trade throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the 1840s, Samuel Phillippe, a Pennsylvanian blacksmith, violin maker, and woodworker, created the first commercially successful American-made, split bamboo fishing rod. In the 1870s, Hiram Leonard, a fisherman in Maine created a groundbreaking advancement in the world of fly fishing which we know today as the split cane fly rod. Hiram’s rods and their layouts are still emulated in modern rod designs. They have since evolved into other materials, such as fiberglass and graphite.
Fiberglass rods are extremely durable and flexible and have a slower casting stroke or “action” to them. Graphite rods, while more delicate, are light, much more rigid. Graphite lends itself well to a much faster action than fiberglass. This material advancement allowed rod builders to create the tools that birthed modern-day casting techniques.
Fly rods are now mass-produced both domestically and internationally. They run the gamut of composition, characteristics, and price. They are tailored to specific species, regions, and fly fishing techniques. There are rods for dry flies and rods for streamers. Rods for musky, tarpon, and trout; for single- and double-hand use; for high-stick nymphing, dry fly fishing, and much more. Once a luxury good of the super-elite, lightweight, and durable rods are now available to the masses, broadening fly fishing’s exposure within different cultures and economic backgrounds. Today, as rod builders continue to design state-of-the-art tackle, it’s clear that the evolution of the modern fly rod — and the community of anglers that wield them — is far from its final form.
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