One of the things that you have time to do when you’re retired is to read all of those books that you purchased years ago, with good intent; the ones that never got cracked because you either didn’t have the time or the inclination. For me, one such book is: Fishing from the Earliest Times, by William Radcliffe.
Radcliffe explores the very early literature in search of references to fishing of any kind. I was interested in tracing the roots of fly fishing, so I figured that this would be one of the topics covered in this book; and it is.
According the Radcliffe, and others, the first reference to the use of an artificial fly occurs about 200 years AD; making the use of the artificial fly at least 1,800 year old. And since the reference is a description of a practice already in place, one may somewhat reasonably conclude that the artificial fly probably goes back considerably further; probably into pre-Christian times.
The first reference comes from a Roman named Claudius Aelianus, who penned a work called: Natural History; a work that became the standard text for the study of Zoology for many decades. Within this work, he describes the way that fly fishing is performed in Macedonia. Here’s what he has to say about the Macedonian fishers:
“ I have heard of the Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Bercea and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astraeus, and in there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed on a fly particular to that country, which hovers over the river. It is not like flies found elsewhere, nor does it resemble a wasp in appearance, nor in shape would one justly describe it as a midge or a bee, yet it has something of each of these. In boldness it is like a fly, in size you might call it a midge, it imitates the color of a wasp and it hums like a bee. The natives generally call is the Hippouros.”
It strikes me that the speckled fish could be a type of Brown Trout, a trout known to have its origins in Europe. Other reference allude to “red spots” when talking about these fish; consistent with them being Browns. The fly looses me, somewhat. But what follows is a description of the kind of artificial fly that the Macedonians used to catch these speckled-skinned fish:
“They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers which grow under a rooster’s wattles, and which in color are like wax.”
So, the red wool is easy to understand and the feathers come from what we would call a rooster neck/cape today. Easy enough!
And one thing that does stand out clearly, is that this first description of a fly is a description of what we would call today a Streamer.
Being an experimentalist of sorts, I wanted to try to tie up this first fly; simple materials and, likely, a hook size that’s easy to work with. The wool is clearly wound around the body, probably in a manner similar to how we wind on a wool body today; there aren’t too many ways to do this unless you get into weaving the body, which I doubt the Macedonians did.
The problem in interpretation lies in the words “fix on”. How did they fix them to the wool? It’s unclear from the translation and there are certainly many ways and many places to attach feathers to a fly body.
So, here are some variations on a common theme; red wool body and two wax-colored rooster cape feathers. I used Mustad #34011 streamer hooks in 1/0 size; reasoning that small hooks were probably not available at that time. It’s sort of an “in search of” type of exercise; seeking to see what the first described fly might actually have looked like.
Based on the person who described this first fly, I call these patterns the “Claudy” variations.
Here’s one with wings mounted vertically and attached one on either side of the hook; I figured that paired feathers mounted on top of the hook was something that came along at a much later time and that a side mounting might be a more logical choice. I made the wing about 2 ½ times the length of the body. One of the nice “extras” of side-tyed wings is that the lower forward barbs hang down below the hook, like a throat. This is because of the nature of the coarse wool body, which tends to want to separate the barbs, as opposed to keeping them together:
I also placed these side-mounted wings in an open configuration with respect to the top of the hook, so that their action in the water would be less inhibited:
Here’s another; this one with a wing and a throat:
And one with a wing and a tail:
This one is my personal favorite; two hackles tied in at the tail and palmered up the body, but my guess is that the technique of palmering did not make its way into fly tying for many centuries after this first Macedonian description:
This is the way that I think the fly was actually tied. Why? Because it’s simple and it’s easy. My guess is that the Macedonians cared very little for the technique of tying a fly and that what they really cared about was tying up a lure quickly; one that would land them some fish. This version ties in the hackle as a stacked pair; horizontally fixed onto the hook. Tying in hackles flat also gives the feather good side-to-side motion in the water; something that vertically tied hackles don’t generally give you, unless you retrieve them in a specific manner. It's somewhat akin to today's Dee salmon fly patterns:
Here’s the same version shot from above:
So, who knows what this originally described Macedonian fly actually looked like; your guess is as good as mine.
What we do know is that it was a streamer pattern and that it was very simply constructed; being made of only two major materials. We also know that it’s not a big step to go from these simple Claudy patterns to what you commonly see being tied up today for streamers. So, the evolution of streamers has been a very slow one.
I’m going to do a little more digging on this topic, but trying to put the initial pieces together has been fun and if I can ever find some good trout water again, I’m going to give each of them a try.
First I like your style and job you did with this flies,but I have some thing to ad ...
That first fly was not streamer for sure ,and it was probably wet with two wings and that hackle is more like color of honey,because wax in that days (and we still make it here same way) was used from bees ....
Macedonia is not so far from my country and that style of fishing with 2 or 3 wet flies on wooden stick with no reel is still common for most of Balcans ...
MJ, That's very helpful. Do you think that they had hooks back then (circa 200 AD) that were small enough to be used for wet flies? If so, then I would tend to agree with you. I thought that small hooks; such as those for wets, would be a technological stretch for the early Macedonians. But, maybe not. Let me know what you think.
There's another thing that fits very nicely with what you say about the type of fishing that is still practiced in the Balkans. This comes from Radcliffe's book where he translates from Aelianus' work; the translation is by the way, from the Greek, even though Aelianus was himself a Roman. It comes from the same paragraph where he describes the red wool/wax-colored hackled fly; here it is:
"Their rod is 6 ft. long and their line is the same length."
When I first read this I though "Tenkara". But, it seems very unlikely to me that Japanese fishing influence had found its way to the late Roman empire. So, my first thought is that Tenkara-style fishing developed independently, in more than one place; Europe being a second location; perhaps the original location.
What you say about the way that fishing is still done by some people in the Balkans confirms this.
The hackle I used is cream-colored, but with the lighting I use for shooting the photos, it comes out looking almost completely white. Maybe a light ginger hackle would be a more accurate way to go. It would certainly be closer to the color of bees wax. I'll see what I have on hand. As you all know, getting reasonable rooster capes is not so easy these days............
Pocono - I think you would enjoy reading Andrew Herd's book, "The Fly", subtitled "two thousand years of fly fishing". There are several versions of the Macedonian fly pictured. Andrew's book is considered THE tome on fly fishing's world-wide history. Fred Buller, another of the world's eminent fly fishing historian, wrote the forward. I guess I'd have to say I doubt the fly was a streamer, too.
I've never met Andrew in person, but have talked to him on the phone and via the internet many times, and his sense of humor pervades his history text delightfully.
A good friend, Paul Schullery, wrote the THE book on American fly fishing history. You might find it interesting as well.
I'm just SO happy that your thread didn't start out talking about how fly fishing all started with Dame Juliana in the 1400's. Then we'd have really had to rock and roll around here!
One of the coolest occasions I had in my old job was re-discovering the oldest known existing flies, tied in Ireland in the 1790's, with impeccable provenance, even down to their bills of sale. cool flies.
You and MJ have convinced me and I'm going to have a look at tying up this "first fly" as a wet.
From another source, I've found that the smallest hooks that come from the Greco-Roman period; un-earthed in Cyprus in 1894 and now housed at the British Museum, are on the order of 1/4" at the bend. This was a perfect bend hook (or at least it approximated a perfect bend). I'll have a look at what sizes of wet fly hooks give a bend width of about that size and proceed from there.
I'll also order up Herd's book, but I want to have a little more fun with this fly first....
One of the things that's both curious and interesting is that between the period of approx. 200 AD (Aelianus' recount) and the time that Dame Juliana wrote her treatise, there's isn't any mention at all; at least not that I've seen referenced, of fly fishing. It's like fly fishing took a Rip Van Winkle-like nap for almost 1,300 years! It's also interesting to note that both Aelianus' and Dame Juliana's recounts are historical; describing what has already come into existence; not the announcement of anything new. So, there was apparently a lot going on in the evolution of fly fishing that never got properly documented in terms of timing.
Looks like you are having fun, and that is certainly what its all about from my perspective. I'd suggest the soft cover copy of "The Fly"; it has a lot more in the way of color illustrations than the original hardcover copy. He also has a history website the url of which I can't remember, but I bet if you google Dr. Andrew Herd (he's an MD) or Andrew Herd, you'll find it. good stuff.
"These fish feed on a fly particular to that country, which hovers over the river". not to rock the boat, but, if the fly hovers over the river, and it is being imitated, then, it could be a dry. The fact that the method being used is so interesting to the author (the Macedonian way of catching fish) indicates it is somewhat different than what others are doing, which leads me to believe that you may be reading about a type of fishing where the fly sets on the surface (dry) or in the surface film (a drowned fly).
It appears that this fly, if you believe what you read on the internet, may have been an attractor, and not necessarily an exact imitation of the bug though....
'They fasten red wool round a hook, and fit it on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Then they throw their snare, and the fish attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful, when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive'
So, this would lead me to build a fly with spread wings, about the size of a small bee or large midge.
Anyone from that area know of a red midge, wasp looking bug? This is where I would start, see what the real thing looks like, how it acts, and then imitate it with the fly. I have to believe they were trying to imitate the original bug when they tied the fly, it may have gotten bigger, or more red as time went on though, due to trial and error.
Just a thought.
---------- Post added at 06:03 AM ---------- Previous post was at 05:39 AM ----------
more stuff found on the net....
“I have hard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: Between Beroea and Thesalonica runs a river called the Astraeus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins. . .These fish feed on a fly peculiar to the country. . ."
"When the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above, lest it should scare away its prey; then coming up by its shadow, it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle a goose from the farmyard; having done this it goes below the rippling water. . .
“Anglers are aware of the whole procedure, but never by chance use the natural fly as bait. . .Anglers accordingly leave the fly alone, resenting their cursed behavior when captures: but they get the better of the fish by a clever and wily contrivance of their art. They fasten red wool around a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers which grown under a cock’s wattles and which in color they are like wax. . . . When the tricky fly is lowered, a fish is attracted by the color and rises madly at the pretty thing that will give him a rare treat, but on opening his jaws is pierced by the hook and finds poor enjoyment of the feast when he is captured.”
One other interpretation says "they colour the feathers with wax" wax, would be a floatant, and this again, could lead one to believe they are making a dry fly....