The Art and History of Fly Tying

Fred Klein Author, Fly tyer and fisher of early traditional flies. Fly fishing historian, author and speaker.

Native Fin, a brook trout fin wet fly pattern designed by Fred Klein for brook trout in Maine and the Pennsylvania Appalachian Mountains

My journey in pursuit of trout with the fly began 45 years ago with a new fly rod and instructions to cast and drift a fly. What a gift that was. The woods and waters of Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Mountains and beyond have brought a life of admiration for the wilderness,
forests, wildlife, and a thirst for “what lies beyond the next bend in the stream and over the mountain.”

The history of fly fishing is a rich and romantic culmination of woodsmen, artists and literature which lies at the heart of early American history. The flies from the 1800s and early 1900s tell a story of their originators: the men and women in pursuit of wild trout and salmon. Their names are recorded in the annals of history along with their flies and stories.

They fished the waters of Maine, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and the Rocky Mountains, to name just a few places where these pioneers made their mark. Many of the patterns from the early years of fly fishing in the US (and elsewhere) were elaborate, colorful and artistically designed. They were flies tied on large hooks. Many were tied in hand with no vise, and often on the river banks where the authors fished.

Several exhaustive books were published with descriptions and painted plate illustrations of the most popular fly patterns of their era, giving us a glimpse into the details of the flies and techniques used. The first was Charles F. Orvis’s Fishing with the Fly then Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories.

Charles F. Orvis of Manchester Vermont, the originator of the lightweight perforated fly reel as well as the first mail order catalog company in America set out to categorize and name the flies being used by fishermen all over America, writing a book Fishing with the Fly (1883) and a decade later his daughter Mary Orvis Marbury who took over the fly tying operations of the Orvis company wrote another book, Favorite Flies and their histories in (1892) both books with painted plate illustrations and descriptions of 382 flies common during the mid to late 1800’s in America. Both books are brilliant works of literature including fly fishing stories and poetry giving us a glimpse into the methods and techniques of the era.

Tied from Fishing with the Fly 1883 From Favorite Flies and their Histories 1892

Ray Bergman, born in 1911, was an intelligent and passionate fisherman, publishing his most influential book, Trout, in 1938, just before World War II. He fished extensively throughout the United States and Canada, becoming the editor of Outdoor Life for three decades. A brilliant work of art and literature, Trout included painted color plates of 440 wet flies, streamers and dry flies. It displays a remarkably extensive collection of flies, including many patterns dating back to early America and many originally from England, Scotland and Ireland.

There are a number of talented contemporary fly tiers who have pursued the classical tradition. Our endeavor is to continue the traditional methods and pass them on to the next generation. I hope you might tie a few old flies, and perhaps cast them downstream.

For tutorials, articles, videos and classic fly gallery with over 350 flies visit www.grizzlykingfly.com

11 thoughts on “The Art and History of Fly Tying

  1. Mary S. Kuss

    Just beautiful, Fred, your ties are real eye candy. But beyond their beauty, if you can bring yourself to put such gorgeous works of art into the water these classic patterns will still catch trout. Needless to say, the more pragmatic but far less attractive fly patterns of more recent vintage work as well. But the quality of our angling experience can sometimes depend on the aesthetics of its many components. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Fred Klein

      Hi Mary
      The old fly patterns surely were beautiful and artistically designed. If you consider that many of them were originated during the Victorian era and every small town probably had a dress and hat shop for some of the materials. Carrie Stevens was a seamstress before beginning her elaborate fly tying career. We look at some of the old fly patterns and wonder how would they ever catch fish? A closer look at the fly underwater and in the current tells the story when the fly takes on a whole new personality where It counts. I fish these old patterns all the time and actually have found them to be excitingly effective. Take a look at the videos on Instagram under grizzlykingfly or on my website under Streamside Journal for underwater videos of classic flies in the current. Thank you so much for the encouragement. Fred

      Reply
    1. Fred Klein

      Early American flies were elaborate and created when the brook trout was the predominant game fish in the northern states. Flash and color was the main theme. Thank you!
      Fred

      Reply
  2. Michael Vorhis

    Excellent article Fred, thanks. I like how fly fishing history is so rich in wet fly lore. It’s an old, old style and has a lot of art to it, at the vise and on the stream. There’s no end to what it can teach us about the behavior and perceptions of the fish.

    I will never tie a fly as well as you do, and if I ever managed to do it once by luck I could certainly never toss it out where a fish would chew it to ribbons. Best that I keep on making ratty-looking things and admire your work from afar.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Fred Klein

      Hi Mike, thanks for your comments. Two days ago in a Pennsylvania Appalachian wild trout water near home I was casting a size 2 blue jay wet fly on a limerick salmon hook. In clear water I watched a very large predator brown trout come from under a log and slam the fly, snapping my six pound mono tippet. The wing was the size of a spoon. The attractor qualities of the old patterns still work as well as they did 200 years ago and just as exciting to fish with today. I would recommend a simple pattern called the St. Patrick from Ray Bergman’s Trout 1938. (quick ties work just as well for fishing) Take a look at grizzlykingfly.com Streamside Journal for videos of the effectiveness and underwater footage of these old patterns. Thank you very much!
      Fred

      Reply
  3. Freddy Block

    Wonderful read and amazing tying! The flies are fine art and gorgeous to look at. You do these flies and their history due justice. It’s so nice that you are keeping these classics and their history “current”! Thanks you for that!

    Reply
    1. Fred Klein

      Hi Freddy,
      The history of fly fishing is an intriguing and passionate part of the American story. The old flies tell a tale of adventure and creativity that takes us back through exciting times even before America was a country.
      Always encouraging, thank you my friend
      Fred

      Reply
  4. Steve Nack

    Beautiful flies Fred. I too am a fan of Ray Bergman and have tied many of the patterns in his book. The trout fin is a particular favorite of mine.
    I hope that at some point you got to meet Don Bastian, who was a champion of these flies. He had a complete set of all of Bergman’s flies in frames. He brought these to our club some years ago…just amazing.
    Sadly he was extremely ill with cancer when I last talked to him.

    Reply

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