Skip to main content
Original Issue


Who was the father of modern American fly-fishing? Most anglers would say, without pause, Theodore Gordon. Oh, a few might plump for George LaBranche, whose 1914 book The Dry Fly and Fast Water cocked a refreshingly American eye at stuffy British traditions, or Preston Jennings, whose Book of Trout Flies in 1935 gave anglers their first serious tome on American stream entomology. But the majority will opt for Gordon (1854-1915), the slim, dark, tubercular hermit of the Neversink who, while never writing a book of his own, nevertheless is supposed to have introduced the dry fly to America.

Bunk! So says Paul Schullery in American Fly Fishing: A History (Nick Lyons Books, $29.95). Anglers had been fishing flies "dry"—on, or at least in, the surface film—ever since they saw trout taking live flies there. Gordon "fathered" nothing of major significance, though his few writings, mainly for the British Fishing Gazette, prefigured much that came later. According to Schullery, no one really "fathered" anything in the sport, in the sense of introducing a concept where nothing relevant existed. "Fly fishing in America has evolved as the fish and their waters required," Schullery writes.

Schullery, the executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt., from 1977 to 1982, pored over hundreds of books, diaries and letters, and studied flies, rods and reels used by earlier anglers. Most fishing history, he maintains, takes the form of a Parade of Famous Dead Anglers. At first he found this parade very romantic: "A simple story, full of good, smart people who worked together for centuries to give me this grand sport. But as soon as I looked a little closer I found not history but a sort of idealization of history—a startling blend of fact, myth and hero worship."

Nowhere did he find more bombast than in the case of Gordon. In fact, Schullery points out, the man is credited with introducing or inventing nearly every important element of modern American fly-fishing: the streamer, the artificial nymph, the spare Catskill style of dry-fly tying, the concern for trout stream conservation, and insect imitation itself. Not so, says Schullery, who gives us the real stories:

•The streamer, a fly tied to imitate a small baitfish, had been fished in England at least since the 1840s. Robert Barnwell Roosevelt (Teddy's uncle) knew quite well by 1862 that the tinsel-wrapped Scarlet Ibis, with which he caught sea-run Long Island trout, was taken by them for a baitfish.

•Earlier writers like John Harrington Keene and Louis Rhead, a contemporary of Gordon's, wrote far more—and more enthusiastically—of nymphs than Gordon ever did. (Rhead, in 1922, even described a nymphing technique that, through "angler's amnesia" and each generation's need to reinvent the past, is known to us as the Leisenring Lift, after James Leisenring, who described the technique again in 1941.)

•Gordon's flies, though tied with a spare elegance, had their wings aft of the hackle. The wings themselves were slanted backward, and unlike many Catskill-style flies from Roy Steenrod to Walt Dette, they had no bare neck behind the hook eye. Gordon's were more British than American.

•Gordon was indeed concerned with the degradation of trout streams, but so were many American writers for the 60 years before he began writing.

•Tough Gordon wrote a lot about suict imitation, the flies he used and tied were largely impressionistic. His most famous, the Quill Gordon, is adaptable to the hatches of many insects on which trout feed, especially if tied in ever lighter colors as the season progresses.

The debunking of the Gordon myth, though, is only one small part of this cogent, carefully reasoned paean to the history of American fly-fishing. If it raises hackles from the Catskills to the Rockies, the Kennebec to the Sierras, all the better. As Schullery himself says, the nicest thing about fly-fishing is its "irresolvables."