Brief History of Fly Tying
Fly tying has come a long way since its crude beginnings in the early 19th century. There seems to be conflicting dates but you get the general idea. The history of fly tying is concomitantly tied to the evolution and history of fly fishing. The basic fly tying methods and techniques have not changed dramatically since the origins but there have been sensational changes in the tools and materials that are used, especially with synthetics, hook designs, and vises.
The first flies were tied bare handed, literally, but the advent of vises made the whole process a bit easier. Even to this day tyers aim to impress others by tying flies with their bare hands. This really makes no sense to me because we have vises to utilize; however, I guess it can be equated to hunting with a traditional long bow and arrow instead of a high powered rifle. The process takes one back to the roots and tradition of the activity.
One of the earliest references to the use of a fly tying vise is in Ogden on Fly Tying (London, 1887). The first vises were a crude rendition of today's versions but they did the job and allowed for more detailed work compared to holding the hook with the bare hand. Similar to whip finishing by hand as opposed to using a great little tool fly tyers affectionately call a whip finisher.
Through the years, much has been written about the imitation theories of fly design but not all successful fly patterns actually imitate something to the fish. At the same time, some patterns don't catch any fish at all. Back to the drawing board.
Patterns are often categorized as attractors, imitators, attractor/imitators, impressionistic, searchers, etc... Today, there is a huge range of fly patterns that are both documented and undocumented. These patterns were created for a multitude of species, including trout, salmon, steelhead, Atlantic salmon, carp, bass, bonefish, tarpon, trevally, pike, and the list goes on. In fact, just about every species in the world is sought after by fly fisherperson's. Fly anglers are even constructing flies that catch various species of fish that forage on vegetable matter and plankton, like the elusive milkfish and grass carp.
The options are endless and the amount of patterns in the world today is almost infinite. Technological advancements in the field have a lot to do with this phenomenon but we must also honor numerous icons for their creative spark and motivation to better fly fishing and fly tying- Marbury, LaFontaine, Whitlock, Swisher, Richards, Marinaro, etc., etc.. If you're not familiar with these names you need to do a bit of research and reading; they come highly recommended. These great minds have paved the way for us to be able to do what we are doing today. They were well ahead of their time.
Plate from Ogden on Fly Tying (London 1887)