The sport of fly fishing was not widely popularized in the United States until Theodore Gordon and his “company of anglers” began to pen fanciful tales in periodicals like the Fishing Gazette and Forest & Stream in the early 1900s. Stories that extolled the virtues of “fighting brownies” and “noble brook trout” entertained and inspired eastern anglers. In contrast, the wild and woolly West was largely void of detail when it came to fly fishing for trout and salmon.
In his book, American Fly Fishing, Paul Schullery references several examples of early fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest. In one account from the mid-19th century, George Suckley, a renowned scientist who wrote an 1874 monograph on the genus Salmo, described rapid snow-water streams that descended from Mt Hood as being so “thickly lined with cotton-woods, willows and squaw-bushes that it is difficult to find positions where the fly can be successfully cast. Where this can be done, trout rise boldly, and take it greedily.” Suckley later took his craft to the Puget Sound, where at Steilacom Creek several male trout over two lbs each were reportedly killed with a “large, unnatural, gaudy salmon fly.”
There’s more to be found in passages written by wandering naturalists. In a letter the “collector” David Douglas wrote to professor William Hooker in 1832, we learn that flies tied from collar feathers of a great blue heron “… will take trout like magic.” However, like most fly fishers I know, Douglas did not expand on either the time or place where these magic moments occurred.
A lengthy list of other aspiring anglers reported little success taking trout or salmon on a fly. For instance, Governor Isaac Stevens wrote “….salmon have been yet unknown to take bait or the fly.” Captain George B. MacClellan, reporting on an un-named lake in the Yakima Valley, wrote “the wretches would not rise to the fly.” The wandering artist, Paul Kane, lamented in 1847 that “….no angler, although frequent trials have been made by the most expert in the art, has yet succeeded in tempting them (salmon) to take any description of fly or bait.” The American Indian agent James G Swan also bailed on the topic. “I found that flies were of no account among these wild fish. They had not learned the ways of a civilized state of society. “
What about members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition? Surely someone in the party cast a line along the way. According to detailed journal passages, however, they were more practical than sporting when it came to angling. As a consequence most fish dinners were obtained by bartering with local Indian tribes along the way. On one occasion though, Meriwether Lewis wrote, “Goodrich who is remarkably fond of fishing caught several douzen fish of two species,…”… By the way, Private Goodrich wasn’t a fly fisher. As Lewis further elaborated: “…they bite on meat and grasshoppers….”
Members of the Expedition gave few other accounts of angling. Perhaps it was easier to barter for fish from Indian tribes along the way? Or, perhaps most of their attention was on salmon.
Native American Fishing Practices
For centuries, Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest have practiced a culture deeply intertwined with fish and fishing. Historically, a wide variety of fish-catching methods came into play, depending on geographic location and acquired knowledge of fish life history and behavior. For example, at large rapids such as “The Long Narrows” of the Columbia River, Indians harvested upstream migrating salmon and steelhead from wooden platforms or rock ledges using long-handled dipping or scooping nets, spears and gigs. In small streams, they trapped “mullets” (sucker) and cutthroat trout using “hempen seines” and elaborate weirs or traps constructed from bent willow and rocks. It also wasn’t unusual for spawned-out salmon to be collected and dried for eating over the winter.
Hook-and-line was used sparingly mainly by Indians because other methods were more effective. However, a passage from Lewis and Clark’s journals showcased one angling technique. On their return journey in 1806, the Expedition encountered a small Indian boy casting from the banks of the Columbia River near Plymouth, Washington. Lewis writes, “After we encamped a little Indian boy caught several chubbs with a bone …. which he substituted for a hook.” Upon further examination, it was determined that the small two-piece bone became lodged cross-wise in the fish’s mouth after it struck the “lure,” allowing the boy to bring his catch to shore.
Unlike most fishes encountered along the way, Lewis was enamored enough to describe them: “about 9 inches in length,” “white on the sides and belly and a blemish brown on the back,” “small where the tail joined the body,” and “the upper exceeded the under jaw.” The weight of evidence suggest the “chubb” of Lewis & Clark was the common minnow we now call pea mouth chub. But as is often the case with fish facts, uncertainty reigns.
Precursors to Modern Fly Fishing
Further research into the archives of Pacific Northwest history uncovered a tale that suggests the origin of fly fishing in the West did not have origin with skill and equipment passed down from our European forefathers. The event, as described by the explorer Alexander Ross on September 4, 1811, played out near the midpoint of a 600-mile canoe trip from Fort Astoria to an outpost near the Okanogan River.
Ross and his party put ashore just upstream of where the Yakima River flows into the Columbia River. Four Indians from the “Wallah Wallah” tribe arrived on horseback to join his party. One Indian cut a small patch of leather from his shirt “about the size of a small bean.” He tied the piece of leather to a section of line braided from horsehair, “entered the river a little way, sat down on a stone,” and proceeded to catch several small fish three to four inches long. Ross went on to further describe this novel form of fishing. “When the fish got hold of the bit of wet leather ….. their teeth got entangled in it, so as to give time to jerk them to shore.” The fish were subsequently roasted on willow sticks over an open fire and swallowed whole “…all in no time, as one would swallow the yolk of an egg.”
In the book, Salmon and the People, Nez Perce tribal member, Wilfred Scott, related a similar fishing technique. One difference was his great-grandmother spread out strands of horsehair at the end of the line and folded it up “just like a fly.” Scott goes on to describe, “She would drift the line through the water and when the trout would hit it she would flip them onto the bank. The fish’s teeth would become entangled in the hair.”
It would take considerable skill to catch fish without a hook. Imagine crouching low, possibly relying on a streamside boulder for cover, and making an overhand cast with the wind at your back. If your location was well chosen and your cast pure, the pull of current might take your offering into the strike zone. Perhaps you would employ a variation on the “puff and twitch” technique used by modern day fly casters, where a buoyant fly is pulled under water, after which slack is introduced to allow it to float back to the surface. If so, a series of quick jerks would “activate” the buckskin fly or ball of horsehair in a way to mimic the behavior of a struggling fish or a large aquatic insect. Patience would come into play while you watch for a splash that signifies a strike. And absent a hook to secure your prey, accurate flinging would be required.
So what were these small fishes? Ross’s brief passage yields several clues. One clue is the time of year and another is their size. That these fish rose to the surface to take a “fly” eliminates bottom-feeding fishes like suckers and sculpins. Having small teeth in their mouth suggests late-migrant juvenile Chinook salmon, possibly offspring of the giant race of “June hogs” that once spawned in the Columbia River as far upstream as Kettle Falls. Resident rainbow trout or steelhead smolts are another possibility. Native minnows can be discounted because they lack jaw teeth. Toothy piscine predators, such as bass and sunfish, were not introduced to the region until nearly a century later.
The Story of Horsehair Line
An interesting twist to this story of early fly casting involves horsehair line. European fly anglers used horsehair line for fishing as early as 500 A.D. Classic trout lines were described as being made from twisted horsehair that tapered down from twenty to as few as three hairs. This arrangement matches up to something akin to a 4x tippet rated at about 10 pound breaking strength.
Prior to the arrival of horses to the region, Native Americans braided fishing line from native plants that included nettle and hemp. “Gorges” fashioned from bone, wood, or stone were used as hooks. Fur traders later introduced metal hooks and manufactured lines.
After reading Ross’s journal entry, I wondered: Did Columbia River tribes pick up the concept of horsehair line from earlier explorers to the region or did they develop it on their own. When you adapt a good idea to fit your purpose, the process is termed innovation diffusion. If you come up with an idea on your own, it is considered independent invention, a term used to describe the parallel development of similar tools or practices by geographically separate cultures. My guess is one look at an equine’s flowing mane and long tail was all it took for Northwest Indians to make the switch from plant fiber to animal material. But what came first, arrival of the horse or early fur trappers?
The history of the horse helps nail down a time. Horses were originally native to North America, but populations disappeared around 6000 A.D. They were later brought over by Cortes in the early 1500s and established in Spanish colonies near what is now New Mexico. Horses, or “sky dogs” as called by Native Peoples, were documented in the Southwest plains by the early 1700s. Once their utility was established, horses spread rapidly along existing trade routes to the inland Pacific Northwest. This timing, prior to the arrival of white men to the region, suggests that horsehair fishing line was invented by mid-Columbia Indians independent of East Coast fly casters and wandering fur traders.
It turns out that horsehair line is not obsolete. I found detailed instruction for crafting this traditional fishing cord on www.tenkarabum.com/horsehair-lines.
More than 100 years have passed following Ross’s inland canoe trip. Since then, western anglers have thrilled to Rudyard Kipling’s ribald tale of fly fishing for salmon on the Clackamas River, Zane Gray’s steelhead fishing adventures on the Umpqua River, and Roderick Haig-Brown’s passionate descriptions of rivers and their fish. But for now, fly fishers can rest assured that the sport of fly fishing in western waters most likely began with a few strands of woven horsehair line and a tiny “buckskin” fly.