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Book Review: The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies

I have always found the history behind fly fishing pretty interesting but would not call myself overly knowledgeable on the subject. I mean I know a bit and know a few historical names but I am certainly no Rusty Dunn, Jen Ripple, or any number of other friends that are much more versed in the history of fly fishing. I am very much a novice historian, hence when I saw Ian Whitelaw's The History of Fly-Fishing in Fifty Flies (published by Stewart, Tabori, and Chang books), I was intrigued. Flies are really at the heart of fly fishing and the changes, the evolution, of flies - more than anything else - is the history of the sport.

Front cover of the book
My somewhat well worn copy of Ian Whitelaw's book.

Picking 50 flies to represent the history of fly fishing is certainly a daunting task. There are some easy choices, of course. The Adams, Woolly Bugger, Clouser Minnow, Lefty's Deceiver, and a number of others are pretty safe and easy choices but it gets a lot harder from there. Wait a second, the Woolly Bugger didn't make the list? Therein lies the real challenge of the list, there are a lot of flies that were precursors to today's better known and more used flies. Instead of the Woolly Bugger, the Palmer Worm from the 1600's receives an entry. This example is an illustration of how the book gets into the evolution of fly patterns.

What the Flies Are

Being a numbers guy, I did a little analysis on the fly patterns presented. There are about a hundred different ways I could have done it. First I separated them into what fish species they were originally tied for. I did this without overlap but for some flies - like the Clouser Minnow - it went in the bass category because it was originally a bass fly even if today it is probably more thought of as a saltwater fly. Next I separated them into how they are fished / they type of fly they are. Here I allowed overlap so the number will exceed 50. Lastly, for those flies that imitate insects and freshwater crustaceans, I (rather imperfectly) categorized them as well.

table of contents
The table of contents from the book listing the 50 flies.

Not surprisingly, most flies - 36 in total - were created with trout in mind. Seven of the patterns were created for salmon, two for bass, and 5 were created for saltwater species. The history of fly fishing is undeniably tied to trout with other species - first salmon, then the rest - coming later as the numbers reflect.

Fly Category

Number of Patterns

Dry Fly






Wet Fly / Soft Hackle


Shrimp, Crabs, Squid


Bass Bug




Salmon, Spey, Dee


Again, not surprisingly, dry flies were the most common fly type. Dry fly fishing is really what makes fly fishing unique. Some of the early patterns I put as wet flies though they were probably fished dry for a bit before they took on water. Then nymphs and wet flies/soft hackles were pretty common. I considered them to be different based on appearances and often how they are fished - you could probably group them together. Seven streamer patterns - which I counted if they were attempting to imitate small fishes - but I separated those from salmon flies which were often more attractors. Which brings up attractors which was a catch all for any pattern that was not a salmon fly but not really devised to look like anything in particular - a Prince Nymph, Royal Coachman, and flies like that.

Rick Frye Memorial Fly Box
The Rick Frye Memorial Fly Box that I won at the WI Trout Unlimited State Council meeting - flies are from myself and other of Rick's friends.

Lastly, for those flies that imitate aquatic and terrestrial macroinvertebrates, four were caddis imitations, 16 were mayflies, four represent stoneflies, a surprising six represent midges, there were two terrestrials, and one pattern was designed to represent scuds. Mayflies are certainly woven into the history of fly fishing - there is not other "bug" as linked to the history of fly fishing than are mayflies. The number of patterns - particular from the 1700's through the early 1900's - that imitate "bugs" are mayfly imitations. The preponderance of midge patterns probably reflects the importance of British stillwaters in fly fishing. It was the fishing that "the masses" were able to do whereas historically, stream trout were the quarry of the rich. And that only 4 patterns represent caddis is not surprising either as most anglers - including myself - have fly boxes filled with mayfly patterns for specific hatches but fish a CDC and Elk or whatever your favorite caddis pattern is for pretty much every caddis hatch.

Thoughts on the Book

I recommend it pretty highly even if I have a few critiques of its content. But I think that is part of writing a book like this - it is written, in part, for people to disagree with some of the choices. That is part of the fun of the book. We could sit down around a campfire and all have a different top 10 flies that have to be included.

The book retailed in the US for $22.50 but Amazon currently has the hard cover version for quite a bit less than that - a steal for a hardback book of this quality. The Kindle version is currently the same price and while I have not seen the Kindle version, it is not a book that I think would translate well to that format as it is a highly visual presentation. It is not necessarily a "sit down and read it cover to cover" book - though I did and think you benefit from the history building upon itself. After one read, it becomes more of a reference book. I go back to it again and again to look for particular patterns and their histories.

example fly introduction / pattern
An example of the book's aethetic and how each fly is introduced.

There is a small bit of front material - a four page introduction (and the pages are not large) - before getting into the presentation of the fifty flies. The flies are presented chronologically except the Tenaka fly - Takayama Sakasa Kebari - which is presented last and feels a bit out of place. Interspersed within entries are highlighted boxes about what was "state of the art" at the time, often getting into technological and material advances not limited to the flies themselves. It is useful in understanding the limitations and innovations throughout the history of fly fishing.

Each entry has the same aesthetic - the fly is presented in a watercolor painting with the original recipe (pattern) and smaller paintings of the materials below the fly and the year and location of origin and originator presented above the fly. Of course, sometimes the year is an approximation, other times we have a clear record of exactly when the fly was originated. On the facing page, a paragraph introduction is presented and often a bit of history and inspiration for its creation, what it is was designed to imitate, and such. Each entry is highly visual with small pictures and paintings to illustrate points in the text on nearly every page. Entries range from two pages - the pattern page and a facing page - to several pages, but always an even number of pages to keep the book's aesthetic.

Ed Haaga and Hans Weilenmann flies
My bit of history - flies from Ed Haaga (and a few from Hans Weilenmann) in a custom wood box.

The strengths of the book are the thought put into the fly selection and how the author walks through the history of the fly, why it was innovative, and in most cases, how the ideas in that fly were incorporated in later, sometimes more now more popular, flies. As I mentioned above, the Woolly Bugger does not get its own entry but is mentioned in the second entry of the book for the 1600's Palmer Worm. The watercolor paintings are really nice and something I would never have thought to do. There are smaller images of many of the flies or flies that "evolved" from the chosen fly but they are often too small to be very effective. It is really not a pattern book as so many others are because there are not great photographs of each fly. But the book is not trying to be a pattern book.

Don't just take my word for it, below is a review you may find useful.

There are certainly places I have disagreements with the choices or think that some flies that were given short thrift. There is certainly an American / Western European bias to the selections. As mentioned, the Kabari (Tenkara fly) is presented last and feels a bit of an afterthought in the entries from this century but I suppose it fits how we in the west have only recently discovered that set of traditional Japanese flies. Similarly, the Polish Woven Nymph is the entry to represent the Eastern European deep nymphing style and is credited to 1986. I am fairly certain that there is a longer history of that style of fishing. Cul de Canard (CDC) never is mentioned in the book - or at least it does not make the index. I can't imagine tying without CDC today. Similarly, foam receives a few mentions with the Booby Fly and much more recently, the Bionic Bug - an unusual choice to represent the importance of foam terrestrials. An American writing the book would probably have had the Chernobyl Ant, foam beetle, or something similar or maybe a simple foam beetle as a precursor to other foam terrestrial fly patterns.

The parachute gets a very quick mention in the Adams entry but no history of the parachute is presented. Rusty Dunn does a great write up of the parachute and its history which I think is certainly innovative and important enough to have deserved more attention in Fifty Flies. A look at today's fly boxes certainly shows the importance of the parachute style of tying which dates back to about the same time as the Adams was created.

Bob Clouser attracting a crowd around the vise.
Bob Clouser tying at a fly fishing show in Madison, WI. Oh how I miss the days before OOVID.

The Clouser Deep Minnow receives two pages whereas the next fly, the Upside-Down Fly, for me, a fairly minor player in the fly fishing world, receives a full six pages. And this is despite the author quoting Lefty Kreh calling the Clouser Minnow the most important saltwater fly ever. It, of course, was created for Smallmouth Bass on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River and then "moved" to become probably the most fished saltwater fly ever.

A lot of the fun in the book for the reader - aside from the discoveries that you will make - are the places where you have differences of opinion. It is a very good and informative book and well worth your time, money, and thoughts.

Other Reviews of the Book:

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