Introduction

On Fly in the Salt


The American Museum of Fly Fishing is currently building a new exhibition for 2018 on the history of saltwater fly fishing. This exhibit will be on display both at the museum and at select locations across the country.

The decision to focus on salt water is a natural extension of the museum’s mandate to document the evolution of fly fishing as a sport, art form, craft, and industry. Visitors will enjoy tracing the history of saltwater fly fishing through displays of evolving tackle, ranging from fascinating home improvements on early equipment to the incredibly efficient gear of today that allow saltwater anglers to successfully target fish in ways that were inconceivable not long ago. Displays will also include a remarkable photographic record from the earliest days of the sport. Additionally, visitors will be treated to exclusive and entertaining video footage of the living legends of the sport— anglers who pioneered and made possible what we enjoy today as saltwater fly fishers.

Images like these from The Book of Tarpon piqued interest in fly fishing for tarpon.

The Early Days of Saltwater Fly Fishing


For many, saltwater fly fishing has seemed a relatively recent phenomenon that burst onto the angling stage between the late 1950s and the 1970s and has continued to expand influence since. In fact, it is quite ancient.

In North America, the earliest documented date for saltwater fly angling was recently uncovered in a letter of 28 October 1764. The writer, Roddam Home, a subaltern of the then–recently appointed governor of the West Florida Colony, quickly and successfully swam his flies in his newfound local waters. “We have plenty of salt [?] water trout & fine fishing with fly . . .” he happily reports.

By the 1800s, pioneering anglers on both the east and west coasts were taking their freshwater trout and salmon tackle to bays, coves, and estuaries—even surf—to discover the effectiveness of bright, sometimes well-gnawed salmon flies and learn the limitations of tackle built for fresh waters. Sea-run brook trout (salters) and striped bass were popular as early as 1833, as reported in Natural History of the Fishes of Massachusetts by Jerome V. C. Smith, who regularly fished for those salters from points extending off Cape Cod’s south shore. On the West Coast, saltwater bays—the Columbia River’s mouth was prime—were giving up returning Pacific Ocean salmon to the long rod, as colorfully described by artist-engineer Cleveland Rockwell, and there was even quite limited fly fishing on the Texas Gulf Coast. More activity in the sport was seen as pioneering anglers explored the East Coast, sampling the great species variety around Florida’s still little-developed shores, especially those on the state’s western side. Unlikely pioneers such as James Henshall and A.W. Dimock, a doctor and a wall street giant in “real life”, found a passion chasing sport fish on the Florida coast. Their excursions introduced the public to species like jack crevalle, snook, sea trout, and ladyfish that had not been caught on the fly due to inferior equipment or accessibility issues. Dimock, in particular, positioned the tarpon as a quarry for fly fisherman through his first-hand accounts of harsh physical struggle with the fish and high quality photographs in his Book of Tarpon. This helped cement the tarpon’s status as a game fish and helped put an end to the popular practice of harpooning the giants.

The Developmental Years


From the 1920s through the post–World War II years, saltwater fly fishing enjoyed nicely paced growth. Increasingly, saltwater fly fishers broke from traditional approaches of their freshwater brethren, inventing ways of casting, embracing the rapid advancements in tackle spawned by new technology, and adapting to new fish species.These advancements were made out of necessity as fly anglers found that their rods were getting too heavy, their reels were disintegrating, and the salmon flies were not catching saltwater fish.

In 1931, Pflueger introduced its first Medalist reel, a cost-effective model that could take a beating in harsh conditions. Although they were never designed for salt water, single-action Pflueger Medalist reels were the average angler’s standby for years and were constantly modified. Well-known Keys guide Jimmy Albright told of punching rivets in the Medalist frames to hold them together. Californian Harry Kime took a page from Zane Grey’s big-game reel design, affixing a piece of belt leather to the lower brace of the Medalist and obtaining drag by pressing the leather against the spool rim. Lefty Kreh, always the innovative tinkerer, cut out an oval-shaped opening in the side of the frame, enabling the thumb to reach in and apply pressure to the spool.

To go along with the improvements in the fly reels, Wes Jordan of the Orvis Company developed the impregnated bamboo rod - a process that combined bamboo segments with Bakelite resin that rendered the rod moistureproof, color fast, and resistant to extreme heat and cold. Early attempts to shave weight and increase strength through synthetic materials like fiberglass were either crude or overlooked by traditionalists at the time, but paved the way for future innovators.

Top: Orvis rod designer Wes Jordan builds a bamboo fly rod in the Manchester, Vermont shop

Bottom: Lefty Kreh’s modified Pflueger Medalist

An Endless Frontier


There are good reasons why saltwater fly fishing experienced riot­ous growth from the 1960s through the 1990s. Certainly, the sport’s earliest pioneers had paved the way. Their contributions offered creative angler minds of the mid- to late twentieth century carte-blanche opportunity to innovate and experiment without constraint. In tandem were expanding technologies that found application in rods, reels, fly lines, and fly materials. Their introduction led to advancements in angling techniques in everything: from casting and presentations to the ability to catch ever-larger fish. But saltwater sport was still the new kid on the block.

The AMFF’s much anticipated saltwater exhibition will open in 2018.