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.