H2O Magazine

The Roman origin of fly fishing

The Roman origin of fly fishing. There are many sources that seem to date the birth of fly fishing already in the ancient Romans. We talk about fly fishing history in this article by Riccardo De Stabile

The first fly fisherman that we can precisely identify lived for sure in the Roman Empire. The first reference to fly fishing, however questionable, was made by a certain Marcus Valerius Martialis, a man known simply as Martial to generations of reluctant Latin students.

Marcus Valerius Martialis and fly fishing

Though you could think that the devil himself invented him to torture poor Latin students’ minds, during his times Martial was a very popular poet known for his amusing epigrams. He lived between 41 and 104 AD and was born in Spain on the banks of Salo River, but moved very soon to Rome, where he spent most of his life. He is said to have had fun in fishing and left at least one poem in which he hinted at his bad luck as a fisherman. He also wrote:

Who has not seen the scarus rise,

Decoyed and killed by fraudulent flies?

Even if we give Martial the benefit of the doubt, these verses can give you the impression that fly fishing was a routine at that time. But the problem is that the scarus is a sea fish living among corals and seaweed. Therefore, Martial’s literary reference to fly fishing is not unanimously accepted as the first one because researchers don’t agree on the final word, which could be mosca or musco, and in the latter case it should then be translated as moss.

If the hypothesis were true that Martial used moss but intended to mean seaweed, the reference to fly fishing would be lost. It is still to be established if he referred to a live insect or to an artificial imitation. William Radcliffe, whose book on the history of fishing gave a lot of references contained in this volume, is thoroughly in favor of the hypothesis that the reference was made to fly fishing. But too many centuries have passed since that event, so it cannot be excluded that fly fishing has its roots in baits for sea fishing.

Claudius Aelianus and fly fishing

Another author who wrote on this topic was Claudius Aelianus in a book entitled De Natura Animalium. This great work dates back to 200 AD, at least 100 years after Martial wrote his epigram.

Aelianus was born in ca. 170 AD at Praeneste and died around 230 AD. At some time in his life he became a pupil of Pausanias of Caesarea, who taught him rhetoric, and as a good student Aelianus also studied Attic Greek. Afterwards he studied history and moved within the circle of the people protected by the Empress Julia Domna. This enabled him to see not only Galen, but also Oppian for his writings: his main source has been identified with Pamphilus of Alexandria, but he also took inspiration from many other writers, like Democritus, Herodotus, Plutarch and Aristophanes. In the 17th volume of his book, Aelianus mixes personal observations with facts, legends and fancy drawn from other authors. The book was intended for pure entertainment, and we will always be grateful to him for these immortal lines:

“I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Borœa and Thessalonica runs a river called Astræus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed upon a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river. It is not like the flies found elsewhere, nor does it resemble a wasp in appearance. One would not justly describe its shape as that of a midge or a bee, yet it has something of each of these. In boldness it is like a fly, and in size you might call it a midge; it imitates the color of a wasp, and it hums like a bee. The natives generally call it the Hippouros.

These flies seek their food over the river, but do not escape the observation of the fish swimming below. Then when the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above lest it should scare away its prey; then coming up by its shadow, it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle, a goose from the farmyard; having done this, it goes below the rippling water.

Now, though the fishermen know this, they do not use these flies at all for fish bait, for if a man’s hand touches them, they lose their natural color, their wings wither, and they become unfit food for the fish. For this reason they have nothing to do with them, hating them for their bad character; but they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman’s craft.

They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax. The rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking it would gain a dainty mouthful from the pretty sight. However, when it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, as a captive.”

That’s it, Aelianus’s phrases don’t leave any room for doubts whatsoever on the fact that he is speaking about fly fishing. The only sad thing is that it is evident he never went to Macedonia personally. Though a direct report on those catches would have been better, Aelianus’s account is nevertheless reliable, as he certainly had a lot of opportunities to meet and talk to people who had traveled to that land which had been invaded by the Romans in 200 BD and became a Roman province after some decades. Therefore, we can literally interpret the sentence, “I have heard,” and Aelianus is likely to have never seen anybody use this fishing technique. Nonetheless, his reference to fly fishing is the first clear and indisputable one and proves that this is really an antique art.

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