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50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era

This article from 2018 highlights some of the most significant moments in our beloved sport, art, and pastime, since the 1940s.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era

Fifty fly-fishing breakthroughs that changed the trajectory of the sport. 

As part of its 50th Anniversary Issue, Fly Fisherman magazine dedicated a few articles to the recent history of fly fishing in the Oct.-Dec. 2018 issue. This article serves as one of them, and puts much of our flies, techniques, gear, and other influences into perspective. 

1947

The Shakespeare Company introduces the Howald Glastick Wonderod with a shaft fabricated from a building insulation material developed a decade earlier by Owens-Corning and trade-named Fiberglas. At almost $60, it costs more than the average mass-produced cane rod. The fiberglass fly rod is born and the modern age of synthetic rod shafts begins.

1952

Scientific Anglers develops a process for applying a tapered PVC coating over a level core and introduces a product called Air Cel, ushering in the type of fly line most commonly used today. A year later, the Cortland Line Company brings out its PVC-coated 333 series, billed as “the unsinkable line.” Leon Chandler, Cortland’s fly-fishing ambassador to the world, spreads the word globally, and the 333 dominates fly fishing for the next decade.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Photo courtesy of Scientific Anglers)

1952

Catch-and-release fishing is first introduced into the U.S. in the state of Michigan. Ironically to anglers today, fisheries managers introduce the practice as a way of reducing the cost of stocking trout, thereby keeping hatcheries economically viable and in operation.


1955

Ernest Schwiebert’s Matching the Hatch is published, popularizing the term and elevating the practice to something approaching a religion. The first book to detail hatches nationwide, its firsthand research and informed writing make it the prototype of modern angling entomologies.


50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

1956

In Pennsylvania, Myxobolus cerebralisthe whirling disease parasite—is discovered for the first time in the U.S., introduced by infected trout from Europe. In the next 40 years, it spreads to 22 other states.

1959

DuPont brings Stren nylon monofilament fishing line to the market. It quickly supplants both Dacron line and earlier, inferior monofilaments, and its ease of use makes it a favorite among those using the recently introduced spinning and spin-casting tackle. Fly fishers quickly discover its advantages for tapered leaders.

1959

On the banks of Michigan’s Au Sable River, a dozen anglers concerned about the resource found Trout Unlimited. The idea spreads to other states, and with its mission “to conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds,” TU now numbers 300,000 members and donors.

1960

At one of her last competitive events, the New Jersey State Casting Championship, Joan Wulff uncorks a remarkable 161-foot throw. It is, however, not recognized as the new women’s record that Wulff in fact sets; the competition has no official women’s category.




50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Photo courtesy of Joan Wulff)

1961

St. Croix introduces lightweight, affordable Imperial XL fiberglass rods. Subsequently redesigned using graphite, the Imperial is still in production, making it the longest-running fly rod series of all time.

1961

The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association (AFTMA) establishes a new fly-line designation system based on grain-weight windows, replacing the former, cumbersome system based on line diameters. The HDH line becomes the DT6. Fly fishers, especially novices, embrace the new simplicity.

1966

The Orvis Company opens the doors to the country’s first fly-fishing school. Orvis president Leigh Perkins hopes to get 20 students enrolled; 150 people sign up. In the 40 years to follow, 39,000 aspiring fly anglers graduate.

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1967

Pennsylvania fly tier Russell Blessing adds a long marabou tail to the venerable Woolly Worm; his daughter christens it the “Woolly Bugger.” With an appealing, generic suggestiveness—hellgrammite, leech, baitfish, stonefly nymph, crayfish—it becomes one of the most widespread answers to one of fly fishing’s most enduring questions, “What should I tie on?”

1968

The American Museum of Fly Fishing opens in Manchester, Vermont, to serve “as a repository for and conservator to the world’s largest collection of angling and angling-related items.” It becomes the archive of fly fishing’s past and an invaluable resource for angling historians.

1968

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act so that “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition . . . for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” In the next 50 years, 12,734 miles of river come under its protection.

1969

A pair of brothers-in-law, Tom Dorsey and Tom Maxwell, set up shop in a rented Pennsylvania cabin, and Thomas & Thomas begins building bamboo rods. Their reputation for casting performance and scrupulous craftsmanship become legendary. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan commissions a pair of T&T rods as a gift to Prince Charles and Lady Diana on their wedding day.

1969

The inaugural issue of Fly Fisherman magazine hits newsstands, giving American anglers their first source of domestic fly-fishing-only information.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era

1970

President Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency to set and enforce standards safeguarding human and environmental health. Two years later, over Nixon’s veto, Congress passes the Clean Water Act to establish nationwide standards for water quality. Fish across the country begin breathing easier.

1971

Doug Swisher and Carl Richards’s Selective Trout is published. It argues vigorously for realistic imitations based on close observations of insect and fish behavior and introduces innovative patterns including No-hackle Duns, Hen Spinners, and the articulated Extended-body Wiggle Nymph. Fly Fisherman calls it, “the new ‘bible’ for fly fishermen.”

1972

Commercial fly tier Dennis Black founds Umpqua Feather Merchants on the premise that well-made, durable flies could be tied in Asia on a volume basis and thereby solve a fly-supply problem faced by many shops. Anglers reap the benefits of a national distribution of effective patterns that were once available only locally.

1972

Buck Metz receives 144 chicken eggs from Andy Miner, whose birds carry the bloodline of Catskill tier Harry Darbee’s flock. Metz Hackle makes high-quality dry-fly feathers reliably available to American tiers for the first time. The market proves large and sets the stage for subsequent breeders—Hoffman, Keough, and perhaps most famously, Whiting.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
Dr. Tom Whiting of Whiting Farms shows off a product of genetic poultry breeding. (Photo courtesy of Whiting Farms)

1973

Title-winning tournament caster Milton J. “Jimmy” Green, working for the Fenwick Rod Company with a type of material recently incorporated into golf club shafts, designs the Fenwick HMG—the world’s first all-graphite fly rod. The virtues of a lightweight, quick-recovering, high-performance shaft are instantly obvious, and graphite rods soon dominate the sport.

1973

Andy Renzetti unveils his first rotary fly-tying vise, the Presentation 3000; it is the most expensive vise available at the time. The innovative “elbow” in the vise head, which vastly simplifies rotary tying, and the meticulous machining raise the bar in vise manufacturing.

1975

Master tool and die maker Tibor “Ted” Juracsik delivers a pair of reels he’s designed and built to saltwater legend Billy Pate, who’s frustrated with reels that lock up on big tarpon. The anti-reverse, left-hand-retrieve models have overscaled cork drags and enough capacity for a 12-weight line. Juracsik calls it the “Billy Pate Reel.” Since then, Tibor reels have landed almost 800 IGFA record fish.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Photo courtesy of Vintage Fly Tackle)

1982

Gary Borger and George Anderson publish the article, “Strike Indicators,” in the April 1982 issue of Fly Fisherman. Howls rise from traditionalists about what is, and is not, “proper” fly fishing. The rest of us suddenly begin catching a lot more trout.

1982

Washington State steelhead bum and former Lamiglas employee Gary Loomis, dissatisfied with existing rods, starts the G.Loomis company. Over the next decade his IMX and then GLX models set new benchmarks in rod performance with their light weight, sensitivity, and power.

1982

Krystal Flash and Flashabou hit the market and kick off a craze among tiers who explore new directions in both fresh- and saltwater fly designs. These products mark the start of an era of flashy synthetic materials that remain staples of fly tying today.

1983

In the September 1983 issue of Fly Fisherman, Dave Whitlock introduces the Dahlberg Diver as a versatile, multi-species pattern that is particularly effective on bass and pike. In subsequent articles through the decade, he brings warmwater fly fishing out of the shadow of trout angling, raising its profile to a sport in its own right.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Jeff Simpson photo)

1984

Nick Lyons, who wrote the “Seasonable Angler” column in Fly Fisherman for more than 20 years, founds Nick Lyons Books. In less than two decades, the company publishes more than 1,000 books, among them many of the most influential titles in fly fishing.

1986

With the publication of Trout Bum, John Gierach adds a new expression into the angling lexicon and a new idea into its conceptual vocabulary: the off-the-grid angler who lives to fish—the actual inhabitant of our imaginary lives. His voice brings a distinctive and welcome freshness to fly-fishing literature.

1987

In the quest for a better smallmouth fly, Pennsylvania fly tier Bob Clouser lashes Wapsi’s newly introduced lead barbell eyes to his existing bucktail pattern. In the pages of Fly Fisherman, Lefty Kreh coins the name “Deep Clouser Minnow.” It’s widely considered among the most versatile designs in fly fishing.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Jeff Simpson photo)

1987

In conjunction with Scientific Anglers, Lani Waller creates a series of three videos collectively known as the “Lani Waller Steelhead Tapes” that set a new standard in instructional video production and influence fly-fishing filmmaking for decades to come.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Jay Nichols photo)

1989

Patagonia brings out the Salmon Trout Steelhead Jacket, known as the SST in later incarnations. Its innovative design and modern materials spark a much-needed, industry-wide redesign of wading jackets. Periodically updated, it’s still being made.

1990s

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era

During the 1990s, the presence and participation of women in fly fishing dramatically increases as more women are guiding, teaching, and above all, fishing. Cathy Beck becomes the first woman on the cover of Fly Fisherman (1991). Simms introduces waders designed specifically for women (1993). Lori-Ann Murphy co-fotunds Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures, the first company to offer women-only fly-fishing trips worldwide (1994). Casting for Recovery is founded (1996).

1990

Tom Rosenbauer’s tying experiments at Orvis lead the company to offer the first beadhead nymphs in America; soon after, Umpqua Feather Merchants markets drilled brass beads to tiers. The world of subsurface fishing markedly changes. Howls rise from traditionalists about what is, and is not, a “proper” fly. The rest of us suddenly begin catching a lot more trout.

1991

A cicada pattern that had been evolving among a group of guides on Utah’s Green River reaches its final form and is named the “Chernobyl Ant.” It brings closed-cell foam to the fly-tying forefront and over the next decades becomes the basis of dozens of popular variations.

1992

The release of the film A River Runs Through It and its romanticized image of fly fishing entice droves of beginners to pick up a rod—just as the 90s tech bubble surges. Motive and means join forces, and fly fishing—as a sport and a business—undergoes a period of spectacular and unprecedented growth.

1992

Not long after Orvis announces its 25-year rod warranty, startup company Redington ups the ante with a no-fault lifetime guarantee. Much of the rod industry grumbles but scrambles to catch up. Generous rod warranties have prevailed ever since.

1993

K.C. Walsh acquires Simms Fishing Products and introduces the first Gore-Tex waders, establishing a new norm in wader performance. In my informal survey of anglers old enough to remember the hideous non-breathable alternatives, these waders came in as the #1 milestone of all time—beating even graphite rods. Apparently comfort trumps all.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Jim Pfaff photo)

1994

Northern Dynasty Minerals begins boring exploratory holes near the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The proposed open-pit Pebble Mine, with acid-generating tailings stored behind earthen dams, poses a potentially lethal threat to the largest salmon run on earth. Today the planned project is still being strenuously contested by anglers, conservationists, and native peoples.

1995

The Virtual Fly Shop—the first website ever devoted to fishing—uploads an image of a Crowsnest River rainbow trout. For the first time, a fly-fishing image is viewed via a web browser and the World Wide Web. In 1996, Fly Fisherman purchases the website, and the digital revolution in fly fishing commences.

1998

In his Fly Fisherman article “Stalking the Golden Ghost,” Dave Whitlock celebrates the unexpected challenges of one of the least appreciated but most widely distributed fish in America. Fly fishing for carp is transformed from an angling punch line to fly-fishing respectability.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(John Sherman photo)

1998

The R. L. Winston Rod Company introduces the first successful line of fly rods incorporating boron fibers—the BL5 saltwater series. The company focus shifts to boron/graphite construction, and subsequent generations of the light, powerful, fluid rods bring a new character to fast-action shafts.

2000s

During this decade, fly fishing colonizes new territories. Outmoded ideas about species “worthy” of a fly go the way of gut leaders. False albacore, milkfish, peacock bass, roosterfish, you name it—anything with fins is fair game. Several major travel services are solidly established with global networks of angling destinations. With the time, tackle, and a fistful of major credit cards, you can now fish almost anywhere for almost anything that swims.

2001

The Holy Grail of fly angling for tarpon, a fish over 200 lbs., is claimed at last—a 202.5 lb. beast on 20 lb. tippet. It’s a testament to the skill, determination, and just plain luck that lie at the heart of all fly fishing. Hopefully this milestone is notable as the end of an era where fly fishers hang dead tarpon on hooks to capture space in the record books.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Photo courtesy of the IGFA)

2003

For the first time in its history, Sage sells more 4-piece rods than 2-piece ones. A strategic selection of materials for each rod section and better ferrule technology promote performance that equals or exceeds that of 2-piece designs. The shift in sales marks an angler-wide, industry-wide move to the 4-piece configuration that prevails today.

2006

RIO Products brings out the first commercially produced Skagit line. It allows a style of Spey fishing that is more accessible to average fly fishers, and two-handed rods, once the voodoo of fly-fishing high priests, come squarely into the mainstream.

2009

Steve Rajeff, chief rod designer at G.Loomis, breaks his previous single-hand distance-casting world record, crushing a modest little toss of 243 feet, proving what everyone already knows—that immaculate technique counts for more than a big arm, but that it sure doesn’t hurt to have both. That cast still stands as the American Casting Association record. With 45 national titles and 14 World All Around Championships, Rajeff is the most successful amateur sports champion of all time.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
(Greg McDermid photo)

2010s

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era

During this decade, a broader range of tackle-based techniques gain popularity. Patagonia introduces tenkara rods and the idea of “simple fly fishing.” Fly Fishing Team USA medals in the FIPS Mouche World Fly Fishing Championships, and European techniques filter into American fishing. Switch rods gain traction, and Spey fishing moves beyond salmon and steelhead to trout, bass, and even surf and jetty fishing.

2010

Guide Rick Kustich pens an article in Fly Fisherman extolling the virtues and tribulations of fly angling for muskies, and soon after writes a book on the subject. Fly fishing chalks up yet more species and adds to its growing catalog of obsessive subcultures.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
Twenty years ago, fly fishing for muskies was unheard of. Today, guides like Blane Chocklett (left) hunt muskies with specialized boats, flies, and tackle. (Jay Nichols photo)

2011

The Great Hackle Scare begins as fly-tying hackle suddenly becomes the rage for use in hair extensions. Hairdressers and tiers compete to empty fly-shop shelves. Prices skyrocket. Hackle junkies worldwide erupt in panic that the top-quality stuff will disappear forever. The hair thing, being a fad, finally fades but is revealing while it lasts.

2011

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history kicks off as demolition begins on the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam and the 108-foot Elwha Dam that have blocked Washington’s Elwha River for nearly a century. A year after the dismantling is complete, 4,000 Chinook salmon are counted above the former dams, confirming what anyone paying attention already understands—the extraordinary resilience of an ecosystem that’s given a fighting chance.

50 Greatest Fly Fishing Milestones of the Modern Era
The Elwha River now runs unfettered to the sea, bringing with it large woody debris and sandy sediments, all part of a healthy near-shore habitat. (John Gussman photo)

An English teacher at Oregon State University, Ted Leeson is one of the most versatile and prolific authors of his generation. He has published many instructional books on tackle and fly tying. His 444-page The Fly Tier’s Benchside Reference (with Jim Schollmeyer) has more than 3,000 photos and will likely never be surpassed in its ambitious breadth and depth of instruction.

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