Fly fishing has a very rich history dating back hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Many fishing writers regularly quote the famous Roman historian Claudius Aelianus when he wrote about the fishing done in Macedonia on the Astraeus River, the fly of choice being tied from red wool and two cock feathers. Most fly fishermen would however recognise that reference and immediately think that these writings refer mostly to freshwater, or rather, trout fishing. Good old Claudius does however tell a story of how a ‘lure’ made of red wool and the feather (most likely white) of a seamew(1) is used on a long line, similar to a modern long liner, from a boat. Even though this might not be fly fishing in the modern sense of the word, it is still clear that humans put fur and feathers to good use very early on.
Fly fishing has gone through immense changes since the times of Claudius Aelianus. Great piscatorial works such as Sir Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler or the later publication The Practical Angler all did their part to help fly fishing grow as a sport. There remained only one hurdle in an angler's way, and that was cost. Fly fishing as described in the aforementioned texts was a lot more expensive than other types of common fishing methods, such as coarse fishing. Therefore it was mostly limited to those who could afford the required tackle and accoutrement. It is in this state of relative unattainability that fly fishing, and more importantly saltwater fly fishing, would languish until the advent of more modern materials.
Saltwater fly fishing needed something more than just a few gentlemen standing in a salmon river wearing tweed. Saltwater fly fishing needed out of the box thinking and, some would say, you needed to be slightly loony. Strangely enough the right amount of lunacy and out of the box thinking was to be found in the US, go figure. In 1911 a fellow by the name of A.W. Dimmock tackled tarpon and famously wrote ‘My latest theory is that the best time to catch fish is when they bite, but that view is subject to change’. Clearly he was a couple of hackles short of a dry fly, both in what he said and the fact that he fished for tarpon on the gear of the day. Saltwater fly fishing enjoyed increasing popularity and many famous US saltwater fly patterns were invented during this time, but it was not until after the Second World War that fly fishing took off like one of the Fuhrer’s rockets.
The new explosion in popularity of fly fishing was driven by the increased use of new synthetic materials for the construction of fishing gear. Relatively new technologies such as fiberglass and plastics, were all primarily invented or modernised to help the war effort and as replacements for other natural materials. These new materials allowed for the creation of quality fly fishing gear at an affordable price. Who would have thought that all the pain and suffering of a World War would provide us with better fly gear? Now famous personalities such as Lee Wulff, Joe Brooks, Jimmy Albright and Captain Bill Smith, who is generally credited with tying the first bonefish fly, became well known during this post World War II era(2).
This new growth in fly fishing meant that eventually people would start studying the saltwaters and the fish to be found within them. They would study how these fish feed and behave, which casting methods work best, how to fish in a howling galeforce wind etc. etc. Names such as Kreh, Clouser, Wulff, Pallot, Curcione, Blanton, Sigler and Popovics all contributed to the creation of modern saltwater fly fishing. Closer to home people such as Max Garth, Rod Harrison, Darryl Steele, Peter Morse and many more have all pushed crazy to the next level, breaking ground on new fishing methods and species. This new level of crazy is simply called: Straya mate.
It is on this innovative and slightly crazy foundation that we must continue to build the sport of fly fishing within Australia. Many saltwater fly fishermen look at trout fishing as being too old school, mostly tweed and double tapers: ‘a fun thing to do when passing through the Snowies’. Whereas a lot of the old trout stalwarts view saltwater anglers as the ‘punks’ of the sport, with their brightly coloured, heavily weighted and super flashy lures (they definitely can’t be called flies by any self respecting trout fishermen). I would however offer a different view, fly fishermen sometimes struggle with different views.
Recently I was fortunate enough to fish with a 13 foot Spey rod in the salt. I was very impressed by what can be done with these rods. It was during this fishing session that it struck me: we should view all different types of fly fishing techniques as valuable when fishing our home waters, why haven’t I used a double handed rod before.
My home waters are the salty beaches of South East Queensland, but why can’t I use the techniques invented in Scotland on a salmon river and used throughout the US and Canada on large trout and salmon, here at home? Why do I have to struggle with a wimpy little 9 foot rod battling the surf and the wind and the friendly local poodle on the beach. These rods can cast a long line and allow you to keep better control of the fly in the surf. Why have we overlooked these rods for so long, at least here in Australia.
I have spoken with fly fishermen that are more experienced than me (I promised them I would use experienced instead of older). Some of them have had the opportunity to fish the Salmon rivers of Europe or North America and they have all come to the same conclusion; they can not see a reason why many of these big river techniques will not work here in Australia.
In the states these long double-handed rods have long had a strong following when fishing off the surf beaches of Southern California, on the coast of Maine and around Cape Cod. Well known fishermen such as Nick Curcione have championed beach fishing with the double-hander. New rods have been designed that are different to spey and switch rods, rods that are devoted to double-handed, overhead-casting(3). These rods are used to cast overhead because most beaches afford much more space to make a backcast, but they are also long enough to control a line being buffeted by wind and waves.
It can be quite daunting to understand the new lingo used by avid double-hander fishermen. Whether they are talking about the head length of a shooting head or only working in grain weights. They upline their rods when fishing normal lines and speak about phenomenal distances being achievable. These issues are easily solved by simply using the resources available. Most line manufacturers have line selector tools or tables that allow anglers to find the right line for the right situation and take a lot of the guesswork out of making a good line choice when it comes to the rod in question(4).
Currently I feel the same as the day I picked up my first fly rod. I had no idea what I was doing. I made loud whip-cracking noises as my fly-less leader whipped around me like a crazed hornet. When I managed to keep the fly attached to the end of the leader I would regularly find it lodged in whatever had the sad misfortune of being behind me or, in parts of my own anatomy. However the difference now is that I know, or at least I think I know, the bare basic physics of fly casting and fishing. Luckily, these basics never change regardless of the type of fly casting you do.
It is my belief that these fancy long rods can change the way we fly fish in saltwater. If they work off the beach in the US, why can’t they work off the beach here in Australia? Yes, some conditions might be different and we might not have similar species at all times of the year. The main obstacle that we face is ourselves for not thinking outside the box.
I would like to thank the website “A Fly Fishing History” by Dr Andrew N. Herd, for a lot of invaluable information during the writing of this article.
Below is an excellent video explaining how double handed rods are used in the salt.
1. Dr Andrew N. Herd; A Fly Fishing History: Saltwater Flyfishing
2. Many of these personalities were already well known in fly fishing circles before WWII but it is the new affordable gear and the growth in the popularity of fly fishing that made them household names after the war.
3.From research it seems that dedicated double-handed beach rods are, in general, slightly longer than switch rods but shorter, and faster actioned than spey rods. The TFO Pandion rod series are an example of this.
4. Rio has an excellent resource regarding line choices for double-handed rods http://www.rioproducts.com/RIO-Spey-Line-Recs.pdf