Variations on a First Trout Fly Pattern

Learning that my daughter’s boyfriend will soon be leaving for Macedonia on a work DSCN3491 project, the trout nut in my softening brain immediately thought about the fly-fishing in that ancient country of the Balkans. Macedonia, a small country just north of Greece, is the site from which the first recorded and specific reference to fly-fishing emanates. As a history buff who loves to walk along the ageless trail of fly-fishing evolution, I remembered a reference to the words of the Roman writer Aelian, and rechecked his passage about the Macedonian fly-fishers.

Aelian lived (mostly in Rome) from A.D. 170 to 230. Somewhere around 200 A.D. he published his “On the Nature of Animals” from which the following excerpts are derived…

DSCN3487“I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Boroea and Thessalonika runs a river called Astraeus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins… These fish feed upon a fly peculiar to the country… In boldness it is like a fly you might call a midge. It imitates the color of a wasp, and it hums like a bee. The natives call it the Hippouros… When the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up… It opens its mouth gently and gulps the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold… Having done this it goes below the rippling water…

DSCN3522“The fishermen do not use these flies for bait, for if a man’s hand touches them, they lose their natural color, their wings whither, and they become an unfit food for the fish… 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.

“Their 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 from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.”

Although basic fly-fishing had been practiced in various Eastern lands for hundreds of DSCN3542years prior to Aelian’s existence, the preceding passages (drawn from Radcliffe’s Fishing from the Earliest Times ((1921)), thanks to Dr. Andrew Herd’s flyfishinghistory.com, and from adaptations dating back to 1558) suggest the first surviving literary fragment on the venerable art of fishing with an artificial fly.

So my daughter’s boyfriend, Adam, a Scotsman living in New York City, announced he’ll be making a brief visit to Macedonia. He had no idea that an announcement of the sort would send me to the very roots of my favorite craft by getting me interested in tying some possible dressings of the first known fly pattern.

DSCN3569As mentioned on flyfishinghistory.com, the fly pattern described by Aelian is not an imitation of the “midge-like Hippouros fly.” Aelian stated that the Hippouros “hovered above the water,” and it’s possible, according to one interpretation, that he was actually describing the ascent of a hatched out mayfly. It’s difficult to imagine what the Macedonian Fly really looked like because there’s a lot of information that Aelian did not include with his description.

What we know is that the Macedonian anglers tied “red wool around a hook and fixed it with two feathers the color of wax.” Knowing that the beeswax of the day was not the color of our bleached contemporary wax, it’s probably safe for us to say that the hackle was actually brown, or possibly dun. Other tiers have attempted to portray this archetypal fly pattern, and a few of their results can be viewed on the Herd site.

I’ve tied a few of my own variations on the theme. The exploration isn’t the same as having a chance to fly-fish Macedonia for river trout in either the year 214 or 2014, but to think about these roots is a fun trip nonetheless.DSCN3553

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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10 Responses to Variations on a First Trout Fly Pattern

  1. Lester Kish says:

    A neat bit of history. Looks like anglers have been trying to fool fish with bits of feather and hook for a long time. They’ve likely been outwitted by fish even longer.

  2. Yup, “outwitted by fish even longer.” Anglers are still trying to get even. Thank you, Les!

  3. Alan says:

    A nice little assortment of flies. I recall a blogger who enlisted in the Peace Corps and was sent to that region. He was quite excited.
    Wonderful bit of history too.

  4. Thanks Alan. The trout flies’ connection to the Balkans is an interesting one for me. Long ago, I traveled along the border in Greece (I wasn’t fishing) and was fascinated by the alpine streams and the aura of wild trout. It’s an ancient land with a timeless beauty.

  5. Kenov says:

    Very cool. I’ve thought a bit about visiting Macedonia this summer or next to fish a bit. I’m hoping I can have my brother-in-law take me down the Adriatic coast from Croatia in a boat he has there. I don’t particularly want to drive cross-country from Budapest.

  6. I’d say a trip to Macedonia would be awesome, even though I’ve never been there (but came close). I hope the cards line up for you on that journey, Ken, and thanks for reading and commenting here.

  7. Kenov says:

    Schedule wise, this summer is looking less likely. I think I could make it happen in 2015 though.

  8. It’s probably best to have a little lead time on a trip like this.

  9. Anonymous says:

    What remains of the ancient river Astraeus appears to be located in the northern Greek province of Macedonia, not in the Republic of Macedonia…

    The Location of the Trout-River Astraeus

    http://www.flyfishinghistory.com/hammond_astraeus.htm

    Astraeus Origins

    http://www.flyfishinghistory.com/astraeus_looking_2.htm

    At the time of Aelian, what is today called the Republic of Macedonia was actually populated by Paeonians, a people frequently at war with the Macedonians…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paeonia_(kingdom)

    Although the Romans artificially extended the borders of Macedonia to include Paeonia, it is obvious that Aelian was referring to the rivers of Macedonia proper, located almost completely within northern Greece.

    Thus, if I were planning a fishing trip in search of “the site from which the first recorded and specific reference to fly-fishing emanates,” I would be heading to northern Greece and not to the Republic of Macedonia.

    Regards

  10. Anonymous (later, Robert M.), Thank you for clarification and correction on this significant point. And to all who plan a pilgrimage to the site, please note.

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