Learning that my daughter’s boyfriend will soon be leaving for Macedonia on a work 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…
“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…
“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 years 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.
As 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.