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Depending on what one tends to believe, the literature indicates that Marcus Valerius Martialis (41 to 104 A.D.) or Claudius Aelianus (170 to 230 A.D.), both who lived in or around Rome, were the first to reference the use of artificial lures as baits for trout. A millennium later, Dame Juliana Berners, an English nun, (1388-1460), we believe, wrote “A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle.” That volume was first published around 1496, and re-printed versions are available today. Later, in 1593 Izack Walton, in conjunction with Charles Cotton, wrote “The Complete Angler.”
In 1822, the Houghton Club, probably the first fly-fishing organization in the world, was formed at the Grosvenor Hotel in Stockbridge, Hampshire in the United Kingdom. The club has only 25 members, and they alone have access to 13 miles of the River Test. Later in that century, 1854 to be exact, Fredric Halford was born. He went on to write several books including “The Dry Fly Man’s Handbook,” and, in time, became known as the “father of the dry fly.”
So, it was in merry old England, specifically the West Country, where the roots of modern-day fly fishing were first formed. More importantly, in and around 1890, Halford became friends with Theodore Gordon through correspondence. Gordon lived in New York City, suffered from respiratory issues from the city’s less than pristine air, and left for the Catskill Mountains. There he lived as a hermit in the Anson House, near the Neversink River, which is now under the Neversink Reservoir. Gordon devoted his time at Anson House to writing for various sporting magazines of the time and by tying and developing fly patterns.
At some point, likely around 1900, Fredric Halford sent Gordon several dry flies that had proved successful on English chalk streams. Upon observation, Gordon realized that the flies Halford sent, while fine for English rivers, would not work on the faster waters of the Catskills. As a result, Gordon tied his flies to better imitate the indigenous mayflies of the Catskill region. In so doing, he developed the Quill Gordon dry fly and became known as the father of American dry fly fishing.
While Halford and England are synonyms with the birth of fly fishing, Theodore Gordon and the Catskill Mountains are considered the origins of American fly fishing and the Catskill School of fly tying. Gordon’s disciples included Roy Steenrod and Herman Christian. Later proponents of the Catskill School included Harry and Elsie Darbee, who maintained a home along Old Route 17 between Livingston Manor and Roscoe. There, the Darbees ran their fly shop and Harry raised blue dun roosters. Down the road in Roscoe, the Dettes, Walt and Winine, managed their own fly shop, which is still in operation today and run by their daughter Mary. And up along Route 42, in West Kill, near the Schoharie Creek, Art and Lita Flick ran the WestKill Tavern, which later burned. In 1947, Art Flick’s “Streamside Guide to Naturals and Their Imitations” was released, by Putnam and Sons. That little book is still in print today, and simplifies fly selection to a few patterns. Flick developed the red quill dry fly along with other several other patterns. Then there are the others: Rube Cross, Preston Jennings, Frank Mele, Ed VanPut, and Lee and Joan Wulff—folks one and all that left their mark and contributed to the rich history of the Catskill Mountains, the birth place of American fly fishing.