Anglers this year celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the immortal Theodore Gordon, father of the dry fly in the U.S., and the outstanding personality in modern American trout fishing. Gordon himself once said: "All fishing cranks enjoy looking over a good angling kit, rods, flies and tackles." In commemoration of the occasion SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents this portfolio of treasured Gordoniana: a photograph of Gordon as a young man, one of his trout rods, a set of dry flies that he received from the great English angling writer, Frederic M. Halford, and what is believed to be the only remaining fly box owned by Gordon, just recently come to light (next page).
The Halford flies are more than casual memorabilia. They are perhaps the most important single document in American fly fishing. They were clipped into a letter which carried these prophetic last words: "...kindly let me know the results of your experiments." By the time Gordon died in 1915 the results of his experiments were known to many fishermen and today they are in common practice wherever trout are sought. The letter established, with rare accuracy for piscatorial matters, the precise date on which modern American fly fishing began: Feb. 22, 1890.
Fly fishing has but two eras: that extending from antiquity to less than 100 years ago, during which all flies were "wet" and usually fished sunk; that extending from the late 19th Century to the present, during which the "dry" or floating fly was created and developed.
It is curious that in retrospect an invention often appears so simple and obvious. We take the dry fly for granted. Yet it took the combined efforts of countless anglers over centuries of fishing the wet fly dry to produce this unique little creation. The movement culminated in England in the 1880s in the written works of Frederic Halford, and no sooner did these writings arrive in New York than Gordon seized upon them and began a correspondence with the author, who replied with the specimens that are shown here.
Fortunately for us, Gordon was a man whose character and circumstance combined a number of rare qualities: he was an angler with a dedication to the sport unsurpassed by any man (he gave his life to it); an artist with fur and feather; a gifted writer; a wisp of a man whose cross was frailty and illness, and yet a man's man who could not speak, fish or tie a fly without style and spirit.
He had no wife. By wish or by fate, he was able to say with Chaucer, "Mine own true mistress is sweet Out-of-doors."
As a young man in Savannah, Gordon led a sociable life. But many years before his death he was a recluse on the Neversink River in New York, where he wrote most of the notes and letters through which we have come to know him. "The wood-burning stove," he wrote one winter's night in 1906, "is my only companion."
As a boy Gordon had fished the limestone creeks of Pennsylvania. He had watched Theodore Roosevelt's uncle, R. B. Roosevelt, win a casting tournament in Central Park, New York, around 1870, and by the time he heard from Halford in 1890 he was an experienced fisherman.
He had learned to tie flies from books—chiefly from Thaddeus Norris' classic The American Angler's Book—but they were wet flies. When Gordon got the Halford flies he learned the basic structure of the dry fly.
"I found out, however," he says, "that by following the colors of our own natural flies, which were on the water, I caught more trout, even when the work was rougher and less perfect to the eye."