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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky has long history of anglers fly fishing for bass in state’s lakes, streams


The early history of fly fishing for bass in Kentucky rivers and stream traces back to single-action, English-style reels — what we know today as click-and pawl reels.

Early Kentucky settlers were of English and Scotch-Irish ancestry, and they had a deep love of fishing. Their forefathers practiced the art of fly fishing so the tackle and traditions of fly fishing came to America from the British Isles.

Black bass historian James A. Henshall wrote that he considered “fly fishing to be a gentlemanly mode of fishing (that) requires more skill, and a better knowledge of the habits of the fish… than any other method.” (Image from Book of the Black Bass, Wikipedia Commons)

Izaak Walton (1593-1683) was the English writer best known as the author of The Compleat Angler, a celebration of the art and spirit of fishing in prose and verse.

First published in 1653, the book grew over 25 years into five editions. By 1676, the 21 chapters included a section by friend and fellow angler Charles Cotton, with full instructions in fly fishing and the making of flies.

Walton called fly fishing “the contemplative man’s recreation.”

Early Fly Fishing Tackle

Early fly rods were fashioned from cane, wood, or a combination of the two.

The split bamboo fly rod, likely of English origin, was made by splitting cane lengthwise, and glueing back together four or more suitable pieces, to make a light, responsive rod.

Many early high-quality fly rods were handcrafted in America.

Black bass historian James A. Henshall wrote that “as early as 1848 Samuel Phillippi, a gunsmith in Easton, Pennsylvania, was making split bamboo fly rods, in three sections, two of bamboo, with an ash butt.”

Reels used by early fly fisherman were the single-action, English-style reels, which had narrow spools and a 1-to-1 gear ratio. These so-called click reels pre-dated the Golden Age of the handmade, multiplying baitcasting reel, later in the 19th century.

Early bass anglers in Central Kentucky fished both the fly and live minnows, using click reels.

“Fly lines were tapered and enameled, made from braided silk,” wrote Henshall. “They were smooth, round, polished and waterproof. Leaders were of silk-worm gut.”

An Early Fly Reel Maker in Kentucky

James L. Sage (1822-1900), a gunsmith by trade, was an avid fly fisherman and early reel maker in Central Kentucky.

James L. Sage (1822-1900), a gunsmith by trade, was an avid fly fisherman and early reel maker in Central Kentucky. (Image from Book of the Black Bass, Wikipedia Commons)

In his Book of the Black Bass, published by Robert Clarke & Company, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Henshall wrote that he believed Sage was the first to make a click reel, in Kentucky, for black bass fly fishing.

The small brass reel was created using tools with which Sage made Morse telegraph instruments.

“Mr. J.L. Sage presented me with a click reel, and showed me his fly-rod and flies, all made and used by him. I am satisfied that he was the first to make a click reel, in Kentucky, for black-bass fly-fishing, of which branch of angling he was one of the pioneers.”

Sage lived in Paris, Ky., from 1853 to 1865, and after the Civil War ended, he returned to Frankfort, where he had first lived after moving from Connecticut to Kentucky.

He made reels full-time beginning in 1883, and made about 100 reels while living in Frankfort. He stamped his reels with serial numbers.

In 1885 Sage relocated to Lexington, where he produced an estimated 225 reels. His reels were marked J.L. Sage Frankfort, KY, even after he moved to Lexington.

In addition to fly reels, Sage also made 4-to-1 gear ratio multiplying baitcasting reels of brass and German silver, similar in design to the Kentucky Reels made by B. C. Milam.

Fly Fishing is Part Artistry, Part Presentation

Henshall wrote that he considered “fly fishing to be a gentlemanly mode of fishing (that) requires more address, more skill, and a better knowledge of the habits of the fish and his surroundings than any other method.”

Catch a bass fly fishing and it’s an experience not soon forgotten: the sight of the fly line rolling forward, a floating bass fly landing on quiet water with a resounding plop.

Many established fly patterns are available in modern bass fly fishing. (Photo by Anthony Pagley Jr.)

A tug on the line makes the fly pop or skitter, sending tiny ripples outward. The lure is motionless for an instant. Then a bass comes up and engulfs it in a swirl of water.

With a sweep of the fly rod, the fish is solidly hooked. The fly line rips a gash across the surface of the water as the bass accelerates. Then it cartwheels out of the water in total abandon.

The appeal of fly fishing for bass has always been a subtle presentation that yields such dramatic results.

May is one of the top months to fly fish for largemouth bass. Post-spawn bass are actively feeding along the shoreline. With water temperatures warming into the low 70s, bass are shallow during the first and last light of the day.

In streams, smallmouth and spotted “Kentucky” bass can also be taken on flies during the spring warm up.

Anglers have the option of wading streams, walking around the shoreline of ponds and small lakes, or fishing from boats. The fishing kayak has made it possible for fly fishermen to access wetlands and other shallow waterways that can’t be navigated by larger boats.

Bass Flies

Fly fishermen reach into their bag of tricks for bugs that pop and dive, wiggle and tease.

There are many established fly patterns for bass fishing, deer hair bugs that imitate frogs, streamers that are dead ringers for minnows, and cork or balsa wood poppers that resemble bees, grasshoppers, or other insects.

Through the years many effective bass bugs have been created using traditional fly tying materials, including bucktail (deer hair), feathers, and synthetic materials such as closed-cell craft foam and tinsel.

Now in its 40th year, Fly Tyer Magazine is a good source of bass fly recipes. Visit their website at www.flytyer.com

Fly fishing takes anglers back to the roots of the sport, and adds a new dimension to spring bass fishing.

Black bass are eager participants in this piscatorial adventure.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.


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