Did Native Americans Invent Fly Fishing for Bass?

March 17, 2011 By: Philip Monahan

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Question: Someone told me that Native Americans invented fly-fishing for bass. Is this true?

Sean C., Jupiter, FL

Seminole Indian

Seminole image via Wikipedia

Answer: This is a difficult question to answer because, of course, there isn’t much of a historical record to go by. However, chances are that your friend is basing his notion a story attributed to the naturalist William Bartram, which has been repeated far and wide by fly-fishing writers. A pretty complete version of the story appears in “From Bobs to Bugs”, a chapter in William G. Tapply’s bookTrout Eyes:

Actually, bass-bug fishing is the oldest method of catching fish on hook and line in North America. In 1741, when William Bartram described how Florida’s Seminole Indians fooled largemouth bass (which he called “trout”) with a “bob”, it’s likely he was reporting on an angling method that had been practiced for generations before the Europeans invaded the continent.

“Two people are in a little canoe,” wrote Bartram, “one sitting in the stern to steer, and the other near the bow, having a rod ten or twelve feet in length, to one end of which is tied a string line, about twenty inches in length, to which is fastened three large hooks, back to back. These are fixed very securely, and tied with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some parti-colored feathers, all which form a tuft or tassel nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks; that are called a “bob.” The steersman paddles softly, and proceeds slowly along shore; he now ingeniously swings the bob backwards and forwards, just above the surface and sometimes tips the water with it, when the unfortunate cheated trout [sic] instantly springs from under the reeds and seizes the exposed prey.”

Historians have always assumed that when Bartram says “trout” he means “bass,” and the technique described here seems close enough to dapping that it could reasonably be called “fly fishing.”

Another important source for this tale was probably Paul Schullery’s important bookAmerican Fly Fishing, published in 1987. However, in his 2007 book The Rise: Streamside Observations on Trout, Flies & Fly Fishing, Schullery explains that he had misread Bartram. In fact, Bartram witnessed white colonists—not Seminoles—fishing with this method.

The question, then, is where did the colonists learn to fish in this way? Were they inspired by techniques they brought from England or had they adopted indigenous techniques? Ultimately, until there is more evidence to suggest that colonists learned to make and use “bobs” from the native people, the jury is still out on the question of who started it all in North America.