A gunshot rang out on the shores of the River Blythe, shattering the silence of the idyllic English countryside. Some minutes later, the shotgun blast was soon followed by another, from the second barrel. Three gentlemen were busy at their craft, but this was no wing shooting party. Passersby would have been startled to see two gentlemen (one, a man of the cloth) in an eccentric-looking octagonal hut built over the waters of the river, staring through the windows at their quarry as the gunshots went off.

The beast being tracked was a trout, some six inches beneath the surface of the water. The gentlemen in the hut were Rev. Brown and the ringleader who built the hut, Alfred Ronalds.

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Blythe Valley. Looking north along the River Blythe. Accessed via Wikipedia.

Ronalds (1802-1860) was conducting comprehensive studies on the habits of trout and grayling, and the shotgun blasts were part of an experiment to determine if fish could hear conversational noises above the water. The experimenters were careful not to be seen by the fish, and many loud noises were tried before finding that the fish showed no signs of distress from the noise.

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The location of Ronalds’ fishing hut. From The Fly-fisher’s Entomology, by Alfred Ronalds. Fifth edition, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Ronalds was not a scientist by trade, instead making his living as an etcher and lithographer in 1830s England. His primary source of leisure was in fly fishing, and in his quest to unlock the secrets of the successful catch, he’d gone as far as the construction of a special shack from which to observe the fishes of the Blythe. From this headquarters, he carefully noted fish habits and diets, studied their vision, hearing, and even taste (offering foods to fish coated in cayenne pepper and mustard, he found the fish enjoyed the spicy food).

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Findings on the vision of the trout, detailing differences in vision through water and air. From The Fly-fisher’s Entomology, by Alfred Ronalds. Fifth edition, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

The result of Ronalds’ experimentation was his 1836 book, The Fly-fisher’s Entomology. Drawing on his talents as an engraver and his scientific observations, Ronalds developed an illustrated list of artificial flies and the times of year they should be used.

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Flies for April: Golden Dun Midge, Sand Fly, Stone Fly. From The Fly-fisher’s Entomology, by Alfred Ronalds. Fifth edition, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

The real key to Ronalds’ book was combining awareness of the insect life-cycle to a clearer understanding of the feeding habits of fish. If you want to catch a fish, imitate the bugs they eat at the correct time of season. Though this maxim might seem simple today, the book was a wildly-successful turning point in the literature of fly fishing, and Ronald is widely credited with launching modern fly-fishing writing. The Fly-fisher’s Entomology would go through 11 editions between 1836 and 1913 and be extensively reprinted in the 20th Century.

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Flies for April: Iron Blue Dun, Jenny Spinner, Hawthorn Fly. From The Fly-fisher’s Entomology, by Alfred Ronalds. Fifth edition, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Ronalds went on to relocate to Wales in 1844, and after his first wife died in 1847 he moved his family to Australia. He set up his own engraving business in Melbourne, then in Ballarat after the Australian gold rushes in the 1850s. He died of a stroke in 1860. The Fly-fisher’s Entomology was the only book he ever produced. But considering its massive influence on the sport Ronalds loved, we can safely say that it was a great one.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail

In spite of growing up in rural Wisconsin, I have only been fishing a couple of times. I wasn’t very good at it. There seemed to be too much variety to have a chance of getting things right: lures, rods, fish varieties, and locations all seemed to be beyond me. I spent far more time hunting than fishing. But over the past couple of weeks I’ve had a chance to sit down and talk with Marcia Woolman, who will be hosting a fly-tying demonstration at NSLM shortly, and it’s unlocked the subject for me quite a bit.

Marcia Woolman is an avid trout fisherman, fly tier, and cold water conservationist. With over 33 years of experience with Trout Unlimited, she has a wealth of experience in the entomology of streams.
Marcia Woolman is an avid trout fisherman, fly tier, and cold water conservationist. With over 33 years of experience with Trout Unlimited, she has a wealth of experience in the entomology of streams.

It’s easy to get lost when you focus on the material objects involved in angling. For centuries, anglers have been expanding their options in search of flexibility. With her view beyond the plethora of options, Marcia gets to the heart of the matter: it’s about nature and how we interact with it. For much of Marcia’s presentation, the tie is an avenue for learning about nature. It’s really a lesson about all the players in the ecosystem; the life cycles of the mayfly and the fish, the changing of the seasons and the habits of all throughout the day. The successful angler will be the one who is most familiar with the habits of the animals in the ecosystem.

Since I live just a short walk from the Shenandoah River, I’ve been reading up on angling. Marcia’s been an inspiration: I may try fishing again this summer! I have a host of options for additional reading. The Chapman Collection is a huge resource on fly fishing.

On the wall of the Main Reading Room, we have a selection of flies collected and framed by George Chapman.
On the wall of the Main Reading Room, we have a selection of flies collected and framed by George Chapman.

Since I live so close to the Shenandoah, it makes sense to look up bass fishing first, as the Shenandoah is a haven for both smallmouth and largemouth bass. The Chapman Collection has quite a few titles on bass fishing, and many general fly fishing titles as well. The aggressive nature of bass also make it an excellent option for beginners. Perfect!

Larger fish prey on swimming mice and small rodents. The mouse is a staple in fly fishing.
Larger fish prey on swimming mice and small rodents. The mouse is a staple in the fly fishing repertoire.
The flies were carefully framed by Chapman, who donated a large fly fishing book collection to the Library in 2011.
The flies were carefully framed by Chapman, who donated a large fly fishing book collection to the Library in 2011.
These rare pre-serial Orvis rods make perfect centerpieces, and are the gift of NSLM member Viviane M. Warren and her son, Nicholas Frederick Pratt.
These rare pre-serial Orvis rods make perfect centerpieces, and are the gift of NSLM member Viviane M. Warren and her son, Nicholas Frederick Pratt.
Flies tied by Doug Swisher, whose books on fly fishing strategy are available for access in the Main Reading Room.
Flies tied by Doug Swisher, whose books on fly fishing strategy are available for access in the Main Reading Room.

Marcia’s presentation, “Tying Flies for All the Right Reasons” will be on February 7 in the Library. We still have a few spots left, so contact me if you would like to join us!