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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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