he first reference to fly fishing is in ∆lianís Natural History, probably written about 200 A.D. Ælian was born in about A.D. 170 at Praeneste, where he later held a religious post, dying in about A.D. 230. At some point he became a pupil of Pausanias of Caesarea, who taught him rhetoric, and as a good student Ælian also learnt excellent Attic Greek. He later studied history under the patronage of the empress Julia Domna, and moving within her circle would have allowed him to meet not only Galen, but Oppian.
Despite his interest in the exotic, Ælian was not a traveller and he spent the vast majority of his life in Rome, which gave him easy access to the libraries he needed; he once boasted that he had never been outside Italy, had never been aboard a ship, and knew nothing of the sea; a statement which I find quite easy to believe having read his works. Ælian put his knowledge of Greek to good use when he wrote, and he drew from a vast range of reference works: his main source has been identified as being Pamphilus of Alexandria; but he also accessed a wealth of other writers including Democritus, Herodotus, Plutarch and Aristophanes.
In the seventeen volume On the Nature of Animals Ælian mixes personal observation with fact, legend and fancy drawn from earlier authors, pouncing on passing ideas like a thirsty man upon flagons of ale, with the result that there is little order in the work. His book intentionally lacked structure and it contains frequent errors many of which Ælian could have eliminated with very little effort, not least his belief that goats could breathe through their ears. However, the book is pure entertainment which is why the author saw no reason why he should not discuss elephants in one breath and dragons in the next. We should be glad of this, because in the course of his frantic rush through all of nature Ælian chanced to write these immortal lines:
I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Borúa and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astrśus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed upon a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river. It is not like the flies found elsewhere, nor does it resemble a wasp in appearance, nor in shape would one justly describe it as a midge or a bee, yet it has something of each of these. In boldness it is like a fly, in size you might call it a midge, it imitates the colour of a wasp, and it hums like a bee. The natives generally call it the Hippouros.
These flies seek their food over the river, but do not escape the observation of the fish swimming below. When then the fish observes a fly on the surface, it swims quietly up, afraid to stir the water above, lest it should scare away its prey; then coming up by its shadow, it opens its mouth gently and gulps down the fly, like a wolf carrying off a sheep from the fold or an eagle a goose from the farmyard; having done this it goes below the rippling water.
Now though the fishermen know this, they do not use these flies at all for bait for fish; for if a manís hand touch them, they lose their natural colour, their wings wither, and they become unfit food for the fish. For this reason they have nothing to do with them, hating them for their bad character; but they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fishermanís craft.
They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cockís wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.
The quote above is taken from Radcliffe's Fishing from the Earliest Times, Murray (1921), and with various alterations it is the one most often reprinted, often without any credit. In his text, Radcliffe tells us that he adapted his translation from Lambert's Angling Literature in England (1881). Prior to this, a Latin translation was available in Gesner's Historia Animalium, printed in 1558, where it lay unread for nearly three centuries until Oliver rediscovered it in 1834. If you want to read an early English translation, it can be found in Westwood and Satchell's Bibliotheca Piscatoria; and finally, there is an excellent modern translation in the Loeb Classical Library Aelian On Animals, which you can read here.
The Macedonian fly must be the most interesting flies of all time, but imagining what it looked like is very difficult, partly because of what Ælian leaves unsaid. My own reading of his description of the Hippouros is that:
- the fly probably didn't occur in Italy.
- it hovered.
- it was approximately midge-sized.
- it was coloured like a wasp (yellow and black), but with a body shape unlike one
- it made a humming noise.
- and it landed on the water and floated there for long enough for fish to take it (maybe he has this back to front and was actually describing hatching duns - easy mistake to make).
But, Ælian makes it clear that the fishermen didn't use this fly to fish with, so the description of the Hippouros is interesting but nothing to do with the fly pattern he describes. We can't call this fly "The Hippouros Fly" because if you read the text very critically, Aelian appears to be saying that fishermen did not imitate the Hippouros:
Now though the fishermen know this, they do not use these flies at all for bait for fish; for if a man's hand touch them, they lose their natural colour, their wings wither, and they become unfit food for the fish. For this reason they have nothing to do with them, hating them for their bad character...
So you could read the next bit as a description of the fly they do use, rather than imitating the Hippouros. This would make sense, because the imitation is brown and red, while the Hippouros is yellow and black. According to our man in Rome:
...but they have planned a snare for the fish, and get the better of them by their fisherman's craft.
They fasten red (crimson red) wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock's wattles, and which in colour are like wax.
So you could argue on two counts that this fly is not a Hippouros imitation, in which case, it is only of theoretical interest what the Hippouros was.
If we do think it is a Hippouros imitation, then we have to square the difficult circle of reconciling a pattern with a red body with a natural fly which had a yellow body. The only way I can think of doing this is if there is a fly which changes its body colour from yellow to red, but if we think the Hippouros is being imitated here, we also have to consider Aelian's "hovering". The biggest problem here is that he was describing all this third hand. It might be that he was actually describing the ascent of duns - Ephemera danica duns and most spinners look as if they are hovering. On the other hand, it might be that he was describing a truly hovering fly; but I can't think of any patterns anywhere which imitate this sort of insect, chiefly because they are hardly of any importance to fish in their diet.
If you want to know about some interesting attempts to guess what the Macedonian fly looked like, click here.