When most people think of fly fishing, they think of rods, reels, flies, and a great time on the river. But do some people also think of the old, antique flies becoming valuable collector’s items worth money? One search on leading online retailers tells you that yes, it’s possible, so maybe you should think of that, too.
Old fishing flies are worth something. While their monetary value is typically not overwhelmingly high, it can range depending on several factors such as material makeup, craftsmanship, age, and condition. Vintage fishing flies do have some value.
The rest of this article will explain a few topics related to this question in great detail. While selling old fishing flies probably won’t allow you to retire early or pay off the mortgage, we’ll provide you with some background. We’ll cover facts about fishing flies, what factors contribute to their value, fly fishing collectors, and how to get the most bang for your buck by selling old fishing flies.
A Brief History of Fishing Flies
Fishing has existed since ancient times, both for food and survival and later, for sport. Various fishing types have evolved, from net fishing to spearfishing, and ultimately, hook-and-line fishing like fly fishing.
Fly Fishing in the Early Days
The sport of fly fishing and all its tackle, including flies, have been around 1,700 years. According to Grand Valley State University, the earliest fly fishing can be traced back to Claudius Aelianus, a Roman author and teacher, around the second century.
A fishing fly is simply a fishing hook that’s dressed up with embellishments like pieces of fur, feathers, and other materials held together with a type of thread. They aim to resemble an actual fly or another type of small insect or fish.
It is said that Aelianus described how to practice the sport and wrote about the Hippouros fly he made with tiers of hooks, wax colored rooster wattle feathers, and red wool. In those days, flies were made of what materials were natural and readily available, without any great manufacturing or mass-produced pieces.
Hand Tying Fishing Flies
Hand tying flies is a learning process. It requires top-notch eyesight, dexterous fingers, lots of patience, and creativity. A fly tyer needs to have the vision to plan out and adeptly space the fly’s segments while tying from the tail up towards the head.
Since way back in the second century and throughout history, as more people learned the trade, they passed it onto others. From fly to fly, there are delicate differences based on who made it and what they had available, from the hook and thread to the embellishments to how a particular feather or fur is spread out or pulled in tight.
Fishing Flies Have Evolved
Over the years, the ways fishing flies are made has evolved. While available materials have changed, so has knowledge and design.
Fly tyers learned early that they could make a few small tweaks to the flies to more closely imitate a real insect on the water. They changed color blends, forms, and material arrangements to perfect their design and catch more fish.
The concept of fancy flies evolved, as well, with the creation of flies featuring brilliant colors to catch the eyes of fish without necessarily imitating a natural aquatic bug species. Less natural elements are used today, and more synthetic pieces are added. Today, fishing flies can be tied in over 5,000 different sizes, styles, and patterns.
Fly Fishing Is a Beloved Sport
Being a well-established sport means it’s respected and beloved by many. While not everyone knows about fly fishing, many, many people do.
Maybe you were handed down a beautiful collection of antique artificial fishing flies from your father or grandfather, or maybe you just picked up the sport with buddies last year? Either way, with a strong community of fly fishers worldwide, the sport is a popular one, and the tackle is ample and valuable.
What Makes Old Fishing Flies Valuable?
Sure, it’s probably true that no matter what you have that you’re looking to sell, the right buyer is out there. Some things have their own niche in the collector’s world, while others appeal to a broad range of people. Some people collect old stamps, some like old lamps. And you bet, there are absolutely people who collect old fishing tackle – specifically, fishing flies.
While old fly fishing rods and reels are undoubtedly worth far more than the flies (some rods and reels bring in thousands of dollars), the flies should still bring you at least a few dollars.
The likelihood of an older fishing fly carrying value beyond a few dollars depends on a handful of factors. Beyond these, of course, things that appeal to the specific buyer or collector can vary, so take these with a grain of salt.
Factor #1: Collector Value
While not every old fly will be worth $100,000 at an auction like the famous giant copper Haskell Minnow, the value they bring to the right collector can make a huge difference.
Is it considered rare? One of only a handful ever made? Made with the fur of a rare species no longer roaming the earth? Is it a gut-eyed salmon fly? Does it bear the signature of a renowned historical fly tyer? Is it the work of someone like Poul Jorgensen, known as the greatest fly tyer of all time?
These types of features will drive up the value for collectors.
Factor #2: Materials
The materials that make up an old fishing fly can vary, but they’re important. Depending on the fly’s age, the materials that went into making it were likely what was readily available at the time.
Fishing flies usually consist of a variety of materials, including:
- Metal – hooks, lead wire for weight
- Gold or silver mylar
Making some old fishing flies even more valuable is the fact that some of the materials may no longer be available at all, or at least readily available. For example, they may feature feathers of a bird that’s now extinct.
Factor #3: Age
The fact that this article is all about whether or not “old fishing flies” have value says it all. “Old” is important. “Old” carries value.
Many people selling old fishing flies will announce the age or era it was made loud and proud right in the listing title. Don’t be surprised to see “from the Great Depression Era” or “World War II” or “circa 1915” as you’re looking around.
While anyone could hop on Amazon.com and purchase a brand new ⅛ ounce gold spinning Panther Martin Deluxe Fly for under five dollars shipped to your door, the older age of vintage flies is what the appeal is all about. As long as in decent condition, age adds values to fishing flies.
Factor #4: Hand-tied vs. Manufactured
Generally speaking, much of the appeal of older flies is that older usually means handcrafted. Before there were factories, large machines, and computer designs, the creation of lures and flies was all by hand with natural materials. Details were painted on one at a time, and feathers were individually cut and tied one by one.
In the world of fishing flies, hand-tied is more valuable than your everyday fly manufactured in a factory where there are thousands of the same ones made.
Factor #5: Who or What Company Made It
If a fly was hand-tied by a world-renowned fly fishing enthusiast of a past century, for example, it might be more valuable than others.
Theodore Gordon, who lived 1854 to 1915, is known as the Father of North American fly fishing. He himself fashioned quite a few fishing flies in his day, and his pieces are highly regarded as prized possessions for many. They say finding an original fly by Gordon is extremely uncommon these days, but it would be very valuable if found.
Similarly, Carrie Frost, who opened her parents’ kitchen doors to start CJ Frost Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company in 1886, gained national acclaim for her hand-tied flies. She put Stevens Point, Wisconsin on the map with credibility as the “Fly Tackle Capital of the World.” Her flies are very valuable today.
Others who became famous fly tyers in the 1900s through the 1940s also made some nice flies that would be worth money these days. It’s said that famous tyers left their figurative “signature” on their work through their signature color blend of feathers, or perhaps a particularly sparse look compared to what’s standard. Someone with an eye for vintage fishing flies would know how to recognize these traits.
Certain brands can definitely up the value immediately of a fishing fly, as well. For example, one 6/0 fully dressed Torrish gut eye salmon fly from about 1900 to 1915 sold on eBay in September of 2020 for about $229.
A box of assorted vintage fishing flies, with some marked Heddon, sold on eBay in August of 2020 for $560.
Factor #6: Sentimental Value
You can’t put a price on sentimental value, which has its advantages and disadvantages. What’s worth something to you for a sentimental reason may mean nothing to the next guy. When referring to worth, it’s okay to count sentimental value in your calculation, but be realistic in what that may mean (or not mean) in a sale.
Fly Fishing Tackle Collectors
In an article in Hatch Mag by Steve Woit, author of Fly Fishing Treasures: The World of Fly Fishers and Collecting, it’s mentioned that a robust, passionate community of antique fly fishing enthusiasts exist today.
Jim Deren, the proprietor of a Manhattan shop called the Angler’s Roost for more than 45 years, has jumped into collecting fishing tackle with two feet. In a New York Times article, he says about collecting fishing paraphernalia: “There’s a romance in all of this. It has devilry all its own, and once you get your nose in it, you can never get it out.”
Preserving the Art of Fly Fishing
According to Woit, we’re fortunate to have fly fishing collectors’ interest and dedication to this great sport’s history, as it helps preserve the craft and maintain the history. Those who “have their nose in it,” as Deren says, help build the community and further elevate the sport.
If it weren’t for collectors – and even amateur hobbyists who do the bare minimum of at least saving Dad and Grandpa’s old flies – we could lose some of the rarest objects of the past related to fly fishing. It’s great that their drive and passion help conserve these items and preserve a large slice of our common heritage.
Driving up Value of Antique Fly Fishing Lures
As a bonus, fly fishing collectors find great value – both historical and monetary – in older age flies, which helps drive up their value. What’s worth something to someone means money for the seller.
To learn more about the value of your artificial fishing flies, you might perform an internet search or consider a book like this one on Amazon: Old Fishing Lures & Tackle: Identification and Value Guide.
Where to Sell Your Old Fishing Flies
When it comes to cashing in on what your old fishing fly is worth, you have options on how and where to sell.
You may consider selling locally to an auction house for a same-day profit on the spot. They spend their time collecting or buying items to sell on auction or sale day and then host a big event to make their money back. To save you from all the other steps of planning, promoting, photographing, and otherwise attempting to sell your old fishing flies yourself, you may like this option.
Online Auction and Sale Sites
Online selling and auction sites like eBay or Etsy are alternative options. Overall, they’re great places to put your old fishing flies up for sale, with one major perk being that they reach a worldwide audience of fly fishing enthusiasts. This is a large benefit to you as the seller compared to a local, short-term sale like a live auction.
Looking for comparable items currently for sale by other sellers on these selling or auction platform sites will help you gauge value.
On Amazon, for example, you’ll likely see many vintage fly fishing flies listed at prices that range from $20 to $200. A search for vintage fishing flies will show a broader price and product range that spans the gamut on eBay.
Some would point out that a sale on a popular auction site limits your listing to the auction’s time period, which is typically seven to ten days. If the right buyer doesn’t happen to be searching during that particular week, or if they’re not yet signed up for email alerts for your type of fly, you miss out on that potential buyer.
For this reason, some would suggest that a niche site specializing in consignment sales of fishing tackle is the way to go. Vintage Fly Tackle or Thomas Turner Fishing Antiques are reputable sites to consider.
You’ll attract and reach that special group of people on this type of site, specifically searching for what you’re selling. You’ll also receive maximum exposure with an online retail style setup that allows your old fishing flies to be on display for sale for as long as it takes until they are sold, and you get paid.
How to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck on Old Fishing Flies
If you want to make a pretty penny when selling old fishing flies, there are a few things you can consider to maximize your profit.
Preserve Your Flies
It probably goes without saying that flies in great condition are more valuable than those that beat up or worn out. As a general rule, take good care of your flies, especially if you hope they’ll someday become “old flies” that have value and are sellable.
Even if you’ve inherited older flies and the care in their earlier days is beyond your control, you can still start taking care of them once they’re in your possession.
Dry your flies after use and before putting away. Ensure your fly box is not left out exposed to splashes or rain. Go through your fly box periodically to remove any rusted out flies that could potentially spread their rust to others. Take care of your fly boxes.
Consult an Expert
You can track down an expert to examine, identify, appraise, and, if applicable, authenticate your vintage fishing flies. People who have worked with this type of tackle for a long time have built expert knowledge and skill at identifying types and values. They will be able to tell you what type of value you’re looking at and may be able to suggest selling tips.
Consider the Selling Platform or Method
As mentioned above, you have choices for how and where you sell your old flies. Consider the pros and cons of each and make an educated decision about where to sell yours.
If you’ve opted to consult with an expert or someone well-versed in the topic, ask their opinion for where they think would be your best place to sell.
If you have old fishing flies lying around, don’t toss them out. Examine them, determine an avenue for selling, and get ready to make a few dollars.