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Curious about the Fly Fishing Tackle exhibit headed to Monee Reservoir? Jim Schottenham has answers

Man stands in the middle of a fly fishing exhibit
Jim Schottenham, curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing (Photo by Chad Merda)

Jim Schottenham took the bait last year when the Forest Preserve District’s Jessica Prince called fishing around for a possible 2023 fly-fishing exhibit at Monee Reservoir. 

Schottenham is the curator at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, and Prince is the facility supervisor at Monee Reservoir. What grew out of their telephone conversation is a unique 2023 exhibition curated by Schottenham and created specifically for Monee Reservoir and the Chicago area. 

“World’s Finest: Fly Fishing Tackle” opened Aug. 8 and runs through Oct. 31. The exhibition features items that were on display during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Schottenham, who has been curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing since January 2022, is past president of the Old Reels Collectors Association and an editorial associate for “Hunting & Fishing Collectibles” magazine. He has been fishing since his grandmother took him on an ocean charter when he was 5 years old, and he has a passion for collecting side-mount fly reels.


To learn more about the exhibition and the museum, here are 10 questions answered by Schottenham via email:

Why is Monee Reservoir in northern Illinois a good spot for a fly-fishing exhibition? 
The proximity to Chicago seemed like a natural place to celebrate the 1893 event, since some of the best-known tackle manufacturers exhibited there, many of which influenced the fishing industry for decades afterward. 

What kinds of items are on display during the exhibit and what is their significance?
The exhibit features items that would have been on display at the exposition, such as fly rods, reels, flies, and more, with notable items such as the original bookplates for Mary Orvis Marbury’s book, “Favorite Flies,” published in 1892. These bookplates are one of a kind and are part of the museum’s permanent collection. Other notable items include an original Orvis fly reel patented in 1874, in the original walnut box, and a Kosmic pack rod from retailer A. G. Spalding, a company with roots in Chicago.

How are the items related to the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893? 
The Columbian Exposition was an important event for Charles F. Orvis and his daughter, Mary Orvis Marbury. Having recently published a book titled “Favorite Flies,” the company was able to exhibit to huge numbers of interested anglers, propelling the already successful company to perhaps the premier mail-order tackle retailer in the United States. One of the key features of the Orvis exhibit incorporated several photos housed in a series of hinged cabinets that featured the flies for the region depicted in the photo. Her work is credited with standardizing the names of fly patterns in the United States and beyond. 

Why should people see this exhibit? 
This is a great opportunity for anglers to see the products that helped shape the future of fly-fishing rods, reels and flies, as well as some items that can’t be seen elsewhere, such as the original bookplates for “Favorite Flies.” It should also be of interest to local Chicago historians, as it includes items from A. G. Spalding and their Kosmic line of tackle. Even non-anglers will appreciate the imagery of fly fishing’s past. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the sport, how would you describe fly fishing?
Fly Fishing is an angling technique that requires specialty equipment to present a lure or fly that lacks sufficient weight to cast using conventional fishing tackle. In fly fishing, the line provides the weight needed to propel the fly to the fish, with the rods having specialty tapers, or “actions,” to allow the angler to cast the lines, attached to the near-weightless lures, to the desired distance. 

How widespread is the sport of fly fishing?
Fly fishing has been, and continues to be, a global sport. Around 200 AD, Aelain, in his book “De Natura Animalium,” describes fishing he witnessed in Macedonia: “They fasten red (crimson red) wool round a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers.” Many consider this to be one of the earliest references to fly fishing. The earliest reference to fly fishing in America was found in a letter dated Oct. 28, 1764, written by Rodney Home, who was working for the new British governor of the West Florida Colony. Home wasted no time swimming his flies in local waters. He reports: “We have plenty of saltwater trout & fine fishing with fly in the freshwater rivers, too ….” Fly fishers have expanded to every corner of the world, with an ever-increasing number of fish species to catch on the fly.

Why do people love fly fishing?
It’s very difficult to point to any one thing, but some of the frequent answers involve the connection with the outdoors, the quiet time when wading in a small stream, and the sound of the water as it passes by, or the thrill of a big tarpon taking a fly and the resulting sound of your reel as it dispenses the line from the spool. Some take great pride in “matching the hatch,” or fooling a wary trout with a fly tied to imitate the natural insects they eat, and of course the simple beauty of the fly cast. Anyone that has watched Joan Wulff, a champion fly caster and author of numerous articles and books on fly casting, cast a flyrod can attest to this. 

Why are the feathers used for the flies so important?
Just like specific ingredients are important in cooking, specific feathers are important in the construction of flies. In addition to the aesthetics, critical when trying to imitate the insects the fish might be feeding on, the properties of different feathers allow for different presentations, such as surface fishing or sub-surface presentations. Some provide bulk, others slim down when in water, with each offering unique properties that can be the difference between catching fish or just spending the day casting. 

How long has the American Museum of Fly Fishing been in existence and why was it created? 
The American Museum of Fly Fishing was established in 1968 in Manchester, Vermont, by a group of passionate and enthusiastic anglers who believed that the history of angling was an important part of American culture and tradition. The museum was created to serve as an institution to research, preserve, and interpret the treasures of angling history.

What does the museum feature? 
The American Museum of Fly Fishing serves as a repository for and conservator to the world’s largest collection of angling and angling-related items, numbering in the thousands. Our collections and exhibits thoroughly document the evolution of fly fishing as a sport, art form, craft, and industry in the United States and abroad, dating as far back as the 16th century. Rods, reels, flies, tackle, art, photographs, manuscripts, and books form the museum’s permanent collection. In addition to the Manchester, Vermont, location, we opened a second campus in Springfield, Missouri, as part of the Wonders of Wildlife museum in 2022, that also features a number of important artifacts from fly fishing history.


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