I recently finished reading “The Compleat Angler” by Izaak Walton, who has been called the Father of Fly Fishing. First published in England in 1653, with revised editions until 1676, reading The Compleat Angler was a slog at best. Written near the time of Shakespeare, but without the Bard’s skill, it deserves its modern reputation as tedious. That being said, it was absolutely fascinating to read how much was known about angling 366 years ago.
The book is painfully laid out as a series of long, overly verbose monologues from an experienced angler given to someone wishing to become a “Brother of the Angle”. The content of these soliloquies, however, was frequently surprising. The life cycle of a wide range of macroinvertebrates was discussed along with hatch cycles for all 12 months of the year. This discussion was as good as most anglers need today. Detailed fly patterns for numerous insects at various life stages were discussed as well as methods for construction.
Flies were tied without the use of vises, so techniques for holding the hook, applying thread, dubbing, wings, hackle, etc., streamside while matching the hatch were pretty amazing. The raw materials gathered, and how to use them to create additional materials, revealed how time consuming this used to be. For example, threads had to be manufactured using specific processes, a range of colored waxes to apply to the threads, how to select them based on color, pattern, type and size of hooks, etc.
Single and two piece rods up to 18’ long were made of wood. Rods could much shorter and of differing flexibility for various techniques. They had to be properly sealed and painted to resist water. Lines were made of treated hair from horse manes, twisted together and tapered down to 2 hairs where they met the fly. Lines were measured as a half rod length to up to a rod and a half and were attached to the rod at the tip in what we would now think of as Tenkara style.
Walton understood how to target fish as well as most modern anglers. He had techniques for surface, sub-surface, and bottom fishing using flies, minnows, and bait including live insects, worms, minnows, and frogs. He selected the technique based on time of year, time of day, sunlight, rain, wind, species being targeted, etc., all the things an angler would do today. His discussion of “dabbling” artificial flies on the surface, while using the wind, keeping the line out of the water, and standing far off the bank or hiding behind vegetation so as to not be seen is as appropriate today as it was then. His use of artificial minnows (streamers) and techniques for getting fish off the bottom put him ahead of most anglers I have fished with.
Of course, Walton was fishing for both sport and meat. He would throw fish back but usually only if they were not large enough to make a meal. A typical trout or grayling kept was in the 16” to 20” range. Think about that, these large fish were taken on short horse hair lines with a rod made of wood! Passing comment was made about sometimes having loops attached to the end of the rod for when additional line was needed as well as occasionally throwing the rod into the river and retrieving it downstream, hopefully with the fish still attached. (He fished smaller, more gentle rivers than the Deschutes!)
His discussion about when to retrieve a hook from a fish that would not be kept and when to leave it place matches what we know today. He understood that hooks deeply lodged would rust away in short order and wrote of catching fish that still had a hook from one of his outings a few days prior.
Walton provided a number of recipes for preparing trout, grayling, and salmon, all of which called for copious amounts of butter and alcohol. I’m not sure how many of us could abide by his admonishment to eat your catch within 5 hours of harvest or the flesh will be ruined as we are not likely to be angling on private lands with servants waiting to take our fish to a nearby house and kitchen. Or servants to carry our fly tying materials, for that matter.
Even in the 1600s, conservation was an important topic. Habitat loss, dams, and over fishing were known to be reducing fish stocks. Walton complained about the lack of enforcement of fishing regulations and the poaching of fish at night and using “unsporting” equipment like nets. This is a conversation we could have today.
An important theme that weaved through the entire book was the ideal of the observant, well-paced, and contemplative life of a Brother of the Angle. Walton considered anglers to possess superior qualities. Anglers have business to attend to but are not consumed with pursuing riches, study and appreciate the natural world, are modest, enjoy the company of others, share their knowledge, etc. Walton considered it to be a calling and accomplishment to become a Brother of the Angle.
“There is no life, my honest Scholar, no life so happy and so pleasant as the life of a well-governed angler. When the lawyer is swallowed up with business and the statesman is preventing or contriving plots, we sit on cowslip banks, hear the birds sing, and possess ourselves is an much quietness as these silent silver streams, which we now see glide so quietly by us…And so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.”