I recently read a book about fishing. It was a “how to” essay — a genre from which there are many titles available to today’s anglers. We could fill a bookstore shopping cart (Am I the only person who still buys actual books?) with volumes written to teach us how to tie the best knots, how to fish the flats, how to catch snook, or how to fish in Southwest Florida or Northeast Florida or the Canary Islands.
My recently completed tome was written as a guide to freshwater fishing in England, of all places, but it was not a hot-off-the-press trending book. In fact, it was written a long time ago. A very long time ago, as in nearly 400 years ago.
Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653, is probably the most famous fishing book ever written. How famous? It’s one of the most-printed English language books in history, regardless of category. Some authorities believe that it trails only the Bible and the works of Shakespeare in number of copies produced. That’s pretty heady company for a book about fishing.
I’d always intended to read The Compleat Angler and had thumbed through a few pages now and again, but had always put the book away after a brief attempt. It’s not an easy read because it is written in 17th century-style English, which makes it slow going. When I was recently given a wonderful gift of a beautiful 1948 hardcover edition, this great bequest finally prompted me to settle in for a cover-to-cover read.
One thing that I learned from reading The Compleat Angler is that I’m not as smart as I’d thought. For instance, I thought I was clever because I know that bright bluebird days are not the greatest for fishing, and because I figured out that light-colored lures are best in bright conditions while darker lure colors work better in stained water or low light. Walton knew those things nearly 400 years ago.
And he knew that a lighter leader will get more bites from finicky fish, and that studying the stomach contents of a recent catch can teach you what to use for bait, and that watching the feeding habits of your intended target can help you to become a better angler. Walton and his peeps were centuries ahead of me on this stuff.
Of course, there was also a lot of stuff that the anglers in the 17th century had wrong, since science had not yet revealed to them many things that we now take for granted. For example, they tended to classify many things that lived in the water as “fish.” Walton gave a detailed description of a hermit crab, and called it a fish. There was a discussion about whether otters were fish or not, since they spent time out of the water as well as beneath the surface.
And they were sure that pike came to be found in so many little ponds and ditches because they somehow sprouted from pickerelweed. Frogs were thought to leap onto the backs of fish, clamp hold, and tear out the fish’s eyes. These were not fringe opinions of that time, but rather were accepted as facts.
The descriptions of 17th century fishing tackle are interesting. There was no such thing as a fishing reel in those days, so their fishing was done with what we might call a cane pole: A long, slender rod with the line lashed to the tip. Some of the rods were described as being “5 or 6 yards in length,” so 15 to 18 feet long.
The line might be longer or shorter than the rod, depending on the type of fishing. Anglers made their lines by braiding together horse tail hairs, and the lines were rated in strength according to how many hairs were used. It was common to taper the line from a stouter butt section at the rod end to a finer tippet near the hook or lure, similar to the tapered or stepped leader that a modern day fly fisherman might employ.
A really light line for delicate work or finicky fish might taper down to only one hair, while stronger lines might taper down to two or three hairs. Can you imagine having to walk out into the pasture with a pair of scissors when you need a new fishing line? (Did they have scissors in the mid-1600s?)
With no reel to store line, it could be tough to handle a really big, strong fish. It was a common practice to toss the rod in the stream if a fish was too strong to stop. The angler would follow the floating rod from the bank and hope to be able to retrieve it later when the fish would (hopefully) be tired out from dragging the tackle for a while.
The same rod and line might be used for fishing with live bait or with artificial flies. Live baits included worms and grubs — but not just any worms or grubs. Different types of worms were known to work best for different species of fish, and a knowledgeable 17th century angler would not only know which worm he wanted, but would know where to find it in rich soil, in dung piles, rotten logs or other habitats.
The book also includes detailed fly tying instructions for numerous flies for different kinds of fish and for specific streams or rivers. (Fly fishing must have been very different with no reels.) It also gives descriptions of many species of fish, plus cleaning instructions, recipes, and much more. There is a lot of technical information in those pages, and not all of it is obsolete.
But while the Compleat Angler is a book about fishing in the 17th century, it also offers a look at the natural and human worlds from the eyes of an author of that era, which is why it has enjoyed such a wide popularity for such a long time.
Walton promotes a friendly, collegial sharing of both information and respect among fishermen, whom he calls “Brothers of the Angle.” Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s anglers acted the same way?
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.