The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton
Five Days of Fishing in 1653
Have you ever thought of writing a book on your fishing adventures? I am not talking about the extravagant trip to Russia or Belize, just a description of getting in your truck and going to fish your local bass pond. Included in your book is the equipment, technique, and bait you use. Oh, add to the book a description of the burger joint you stopped at on the way home and the friend you took along who is inexperienced in fishing. This in essence, is what you have in The Complete Angler, albeit circular 1653. No offense, but unless you are an exceptional writer, you would be hard pressed to find a publisher. The Complete Angler was popular upon its publication and has remained so even today. This fact alone might compel you to read the book. If you fish and especially if you are a fly fisher, it is a must read. Izaak Walton makes what would seem mundane come alive. If you like long hikes with friends, fishing cool, clear rivers, taverns, beer, eating freshly prepared fish, singing maidens, and know the value a dead cat, The Complete Angler is for you. By the end of the book you will wish you were fishing in England along side Izaak Walton.
The General Premise
The book is a dialogue between an experience angler (the pole you fish with is called an angle) named Piscator and an experienced hunter named Venator, who is inexperienced in fishing. The two take a five day fishing trip. Keep in mind that in 1653 the commoner walks everywhere in England, so our pair spends a lot of time in dialogue. Piscator is an angler of his times - meaning practically everything is do-it-yourself. Aside from the hooks, nothing is manufactured. Piscator explains to Venator how to construct the angle, line, preparing bait, and tying flies. He also explains the different types of fish, fishing tactics, and recipes for preparing the fish.
Naturally, there are descriptions of actual fishing as Piscator mentors Venator in technique and praises Venator for his successful catches. Clearly, Venator catches the "fishing bug".
The two also spend the nights at inns/taverns in which the fish they caught are prepared for them and for Piscator's old friends they meet by chance in the taverns. The taverns are known for their cooks and the beer they stock. Fish stories are exchanged and singing is the entertainment for the evening. They are up before dawn for the next fishing location.
Some Book Highlights
- Piscator is incredibly observant. He describes individual fish species, their habitat, habits, and life cycles with a sense of awe and wonderment.
- Piscator describes and admires the world they walk through, commenting on the trees, flowers, meadows, smells of the earth, rain, and sun. He is a 17th century naturalist.
- Piscator is not a fly fishing purist, he uses whatever bait works best at the time for the specific species of fish. Some of the bait preparation is rather lengthy ranging from complex kitchen recipes to carefully raising worms at home (a staked dead cat is excellent for attracting maggots). Others baits are caught onsite to include catching flying insects, digging for worms in manure piles, and capturing minnows.
- Piscator is the classic fly-fisher - he ties his flies to match the seasonal hatches for the respective species of fish. He goes into detail on how to tie the flies, tactics and season of their use.
The Spiritual Side of Piscator
The characters in The Complete Angler are spiritual people. It is, after all, 17th century England. Piscator instills a wonderment and respect for the people they meet and the countryside they travel through. Piscator knows much and could easily come off boastful, but he constantly credits his knowledge and skill from either works he has read or what others have directly taught him, carefully citing each individual and building them up. Both Piscator and Venator are charitable. They commonly catch and keep more fish than they can eat in anticipation of giving some away. In one instance they give fish to a milkmaid and her daughter requesting only that they sing a song in return. Another instance they meet people who are clearly destitute and gladly accept their fish. Piscator frequently thanks his Creator and references scripture; I never connected the dots that fishermen made up the bulk of the professions of the 12 apostles.
My Appreciation of The Complete Angler
I am a 21st century fly fisher. I reflect on how fortunate I am to live with all the modern conveniences and latest technology. Driving my car to fishing locations less than an hour away to using the latest and greatest manufactured equipment, I am thankful for it all. However, The Complete Angler did make me realize that I could enjoy fly fishing at a much earlier time. There is something to be said for making your own equipment. Even more, the tavern scenes of eating your own prepared fish in the company of fishing buddies, locally brewed beer, fish stories, and tavern singing is downright enviable.
By the end of the book, I was wishing I could go back in time and take that five day fishing trip with Isaac Walton. To live in a society that was creation based and did not believe in evolution has great appeal to me. Couple that with the company of a humble man who had great appreciation for nature and humanity - those five days would compliment a lifetime's worth of sermons.