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How The "Brotherhood of the Angle" Invites a Trout to Dinner
on December 4, 2005
Three hundred fifty years ago Izaak Walton wrote of the curious blend of inner peace and giddy excitement which the amateur naturalist finds at streamside. He invites us to stroll with him through the countryside, discussing the mythology, superstition, and the science of England's aquatic fauna. It is an unrushed journey, though we often arise at sunrise, and the author introduces us to many of the local inhabitants. Indeed, if our fishing is successful, we might exchange our catch for the song of a pretty milkmaid. The Compleat Angler is a brief book, and Walton's intent is to hook the reader, and encourage him to try fishing for himself: "I do not undertake to say all that is known...but I undertake to acquaint the Reader with many things that are not usually known to every Angler; and I shall leave gleanings and observations enough to be made out of the experience that all that love and practise this recreation, to which I shall encourage them." Interestingly, Walton starts off on the defensive, since the fisherman's passion was even then caricatured. By the end the reader has joined the "Brotherhood of the Angle," making artificial flies and enjoying the poetry of fishing: "The jealous Trout, that low did lie, Rose at a well-dissembled fly." To the modern ear Walton's literal belief in naturalists' old wives tales may seem humorously anachronistic, and it comprises a remarkably large part of his affection for his subject. We are also frequently reminded of the book's timeline with comments such as "...the Royal Society have found and published lately that there be thirty and three kinds of Spiders," while we now know that there are thirty thousand species of Arachnids. And the Brotherhood of the Angle is a genuine fraternity to Walton, "...I love all Anglers, they be such honest, civil, quiet men." The prospective reader must also be disabused of the misconception that Walton was a purist for artificial lures; he strongly recommends worms, minnows, and live flies. In Walton's watery world there is no dry humor, only fresh. Following his description of the twelve most effective artificial flies he says, "Thus you have a jury of flies likely to betray and condem all the Trouts in the river." And here he compares the beautiful coloration of a living trout to...well, you'll see: "Their bodies [are] adorned with such red spots, and...with black or blackish spots, as give them such an addition of natural beauty as, I think, was never given to any woman by the artificial paint or patches in which they so much pride themselves in this age." At the risk of taking some of the surprise out of the book, I here present a sample of Walton's fishing secrets: "Take the stinking oil drawn out of Polypody of the oak by a retort, mixed with turpentine and hive-honey, and anoint your bait therewith, and it will doubtless draw the fish to it." I would guess that Walton wasn't much of a cook, however, and I do not recommend his recipe for eel (partially skinning it, packing the viceral cavity with nutmeg and anchovy, cutting off the head, slipping the skin back over the body, and sewing it together where the head formerly was, then barbecuing it on skewers). Walton's affection for fish and fishing extends beyond the aquatic nobility of trout and salmon, to the often ignored commoners: gudgeons, sprats, bleaks, herns, tench, roach, umber, loach, and sticklebag. And as for the importance of fishing in Walton's world: "I envy not him that eats better meat than I do, nor him that is richer, or that wears better clothes than I do; I envy nobody but him, and him only, that catches more fish than I do."