The Wit and Wisdom of Izaak Walton
|Izaak Walton - Author of 'The Compleat Angler',|
originally published in 1653
Izaak Walton wrote, among things, a small treatise on fishing titled The Compleat Angler. Walton’s book, published in 1653, is filled with observations on life and angling. For those of us alive and angling, there is abundant wisdom and no small amount of wit in Walton’s book. Outside my office door, I used to have a small sign indicating “International Headquarters Committee for the Beatification of Izaak Walton.”
Walton’s book is similar in one respect to what we have from Plato. It is in the form of a dialogue. Piscator is the protagonist, the authority who engages others in conversation. Piscator comes, doubtless, from Pisces , the Latin word for fish. And is true of the Platonic dialogues, sometimes Piscator’s challenger raises the weakest argument, not the strongest, making Piscator’s success foreordained. While others appear, Piscator’s principal companion is Venator. They spend several days together, wandering about the countryside, staying in inns, meeting persons along the road. All the while Piscator explains to the willing Venator fishing and life.
The Compleat Angler is organized into a series of chapters. In the original version there were 13 chapters, but by the fifth edition of Walton’s work it had ballooned to 31 chapters.
Walton addressed his book, “To all Readers of this discourse, but especially to the honest Angler.” Which of us would admit to being a dishonest angler? Thus, Walton addresses us all.
At the core of Walton’s approach is the notion that angling can be taught, but never mastered. As Walton first explains, “For Angling may be said to be so much like the Mathematicks, that it can never be fully lernt; at least not so fully, but that there will still be more new experiments left for the trial of other men that succeed us.”
Consider, as examples, the “new experiments” anglers my age have experienced. The first time I tried plastic worms, they were as close to the color and shape of earth worms as possible. I rigged them as described on the package and tried to catch trout on a small stream in Michigan. The cold water stiffened the worms into rigid lumps and an oil slick rose to the surface above the worms. Now, soft plastics are a hallmark of fishing for virtually every species in salt and freshwater. They come in an array of shapes, colors and representations. What the future may portend I don’t know, but I suspect it will contain sufficient “new experiments” to challenge Walton’s followers. Or the use of electronic imaging while fishing. As a young angler, I found out how deep the lake was because I tied a red string through the anchor rope at one foot intervals.
Walton, walking with Venator and Auceps, asserts he is “a brother of the Angle….[possessed of] that simplicity which was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most Anglers are, quiet men, and followers of peace.” Many accept this model of fishing as simple contemplation, one with nature, kids on a creek bank only partly hoping they will catch a fish. Among the protagonists of this view is one of North America’s best writers, John Gierach whose work appears regularly in Fly Rod and Reel and is collected in books with wry titles like Death, Taxes and Leaky Waders; Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing; and Standing in a River Waving a Stick. As is true of The Compleat Angler, Gierach’s writings are only superficially about fishing.
Followers of tournament fishing, for bass or walleyes or whatever, know such angling is neither simple nor contemplative. Walton’s model scarcely fits what often appears as the publically dominant pattern of fishing, while probably not the most common one .
Angling, Walton thought, was “an art, and an art worthy the knowledge and practice of a wise man….[and] he that hopes to be a good angler, must not only bring an inquiring, searching, observing wit, but he must bring a large measure of hope and patience, and a love and propensity to the art itself; but having once got and practised it, then doubt not that angling will prove to be so pleasant, that it will prove to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.” For non-anglers, it is often difficult for them to fathom that going fishing is the reason to go fishing. It’s not to catch fish, watch the sun come up or go down, see deer come to the water to drink or any of the myriad collateral benefits of a day on the water.
Walton believed angling worthwhile, in part, because it stood apart from many activities of men (a modern writer would be constrained to include women). He wrote, “…in ancient times a debate hath risen, and that it remains yet unresolved, whether the happiness of man in this world doth consist more in contemplation or action?” Walton’s resolution was simple. Happiness, he wrote, was where “ these meet together , and do most properly belong to the most honest, ingenious, quiet, and harmless art of angling….the very sitting by the river’s side is not only the quietist and fittest place for contemplation, but will invite an angler to it.”
Nonetheless, Walton’s book contains plenty of “how-to” contemporary anglers will recognize. He hoped when one went fishing, “…that if he be an honest Anglers, the east wind may never blow when he goes a-fishing,” and if “…the sun is got so high, and shines so clear, that I will not undertake the catching of a Trout till evening….” or, “…if you fish for him on the top, with a beetle, or any fly, then be sure to let your line be very long, and to keep out of sight …”
One of Walton’s observations was brought home to me a couple of years ago fishing rainbow trout on the Copper River in Alaska. Walton wrote, “…so, my scholar, you are to know, that as the ill pronunciation or ill accenting of words in a sermon spoils it, so the ill carriage of your line, or not fishing even to a foot in a right place, makes you lose your labour: and you are to know, that you may have my fiddle, that is, my very rod and tackling with which you see I catch fish, yet you have not my fiddle-stick, that is, you yet have not skill to know how to carry your hand and line, nor how to guide it to a right place: and this must be taught you; for you are to remember, I told you Angling is an art, either by practice or long observation, or both.” Dr. Max Hillberry and another angler Dann Crist were catching lots more and larger trout than I. Often I could see monster rainbows feeding only a few feet from where I was standing. Max and Dann were, simply put, better at mending line to get a natural drift in the feeding lanes where the trout were. Both made diligent efforts to teach me, and I did improve as a result of their efforts, but I lacked their “fiddle stick.”
Among Walton’s insights, and one I like most, came when he was instructing Venator in the ways of trout. Venator bemoaned the loss of trout, line and hook. Walton said, “Nay, the Trout is not lost; for pray take notice, no man can lose what he never had.” Fishing for steelhead in northern Michigan, I reminded Squeak Smith of Walton’s thought. A silver rocket grabbed my fly, headed downstream, jumped, and was gone. Squeak, before we started, told me I would lose more steelhead than I caught. I never had that fish, so I did not lose it.
Part of becoming a successful angler, according to Walton, are days when fishing is tough. He wrote, “Well, scholar, you must endure worse luck sometime, or you will never make a good angler.”
Periodically, in their meandering, Piscator and Venator meet milk-maids. Are these erotic encounters? It is never clear. Yet, the milk-maids are paid in fish for songs and entertainment.
Comparable to modern angling books, The Compleat Angler contained instructional chapters specific to fish an English angler in the 1500s would be likely to encounter. For a summary of Walton’s instructions for catching pike, one of my favorite fish, see my essay on Esoxhunter.com.
Walton lived a simple life. He worked trading as an ironmonger in the early 1600s. A Royalist, Walton entered an early retirement after the defeat of his party in the mid-1640s. He purchased a farm near Shallowford which included river frontage.
He spent the remainder of his life visiting others who enjoyed fishing and gathering material for his classic. Walton knew some readers, “… may be liable to some exceptions, yet I cannot doubt but that most readers may receive so much pleasure or profit by it, as may make it worthy the time of their perusal, if they not be too grave or too busy men.” In writing about fishing, Walton judged “to make
a recreation of a recreation.”
Among the songs and poems sprinkled about in The Compleat Angler is a poem attributed to W. B. titled, “The Angler’s Song.” The first stanza captures the essence:
As inward love breeds outward talk,
The hound some praise, and some the hawk,
Some, better pleas’d with private sport,
Use tennis, some a mistress court:
But these delights I neither wish,
Nor envy while I freely fish.
Wisdom there for Walton’s age and ours. On those days Walton said, “I have laid aside business, and gone a-fishing.”
Footnote: While the book is close to 400 years old, the ideas and concepts still apply. A copy is available in a variety of formats from Amazon.com using this link. Also a companion article on Izaak Walton is currently available on http://www.esoxhunter.com, which was also written by Tim Mead.
Last updated on April 21, 2014