From Ignorant Beginner to Perfect Artist

When it comes to fly fishing, the transformation from beginner to artist is something many of us long for, something that we would all undoubtedly enjoy. Especially so if achieving artist status requires nothing more than “short, plain, easy instructions and a little time”. The Gentleman Angler, an English text published in 1726 (see my previous post) promises to deliver us just such a transformation. Whether the book delivers or not—I’ll leave readers to decide that for themselves—I’m rather struck by the author’s brash confidence and optimism. Then again, maybe not. He’s a fisherman. A fisherman writing to other fishermen.          

 

“I May, Without Vanity…”

In my time in flyfishing, the sport has never suffered from a lack of egos. And judging from the preface page of The Gentleman Angler, in all likelihood it never has. The publication date of Angler is 1726.

But it’s also worth considering that maybe the author was simply stating the truth. After all, there aren’t that many “treatises upon angling” that predate this particular one… 

Widening Our Relationship To History

Don Martinez may be credited with popularizing the Woolly Worm in the United States, but the history of the fly predates him by centuries. Here’s a plate from Alfred Ronalds’ 1836 book, The Fly-Fisher’s Entomology, showing both naturals and their imitations. The double hooks are a rather sinister reminder that in days of yore, fishermen played for keeps. All catch, no release, no debate. 

Another Plate From Scrope

Big Sky Journal Cover Image

“Ascertaining the Weight”

This plate hails from William Scrope’s Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing on the Tweed, published in 1843. It’s one of a number of interesting illustrations in the book, showcasing elements of composition that hearken back to the religious paintings of centuries gone by. Readers old enough to remember Arnold Gingrich may recall that Scrope was one of his favorite writers; he ranked him right alongside Walton as one of the all-time greats. Scrope certainly had command of the language, no question about that, but it will take someone with a more dedicated appreciation of his style than I to read him in full. I myself will continue to settle for bits and pieces and, of course, the delightful illustrations contained within.      

On Skues’s Water

Here’s a photograph of the Itchen River, in Hampshire, England. The photo is a plate from Frederic Halford’s An Angler’s Autobiography, and shows the Old Barge beat, where G.E.M. Skues developed his theories of nymph fishing. The smooth, weedy currents made for some very difficult fishing, especially given the heavier diameter gut leaders of the day. Interestingly, Halford and Skues were friends after first meeting each other, but that friendship dissolved over time as Skues pursued his nymphal studies and Halford became deeply entrenched in a dry-fly-only mindset. Even today, in certain circles, dry fly versus nymph still stirs debate…

When The Long “S” Held Sway

Not many angling books survive for over three hundred years, but our local library has one such volume—The Anglers Sure Guide (sic). The photo above shows the title page, and in the lower right corner the year of publication: 1706. Holding this book in hand, I find it impossible not to wonder about its centuries-long journey from England to West Yellowstone. Who were its owners? How many owners have there been? Where did they live, and fish? Did they study and actually apply the advice proffered within? By what means did the book come to reside in America?

The Sure Guide’s twelve sections tell us pretty much all we need to know about fishing, and are yet another reminder that the only thing new in fishing is the history we haven’t read. Sections X, XI, and XII are particularly interesting in the sense that, even three hundred years ago, there was great concern over access to the water and getting along with our fellow anglers. (Some things never change.)

If you’ve never felt a sense of connection to the long history of angling, holding a book like this in your hands will remedy that right quick. When next you find yourself in West, I heartily recommend trying it.

The Truths We Accept

Another Plate From Halcyon