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The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton

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Reviewed by Terry Lawton

Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man's Recreation, continues to be one of, if not the, most popular fishing books ever written. It was first published 350 years ago this year and in celebration of that event, The Flyfisher's Classic Library is just about to publish a special celebratory edition. The text is from the fifth edition of 1676 which was the last to be revised by Walton, but with modern spelling which makes reading it easier. The book is illustrated by Arthur Rackham who lived between 1867 and 1939.

Although Izaak Walton was not noted as a fly fisherman, he was very much aware of the different types of caddis to be found and their importance as bait. And, 'I shall therefore but remember you, that to know these, and their several kinds, and to what flies every particular caddis turns, and how to use them, first as they be caddis, and after as they be flies, is an art...'. He would use a caddis grub, worm or minnow to lure a trout to its death.

The directions he gives for making artificial flies for fishing for trout are those given to him 'by an ingenious brother of the angle, and honest man and a most excellent fly-fisher.'. At the end of his discourse he states: 'Thus you have a jury of flies, likely to betray and condemn all the trouts in the river.' his assertive summing up of the 'twelve kinds of artificially made flies to angle with on the top of the water.'. Although this would suggest the flies were to be fished as what we would term today dry flies, Walton says nothing about drying a fly. He gets his information on fly fishing from a Mr Thomas Barker, but adds his own variations. He instructs that you should fish down stream and endeavour to keep all your line off the water.

One aspect of fishing 350 years ago that amazes me is the precision of many aspects of the sport. Walton specifies particular types of worms for particular varieties and even size of fish - lob worms for big trout and brandlings for small - and to dying your horse hair line the right shade of green to match the water, having first specified the right number of hairs for the hook end. Another interesting aspect is that he writes how highly the umber or grayling was thought of particularly in Switzerland, Italy and France. Nothing has changed there.

I think that as a book, this is one to read by the fire on a winter's evening with a large whisky to hand. As Henry Williamson writes in his Introduction of 1931, much of the book is 'a world of excessive, almost interminable discourse.' but once past the more tedious sections there is much to delight at, even if it is not a true fly fishing book. But it is still a classic and it is nice to be able to buy it as a handsome FFCL edition.

The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man's Recreation by Izaak Walton, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Published by The Flyfisher's Classic Library at pre-publication price of £59/$90 until 4 August 2003 and thereafter £69/$106.

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