When I was seventeen, I drove to Missoula, Montana, to learn how to fly-fish. The town is one of the best places to fish in the country. Rivers with names like the Bitterroot and Blackfoot crisscross the valley harboring trout the size of walruses. I spent that summer learning to cast and looking for the eddies and pools where fish might be lurking. I tried a thousand different flies and a hundred different rivers, and though I tensed my entire body to be ready for a strike, though I was living with a friend who made his living as a fishing guide, in three months I didn’t catch a single fish. Not one.
Published in 1653, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler might best be described as a curiosity cabinet of a pious Renaissance naturalist. Framed as a dialogue between a veteran angler, Pescator, and his eager student, Venator, the book came recommended by practiced anglers and seemed to promise some bit of knowledge I was lacking. Next to descriptions of fish like pike (“a solitary, melancholy, and a bold Fish”), and bream (“scales set in excellent order”), were poems by George Herbert. Alongside a cheery round of fishing songs, I found instructions for making fishing line from horse hair (“take care that your hair be round and clear, and free from galls or scabs or frets”). I discovered that it was better to be “a civil, well govern’d well grounded, temperate, poor Angler, than a drunken Lord,” and that the clever angler would keep about two thousand black beetles alive through the winter in a firkin. Wasps are good bait if you dip their heads in blood, and if you wish to fish with maggots (and you are likely to wish it), find a “fly-blown” dead cat and you will soon be well prepared. Also “the crumbs of white bread and honey made into paste is good bait for a Carp.”
My curiosity was pricked, but I doubted I was becoming a better fisherman. Modern fly-fishing is so different from what Walton practiced in the seventeenth century that the similarities perhaps begin and end with the fish. Whereas we have a cornucopia of expertly tied artificial flies, floating nylon line, and evolved casting techniques, Walton didn’t even have a reel—he just used a stick with hair tied to the end. To entice the trout, he might employ a fragrant oil; to seduce perch, he would select a minnow, a feather, or a cork, though he would not dare to try his luck before the mulberry trees were in bud. It seemed more like witchcraft than fishing.
On the mystery of how eels reproduce (a mystery that puzzles scientists still) I discovered the theory that they “are bred of a particular dew falling in the months of May or June on the banks of some particular Ponds or Rivers.” Of the frog I learned that he expresses “malice or anger by his swoln cheeks and staring eyes” and makes good bait if you put a hook through his mouth and then “with a fine needle and silk sow [sic] the upper part of his leg to the arming wire of your hook.” But do not do so hastily: “use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live longer.”
What the hell was this book? I put it aside and kept fishing. But a few years later, while I was on a river in Idaho at dusk and found myself in the middle of a tremendous caddis-fly hatch, an answer occurred to me. Caddis flies, like many aquatic insects, pupate in little husks attached to rocks in rivers. At the right moment in the summer, they emerge as flies, swim to the surface and take off, but not before pausing to dry their wings. They do this by the thousands and, as Walton puts it, they make the trout “bold and lusty.”
It had been a beautiful but mostly unsuccessful day. Two golden eagles perched on either end of this stretch of water like sentinels, and I had spent more time watching them than catching fish. But when the sun went down, the river exploded. Suddenly I was surrounded by bugs and the water began to boil with trout snatching them from the surface. I tied on the best caddis-fly imitation I had and started getting lusty bites with nearly every cast. The sky grew darker, bats darted over my head, some even making passes at my fly, and then one of those enormous eagles dropped down like a vision and skewered her dinner.
This is what the angler does: He observes and tries to imitate the world around him. He chooses the fly of a similar size, pattern, and color as those bugs he sees rising; he flicks his line back and forth over his head to lay his nearly weightless bait down without too much of a splash along the riffles where the fish are feeding. He notices the direction of the wind; he matches the length of her line with the depth of the water; he waits for the afternoon to cool off and rises early to beat the morning sun. He fishes little midges in the spring and thick hairy buggers in the summer and slim nymphs in the fall. He sees the natural world as a puzzle he tries to solve, and his success is measured absolutely: when the surface breaks, the fly disappears, and he feels that unmistakable tug.
That night in Idaho, I stood in a river long enough to notice what was happening to it, to become a part of it. Walton is in the same boat, constantly trying to figure out where he is and what goes on there. He is a student of nature, in all its bizarre connections: from the willow tree overhanging its bank to the predilections of Pike. To us, this naturalism might merely be an admirable skill, but Walton truly means it as art. During his lifetime, the highest art was that which most accurately imitated nature. In his 1579 Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney writes, “There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object … Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation.” The formulation stuck firmly throughout the English Renaissance, and it’s possible to read Walton’s book as a kind of imitation par excellence. Not only does The Compleat Angler re-create a fishing trip by outlining the enormous amount of knowledge the fisherman must juggle but it suggests that catching a fish, through imitating nature, is art.
It has become increasingly difficult to say what qualifies as art today, but it certainly isn’t the perfect imitation of nature. Yet fishing does somehow feel artful. What I have grown to admire in Walton’s book most is the wonder he brings to the world, the way he converts the mysteries of the river into a tangible fish on his line. In Walton’s esteem for all the odd particularity of the fish and its environs, he seems to be attempting to merge two worlds that exist only in opposition to each other—the terrestrial and the aquatic. We know hardly anything of the vast empire that exists just below the surface of the water, but we know just enough that with a bit of study, a dash of faith, and a great deal of patience, we can, occasionally, break through. In these moments, the angler is the link between one world and the next. What could be more artful?
This might also help explain the disproportion between the amount of time I spend fishing and the number of fish I catch. Most of the time I hook only enough trout to keep me believing that I’m not chasing some myth, and even then just barely. Yet I find great solace in the sport. I delight in a day on the river, noticing all its features, trying to join its small dramas. Rarely do we have the excuse to sidestep the human perspective and become something else in a place where the only currency is camouflage and politics are straightforward. You can spend a small fortune on waders and nets and tackle boxes, but I have found that more often than not these things become a hindrance. The real task of fishing is not to try a thousand different flies and wade up to your ears; it’s to understand that you’re a stranger here. For all our prodigious technology and equipment, the necessary humility of a day spent fishing finds the angler reckoning with a world in which he has few answers and very little control. If these also happen to be the very circumstances of our lives, the measure of success lies not in dominance but in finding a place within what we don’t fully understand.
I suspect Walton knew this well, for his own life was not a pleasant one. In the decade preceding the publication of his book on fishing, England endured two civil wars that upended political, social, and religious life. Walton was on the side of the old guard, a Royalist and an Anglican who risked his life to support the increasingly unpopular monarchy at odds with the Presbyterian majority that eventually came to power. His personal life was hardly any better: He married his first wife in 1626, but by 1642, she and all their seven children had died. He married again, in 1647, and lost yet another child in 1650.
In this context, Walton’s apparently lighthearted dialogue starts to take on the contours of a pointed social tale and perhaps even a plea for escape. His characters are portrayed as goodly Anglican gentlemen, spouting off John Donne’s poetry and quick to back up their praise of angling with examples from the Greeks, Romans, and Apostles about what an honorable pastime it is. Fishing comes across as a sport of great cheer and friendship, a “Brotherhood of Anglers” who gives thanks for what little they have and the wondrous works of divine nature. At the book’s heart is a question of happiness, and whether such a thing consists of contemplation or action. Pescator, the fictional veteran fisherman, boldly offers the theory that “both these meet together, and do most properly belong to the most honest, ingenuous, quiet, and harmless art of Angling.” At the end of the book, as the two friends are about to reenter society, Pescator swerves from details about how to fashion a rod to thanks for the delights of their brief adventure, and offers a moving ode to humility that a man who has lost much might indeed understand. “Every misery that I miss is a new mercy,” he says, “for content will never dwell but in a meek and quiet soul … And upon all that are lovers of Vertue [sic]; and dare trust in his providence, and be quiet, and go a Angling.”
In service of this essay, I reread Walton’s book and then went fishing. I drove to the Neversink River, a fifty-five-mile stretch of riffles, pools, and falls that is one of the East’s best trout waters. Some would even tell you that it’s the birthplace of American fly-fishing. I’ve fished this water many times, and its always different, depending on the time of year, the weather, and my own inclinations as well as those of the fish.
It was an early fall day and I had the world to myself. The sun slanted through the trees and the water was still warm from summer. I watched dragonflies cruise over the surface and a bald eagle fly overhead. I sat a time on the bank and tried to see the bugs floating above the current or resting in the grass; I turned over a few rocks and looked for bright green larvae sequestered in their husks. I thought about how Walton would have crept along the water’s edge, dipping his art projects in to the deeps, or how he might have stuck this wooly caterpillar or that little frog onto a hook. I walked up and down the river, tried caddis flies and nymphs and flying ants. I floated lures on the top of the water and sunk beaded hooks into pools. I saw a fish jump and threw my line to just the same place. I picked apart a tangled line and watched the bugs and birds fly. I was quiet and contemplative. And I didn’t catch a single fish.
John Knight is a writer and editor living in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Nautilus, the Los Angeles Review of Books online, and elsewhere.