Archive for the ‘Fly Fishing Literature’ Category

John Steinbeck, a Knight of the Round Table, and Contentment

December 19, 2014

“Contentment requires so little and so much.”

These words are spoken by Sir Marhalt, in Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (176). Marhalt is a knight of King Arthur’s “Round Table,” travelling with a “lady” adventuring companion. He makes the pronouncement after catching some trout and sitting down to relax in their forest camp. The scene is set in the following passage.

In a little glade beside a spring of cold bubbling water he built a cunning little house of boughs hacked off with a sword, and bedded it deep with dried sweet-smelling ferns. Nearby he fitted stones in a structure to hold the little pot, and gathered a heap of dry wood cloven from the underside of a fallen tree, and he tethered his horse in nearby grass. His armor hung on the oak beside the bower and his shield and lance beside it. The damsel was not still. When he had robed himself she washed his underthings and hung them on a gooseberry bush to dry. She filled her little pot with gooseberries and watching and listening followed the flight of bees and brought wild honey from a hollow tree for sweetening. And in the bower she busied herself spreading wild thyme to perfume the couch, rolling sweet grasses in her tight-woven cloth to make a rich soft pillow, arranging her little store of needments in domestic order, and with her small strong knife she cut and notched saplings from which to hang her clothing. Her knight begged the golden pin that held her hair, and he pulled tail hair from his horse and braided a line, and he went toward the sound of water falling in a pool and gathered mayflies as he went. And shortly he returned with four fine speckled trout, straightened her hairpin, and gave it to her. And then he wrapped the trout in a blanket of green fern and laid them by to place in hot ashes in the evening. (175).

The passage brings to mind the description of Schionatulander, another figure associated with King Arthur, fly fishing in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Titurel. Steinbeck’s Marhalt does not use the “feathered hook” that Schionatulander does, but he is clearly willing to make use of the trout’s attraction to flies. Steinbeck, himself, was an avid fisher. As indicated in his description of Marhalt’s fishing method, however, he was not strictly devoted to one type of fishing or another. Steinbeck scholar (and f;y fisher) Robert DeMott explains that Steinbeck simply enjoyed catching or even trying to catch fish. He was not a “meat” fisherman, and he clearly held a deep, if somewhat romantic, appreciation of the fish themselves. This is seen in a moving quote provided by DeMott, in his recent Steinbeck Review article, “Of Fish and Men.” DeMott writes, “A decade later, according to his eldest son, Thom, Steinbeck placed a large piece of broken mirror in a mountain stream near Los Gatos so that the streams single resident—a small trout—on seeing its  own image would not feel lonely” (114). Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur was published posthumously, in  1976, by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. The stories were inspired by those recorded by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Mallory’s text was published by William Caxton in 1485. Steinbeck, however, worked from the earlier “Winchester Manuscript” and “other sources.”

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“The Fight with Sir Marhaus” (stained glass), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862. Copyright: Bradford Art Galleries and Museum, West Yorkshire, UK.

Sir Marhalt is “Sir Marhaus” in Mallory’s La Morte d’Arthur. A long-standing character in Arthurian and related narratives, his name is rendered many other ways by other or unknown authors. He is generally associated with the Irish princess Iseult or Isolde and meets his death at the hands of Iseult’s lover, Tristan (as spelled by Steinbeck) or Tristram. Steinbeck portrays Sir Marhalt as a wise man. Most of us, whether we are fishers or not, can likely relate to Marhalt’s statement about contentment—that it is both easy and hard to achieve. On the one hand, life often seems so simple and enjoyable. Yet, nearly as soon as we see it so, we are faced with new complexities that make contentment challenging to maintain. No doubt, this is why so many of us return to the stream, again and again, to cast our flies. Like Sir Marhalt, we can find contentment there. Sometimes that contentment slips away, off of the water. But we always know where to find it once more. Also like Marhalt, however, we should look for it in companionship, and in many other places as well. Sources: DeMott, Robert. “Of Fish and Men.” Steinbeck Review 11: 2 (2014), 113-137. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. Chase Horton, ed. New York: Penguin, 2008.

“Human Blood and Woman’s Milk”

December 7, 2014
Tegernsee Abbey today. It no longer houses a monastic community.

Tegernsee Abbey today. It no longer houses a monastic community.

Richard Hoffman published a translation of a fragmentary text written around 1500 AD, which has become known as “Tegernseer Angel- und Fishbucklein.” In his book, Fisher’s Craft and Lettered Art: Tracts on Fishing from the End of the Middle Ages (1997), Hoffman identifies the text in English as “Tegernsee Fishing Advice.”  The “advice” is that presumably recorded by a Benedictine monk at the Tegernsee Abbey in Bavaria, in the late 15th century. The advice was probably intended for one of the fishermen licensed by the abbey to provide food for the monks.(117) Interestingly, much of “Tegernsee Fishing Advice” is devoted to fly fishing. This means that fly fishing was not just a pastime of nobility in 15th and 16th century Bavaria; it was also used to acquire food by peasants such as those working for the Abbey. A passage from the translated text, dealing with flies, follows:

Thereafter, as soon as the brooks become small and clear, like in May, [whether it] is the first month or second, then see to it to put ‘stone bait’ on the feathered hook which should be tied with yellow silk and with pinkish-coloured silk around the ‘heart’ [and] with a black one mixed around the ‘heart.’ (141).

However, the monks also provided fishing advice for fishing in still waters that is even more surprising to read:

If you want to catch fish in still waters, in brooks, or in lakes, then take and prepare a bait this way. Take human blood and woman’s milk together in a vessel, and take raw barley and cook it very well and completely and press it in a mortar while still wet until it all becomes like a gruel. After that press it through a cloth, and if it will not go easily through the cloth then add to it a little of the liquid in which it was cooked so that it does go through easily.Take that very thing [that was] pressed through a let it parch and dry up completely, and then make it into a fine powder. Then take that [powder] out and the above-mentioned blood and woman’s milk and stir it [all] together then, and make something like a gruel. Then let that become very hard and dry in the air. Thus it is ready. …. To that thing [will] so rush all the fish which live in that same water, and they will not turn back until after they have come into the trap. (171).

Today, we often think of fly tying as a time-consuming passion. But just you try making a complicated bait from human blood and woman’s milk.

Autumn

November 10, 2014

Fall fishing is a revival after the quieter times of summer. Cooler nights and the melt of early snowfall in the mountains bring falling water temperatures and rains freshen the streams. Shadows are longer, shielding the pools. The fish are more active and there is a touch of urgency about it all, a feeling that it cannot last very long so one had better get out and be doing. After all, there have been falls when the heavy rains came early and suddenly, the streams flooded and everything was over before it had started.

Roderick Haig-Brown, Fisherman’s Fall, 1964.

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“More Perfect”

October 22, 2014

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Balsa Bug (top), tied by Jack Boehme (approx. 1885-1956); Bunyan Bug, tied by Norman “Paul Bunyan” Means (approx. 1899-1986); “Bunyan Bug” woodcut print by Barry Moser (1940-present), from Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, 1989 Pennyroyal Press edition.

A Father’s Songs and a Daughter’s Memoir

September 27, 2014
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Thomas Tod Stoddart, as pictured in Angling Songs.

In 1889, Anna M. Stodddart published a loving memoir of her father, Thomas Tod Stoddart (1810-1880),  along with a collection of verses written by him (some of which were previously published).  Most of these verses have to do with fishing.  Thomas Stoddart was licensed to practice law, but he seems to have spent most of his life writing and engaged in fishing and fishing related activities. He was particularly involved in conservation. Living in Kelso, Scotland, the Rivers Tweed and Teviot received most of his attention. Besides his writer daughter, he had two other children-both boys.

To illustrate how seriously the senior Stoddart took his identity as an angler, daughter Anna writes:

My father called one day on Henry Glassford Bell, and the genial Sheriff hailed him with the very natural question, “Well, Tom, and what are you doing now?” With a moment’s resentment, my father brought his friend to his bearings. “Doing? Man, I’m an angler.”

Angling Songs, with a Memoir

Angling Songs, with a Memoir

I can relate to Thomas Stoddart, as he responds to Bell. If my own daughter were ever to write a memoir about me after my death, she might very well include a similar story, to illustrate just how passionate about fly fishing I was. She could not describe me as a poet, however; in that way I am different from Thomas Stoddart.  Thus, due in part to my own lack of talent, I include two of the “songs” written by Thomas and published by Anna in Angling Songs, with a Memoir.

 

THE FAIRY ANGLER

‘Twas a bland summer’s eve, when the forest I trod;

The dew-gems were starring the flowers of the sod,

And “faire mistress moone,” as she rose from the sea,

Shed apart the green leaves of each shadowing tree.

II.

I passed by a brook, where her silvers lay flung,

Among knolls of wild fern it witchingly sung,

While a long fairy angler with glimmering hand

From the odorous banks waved her delicate wand.

III.

In silence I watched, as with eager intent

O’er the moon-silvered water she gracefully bent,

And plied with green rush-rod, new torn from its bed,

Her line of the thorn-spider’s mystical thread.

IV.

A pannier of moss-leaves her shoulder’s bedecked,

The nest of some bird, with the night winds had wrecked,

Slung round with a tendril of ivy so gay,

And a belt of stream flowers bound her woodland array.

V.

No snow-flake e’er dropped from its cloud on the brook

So gently impelled as her moth-plumaged hood;

The pearl-sided parlet and minnow obeyed

The magical beck of that wandering maid.

VI.

And aye as her rush-rod she waved o’er the rill,

Sweet words floated round her, I treasure them still,

Tho’ like a bright moon-cloud resolved in the air,

Passed from me, regretted, the vision so faire.

 

THE RIVER

I.

Through sun-bright lakes,

Round islets gay,

The river takes

It western way,

And the water-chime

Soft  zephyrs time

Each gladsome summer day.

II.

The starry trout,

Fair to behold,

Roameth about

One fin of gold;

At root of tree

His haunt you may see,

Rude rock or crevice old.

III.

And  hither dart

The salmon grey,

From the deep heart

Of some sea bay;

And herling wild

Is beguiled

To hold autumnal play.

IV.

Oh! ’tis a stream

Most fair to see,

As in a dream

Flows pleastantly;

And our hearts are woo’d

To a kind of sweet mood

By its wondrous witchery.

Thomas Salter and the Duchess

September 9, 2014

Thomas Frederic Salter was a London hatmaker. He fished as a child with his father and remained a devoted angler as an adult. Apparently, his health prevented him from fishing regularly in his later years. He therefore turned his attention toward writing several books having to do with fishing, each of which went through several editions. The first was The Angler’s Guide, or Complete London Angler in the Thames, Lea, and other Waters twenty miles round London, which was published in 1814.  Interestingly, he dedicated it to “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York,” whom, he says, “occasionally enjoys the amusement of Angling” (vii). At the time, the duchess was the beloved Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. An independent woman, she lived separately from her husband, apparently preferring the company of her many pets and other animals.

"Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, Duchess of York and Albany" published by Robert Laurie, published by  James Whittle

In his guide, Salter speaks highly of fly fishing, describing it as “gentlemanly and pleasant,” if also “difficult to learn” (82-83). In all, he dedicates five chapters of the book to the practice. Had I been Salter’s editor, I might have pointed it out that the sport must also be “ladylike” (or something to that effect), since the Duchess, so highly praised in Salter’s, dedication, was an angler.

Salter Trout

Illustration of a trout, from page 95 of Salter’s Guide.

Interestingly, Salter also includes a poem by a “Mr. Cracknell,” entitled “The Female Angler” (103). Two stanzas follow.

 

From town I walk’d to take the air,

Shun smoke and noise of coaches;

I saw a lovely damsel fair,

Angling for Dace and Roaches.

 

Close by a brook, with line and hook,

Which curiously was baited,

Attentively the maid did look,

While for a bite she waited.

 

Looking back as readers, and not editors, we should commend Salter for acknowledging so clearly that field sports are not only or best practiced by men. While many authors of Salter’s time and before paid homage to the legendary Juliana Berners, O.S.B., supposed author of the 15th century Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle , few of them seemed to consider that there may have been many other figures like her. Admittedly, there seems to be a hint of romance in the poem Slater includes in his book; there is an implication that the “female angler” shares in the simple purity of nature or the rural area free from “smoke and noise.”

Yet, Salter tells us that “The Female Angler” was inspired by a very real friend of Cracknell’s. Also, as its subtitle indicates, Salter’s book focuses upon fishing in urban and suburban London (in later editions, the subtitle changes).  Thus, he does not see to see the divide between nature and culture as being so bold as many others did and do. This makes him a rare figure in his time — one worth reading. While the Guide is mostly a technical manual and guidebook to certain fishing locations, there is, as I have indicated here, some material that truly stands out.

I leave you with a stanza from another poem, “The Angler’s Morning Walk,” apparently written by Salter himself (x).

 

From sweet repose I early rose

To fish, and take the air;

I look’d around, saw good abound,

Then why should Man despair.

 

 

 

 

 

Keepers

July 18, 2014

In my university courses, I often ask students to look critically at writing–to consider that the strength of traditions based upon writing depends upon people reading their culture’s texts. And I point out to students that our libraries are filled with books that are never touched. Academic books that go unread are typically books that deal with obtuse, unimportant topics.  Books written for popular audiences that go unread are often books that are simply written poorly. Of course, these are the often same reasons that certain journals, magazines, and websites go unread as well.

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Personally, I only subscribe to one magazine: The Flyfish Journal. The articles published therein are generally interesting and very well-written. I also receive Trout magazine, as part of my membership in the conservation organization, Trout Unlimited. However, in the past, I did not look at the articles in Trout very carefully. There were even times when I put the magazine directly into the recycling bin without getting past the contents page. It was not a magazine to which I would have chosen to subscribe. Fortunately, this has changed. The current editorial staff members–Kirk Deeter, Samantha Carmichael, and Erin Block–have made some great decisions about what to publish (and it is great to see their work, too, especially the very talented Erin’s) .

I was particularly happy that I looked through the latest issue of Trout more carefully than I looked at previous editions. In the Summer 2014 issue, I found articles by two close fly fishing friends. “Bad Boyfriend”, by Mike Sepelak, is an immensely creative, metaphorical essay about the dangers of introducing others to the disease we call fly fishing. In my opinion, Mike is a truly gifted writer, and I am very happy each time I see a new piece of his in print.  It does not seem that long ago that he was telling me about the writing class he had just enrolled in at our town’s community college. Now, he could probably teach that class. “A Fly-Fishing Pilgrimage to Montana,” by Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer, is an autobiographical essay, in which Eric relates the reasons behind his visit to the Big Blackfoot River and other Montana haunts of writer Norman Maclean.  As someone with a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, Eric’s reflections upon the deeper meanings that many of us–past and present–ascribe to fly fishing have long intrigued me. Some years ago, I invited  him to speak to my students, in a college course on fishing literature. In turn, he invited me to speak to his congregation.  Of course, we have also fished together. So, I enjoy his company as much in person as I do in print.

Mike and Eric are two angling writers who should be read. Their unique perspectives upon fly fishing and the reasons we fish, as well as their writing skills, place them among those authors whose works should not simply gather dust on a shelf. Indeed, their works serve to strengthen the traditions associated with fly fishing, one of which is writing itself.

Accidental Waters

June 30, 2014

As in marriage, so in fishing; one’s choice is made by accident. One opens the door of a room; and there, for better or for worse, the lady sits. One sees a river from a train, a car, one halts to stretch one’s legs and is lost.

John Inglis Hall, Fishing a Highland Stream; a Love Affair with a River (Putnam and Co, 1960).

 

In Fishing a Highland Stream, John Inglis Hall writes of his love affair with the River Truim, a tributary of Scotland’s famous River Spey. If you have traveled between Perth and Inverness, you have probably seen this river. However, when Hall first began to fish the Truim in the 1940’s, its course was less widely known by the public.

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My own home waters remain more remote. But like Hall, I first came to them accidentally. My family chose to build a cabin on the banks of what is now my favorite trout lake and just over the ridge from my favorite river. Naturally, I grew familiar with these waters over time, and I have come to love them as much as Hall loved the River Truim.

I visited these waters last weekend, and I look forward to doing so again in a few days. Included here are a few pictures, which will explain my love.

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Walton / Cotton Fishing Hut for sale

June 21, 2014

Kenov:

From the Trout School blog, comes news of Cotton’s and Walton’s fishing cottage being put on the market.

Originally posted on Trout School:

Walton Fishing Hut

Izaak Walton’s fabled fishing hut is for sale. Its hard to believe such an icon of our fishing heritage is on the market.

The hut was built in 1674,  20 years after the first publication of The Compleat Angler, and 2 years prior to the 5th edition which included Charles Cotton’s fly fishing chapters. The hut was built by both men and includes their initials over the entrance.

I am surprised the Houghton Club (on the Test) or the Anglers’ Club (in London) can’t pony up £450,000 (~$750,000) for the hallowed property and the 3km private river access to the Dove.

Link to the Real Estate listing- the pictures are worth viewing.

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Johnny has Gone for a Soldier

June 6, 2014

“Johnny has Gone for a Soldier” is a well-known folk song. It was sung during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Some speculate that it may have originated among Irish Jacobites — the 17th and 18th century supporters of King James II and VI and of monarchical succession.[1]

A.A. Bondy covers “Johnny has Gone for a Soldier” on the excellent 2013 collection of contemporary, reinterpreted Civil War era songs, Divided and United.

In this song, Bondy sings:

Sell your rod, sell your reel,
Sell your chain of silver.
Buy your love a sword of steel.
Johnny has gone for a soldier.

In earlier versions of the song, the words cited above differ. Following are the lyrics of the early Irish version, Siúil a Rún, by Clannad:

I’ll sell my rock, I’ll sell my reel,
I’ll sell my only spinning wheel.
To buy my love a sword of steel
Is go dté tú mo mhúirnín slán.

In Clannad’s version, “rock” and “reel” refer to the distaff and spindle used in hand spinning. In Bondy’s Civil War era lyrics, “rod” might possibly refer to a distaff, which often takes the shape of a rod. However, spinning wheels had greatly improved and largely replaced the use of distaffs and spindles altogether by this time. Moreover, I can find no common historical evidence of the word “rod” being used interchangeably with “rock” or “distaff.”

I wonder, then, if the latter lyrics might refer to fishing tackle. By the time of the war, the split bamboo fly rod had been invented and the use of reels was common. Moreover, a fishing rod and reel was most certainly more valuable at the time than a spindle and, particularly, a distaff. Distaffs, after all, were usually very simply devices (at least those used predominantly in Western Europe and American were).

Regardless, hundreds of years after this song was first sung, it remains a moving one. And selling those things that are of the greatest monetary value to you, in order to arm yourself or a loved one is no small thing.  Sacrifices such as things are important to ponder, as we think back upon the even greater sacrifices made by soldiers at Normandy and elsewhere, 70 years ago today. In 17th century Ireland, England, and Scotland; in 18th and 19th century United States; in 1940’s Europe, Oceania, and Asia; and in far too many places in throughout the world right now, fishing tackle and even new clothing is a luxury that many cannot afford.[2]

[1] Numerous other posts describe the circumstances of the 17th century English speaking world. This is, after all, the world of Izaak Walton.

[2] Then again, there have been those soldiers who considered fishing tackle a fundamental necessity.  For instance, Charles K. Fox imagines the fate of  flyfishing soldiers before and after the battle of Gettysburg in This Wonderful World of Trout (1963). Charles Ritz describes the immense collection of tackle and guns brought to France during WWII by Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith (later Director of Central Intelligence) in A Flyfisher’s Life (1959).


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