Archive for the ‘Fly Fishing Literature’ Category
There is nothing quite like greeting the day from the bank of a river still covered in fog. Such a moment becomes essentially magical, when it occurs in a place that remains more the dominion of animals than of man. Massachusetts writer and angler Gary Metras captures this magic in his poem, “Fog Makes the Small River Smaller.” It is included in his collection titled Two Bloods: Fly Fishing Poems, published by Split Oak Press in 2010. I am glad to have been directed toward the book, and I strongly recommend it. While I use the term “magic” to describe the feeling captured in the following poem, it is a sort of magic that arises from the very real, but complex and hardly known physical world around us. If you can relate to this earthy magic, then Mr.Metras’ writings will appeal to you. And know that he has published many texts, besides the one cited here.
Fog makes the small river smaller.
Sunrise has little effect–
Strands of white weave
through the overwhelming gray.
A fly fisher stands in the flow
a few feet from shore.
He dresses his line with
the misty wall surrounding him.
A slight splash upstream. Another.
Deer, not bear. He smiles, thinking:
If the air were clear as the water,
this would be a postcard and a story.
Then he imagines his legs as delicate
as a deer’s testing unseen rocks
for the slip that means
breakage, that means breath of coyote
on the tensed neck hair. All that
for a few sips of the new morning.
Another splash. A twig cracks.
Then, silence except the soft spill of river.
He ties on something dark and woolly,
strips line from the reel, throws it
into the air, into the wall of fog,
a sliver of green line slicing the bloodless gray.
It fall out there, beyond sight,
with hardly a sound.
He strips more line, hauls it back
over his head, pauses without thought,
and casts arm and line and fly
into the unknown.
Word has been circulating of an early angling text discovered by Maggs Bros. Ltd. of London. The text takes the form of notes bound in the back of a prayer book belonging to a Benedictine monk in Austria. The notes possibly date to 1450’s or 1460’s. The purpose of the notes are not clear, but they contain information on artificial flies and fishing. If the attributed dates are correct, the notes predate “The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle.”
As mentioned in the Game Fisher’s Diary episode below, the notes are similar to the text identified as Tegernseer Angel- und Fishbucklein, dating to approximately 1500. This latter text was probably created as a guide to fishers employed by Benedictine monks of Tegernsee Abbey, in Bavaria, to procure meat. You can learn more about the newly discovered text by watching linked video; it features a visit by Rae Borras to Maggs, where he discusses the text with Jonathan Reilly. The text, by the way, will cost you in the neighborhood of £125,000. (currently $184,264.22) to purchase.
This picture accompanies Washington Irving’s “The Angler.” Drawn by California artist Julian Rix, best known for his landscape paintings, it is titled “To Haunt the Sides of Pastoral Streams, With Angle Rods in Hand.” I came across it in Volume One of the The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Van Tassel Edition, published by Putnam in 1899 (the first, collected version of The Sketch Book appeared in 1820).
The illustration suits Irving’s story well. And it pays tribute to the values expressed by Walton in The Compleat Angler, which was Irving’s intention in writing “The Angler” (moreover, the drawing is well titled, since it was published in the same volume that included “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow”). If you have not browsed through a complete, two volume version of The Sketch Book, I recommend you look at this one, both for the writing and for the illustrations.
For those dreaming of winter’s end, I post a poem by Thomas Tod Stoddart (1810-1880). I wrote previously about the lawyer from Kelso, Scotland, who was more angler than attorney. In this poem, “Musings,” Stoddart capture the longing that many of us, fly fishers or otherwise, feel for the warmer days of spring. The poem is taken from Angling Songs, published by Stoddart’s daughter Anna in 1989.
Welcome, sweet southern showers!
Welcome, ye early flowers,
Woo’d by the bee!
Ever gentle and bland
To all wights of the wand
Welcome are ye!
Oft at the wintry fire,
Nursing out hearts’ desire
Fondly we dream
Of joy in the breeze—
Singing birds in the trees—
Flowers by the stream.
Often our fancy brings
Pictures of sunny things
Home to our hearth,
And we seem as we stray’d
Among sunshine and shade,
Music and mirth.
Then with unconscious hand
Grasp we the idle wand,
Full of the boy,
When to our sad surprise
Swiftly the vison flies,
Summer and joy!
Not many writers of angling literature, or even of environmental literature, are as respected as conservationist and fly fisher Roderick Haig-Brown. His observations of the physical world provoke a depth of reflection that those of few other literary figures do. One of the reasons for this may be that his observations are almost always tied to the passage of time–the passage of a day, the turning of a season, or even the growth of his children. In A River Never Sleeps, published in 1946, Haig-Brown ties his observations to the months. An excerpt from “January” follows.
It is easy to forget about the river in winter, particularly if you are a trout fisherman and live in town. Even when you live in the country, close beside it, a river seems to hold you off a little in winter, closing itself into the murky opacity of freshet or slipping past ice-fringed banks in shrunken, silent flow. The weather and the season have their effect on the observer too, closing him into himself, allowing him to glance only quickly with a careless, almost hostile, eye at the runs and pools that give summer delight. And probably his eyes are on the sky for flight of ducks or geese or turned landward on the work of his dogs. Unless he is a winter fisherman, he is not likely to feel the intimate, probing, summer concern with what is happening below the surface.
I realize now that “observations” is the wrong word for Haig-Brown’s writings. Rather, his essays are recordings of interactions with the physical world. For him, the landscape is a character (or a chorus of characters). This sounds trite, but I mean it in a literal sense: for Haig-Brown, the landscape is an acting subject, not a passive object. Thus, he does not simply observe it. Rather, he interacts with it. Of course, the subjecthood of the “natural” environment is not merely a literary invention on Haig-Brown’s part. Indeed, the landscape acts upon all of us, and all of us act upon it. Haig-Brown is simply one of the rare members of Euro-American society to recognize this fact. This is all the more reason for readers to admire the work of this great man, who passed decades ago.
The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) is a useful resource for avid readers of sporting and environmental literature, who prefer to purchase and read physical books. Before joining ABAA, booksellers must be nominated. They must then go through a thorough vetting process. Ultimately, only booksellers with fine reputations are admitted. Indeed, part of ABAA’s mission is to “promote ethical standards and professionalism in the antiquarian book trade.” Therefore, at least in theory, one can be assured of fair treatment by booksellers belonging to ABAA.
Fortunately, ABAA serves not only as a recommending body for reputable booksellers; it also allows individuals to purchase from those sellers directly through its website. And even better, it categorizes the available books. A category that may be of interest to this site’s visitors is “Travel, Voyages, and Exploration.” There you can find may of the classics identified and discussed in my previous post on “adventure books.” If you are looking for one of these titles, or if you simply want to browse the category, be sure to examine the ABAA website. And know that there are many books available at the website, besides those that might qualify as “antiquarian.” In other words, you need not be prepared to spend an “arm and a leg.” To the contrary, there are plenty of reasonably priced books for sale by ABAA’s members.
You can find ABAA members’ “Travel, Voyages, & Exploration” books here: ABAA Travel, Voyages, and Exploration Titles. You might also want to look at fly fishing titles in the “Leisure, Sport, & Entertainments” category.
The latest issue of The Flyfish Journal (6:2) includes an article by Tom Gregg about fly fishing in Afghanistan. In “The Taliban’s Trout: Searching for Dinnawah,” Gregg relates his quest to assemble fishing tackle and locate trout, while he was a Political Affairs Officer for the United Nations in 2005. Eventually, he was able to catch some snowtrout or Schizothorax progastus–the Dinnawah of the title. On the day that he did so, he was accompanied by an escort of five soldiers and his translator. During his first cast, he heard gunfire and assumed his small group was under attack by the Taliban. This turned out not to be the case. He writes, “The soldier’s commander told me one of the soldiers in my security detail had been overcome by the beauty of the morning. He had fired his gun out of happiness and three of his colleagues had returned fire in joy.”
We all experience the beauty of the less-cultivated, physical world in different ways, and we express those feelings differently as well. Gregg makes clear that what he enjoys the most about fishing and “nature” is the silence that one sometimes finds on the stream. He even invokes Izaak Walton, in describing his appreciation of “quiet.” This is apt, since Walton also fished during a time of turmoil–the English Civil Wars.
Still, in his article, Gregg does not fault his escorts for firing their guns. Perhaps, like Walton, Gregg understands that humans, as noisy as they can be, are a part of nature to be appreciated too. In my mind, it makes sense that observers of violent conflicts would feel this way, since they see such great losses of human life and the suffering such losses entail. Admittedly, however, I am imposing an awful lot of meaning upon an otherwise simple passage in Gregg’s essay.
For my own part, I first found the actions of the soldiers in the article odd, foreign, etc. Yet, upon reflection, I am now more interested in their appreciation of how beautiful that morning was, and less so in how they expressed that appreciation. I also find myself thinking that if we could all focus upon what we have in common, and what motivates us to act the ways that we do, then there might be a lot less conflict in every nation’s history. So, if I were to sit down and talk about “nature” with Gregg, I’d like to talk with the soldiers in his article, as well. After all, all three parties would have a starting point for our conversation.
“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.”
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.
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.