Archive for the ‘Fishing and Religion’ Category

New Discovery of Early Fishing Text by Monk

March 13, 2015

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.

Tom Morgan Rodsmiths and Religion

August 4, 2014

CBS Evening News has done an On the Road segment, entitled “Legendary Fishing Rod Creator shares a Special Secret,” on Tom and Gerry Morgan, of Tom Morgan Rodsmiths.  It is always interesting to see such stories in the mainstream media. In this particular case, the commentator, Steve Hartman, makes reference to the connection between religion and fly fishing that so many writers have claimed for so many centuries. Sadly, though, Hartman then describes a Tom Morgan rod as the “Holy Grail.” Of course, those who attribute deep meaning to fly fishing are inspired to do so by the experience, not the sometimes very expensive tackle. The commentator’s view reflects our society’s misplaced obsession with material wealth. No doubt, this obsession is often brought to the sport by certain tackle collectors and even by those who seem more concerned about what they look like on the stream than they are with the water and the life all around them. The inherent value of the living environment is so much greater that the merely symbolic value of our possessions.


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.

trout 2

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.

Taken by Fairies and Fishing

July 11, 2014

Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University on Celtic views of and practices associated with “fairies.” He later expanded his work and published it as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Counties, in 1911. He was undoubtedly influenced by the romanticism that also influenced mentor and poet William Butler Yeats and so many other Irish and other Northern European intellectuals at the time.  This romanticism is very evident in The Fairy-Faith, manifested in a great number of biases both in the ethnography and its interpretation.  Evans-Wentz was also influenced by mysticism, as presented by the American philosopher and psychologist William James, another of his mentors. And yet, Evans-Wentz displays a remarkable desire to take seriously the Celtic views of and practices surrounding fairies, which were and are dismissed by so many. This desire led him to record an immense amount of information presented directly from informants of Celtic descent in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany. So, while we might set aside many of his interpretations, and while we must also treat the quotations of his informants (particularly those translated from Gaelic languages) with caution, there is much to be gleaned from The Fairy-Faith.  Moreover, it is simply a fascinating read, for those of us who love the green, misty, mountainous places that Evans-Wentz’s informants associated with fairies.

Evans-Wentz later went on to work on Tibetan Buddhism, popularizing its study among European and American academics. His work there, too, must be treated cautiously, as his attitudes toward Tibet and Buddhism were perhaps even more romantic than his attitude toward Celtic views and practices.  This is partly due to the fact that “Madame” Helena Blavatsky’s imaginative, Asian and Spiritualist influenced “Theosophy” was a significant part of his life.


While Evans-Wentz apparently spent a great deal of time on the banks of the Delaware River as a boy — even claiming to have had an “ecstatic” experience there — I do not know if there is direct evidence of him having been a fisherman, as his mentors Yeats and James certainly were. However, the Celtic informants whose voices are recorded in his first book, spoke often of fish in their broader discussions of fairies and other non-human persons that animated their landscapes. And it is these voices which interest me the  most.

Following, is a “testimony” about the fairies that Evans-Wentz  attributes to an anonymous “Peasant Seer” in County Sligo, Ireland:

Another time I was alone trout-fishing in nearly the same region when I heard a voice say, “It is — barefooted and fishing.” Then there came a whistle like music and a noise like the beating of a drum, and soon one of the gentry came and talked with me for half and hour. He said, “Your mother will die in eleven months, and do not let her die unanointed.” And she did die within eleven months. As he was going away he warned me, “You must be in the house before sunset. Do not delay! Do not delay! They can do nothing to you until I get back in the castle.” As I found out afterwards, he was going to take me, but hesitated because he did not want to leave my mother alone.


As it does for the informants met by Evans-Wentz over a  hundred years ago, going trout fishing or simply going to the places where trout are found, feels like a sort of boundary crossing to me. There is a sense, too, of being taken or, more precisely, not wanted to return back across the boundary.  Mind you, I am not one to draw a hard distinction between nature and culture or even so-called “super-nature.”  I am not speaking, then, of entering and wanting to remain in another reality.  Rather, fishing for me simply involves entering an area dominated by others–the fish, bears, birds, and perhaps even fairies, though I have yet to meet one of the latter (there are, however, many traditions among Indigenous Americans that involve little people and other human-like beings, both malevolent and kind).

Regardless, my thoughts are often focused upon the very animated world around me, when I am visiting trout streams and their environs.  I know that I am not alone in this.  As evidence, I present a picture of a fairy house made by my wife, at our cabin, while I was catching the sort of fish that you will see in the picture above. Perhaps my wife’s purely artistic creation of the fairy house will serve to propitiate any other-than-human beings, who might be responsible for my often feeling “taken” with fly fishing.


Happy Holidays

December 24, 2013

Happy Holidays to my Brothers and Sisters of the Angle


Mark Browning on Martin Buber

December 5, 2013


Fishing, of course, can be described in terms of Buber’s worldview. Those who focus on the catch as the ultimate goal and who see the fish or the river as something to be mastered would be described in I-It terms; however, the mainstream of American fly fishing writers subscribe to a completely different perception: I-Thou. Fly fishing, for these practitioners, is a method for creating connections of various sorts.

Mark Browning, in Haunted by Water: Fly Fishing in North American Literature (1998). Browning refers to philosopher Martin Buber’s (pictured) brilliant Ich und Du (1923) or, in translation,  I and Thou (1937).

A.A. Luce on Angling Ethics

October 24, 2013


Leaving religion aside, let us now face the ethical question on an ethical basis. Is angling cruel? People with a conscience who love their fishing rod are placed in a sad dilemma, as long as the question remains unanswered; and those who with Izaak Walton “love virtue and angling” will not grudge the time and trouble involved in answering it thoroughly: and no answer but a thorough answer really meets the case.

A.A. Luce, philosopher, fly fisher, and clergyman.  From Fishing and Thinking, 1959.

The River — a Film by Claudiu Presecan — and The Things that Matter

October 14, 2013

This last summer I had the pleasure of fishing some Transylvanian streams for wild brown trout and grayling.  I have grown to enjoy other parts of the Carpathians (my brother-in-law lives on the edges, in Hungary), but this was my first trip Transylvania. I was invited to fish there by Claudiu Presecan, a gifted painter.  Claudiu and I share the feeling that activities such as fly fishing can create a space in our lives, from which we can better appreciate the enduring, material world around us — the things that exist beyond money, status, and the other most superficial features of “culture.” Claudiu and his family served as my hosts in Romania.  They were joined in this task by Claudiu’s fly fishing friends Paul Sas (of Xander Fly Rods) and Dan Sacui.  I really enjoyed my time talking, eating, drinking, and fly fishing with all of them.  I am genuinely eager to do so again.

As the world seems to shrink and the consequences of our and others’ actions increase in speed, it is becoming harder to avoid discussing controversial social topics. This may be especially the case in parts of Central and Eastern Europe.  Of course, many of these topics need to be dealt with head on.  But some of them are best put aside. When one of these difficult topics would appear on the conversational horizon, during my visit to Romania, I noticed that Claudiu would simply say, “That doesn’t matter.” It was such a simple and decisive way of focusing people’s attention (including my own) upon the topics that do really matter. To Claudiu, his friends, me, and many others, the environment and the connections that it makes possible to fellow outdoor sportspersons, people of other cultures, nonhuman beings, and even our creator are the topics of greatest importance. You can see this understanding in Claudiu’s short film, The River, and you can it reflected in his beautiful paintings as well.

William Davenant’s Fishing Giant

September 1, 2013


“The Giant’s Fishing”

by Sir William Davenant

This day, a day as fair as heart could wish,

This giant stood on shore of sea to fish.

For angling rod he took a sturdy oak,

For line a cable that in storm ne’er broke;

His hook was such as heads the end of pole,

To pluck down house ere fire consumes it whole.

This hook was baited with a dragon’s tail;

And there on rock he stood to bob for whale,

Which straight he caught and nimbly home did pack

With ten cart load of dinner on his back.

William Davenant or D’Avenant (1606-1668) was a contemporary of Izaak Walton’s and lived through the same tumultuous times surrounding the Civil War(s) in England. Davenant, a monarchist and Anglican, who later converted to Roman Catholicism, did not negotiate the social upheavals quite as smoothly as Walton did. He was imprisoned several times, yet he eventually overcame each political difficulty. In fact, he served as a politician himself on several occasions.

The poem above, certainly not Davenant’s most profound work, is part of his masque, Britannia Triumphans. While the poem is lighthearted, Britannia was a serious piece of writing, produced in serious times. It was the first masque to be performed at the Palace of Whitehall, on 17 January 1638, after a two-year suspension of masqueing. King Charles I enacted this suspension primarily because the Banqueting House at the Palace was dirty from consistent use. He may have decided to have masqueing resume, however, for political reasons. The image driven masques were a way of controlling the perception of the monarchy held by those elite persons invited to attend (and perhaps of reinforcing Charles illusions, as well). Notably, the great architect Inigo Jones, who also collaborated (and feuded) with playwright and poet Ben Jonson, designed the scenery and costumes for Britannia. As it happens, he designed the banqueting hall for Charles’ father, James I, as well.

Incidentally, Charles I was executed by the Rump Parliament, in front of the Banqueting House, in 1649. Davenant was imprisoned the following year, and remained in the Tower of London until the Civil War(s) concluded (though he was imprisoned again, later).

Maclean and Bachelard: Words, Water, and Life

June 9, 2013

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

Norman Maclean, A River runs Through It and Other Stories, 104.[1]

Liquidity is a principle of language; language must be filled with water.

Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams, 192.[2]


Norman Maclean

Those who have read Norman Maclean’s A River runs Through It know that the passage quoted above alludes to conversations between Maclean and his minister father about the very basis of reality. As Christians, they refer to the Book of Genesis, from the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament, which explains that in the beginning of time there was only “spirit” and “water.”[3] They also refer to John 1:1, from the Christian New Testament. This verse reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus, Maclean and his father seem to be engaging in the same debate in which so many “Western” philosophers of language have also engaged: is there a physical reality beyond the words that allow us to discuss existence, or is language completely metonymic—is the world made real through language?

I don’t have an answer to such questions, though I do know that most mainstream Europeans and North Americans overlook the immense power and importance of language. Norman Maclean, as evidenced in his famous story, does not. He suggests at the end of A River, in the passage quoted above, that there is a mutually dependent relationship between language and reality: the words are under the rocks, and yet some of the words belong to the rocks.

What is just as important, though, is Maclean’s emphasis upon water. All things “merge” in the running waters of “the river.” Water is thus a metaphor, in Maclean’s mind, for the connections that are made possible in the physical world through the use of words—through language.

A River runs Though It is, of course, something more than mere words. It is both poetry and narrative. Both of these types of language are ideally full of movement. They work against reification. A story moves from beginning to end, and poetry pushes against the rules of language that so often deplete it of vitality. Water, too, is full of movement.

This evening I was pulling some books by Mircea Eliade off a shelf, as I thought about my recent fly fishing trip to Romania. I noticed, one shelf up, a series of books by the influential French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. In these books, Bachelard reflects upon the relationship between language, imagination, and the physical elements. Not being particularly moved by Eliade tonight, I decided to browse through Bachelard’s book on water, which I have not read for many years. I came across the second quote provided in the epigraph to this post.


Gaston Bachelard

In addition to the quote above, Bachelard writes, “Liquidity is, in my opinion, the very desire of language. Language needs to flow.”[4] For Bachelard, poetry – ideal, creative poetry – is the language that best embodies liquidity. He seems to acknowledge that narrative can do so as well.

I think, then, that Bachelard and Maclean share the view that language and reality are mutually dependent. However, the language that gives life to our world is the language of movement. It is narrative and poetry.

Toward the end of Maclean’s book, he describes another conversation with his father. This one has to do with the tragic death of Maclean’s brother Paul:

Once, for instance, my father asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any other man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.”[5]

Of course, A River is the story that Norman eventually “makes up,” in order to understand the death of his brother. While the book is very nearly autobiographical, Maclean does change certain elements of the actual story his family lived. Perhaps doing so allowed Maclean to give new vitality to his brother.

Now, all of the preceding might be taken as mere ramblings, on my part, about some favorite books and topics. Largely, that’s exactly to what all those words amount. But let me make a final points. Reading authors like Bachelard and Maclean, as different as they are, and looking towards teaching found in texts like the bible and even more commonly in the oral traditions of indigenous peoples, reminds us that language is powerful and important. When used to its full potential, it shapes our worlds, at the very least. So take language seriously. Your life depends upon it.


[1] Norman Maclean, A River runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[2] Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Joanne Stroud (Dallas, The Pegasus Foundation, 1983. Originally published in 1942 as L’Eau e le rêves, essai sur l’imagination de la matiére.

[3] I am using the RSV, simply because it is handy. Maclean, however, tells us that his father was reading the bible in Greek.

[4] Bachelard, 187.

[5] Maclean, 104.

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