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The Early History of Angling.

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Despite millions of modern enthusiasts, angling is no recent fad. It has enjoyed a following that dates back to the earliest records of many civilisations, and many early accounts of fishing have survived. This account starts with the early history of angling, long before the invention of the reel float and tackle shop. It has to go back to a time from which only words survive.


The name of Izaak Walton is synonymous with angling, even to those that have never fished. I remember reading the Compleat Angler at school, and being surprised to find my Headmaster, who did not fish, had a copy. Incidentally, I only discovered he had a copy by accident whilst I was being carpeted for "bunking off". I read Walton because I loved fishing., but his work also stands on its own as a work of literature which is why my headteacher had a copy. However Walton was an accomplished angler, already using highly evolved tackle, and we should start much further back than his account.

Ancient Records

In 1926, William Radcliffe published a very scholarly book about early angling, "Fishing From Earliest Times". This has been an important source for angling historians since, but it is only available in few reference libraries. It is also a very academic work, at times heavy going,  looking at archaeological remains from the ancient Jews, Egyptians, Chinese, Assyrians, Romans and Greeks. He makes a clear distinction between sport fishing with a rod, and other methods of catching fish such as nets. He attributes the Egyptians as being first to use rods. They recorded the use of rods in their art more than 2000 years ago, but other much earlier archaeological   evidence for the use of line and hooks can be found.

It has been suggested that the quintessential step of making fishing into a sport, rather than just a means of catching fish for food, was the invention of the rod. Unfortunately rods and lines are not likely to have survived for thousands of years, although smaller objects like hooks, have proved more durable. Whether or not a hook tied by line to a fixed stone or stick can be considered as a form of angling is something the reader can decide, but I think it is only right we include here some notes on the early archaeological evidence of hook use as well as information on rods. Incidentally, the English term angling is derived from "angle" which in its earliest use appears to mean fish hook, although it has in later times been used to mean "tackle", hook line and rod, collectively. I am therefore inclined to believe that it is the baited hook that makes a fisherman an angler, not the rod.

The oldest fish hooks that have been found to date are made of bone and were found in what was Czechoslovakia. They are believed to be an incredible 20,000 years old. Other ancient hooks from different localities have been date between 8 and 10, years old. These early hooks were made from horn bone and wood. I am not sure which is more remarkable, that these ancient artefacts made of natural materials have survived, or that they have remained in use by some cultures into the twentieth century.


The Hook

A fascinating "History of the Fish Hook" has been written by Hans Jorgen Hurum. This work was commissioned by the modern hook maker Mustad, who make hooks for every type of fishing and sell them world-wide. For many people angling history means collectibles, antiques. It is unlikely you will find bone hooks at a car boot sale or auction, nonetheless to help understand the origins of the sport, Hurum's book is an essential read.


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We have no idea how the bone hooks of 10,000 years ago were baited and cast. There is no written record to accompany the archaeological remains. The poets of Ancient Greece, many thousands of years later do make references. In "The River Never Sleeps" (one of my all time favourite fishing books), Roderick Haig-Brown mentions a protracted debate on the meaning of one reference in Homer (800-850BC)

"Casting into the deep the horn of an ox, and as he catches each (fish) flings it up writhing."

The debate in the Times Literary Supplement concerned exactly how the horn was used. Was it made into a hook, a lure, or in  some other way? Haig-Brown entered the debate by showing that horn was still in use for making barbs for fishing spears by the Indians of British Columbia. Complete horns have also been used a simple line winders from which because of their conical shape, you can cast good distances.

Homer's fishing was so different from our modern techniques that we will maybe never know his method. Biblical references  also exist, and there are descriptions of hook use in both old and new Testaments.

"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook" Job 41.1

"Go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up." Mathew 17.27

By contrast an account from Claudius Aelianus (200-300 AD) is more descriptive and can be closely compared to modern techniques:


"They wrap dark red wool round a hook and tie on to it two feathers which grow under the wattles of a cock and resemble wax in colour. The fishing rod is six feet in length and the line the same. When the tricky fly is lowered a fish is attracted by the colour and rises madly at the pretty thing that will give him a rare treat, but on opening his jaws is pierced by the hook, and is given poor enjoyment of the feast when he is captured."

Is this not fly fishing? Ok no dressed silk like is mentioned, no reel but the lure is certainly a fly as we know it.


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English Records

The earliest "local" work on fishing as the "Colloquy of Aelfric", written in Anglo-Saxon and Latin about 980AD. It is more of a manual on taking fish for profit than for sport. Like the much later Compleat Angler it is a dialogue between master and pupil. The master is also adept at hunting and falconry, with fishing only forming a part of the sporting education.

Piers of Fulham is the next known English writer, although his angling references are brief. The first surviving important work we know of is the "Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle" written by the often maligned Dame Juliana Burners. This work contains illustrations of tackle and a clear woodcut of an angler using a rod with line and float.

The work is fascinating, but the legendary Dame Juliana equally so.  She has been called everything from "gentle and studious sportswoman" to outright plagiarist. She has changed over the years in different accounts from a virtual unknown to a person of of definite pedigree but variable sex!

The Treatyse was in fact just one section of the second edition of the "Boke of St Albans". The first edition was published by the Schoolmaster Printer in St Albans. The fishing treatyse was not included.The printer is indicated in the text, but Dame Juliana's contribution is less clear. The Treatyse also contains sections on hunting, hawking and Cote Armour. Contemporary sources only attribute the hunting section to the Dame.

The later second edition was printed by Caxton's successor at Westminster, Wynkyn de Worde. This later edition inlcudes the fishing section, but my personal view is that is not by the same author who wrote the section on hunting in the earlier Boke of St Albans.   The reason is obvious, the introduction of the fishing work  is full of praise for the superiority of the sport of Angling over hunting and falconry. the case is argued enthusiastically in  way incompatible with someone who had also authored manuals on those sports.

I find myself agreeing with William Blades who concluded that the "Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle", one of the most important works of surviving early sporting literature, was probably from an unknown source, and slotted into the "Boke of St Albans" by the publisher of the second edition to broaden its appeal.

Is all this important? I think it is, especially for anyone interested in fishing tackle. This is the first work that is a real manual of detailed instructions on all the important aspects of making tackle and using it. There is non of the inconsistency of a professional scholar collecting other peoples thoughts. This has been written by someone who knows their stuff! It has the rare magic that only people who have caught big fish can convey. There are instructions on bait, hooks, floats, making and dying of lines, rod making and much more. Patterns of flies for different months are given. Here is one:

Marche-The donne flye, the body of the donne woll and the wyngis of the pertyche. Another doone flye, the body of blacke woll, the wynges of the blackyst drake, and the jay wynge and under the tayle".

This is the book which signifies that fishing and tackle has come of age, irrespective of the author. If Dame Juliana did exist, I wonder what she would have made of this reference from Dr. Andrew Kippis from Biographica Britannica 1784.

" In that light, there appears such a motley masquerade, such an indistinction of petticoat and breeches, such a problem and concorpation of sexes, according to the image that arises out of the several representations of this religious sportswoman or virago, that one can scarcely consider it, without thinking Sir Tristram, the old Monkish Forester, and Juliana the Matron of Nuns, had united to form John Clevelands "Canonical Hermaphrodite".

There you go!



The angler upto 1496 had to make his or her own tackle. There is no evidence of reels in England, but the techniques of float fishing, ledger or bottom fishing, live baiting and fly fishing were well developed., in as much as the short thick lines of the day would allow. Very little was published about angling in the years immediately after the "Boke of St.Albans" but by 1631 the tackle shop had almost arrived. Gervase Markham writes in "Country Contentments", that the angler should not rouble himself making rods as they can be bought in every haberdashers shop.

Twenty years later, in 1651, the first comprehensive work on fly fishing arrived, "Barkers Delight", or the "Art of Angling". Not only is this a milestone in in fly fishing literature, it also contains the first known mention in the English language of a device for holding or storing line, that is a reel. Published two years before Walton's "Compleat Angler", it is surprising that Walton does not mention reels in his first edition of 1653. Which would suggest that it must have been invented and used locally around England at this time. However, a Chinese painting circa 1200 AD, shows an angler using a lightweight  reel with running line.

In 1659, the second edition of "Barkers Delight" shows the first English illustration of a reel, or winch. The crude drawing but appears to represent a wide spool, crank wind reel, attached by a sort of simple bulldog clip. Sadly, as far as I am aware, no reels from this time exist today.

Barker and Walton had much in common. They were born in adjoining counties, Staffordshire and Shropshire, in the late years of the sixteenth century, and both produced their angling works at quite advanced ages, two years apart in 1651 and 1653. That two great angling books should emerge together is quite a coincidence when your realise that between Walton and the Boke of St Albans only four other books on fishing are known.

Although Barker has to some extent lapsed into obscurity, Walton's Complete Angler has run to more different editions than any other English work, save the Bible. Courtney-Williams in "Angling Diversions" (1945) claims that although it is much published, it is the least translated of the English literary classics. This would suggest that Walton's contribution is his style as much as his content, the singer as much as the song. Indeed when it comes to content, Walton has been dismissed as a compiler, or even worse, a plagiarist. The contemporary critic Richard Frank said of Walton:

"(He) lays the stress of his arguments upon other men's observations, wherewhith he stuffs his indigested octavo".

Despite that, for more than three centuries, anglers and non-anglers alike have enjoyed the experience of going fishing with the old master.

To the man interested in old tackle, Walton does not offer a catalogue of seventeenth century, state of the art equipment, and with respect to technique there is limited progress from the Boke of St Albans. Yet his work is peppered with interesting observations. On fish in the diet he writes:

"The casting off of Lent and other fish days, which hath not only given the lie to so many learned, pious wise founders of colleges, for which we should be ashamed, hath doubtless been the chief cause of those many putrid, shaking, intermittent agues, unto which this nation of ours is now more subject, than those wiser countries that feed on herbs and plenty of fish."

Sounds like contemporary dietary advice. as the French say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same"   

But restricting our discussion here to equipment, it is notable that Walton is familiar with the landing net to allow the use of lighter line.

"But what say you now? There is a trout now and a good one too, if I can but hold him; and two or three more turns will tire him. Now you see he lies still, and the sleight is to land him: reach me that landing-net. So, Sir, now he is mine own: what say you now, is not this worth all my labour and your patience."

In the second edition of the Compleat Angler, Walton describes the use of a reel, although he does not sound too familiar with its workings.

"Note also, that many used to fish for Salmon with a ring or wire on the top of their rod, through which the line may run to as great a length as is needful, when he is hooked. And to that end, some use a wheel about the middle of their rod, or near the hand, which is to be observed better by seeing one of them than by a large demonstration of words".

The Compleat Angler is a celebration of our sport, based on a central theme that angling is an art that transcends the objective of catching fish. It heralds a turning point, and represents a good place to stop this discussion. Around this time (1650's), the tackle trade starts to establish itself, and further progress in angling and tackle is more conveniently considered by reference to individual items of tackle and adverts from their manufacturers.

Steve Harrison 2000