Four Centuries of Fishing Books 1500-1600s


Following centuries of advancements in book printing technology, a considerable number of fishing books were published by the 1900s. Compared to the span of time, they form “sparse, densening rungs of a ladder.” However, if we set our reference point from the time of Claudius Aelianus and the fishermen of the Macedonian Astraeus River to Richard de Fournival and his poem “De Vetula” and Dame Juliana Berners’ treatise on fishing, it’s like transitioning from dawn to pitch darkness in space, where a few rays of light still manage to twinkle.

Until the 1800s, books primarily focused on bait fishing, gradually increasing the prominence of fly fishing. Fly fishing, which gained more recognition from Walton onwards, was often placed at the beginning of works, and in the mid-1800s, the first books dedicated to fly fishing were published. Next, we will present a small selection of published books, emphasizing fly fishing and covering only the parts related to new knowledge.

Around fifty years after Berners’ work, in 1539, during the retirement years of Fernandes Basurton, an Aragonese (Spanish) soldier, “El Tratadico de Pesca” (A Small Treatise on Fishing) was written as part of the larger work “Dialogo del Cazador y del Pescador.” Basurto employed a literary technique dating back to antiquity, a dialogue between a hunter and a fisherman, discussing the comparison of hunting methods, their benefits, and drawbacks.

The flies mentioned in Basurton’s treatise are considered submerged flies, just like in Berners’ work; the term wasn’t known at the time. The Spanish text contains references to local aquatic insect species, their habits, observations, and their consideration in fly fishing. Some consider this work to be Spain’s counterpart to Berners’ earlier publication. Others have noticed similarities with Izaak Walton’s work, published more than a hundred years later, speculating that Walton may have drawn from earlier works, primarily Berners’. Recent historical research offers a small surprise in this regard.

Enthusiasts of fly fishing history have been intrigued by the discovery of a little-known fishing book. Chalmers Hallaman, a book collector, purchased it in 1953 from a book dealer, as part of the estate of a small house that had come up for sale. The book was missing (at least) three pages, including the title page, so there was initially no information about the book’s title or author. The only clue was the text at the end of the book: “Imprinted at London in Fleetestreate at Sign on Faulcon by Henry Middleton … Anon 1577.”

The investigation proceeded in stages. The British Museum confirmed the book’s authenticity. After the book found its way to Princeton University in the United States, historian Thomas P. Harrison of the University of Texas discovered a comment in Edward Topsell’s book “The History of Serpents” that mentioned the author’s name but not the book’s title. Over time, Harrison managed to ascertain the book’s title as well. He published the information he had gathered in October 1960 in an academic journal. At this point, the knowledge remained limited to a small circle until an article was published in “American Fly Fisher” in 1975 (vol. 2, no. 2).

The book’s author was Reverend Samuel William, and the book’s title is “The Arte of Angling,” published in the year 1577. It is the second (or third) oldest fishing book in the world and, as it stands, the rarest fishing book in the world, as only one known copy remains. A reissue of the book was published in 1958, featuring an introduction by Otto V. Kienbusch about the book’s history. The new edition presents the text in parallel, with modern English alongside a facsimile reproduction of the original book. The introduction of the book serves several purposes, one of which is the publicly expressed comment that the book represents a missing link between Berners and Walton/Cotton. Alongside Berners’ text, Walton and perhaps even Cotton may have drawn inspiration from this book, particularly from it. The names of the flies mentioned in the book, an entire passage, and the pervasive dialogue technique used throughout the book (which also forms the structure of Walton’s work) all point in this direction. When one recalls Basurton’s previously described work and the technique used therein, there are grounds for a reevaluation of history.

In Leonard Mascall’s 1590 publication, “A Booke of Fishing with Hooke and Line,” there is mention that the design of the elongated fishing rod described in Berners’ work seems to have remained unchanged for the following hundred years. Mascall’s work was based on Berners’ (or William’s) work, with the addition of his own ideas on fish farming.

The manuscript of Juan de Bergara from 1624, “El Manuscrito de Astorga,” deviates from the typical practice of the time, as Bergara acknowledges the influence of foreign anglers’ writings. In Bergara’s Spanish-language manuscript, the use of feathers from a local rooster breed is described in the tying of flies intended for trout fishing. Later (1825), an expansion was made to Bergara’s manuscript, adding 41 fly recipes (source: Manuscrito de Astorga – Fly Fishing Wiki).

Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” and the extension by Charles Cotton are presented separately, so they will be mentioned here without further detail.

18th Century:

In 1747, Richard Bowlker published the work “The Art of Angling Improved,” and his son Charles released the second edition in 1774. The title page mentions that the book covers topics such as fly fishing, trolling, fly tying, and a list of the most famous fishing spots in North Wales. It introduces various fish species, including salmon, trout, charr, pike, perch, carp, bream, roach, grayling, flounder, eel, smelt, and gudgeon, while describing suitable methods for catching them. Interestingly, during this era, more than half of the book’s content focuses on other fishing methods rather than fly fishing.

The section that discusses fly fishing includes topics such as rods and reels, leaders, stunning fish, tying materials, and fly tying. There are detailed illustrations of 30 different flies in a plate. Unlike modern recipe practices, the tying process is described in words rather than following a formula.

The section of the book that deals with fly fishing is exceptionally well-done. Richard Bowlker was an observant and meticulous recorder of natural events. The fly patterns were innovative, and the tying instructions were precise. Most of these flies are still in use today. Bowlker also made an important observation that the insect populations in chalk streams and rocky-bottomed rivers differed, leading to two separate lists of flies. The book describes fishing upstream.

19th Century:

The number of fishing books in the 19th century grows almost exponentially, with an increasing number of gentlemen who fish with a rod publishing their own perspectives on bait and fly fishing. The focus on locality, provincial waters (such as Wales and Scotland), aquatic insects, imitating flies, and fly tying enriches the content of these works. The introduction of rapidly evolving equipment also receives more attention.

The century begins with George Scotcher’s “The Flyfisher’s Legasy” in 1800. He is credited with proposing the idea of casting the fly above a rising fish, allowing the fish to see the fly passing over the surface – one of the earliest instructions hinting at surface fly fishing.

Despite its modest layout, William Carroll’s “The Angler’s Vade Mecum,” published in Edinburgh in 1818, is an important work. The term “Vade Mecum” in the titles of books suggests “go with me” in Latin. The book contains twelve color plates of aquatic insects, and in monthly progressing chapters, it lists the materials needed for imitating numbered insects. Natural baits and descriptions of fish species have their own chapters. It is likely that the subsequent work by Ronalds, to be introduced next, was influenced by Carroll’s work, taking the description of aquatic insects to a higher qualitative level.

Alfred Ronald (1802-1860) spent his childhood and youth in London, where he became an apprentice in a printing office at the age of fifteen. Thirteen years later, in 1830, Ronalds moved to Tixall, Staffordshire, where he married a local girl the following year. During his years in Staffordshire, Ronalds developed an interest in fly fishing, learning it on the Trent, Blythe, and Dove rivers. In the same years, he conceived the idea for his famous work, “The Fly Fisher’s Entomology” (1836). In 1844, Ronalds moved with his family to Dolgellau in North Wales and later to Brecon in South Wales, where he primarily manufactured fishing tackle and tied flies.

“The Fly Fisher’s Entomology” created a new type of work, presenting the essential aquatic insects for fly fishing and connecting them to the diet and fishing techniques of trout and grayling. The book features plates with the names of families, genera, and species of imitated insects on the left side and color drawings of insects and imitative flies on the right side. It’s a simple but ingenious format. Fly patterns are presented on separate pages. The significance of the book is highlighted by its recognition in Finland, where the 1922 edition was even available for sale at a price of 250 Finnish marks at Schröder’s.

Devonshire journalist, bookseller, and author George P. R. Pulman (1819-1880) worked in various roles during his lifetime, including editing the “Yeovil Times” newspaper and the weekly magazine “Pulman’s Weekly News and Advertiser.” He also published a collection of fishing poems titled “Rustic Sketches.” In his book “The Vade Mecum of Fly Fishing for Trout” (1841), Pulman described, recognizable even before Halford, surface fly fishing and expanded on the drying of flies through false casting in the third edition published in 1851.

The book provides an excellent description of fly fishing. The first chapter pays tribute to Walton, the second narrates the history of trout and even salmon. The third chapter delves into insects and trout diets, while the fourth and fifth chapters explore equipment. Fly tying has its dedicated chapter, and the book concludes by discussing fishing seasons.

W. C. Stewart’s “The Practical Angler,” published in 1857, is a valuable addition to the series of fishing guides published in Edinburgh, Scotland. While not repeating everything found in previous works, Stewart’s book offers a convincing description of the angler’s progression upstream and the importance of observing the behavior of natural insects in fishing techniques. Additionally, the book includes good illustrations of flies. It is one of the earliest descriptions of dry fly fishing before Halford’s time.

Francis Francis’s “A Book on Angling” (1867) is a substantial work that Alex Hintze suggests he may have used as one of the sources for his 1883 book “Krokfiske som sport och yrke samt kräftfångst” (Fishing with Hooks as a Sport and Profession, and Crayfishing) in Finland. Francis’s book is over 400 pages long, a weighty tome that has achieved classic status, with nearly a hundred pages devoted to bait and fly fishing. What is particularly appealing is the thoroughness of the treatment of the subject, high-quality illustrations of flies, meticulous drawings, and the use of black-and-white images.

Frederic Halford is a legendary name in dry fly fishing. Few individuals have had such a profound impact on the sport, and few figures have been as controversial as Halford. The trend known as “pintaperhopuritanism,” or dry fly puritanism, has been associated (partly rightly so) with Halford’s name.

Frederic Halford published his first book, “Floating Flies and How to Dress Them,” in 1886. The flies featured in the book were developed in collaboration with G. S. Marryat. Some of Halford’s other notable works include “Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice” (1889) and “Dry Fly Entomology” (1897). Halford’s obsession was to create an imitation for every species of mayfly. In his book “Modern Development of Dry Fly” (1910), Halford settled on 33 basic patterns intended to solve the dry fly problem for all time. In light of contemporary knowledge, species-specific imitation is unnecessary, and a simpler approach suffices.

Text: Sulo Tiainen