Zen and the Art of Angling

Chapter 2

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

Cartoon of Alistair

Fishing with hooks goes back beyond recorded history. The first hooks found are dated at 30,000 years old. Fishing with a rod and line is recorded in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and biblical scripts refer to casting a hook on the water to catch leviathan. Fishing is not new in this world, nor is fly fishing. Not surprisingly ancient Chinese scripts describe the making of flies on copper hooks while records from Greece describe methods of fly fishing.

No one knows how or when fly fishing came about. Who knows whether cavemen fished for practical reasons or for sport, but it is convincing that if the imperative was for food a net would be the essential method. It would seem that at some time in the past the necessities of the hunter gatherer were translated into a more aesthetically pleasing past time.

I suspect that, as is the case today, our far flung ancestors came to enjoy an outing by the river with a favourite fishing pole as a time to escape from the rigours of daily life. As the caveman reached for his favourite fishing pole his spouse no doubt looked on with disdain as hubbie said he would be back in an hour or two with some fish and being a practical kind of lass she would have checked the larder to see if there was enough of that woolly mammoth left for supper.

I know that look of disdain well for many a friend or relative would have died of starvation if they had depended on me for their sole source of food. Going fishing is not only about catching fish it is a time to relax and consider possibilities. Try telling that to hungry offspring and herein no doubt the art of exaggeration, the tales of the one that got away, the escapism of angling have in all likelihood been honed since the days of our troglodyte forebears.

Sitting by the river bank, our caveman would have observed the behaviour of fish splashing at flies and insects. He will have pondered the possibilities of improving his sport and in due course would have exchanged his worm for a moth, beetle or maybe a grass hopper.

Flicking the creature impaled on the hook upon the surface of the river he would have discovered that trout will rise and swallow the offering. Maybe he saw a fish rise to a floating feather or flower petal and wondered at the possibilities this behaviour could hold. When suitable natural flies for bait were absent he would have tied some fur and feathers to his hook in a way that represented the natural insect and found that in this way fish could be fooled.

The earliest definitive written record of fly fishing was made by made in 200 AD by the Roman writer Claudius Aelianus in his book "On the Nature of Animals". In his book Aelianus describes how men would fish for trout on the river Astracus in Macedonia, they 'fasten red wool around a hook and fixed unto the wool two feathers which grew under the cocks wattles' casting the fly on the water with a rod of six foot and line of the same length.

The principles of fly fishing remain little changed to this day fish with artificial flies and live insects being used. Live Mayflies are still used in dapping on the great loughs of Ireland and daddy long legs and heather moths will still take fish on the Highland lochs of Scotland. Natural flies are off course delicate and not always easy to find and keep nor do fish always feed on the biggest flies.

Trout will often be found feeding voraciously on tiny midges while ignoring much larger prey. The development of artificial flies has added greatly to the arsenal of the fly angler. Artificial flies come in all shapes and sizes representing flies and insects at every stage of their life cycle.

It is logical that artificial flies, just as effective as naturals, would be the sensible option. Artificial flies allow anglers to carry a variety of fly 'patterns' with which to tempt the trout, increasing the chances of success by being able to 'match the hatch'.What is fly fishing then? Fly fishing is the art of presenting a food like object to fish, usually but not exclusively an insect imitation, which triggers a response to take the fly.

That is a very simplistic definition for the response may not be a feeding response and the fly may not even look like a living creature! The fly is presented using a rod designed to flex and in doing so the rod causes a relatively heavy line to extend in the air allowing an attached fly to be cast some distance with accuracy. It's as easy as that, with a bit of practise and some hand eye co-ordination.

Over the generations a great deal of printed literature has been dedicated to fishing. One of the first definitive pieces of angling writing 'Treatyse of Fisshynge with and Angle' written by Dame Juliana Berners, Lady Prioress of Sopwell Nunnery, is included in the 'Boke of St. Albans' and published by Wynkyn de Worde, an apprentice of William Caxton, in 1496.

The Treatyse includes information on the methods of fishing employed at that time including 12 fly patterns for use in different seasons of the year. Dame Julia describes the dressings quite clearly for each month from March to August:


The Stone Fly, the body of dun wool and wings of the partridge.

Another Dun Fly, body of black wool, the wings of the blackest drake and the jay under the wing and under the tail.


The Stone Fly, body of black wool and yellow under the wing and under the tail and the wings of the drake.

In the beginning of May, a good fly, the body of reddened wool and lapped about with black silk, the wings of the drake and the red capons hackle


The Yellow Fly, the body of yellow wool, the wings of red cock hackle and of the drake dyed yellow (the Mayfly).

The Black Leaper, the body of black wool and lapped about with the herl of the peacock's tail ; and the wings of the red capon with a blue head


The Dun Cut, the body of black wool, and a yellow stripe along either side, the wings of the buzzard bound on with hemp that has been treated with tanbark.

The Maure Fly, the body of dusky wool, the wings of the blackest feathers of the wild drake

The Tandy Fly at St Williams Day, the body of tandy wool and the wings the opposite, either against the other, of the whitest breast feathers of the drake


The Wasp Fly, the body of black wool and lapped about with the herl of the peacock's tail, wings of the buzzard.

The Shell Fly at St Thomas's day, the body green wool and lapped with the herl of the peacocks tail, wings of the buzzard.


The Drake Fly, the body of black wool and lapped about with black silk, wings of the breast feathers of the black drake with a black head.

The dressings hold a familiarity with the flies and seasons we know today focusing no doubt of the larger species of fly and insect life because the hooks used at that time were too large to allow representations of the many smaller flies used today.

Much of the contents of the Treatyse is timeless, little has changed in the pleasures we seek from angling, summed up by the following quote:

"if he does as this treatise teaches: unless there are no fish in the water. And yet, at the very least, he has his wholesome and pleasant walk at his ease, and a sweet breath of the fragrant smell of the meadow flowers, to make him hungry. He hears the melodious harmony of birds. He sees the young swans, herons, ducks, coots, and many other birds with their broods, which to me seems better than all the noise of hounds, the blasts of horns, and the clamour of birds that hunters, falconers, and fowlers can produce. And if the angler catches fish, surely then there is no happier man".

The most famous of all angling books, 'The Compleat Angler or the Contemplative Mans Recreation', was written by Izaak Walton and published in 1653. The book is described by Walton as a 'Conference betwixt an angler, a hunter and a falconer; each commenting his recreation', and includes the characters Piscator, Venator and Auceps. The book is a fascinating read in which Piscator explains to Venator how to fish the fly. Piscator states; 'Fly fishing, or fishing the top is of two sorts; with a natural and living fly, or with an artificial and made fly'. Fishing the natural fly he described as 'daping, dabbing or dibbling' and should be done with a line half the length of your rod when there is no wind and up to the full length of the rod 'if you have any wind to carry it for you'. Using the artificial fly the line should be 'longer by a yard and half, or sometimes two yards, than your rod'.

The length of the rod for a trout river is quoted as '5 or 6 yards long'! *(Ephemera, who edited later editions suggests the length of the rods as quoted to be a yard or two too long) Piscator describes the best rods he has ever encountered as;'made in Yorkshire, which are all of one piece; that is to say, of several, six, eight, ten or twelve pieces, so neatly pieced and tied together with fine thread below, and silk above, as to make it taper like a switch, and ply with a true bend to your hand'.

As to fishing lines, Piscator states; 'the length of line is a mighty advantage to fishing at a distance; and to fish fine, and far off, is the first and principal rule for trout angling'. Summing up Piscator says;' Now, to have your whole line as it ought to be, two of the first lengths nearest the hook should be of two hairs a piece; the next three lengths above them of three; the next three above them of four; and, so of five, and six, and seven to the very top: by which means, your rod and tackle will, in a manner, be tapered from your very hand to your hook; your line will fall much better and straighter, and cast your fly to any certain place, to which the hand and eye shall direct it, with less weight and violence, than would otherwise circle the water, and fright away the fish. 'As far as basic principles are concerned little has changed since the days of Walton and with the exception of modern materials Walton would recognise the equipment we use today and how we use it.

There is something about the timelessness of fishing that is part of the attraction of the sport. Knowing, as you fish your way through loch and burn, river and lake, that others have been there before, exercising the tradition of the 'art of the angle'. Experiencing the same frustrations and pleasures, the same excitement and anticipation, the same hopefulness; studying the water, the fish, the flies and other insects, terrestrial and aquatic, seeking the ultimate answer - the fly that always catches fish.

By the time Walton wrote his book, reels had become available in the British Isles although they had been in use on in Europe before this time and off course the Chinese had been using reels for centuries. Reels made a great difference to the way people fished. With more line on a reel than the fixed lengths Walton described bait could be cast further, rods could be shorter and fish could be played with more control. Lines remained relatively unchanged being made of horse hair or thread. Rods were basic poles with rudimentary running eyes to guide the line up the rod. Hooks too began to evolve in the second half of the 17th century as metal working techniques began to be refined, hooks became lighter and stronger allowing for more experimentation with fly patterns.

In 1667 Charles Cotton added to Walton's Compleat Angler a section on fly fishing in which he described 65 fly patterns indicating the the development of fly dressing was gaining momemtum. New materials for rods, lines and hooks allowed for the advancement of new techniques in casting, playing fish and attracting fish.

It was not until the 19th century that real changes in materials came about when lancewood and greenheart were used to develop better rods for casting and silk lines came available. Rods could be shorter, lighter (relatively speaking) and more powerful allowing greater distance, accuracy and finesse in the presentation of the fly.

Even in Walton's day the principles of tapered lines were well understood and the new tapered silk lines presented the fly fisher with more options. With greater finesse came refinements in tactics and in the spirit of the Victorian period anglers took to the scientific approach and the study of entomology.

By studying what fish feed on and the life cycles of these creatures anglers began to develop different techniques for presenting the fly. Trout either feed in the body of the water or on the surface depending on the prey they seek or in the case of flies, what stage in their life cycle they are at.

A number of fly species were identified as key food items: the Ephemeroptera or upwinged flies, Chironomid midges and sedges. Terrestrial flies were also noted as of interest to fish, crane flies even bees and wasps. In addition to this stomach content revealed that fish also fed on other aquatic life such as crustaceans and mollusc. Fly patterns were devised to be fished either on on the surface or below the surface, dry flies (Greenwells Glory, Blue Winged Olive, Badger patterns), and wet flies (Blae and Black, March Brown, wet Greenwell) respectively. Victorians also recognised the significance of the nymphal stage and soon flies were devised to represent this stage in the life cycle of the fly, what are referred to as spider patterns or actual representations of the nymph.

In addition anglers found that certain colours, red for example, could elicit a response from trout so 'flies' were designed to lure fish into the take. There you have all you need to know, give or take a few million words. Fly patterns are either dry, wet, nymph or lure. Of course by the end of the Nineteenth century certain anglers had taken up an opinionated stances on what methods were proper, so the purists were born fishing the gin clear chalk streams of England and disdaining any method other than the dry fly.