Walton and his Contemporaries


o all intents and purposes, we know nothing about fly fishing during the interval between the publication of The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle and the end of the English Civil War. The Civil War (1642-1651) might have divided the nation and families as history was written in iron and blood, but for us, it had the useful effect of prompting a group of five men to write about fly fishing. The five are Thomas Barker, Colonel Robert Venables, Isaac Walton, Charles Cotton and Richard Franck.

The typical seventeenth century fly fisherman used a twisted horsehair line, tapered from seven hairs or more at the thickest part down to three hairs or less at the point. All lines were home-made, and although horsehair was the rule, pure silk, and silk/horsehair mixes were used on occasion. The line was usually fixed to the top of the rod, in which case the length was less than twice the length of the rod. Some anglers allowed the line run free through a loop at the tip of the rod, the free line being held in the angler's hand, or sometimes attached to a reel. Many fishermen still made their own rods, and a typical specimen might have a cane butt, covered with thin leather or parchment, or painted after the fashion of the London makers at the time. Cotton used single handed rods up to eighteen feet (!) long, but this was unusual and most rods would have been shorter than that. For the fly-fisherman, hazel was recommended, as it made a long light rod that could easily be managed with one hand. The last two feet of the top was cut off and a 'small shoot of black thorn or crab tree' fitted onto it, the end of this shoot being cut off in turn and replaced with a small piece of tapered whalebone. The reel was fitted onto the rod by a spring clip with a pad of leather or some other material inside, so that it could be attached at any position on the butt.

In the main, fishermen preferred to cast downstream, but the reality was that they must cast downwind, so they would cast upstream if necessary (there was an argument raging about up versus downstream even in Venables' day.) A day's fishing on a winding river might involve several changes of direction of cast; first downstream, then up, as the angle of incidence of the wind on the river changed. The good fisherman tried to cast with the sun at his back, "whipping" the line repeatedly, so that the flies had little time to sink, and as little as possible of the line was drowned. Our model angler prayed for conditions which would make us pack up and go home: wind and coloured water. A windy day was a good day, since it offered the best chance of concealment for the angler; a principle which would hold for another two hundred years.

Walton, a late convert to fly fishing, listed the twelve flies from the Treatyse, but Cotton, writing in the fifth edition of the Complete Angler, gives us sixty five trout flies, marking the beginning of a huge diversification of patterns. By Cotton's day, there were already marked regional variations in fly patterns, and it seems likely that much development had taken place in the sixteenth century.

We have few details about early salmon flies, but if we read between the lines, a seventeenth century salmon fly might have had a dull body, made of bear's hair, perhaps wrapped in coloured silk, and hackled with cock, pheasant, partridge, or the gaudy feathers of macaw, flamingo or parakeet. The fly might be left as a palmered pattern, or it could be dressed with one, two, or even three pairs of wings, taken from the teal, heron, mallard or falcon. The size of the patterns would have ranged from large trout fly size upwards.


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