Special Feature:
Traditional fishermen in the Italian Po Valley

 

here are fishermen in a remote Italian valley who still use tackle which is very similar to the kit described in the Treatyse. The area in which they fish, Valsesia, is highly secretive; as befits a land of high hills and craggy mountains. The method goes back untold generations, and it seems to have been passed down entirely by word of mouth, because until recently it had never been described and it could only be learnt by watching someone do it. The reason it has stayed a secret so long is that the technique is very localised and it is used exclusively on the River Sesia, a tributary of the Po, where the fisherman call it fishing 'alla Valsesiana.' One of the very few references of any description is found in a cadastral map of the lands in the vicinity of Valmuccia, dated 1775 - an icon on the map shows a fisherman whose rod and posture are identical to those who use the alla Valsesiana method. I suspect that the Valsesia fishermen were using their method at least another two hundred years before the map was drawn and perhaps the technique goes back even further than that; and yet it only came to light a few years ago. It just goes to show how fickle the written record is.

The traditional rod for fishing alla Valsesiana is made from an Arundo reed, although modern versions are made of telescopic fibreglass. In days of yore, the rods were as long as twenty-three feet, but recently they have shrunk a more manageable twelve or fourteen feet. Again, this is very similar to fifteenth century rods and sure enough, like the Treatyse rod, the Italian rod is built in three pieces. The butt is ten feet long, the second piece, two feet, four inches, and the top piece is shaped from thin bamboo. None of the fishermen use a reel, which is interesting in these days of disc drags with everything: the line is slightly longer than the rod, and they tie it to the top section. The most startling thing about whole rig is that the line is traditionally made of horsehair taken from the tail of a white stallion and casts like this can still be bought quite cheaply from local suppliers. The lines taper from twenty hairs thick at the rod end, down to four, three, or even single hairs at the business end. Many anglers use nylon for the last metre, but traditionalists insist on using horsehair because it falls more lightly; if a horsehair line is used, the line is encouraged to float by braiding the hairs loosely between the knots. Of course horsehair sounds pretty anachronistic in this day and age, but don't knock it, it has its virtues; it is stiff, slightly stretchy, almost transparent, and it casts very well.

The floss silk bodied, soft-hackled flies which the Italian fishermen use are impressionistic patterns, very reminiscent of North country spiders and most traditional flies tied for use in fast water, but they are tied with the hackle pushed slightly forward, to give it more 'kick' in the water. A three fly cast is de rigeur, with the artificials about a foot apart and the line is flicked out with an action which a something like a Spey cast.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Valsesiana technique is the way the flies are fished; because this gives a window into the techniques a fifteenth century angler might have used. The length of the rod means that the fisherman can place his flies with absolute precision within the fixed radius of his cast, searching every lie. A skilled angler uses his wrist to 'work' the flies to make them more attractive. No-one uses a net and when a fish is caught, the fisherman simply walks smartly backwards with the fish held under the soft tip of the rod, until he beaches his quarry.

There is a variant of the alla Valsesiana method, which casts a chink of illumination on how fly fishing might have evolved once longer lines became popular. This method is called pesca a frusta (using the rod like a whip,) and it seems to have been used with the traditional Arundo rods. Again, no reel is used, but the fixed line is much longer, perhaps two or three times the length of the rod. The angler casts the line, and when he hooks a fish, he catches the line in one hand and winds it back on his left arm.

 

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