Learning from Old English Fixed Line Masters
Essay by Jonathan Antunez
“You may if you please place a small slender Lead upon the shank of your Hook, sink the Bait where the River is not violently swift, and draw the Cadbait over the Lead, you may make one the head of black silk, and the body of yellow wax; this you must be often raising from the bottom, and so let it sink again.”
– Robert Venables, 3rd Edition of ‘The Experienced Angler’ 1662
During early spring of this year, I decided to pick up a book called “The Fly” by Andrew Herd. While this isn’t a review of this most excellent history book, it bares noting that in the quote above, Herd makes it very clear that this is the first-time lead is ever mentioned wrapped onto the hook shaft and then tied or covered with material. Moreover, what surprised me the most was the mention of how to fish this unique weighted fly. Robert Venables, a master of the fixed line fly fishing method of his day, was describing a manipulation technique.
This got me asking two important questions: How many other fixed line masters were there?; and what did they write down for posterity? What I found was a wealth of experience. So much that I could probably write an article 4 times as long and still have more to discover. I am convinced that there can be no greater treasure for the modern fixed line fly angler than the histories of fly fishing beginning in 1496 with ‘The Treatise of Fishing with and Angle’, all the way up to the late 1700’s.
During this time period, the eons old practice of fixed line fly fishing was at last finding a voice in our English language. My purpose in writing this article is to share a sampling of some of the insight I have found from reading these various authors. I have attempted to only include authors who do not mention reels in association with trout. While it is true that the wheel or winder was in use at this time for larger fish like salmon or pike, they were still very expensive to purchase and not a lot of people could afford them. The first mention of the winder is attributed to Thomas Barker in 1653, but again only for salmon.
I am no scholar, but I am motivated to present the most accurate information I possibly can from available online sources. It is in good faith that I collect these quotes so that we may become better acquainted with these, our past fellow fixed line anglers. Most of their advice is surprisingly appropriate for our practice today.
Of Fighting a Great Fish
“If you have the luck to strike a great fish with light tackle you must lead him in the water and tire him there until he is drowned and overcome, and then you may take him in any way you can. Ever beware of holding above the strength of your line, and as far as possible do not let the fish come out on your line’s end straight from you, but keep him always under the rod and hold him always straight; so that your line may sustain and bear his leaps and plunges with the help of your crop, and of your hand.”
The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle 1496
– Dame Juliana Berners (Translated by Alfred Duggan)
There is some discussion as to the authorship of the Treatise. Even Dame Juliana Berners’ existence as a real historical person is in doubt. Whether or not the Treatise was actually written by her or by some other is a hotly debated subject with which we have no time to quarrel. Suffice it to say, that in her time, large fish were still very much available to the common angler. The inclusion of a paragraph devoted to the instruction of landing one on fixed line tackle is the most complete account I have found on the subject.
Berners begins with:
“you must lead him in the water and tire him there until he is drowned and overcome, and then you may take him in any way you can.”
The word ‘lead’ shouldn’t be glossed over. As with any animal, when they are led it is always done by the head. Our modern practice advises the same. Fish that are pulled in the direction their head is facing, no matter how many times we must change direction, will effectively tire them until they are overcome.
She admonishes readers to “Ever beware of holding above the strength of your line”.
I take this to mean, get ready to move and not hold position. Should the fish decide to bolt, we must judge how much stress our line can handle and move accordingly. It is appropriate that this warning is one of the first given as it is usually the first mistake we are liable to make. I can think of a few times I have had the luck of hooking into a sizeable trout and had to move a few steps immediately to maintain a curve in the rod.
“…and as far as possible do not let the fish come out on your line’s end straight from you, but keep him always under the rod and hold him always straight; so that your line may sustain and bear his leaps and plunges with the help of your crop, and of your hand.”
Our modern monofilaments are thinner and stronger than the horsehair line of the past, but we are still bound to the same ill fate of having ‘our fish come out on your line’s end straight from you.’ As long as the physics are the same, the same challenges exist, and our rod curve is the only protection our line has against breaking. I believe her phrase, ‘keep him always under the rod’ was a way of saying ‘to keep the rod bent and the fish at an angle under the bend’. We are further reproached to hold him always straight, possibly referring to the line being taut.
She concludes that if we are successful in this instruction, the line will bear the action of the fish, by the help of our crop (that is to say ‘the rod tip’) and of our own hands. Any modern fixed line angler can understand the satisfaction of landing a large fish with just our wits, equipment, and a little luck. It’s what makes our sport exciting and heartbreaking all at the same time. The challenge is the reason we fish the way Juliana Berners did. As she says elsewhere in the Treatise,
“It will be a very great pleasure to you to see the fair bright shining-scaled fishes deceived by your crafty means and drawn to land.”
Choosing a Line Length
“But I must now come to the second way of angling at the top, which is with an artificial-fly, which also I will show you how to make before I have done: but first shall acquaint you, that with this you are to angle with a line a little longer, by a yard and a half, or sometimes two yards, than your rod.”
– Charles Cotton ‘The Compleat Angler’ – 1676
I can’t begin to count how many times I have encountered the question of choosing a line length on social media. The truth of the matter is, the length of line you want to cast changes depending on a few factors. Let’s let Charles Cotton advise us further:
“The length of your line, to a man that knows how to handle his rod, and to cast it, is no manner of encumbrance, excepting in woody places and in landing of a fish, which every one that can afford to angle for pleasure, has somebody to do for him. And the length of line is a mighty advantage to the fishing at distance; and to fish fine, and far-off, is the first and principal rule for trout-angling.”
Cotton brings up some good points about line length. Firstly, the skill of the angler’s casting ability is a deciding factor in how long a line can be cast. There are two exceptions: the surrounding foliage of the river; and perhaps not as obvious as the first, how much line you wish to handle manually when landing a fish. It was not uncommon for the wealthy to have someone to help them net or land a fish. In so doing, they could get away with a much longer line. The modern fixed line angler can appreciate how handy it is to have a buddy net a sizeable fish for us. For those of us that fish solo, hand lining is our only recourse if we want to fish ‘fine and far off’ as Cotton recommends. What I find curious, however, is that hand lining is brought up so sparingly in the classic literature.
Isaak Walton, in his book ‘The Compleat Angler’ published in 1653, has this to say about laying hands on the line:
“Pisc. Look you Scholar, you see I have hold of a good fish: I now see it is a Trout; I pray put that net under him, and touch not my line, for if you do, then we break all.”
Another mention I found by Richard Bowlker in his ‘‘The Art of Angling’ published almost 100 years later in 1747 is possibly out of the scope of the fixed line age, but I will include it:
“You may indeed, in fly fishing, lay hold of your line to draw a fish to you; but this must be done with caution.”
That’s it. Sir Walton would rather skip the whole ordeal as too risky, and Mr. Bowlker is succinct in his warning. It makes me wonder if hand lining was as sore a subject, then as it can be now. Even in our day of monofilament lines, hand-lining is a daunting skill to master.
Try placing yourself in the shoes of a 15-17th Century angler: if you are fishing a line two yards longer than the rod as Cotton suggests, 6 feet of roughly knotted horsehair line now stands between you and netting a fish successfully. I can lean on my own experience to imagine the dread that would inspire. I once lost a very nice rainbow trout in this manner, having declined the fine offer of netting assistance from a fishing partner, my fingers alighted on just one small knot in a furled fluorocarbon casting line and the fish was gone.
Aside from the exceptions for using a shorter casting line, Cotton is well acquainted with the “mighty advantage of fishing at distance”, as he says, “to fish fine, and far-off, is the first and principal rule for trout angling.” This is understood in the context of the popular method of the day of fishing down and across. The longer the casting line, the greater ability the angler had of remaining unseen by the trout.
For the modern day fixed-line fly fisherman, the lightness of the carbon fiber rod combined with the sleekness of level casting lines means we can reasonably cast longer or shorter lines, with longer and shorter rods in comfort.
One last word from Bowlker before we move on:
“The art of managing your rod, and throwing your fly, is no more to be learned by rules than that of making it; only I would advise the young sportsman never to encumber himself with too much line, not longer than the breadth of the river he fishes in.”
Working the Fly – Presentation
Behind a withy, and with watchful eye
Attends the bit within the water clear,
And on the top thereof doth move his fly,
With skillful hand, as if he living were.
– John Dennys, ‘The Secrets of Angling’, 1613
“You must keep your artificial fly in continual motion, though the day be dark, the water muddy, and the wind blow, or else the fish will discern and refuse it.”
– Robert Venables, ‘The Experienced Angler’, 1662
“When you see a Trout rise, cast the Fly behind him, and then gently draw it over his Head, and if of the right colour, and you scare him not, he’s your own.”
– James Chetham, Vade Mecum, 1681
“Cast your wings and caddis up the stream, which will drive it down under the water towards the lower part of the hole; then draw it gently up the stream, a little irregularly, shaking your rod, and in a few casts you will be sure to hook him, if there is one in the hole.”
– Richard Bowlker, ibid
I use these examples to highlight that from a very early time, simulating life with a fly was common practice and each angler had their own style and method of enticing fish. One of the greatest qualities successful anglers share no matter what age they lived in, is the ability to observe and experiment. Venables illustrates this with instructing us to:
“…sink the Bait where the River is not violently swift, and draw the Cadbait over the Lead, you may make one the head of black silk, and the body of yellow wax; this you must be often raising from the bottom, and so let it sink again.”
Using a weighted Caddis pattern (Cadbait) to draw up and let sink down, he mimics the activity of these bugs perfectly. This strategy must have come from personal observation and experimentation. Perhaps Venables noticed when he was fishing with lead, the fish would strike more when the line was being brought up for the next cast. Perhaps they were striking the lead and not the fly, which might have given him the idea to blend the two. How it happened exactly we may never know, but as fixed line fly anglers, we have a unique frame of reference better suited to understanding how these discoveries might have been made. How many times have you hooked into a good fish simply by drawing up your fly for the next cast?
One last quote, and this one of which I am most proud to have rediscovered:
“…let your Fly drop into the Water as if it fell from the Boughs, then raise it to the Surface, and with one Finger of your Right Hand gently tap the End of your Rod, and when you have a rise, give him time that he may gorge the better.
– Richard Brookes M.D., ‘The Art of Angling’, 1766
Dr. Brookes may not have been a fixed line angler per se, but as far as I know, this is the only mention of the technique we in the fixed line world call ‘Tap Tap’ or the Japanese term, ‘Pon Pon’. It’s an absolutely deadly presentation and definitely one of my favorites.
It’s discoveries like this that keep me reading back into this history. Having looked at it through the lens of angling experience similar to the various authors, I found myself nodding and agreeing. I’m connected to these masters now. Their sport is my sport and is your sport. We are connected in that way because their way is our way. Every time we fish the fixed line method, we carry on their passion and enthusiasm in the modern age. I often ask myself, ‘What would Venables do?’ and have a good chuckle, but I really do admire them all. Because of their desire to share their discoveries, they left behind a treasure which we have the distinct pleasure in enjoying.
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