O Sir! Doubt not that angling is an art. Is it not an art to deceive a trout with an artificial fly? a trout! that is more sharp-sighted than any hawk you have named, and more watchful and timorous than your high-mettled merlin; and yet I doubt not to catch a brace or two tomorrow for a friend's breakfast; doubt not therefore sir that angling is an art, and an art worth your learning
--The Compleat Angler
Apart from Jaws
and Moby Dick
, The Compleat Angler is the only famous book expressly about fishing. Written by Izaak Walton
, this pastoral treatise
is a combination of practical fishing
tips, popular recipes
, and English folk lore
Written as a dialogue, an Angler (named Piscator), a Falconer (Auceps), and a Hunter (Venator) meet whilst ambling along the River Lea between Tottenham and Cheshunt. Unaware that their names are clever Latin puns, the three discuss the relative merits of their sports, but eventually defer to Piscator. Piscator resorts to the unfair argument that angling is the sport of the gods (look at the Apostles!), and like a piscatorial Socrates, the fisherman takes Venator as his Plato to stroll quietly up the creek and teach him the intricacies of fishing with an angle.
As a practical guide, The Compleat Angler is nigh on useless, but rather is praised for its gentle warmth, simplicity, and love of nature and the English countryside. Walton brings out the truly contemplative nature of angling. The act of catching fish is secondary to simply participating in the sport.
Given the tumultuous times of the mid-17th Century, Walton's idyllic text offered a welcome retreat from day to day life, and was wildly successful. Walton witnessed the English Civil War, and it is surprising that he wrote such a pastoral piece when his contemporaries such as John Donne were reflecting the pessimism and complexity of the Elizabethan era.
In the fifth edition of book in 1676, Charles Cotton added an extra twelve chapters with a focus on fly fishing. Whilst this adds a certain compleatness to the work, critics often deride Cotton's meddling as inappropriate.