A literary look back as fall approaches
With fall fast approaching, I am reminded of days long since past when I first took up the rod and reel and set off for waters unknown in search of wild brook trout.
While those days still kindle something special in my soul as I begin to make plans for future adventures, I have looked backward to better see the future.
As part of this quest, I began researching through a variety of old dusty, musty and mold-encrusted angling tomes which were first published nearly a half century prior to the turn of the 21st century.
While a few of these semi-ancient publications dealt with treks to the Canadian wilds of Newfoundland and places beyond, many of the others detailed early camping expeditions in the remote North Woods of Maine in search of blueback trout, wild landlocked salmon and wandering moose.
Several even detailed Adirondack expeditions to Long Lake, the “Racket River” and Jessie Corey’s Indian Carry.
There is something startling rich about the language that was used to describe the wild scenes in places that were still truly wild, at a time when navigation was still limited to word of mouth instructions. Accurate maps of the wild places were generally unreliable, if available at all.
In this day and age of instant everything – with digital maps and a GPS on your wrist to show the way – it is refreshing to read about the troubling difficulties of communicating with a native guide on the Penobscot, where more than just language was a hindrance.
And yet, despite encountering such stumbling blocks on the rough road to adventure, the wildwood wanderers of the day still kept their spirits high by dreaming of finding “lost ponds teaming with speckles,” just as many of us continue to do today.
Many of the writers linked angling with religion and claimed that God himself, or at least Jesus, likely had a hand in developing the sport.
“The greater number of them (Christ’s disciples) were found together, fishing, by Jesus, after His Resurrection,” according to Izaak Walton in “The Compleat Angler.”
Take for example these wonderful words to describe the sport of fly fishing which were first penned under the title “Days of Fly Fishing:”
“It carries us into the most wild and beautiful scenery of nature; amongst the mountain lakes, and the clear and lovely streams that gush from the higher ranges of elevated hills, or that make their way through the cavities of calcareous strata.
“How delightful in the early spring, after the dull and tedious time of winter, when the frosts disappear and the sunshine warms the earth and waters, to wander forth by some clear stream, to see the leaf bursting from the purple bud, to scent the odors of the bank perfumed by the violet, and enameled, as it were, with the primrose and the daisy; to wander upon the fresh turf below the shade of trees, whose bright blossoms are filled with the music of the bee; and on the surface of the waters to view the gaudy flies sparking like animated gems in the sunbeams, whilst the bright and beautiful trout is watching them from below; to hear the twittering of the water-birds, who, alarmed at your approach, rapidly hide themselves beneath the flowers and leaves of the water-lily; and as the season advances, to find all these objects changed for others of the same kind, but better and brighter, till the swallow and the trout contend as it were for the gaudy May fly, and till in pursuing your amusement in the calm and balmy evening, you are serenaded by the songs of the cheerful thrush performing the offices of paternal love, in thickets ornamented with the rose and woodbine.”
In another book of angling quotes, notables such as President Grover Cleveland offered up angling advice such as “Don’t give up if you don’t catch fish; the unsuccessful trip should whet your appetite to try again.”
Religion was also a common theme among writers of the day, and anglers were often compared to the disciples as in “The Holy Anglers.”
Nor does the angler, be he determined or otherwise, need any excuse, because “our Savior chose simple fishermen … St. Peter, St. John, St. Andrew and St. James, whom He inspired, and He never reproved these for their employment or calling. The greater number of them (Christ’s disciples) were found together, fishing, by Jesus, after His Resurrection,” according to Walton in “The Compleat Angler, 1653.”
It appears men of the day would go to no limit of lies to convince their spouses of the virtues of angling or to convince them of the need to pursue the purest of sports with quotes such as:
“The genuine Angler, is invariably a poet,” wrote Frederick Pond
Thomas Hood: “Of all sports, commend me to angling; it is the wisest, virtuousest, best.”
“When I go fishing, it is for the purpose of catching fish; when I go angling – fly-fishing – it is the soul I seek to replenish, not the creel.
“Above all other styles, fly-fishing calls for the most delicate tackle and the very daintiest hand.
“One of the charms of angling,” writes Pritt, “is that it presents an endless field for argument, speculation, and experiment.”
There was also plenty of grand talk of the need for conservation and preservation of the valuable wild resources that many turn of the century anglers and sportsman saw as being wasted away.
“Tis the day and the play, not the heads and hides that count. But they have ever been and ever will be calmly agreed as to the object of it all – the love of studying rather than destroying the game, the love of the pursuit itself.”
“No other class has earnestly bothered its head, honestly lifted its hands, or liberally opened its purse in these matters, and the nearest association man in general has with the preservation of both wild fish and fowl is in uttering a cowardly, false accusation against the one who really deserves sole credit for the work, the sportsman, the genuine field sportsman, not the vicious sporting man of the race track, cockpit, and gambling den – two distinct species of animal, as vastly separated in character as the deer hound and the dragon.”
Anglers, particularly fly fishers of the era, appear to have taken the high road of enlightenment in terms of deeming their sport as superior to mere angling, as explained by Dr. Henshall, who claimed “fly fishing is the poetry of angling.”
The good doctor was also a rabid proponent for stocking smallmouth bass in traditional trout waters.
Other writers scorned the notion that any fishing other than fly fishing was acceptable with such scorn such as this passage
“The brook trout is angled for in the spring and summer, principally with the artificial fly, and by the chivalric angler only with the artificial fly, though many greedy fishermen of trifling experience and wholly deprived of the true spirit of angling – in that they fish for the fish alone and judge their day and play solely by the size of their catch – contrive to convince us that the live lure is equally honorable.”
Still others offered angling advice that is as sound today as it was in the 1840s as it concerns the difference between mere fishing and the art of angling.
Charles F. Orvis, founder of Orvis Flyrods, wrote:
“The angler is careful not to let the trout see him, see his shadow, or see the rod, and not to let this wisest, most watchful species of all the finny tribes hear him or feel the vibration of his body.”
“More than half the intense enjoyment of fly fishing is derived from the beautiful surroundings. Who ever read an angler’s story without the song birds in it?
“The expression ‘gentle art’ is applied to angling and the angler. Who ever heard of the gentle art of fishing! Angling is a gentle art; so, to practice it, one must be gentle.
“Angling is a pastime of a craft; the birds, the trees, and the waters are necessities of a planet and its people. To properly define angling is that it is the poetry – the art and refinement – of fishing.
“The common fisherman is simply a fish-basket filler; the Angler fills his soul, not the creel. The art of catching fish with artificial lures in imitation of natural insects is the most chivalric of all methods of angling.”
There were also a few wise words offered concerning the need for environmental protection, the first of which was issued in the early 1880s as smog from coal burning stoves and factories was ruining our nation’s cities.
It made me wonder when the term “climate change” was first coined.
“Climate is a mere matter of pure air. What’s the good in climate if it’s smoked and burned? Any clean climate, hot or cold, is better than any soiled climate, hot or cold. God never made His work for man to mend,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “I am the wiser in respect to all knowledge and the better qualified for all fortunes for knowing that there is a minnow in that brook.”
And lastly, these wise words from W. H. H.(Adirondack) Murray, an old wanderer of wild places in the Great North Woods:
“Many times have I leaned over the sides of my boat in Northern waters, where the trout play beneath me, and seen the mottled beauties chase each other, and race and leap in rivalry of sport, until their bright sides irradiated the dark stream with glancing light, as if the rays of the sun had taken water and were at their bath.”