"Of Angling, and the Art thereof": Fish Tails and Fish Tales

Posted: April 15, 2015 - 13:55 , by ROM

“Of Angling, and the Art thereof I sing,

What kinde of Tooles it doth behoue to haue;

And with what pleasing bayt a man may bring 

The Fish to bite within the watry waue.”

Fishing has long been pursued to provide food for families and communities, but as early as the 17th century when I. D. Esquire wrote this opening stanza of his long poem The Secrets of Angling (1613) we know that people also fished for pleasure and sport. I. D.’s book is subtitled "Teaching, The Choisest Tooles Baytes and seasons, for the taking of any Fish in Pond or Riuer : practiced and familiarly opened in three Bookes"and many such books on technique and tools followed. 

During the 19th century the life cycle and habitat of many fish came to be understood in greater detail. Books on fish, such as these on British, American, and Canadian fish were published and read by keen fisherman, as well as those interested in natural history and marine zoology. The books were often well illustrated with the most modern colour printing techniques. 


The practical difficulties of under water exploration left much unknown. The lure of this unknown and unpredictable world invited the imaginative to create stories about the creatures who lived there. A volume on the Octopus published as part a series on marine life was subtitled “The Devil Fish of Fiction and of Fact"! Fishermen’s yarns have a long held a place in the tradition of folk stories and histories. Books like Monsters of the Deep explored the traditions and legends of the sea, with entries on creatures like the sea-serpent.  The urge to tell fish tales continues today, as we see in the wonderfully titled An Angler’s Strange Experiences, … an Of-Fish-All Record without A-Bridge-Ment published in 1885 or the more recent Silken Lines and Silver Hooks published in 1954 in which "a Life-Long Fisherman Recounts his Catch".

Scientific discoveries were also found in books written specifically for the recreational fisherman.  The Scientific Angler  promised new and better methods, as well as offering tips on how to improve equipment. The book is full of plates illustrating hooks, rods, bait and flies, and instructing the reader on which is the best choice for a given fish. 
The desire for the latest and most advanced fishing gear is seen in this advertisement from Practical Hints on Angling in Rivers, Lakes, and Sea, which demonstrates the variety and choice of instrument available for purchase in London in 1904.

The brook trout fishing season opens this weekend in much of Ontario, and keen fishermen will be seen on banks and bushes trying their luck. Books on fishing abound from salty tales of sea serpents, to practical guides, to scientific tomes. For the avid fisherman, all may have something to offer in the patient pursuit of a fish.