Fishing with Izaak Walton
By Marjorie Swann
The Compleat Angler opens with a man seeking companionship on a journey. “You are well overtaken, Gentlemen,” Izaak Walton’s alter-ego Piscator (Fisherman) exclaims as he catches up with Venator (Hunter) and Auceps (Falconer) north of London. “I have stretched my legs up Tottenham-hill to overtake you, hoping your business may occasion you towards Ware whither I am going this fine, fresh May morning.” Since it was first published more than three and a half centuries ago, many readers have responded to Walton’s narrative by attempting to follow in the footsteps of Piscator and his friends.
At first glance, the task of emulating these seventeenth-century anglers seems both pleasant and simple. Walton’s vacationing Londoners wander appreciatively through beautiful countryside, discuss topics ranging from fishing techniques to the meaning of life, go angling, share favorite poems and songs, and then eat their freshly caught fish — prepared to Piscator’s Top Chef standards — while simultaneously increasing their blood-alcohol levels. But readers’ quests to imitate Piscator — to become, like Venator, a member of the “Brotherhood of the Angle” — have, ironically, created a subgenre of stories of Walton-induced misadventure. In William Chatto’s The Angler’s Souvenir (1835), after days of fruitless attempts to land a trout in increasingly bad weather, a novice angler catches nothing but a cold; confined to his digs and rummaging through his trunk for a book to read, the ailing would-be fisherman “lays his hand on Walton, which, in savage mood, he throws to the other side of the room, wishing the good old man … at a place where it is to be hoped no honest angler ever will be found.” Some American wanna-be Piscators have likewise met with frustration instead of trout. In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1820), Washington Irving recounts how his narrator, inspired by “the seductive pages of honest Izaak Walton,” utterly fails to re-enact The Compleat Angler in the Hudson River valley: “I hooked myself instead of the fish; tangled my line in every tree; lost my bait; broke my rod; until I gave up the attempt in despair, and passed the day under the trees, reading old Izaak.” And as Nick Redgrove has recently documented, twenty-first-century attempts to emulate Piscator and his disciples are further complicated by the profound environmental changes which have rendered much of the original setting of Walton’s story unrecognizable.
Millions of people in the UK and US go fishing each year, and the experience of angling which Walton celebrates in The Compleat Angler – recreational fishing as the source of enhanced fellowship with both the natural world and humanity — is still successfully pursued on both sides of the Atlantic. The earliest copy-cat sequel to Walton’s narrative appears in the fishing treatise that the Staffordshire squire Charles Cotton wrote to accompany the fifth edition of The Compleat Angler (1676). In this pioneering text (the first angling manual devoted to fly-fishing), Cotton casts himself as “Piscator Junior,” a devoted follower of Walton who meets a Londoner travelling through the Peak District; upon learning that this stranger is none other than Venator, Piscator Junior persuades his new acquaintance to spend some time at Beresford Hall (Cotton’s family seat on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border) and learn how to fish in Cotton’s beloved River Dove. Today, you can retrace the journey of Piscator Junior and his companion through the rugged terrain of the Peak and marvel at Hanson Toot, a hill so steep that Venator thinks he’s in the Alps, and the bridge at Milldale that’s so narrow “a mouse can hardly go over it.” Beresford Hall is long gone, but the stone fishing house that Cotton built to honor his friendship with Walton still stands, carefully preserved, beside the River Dove, and you can enjoy a pot of tea in this magical little building — the architectural embodiment of Cotton’s love of angling, Dove Dale, and Izaak Walton — while you fish for the descendants of the wily trout pursued centuries ago by Piscator and his self-styled “son.”
Other fans of Walton have enjoyed much more success than Geoffrey Crayon in emulating Piscator on American soil. Inspired by Walton’s depiction of a “Brotherhood” of conservation-minded anglers, a group of Chicago businessmen founded the Izaak Walton League of America in 1922. The first mass-membership conservation organization in the United States, the Izaak Walton League has, since its inception, advocated a keen respect for ecology. When developers planned to drain the watershed of a three-hundred-mile-long stretch of the Upper Mississippi in the early 1920s, the Izaak Walton League successfully pressured the federal government to convert the threatened area into a congressionally financed wildlife preserve instead. Today, with more than 43,000 members in 240 chapters across the United States, the League continues its grassroots efforts to “conserve, restore, and promote the sustainable use and enjoyment of our natural resources, including soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife.”
The Izaak Walton League of America has now returned to — and helps to sustain — its origins in the English countryside. The only chapter of the League based outside the US was founded in 2002 to help preserve Izaak Walton’s cottage in rural Staffordshire. Walton was born and raised in Stafford, and in the 1650s he bought property near his hometown, including a sixteenth-century cottage at Shallowford. Today, this picturesque thatched, half-timbered cottage, surrounded by a delightful garden of herbs and roses, houses a museum devoted to Walton and the history of angling. The Cottage Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, registered as a charity in both the UK and the US, publishes an award-winning newsletter and works to support and promote the museum. When The Compleat Angler first appeared in 1653, Izaak Walton could not have imagined that he was begetting a global “Brotherhood of the Angle” that would endure into the twenty-first century, but Walton would surely be gratified that in 2014, readers of his book in Britain and beyond continue to find “pleasure or profit” in the story of Piscator.
Marjorie Swann, Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is the author of Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England. She has edited a new edition of The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton for Oxford World’s Classics and is now writing a book about Walton’s Angler and its post-seventeenth-century afterlives.
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Image credits: Both images courtesy of William M. Tsutsui. Do not reproduce without permission.