Fly Fishing History- the Overlooked Venables
For any who were hoping that this article would be about a forgotten or overlooked trout stream, a paradise for adventuresome fly fishers, you may be disappointed. The “Overlooked Venables” that I am referring to is Colonel Robert Venables, not a trout stream. He was an English gentleman who authored “The Experienced Angler”, published in 1667.
Fly fishers with an interest in fly fishing history quickly recall Walton’s “The Compleat Angler”, and Dame Juliana Berners’ “A Treatyse of Fysshyng Wyth an Angle”. But after reading Venables’s work, I feel that history has treated him poorly, and that he belongs in the pantheon of fly fishing literaries, along with Walton and “the Dame”.
Let’s begin with an examination of the two better known works, starting with “The Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle”. It is generally attributed to a nun, Dame Juliana Berners, the Benedictine prioress of Sopwell. She authored a similar work on hunting, which was published in the first book of St Alban’s in 1486. The Treatyse was published in the second book of St Alban’s in 1496. It was unsigned, which has led to speculation over the true authorship. Nonetheless, the fly fishing world at large has fondly accepted “the Dame” as the author of the first English publication on the sport of angling.
The format used was followed by fly fishing authors for several centuries. It begins with a comparison of angling to the other “gentlemen sports”. Angling of course ranks as superior to hunting, hawking or fowling (trapping). After justification of the sport, it continues with detailed instructions on the making of the necessary tackle. This included a wooden rod, a horsetail fly line, hooks, sinkers, floats and artificial flies.
Given its primal position in the fly fishing literature, it may surprise you to learn that the Treatyse is only 23 pages long! And of these, just three are given to instructions on fishing. Only one page is devoted to trout fishing. It included the use of worms, minnows, living flies and artificial flies. There is one additional page providing the recipes for the now famous twelve artificial flies.
The Dame’s instructions begin as follows-
“Understand that there are six ways of angling.- The sixth is with an artificial fly for the trout and grayling. And for the first and principal point in angling, always keep yourself away from the water, from the sight of the fish, either far back on the land or else behind a bush, so that the fish may not see you. For if they do, they will not bite. Also take care that you do not shadow the water any more than you can help, for that is a thing which will soon frighten the fish. And if a fish is frightened, he will not bite for a long time afterward.”
“Here I will declare to you in what place of the water you must angle. You should angle in a pool or in standing water, in every place where it is at all deep. In a river, you must angle in every place where it is deep and clear at the bottom, as in gravel or clay without mud or weeds, and especially if there is a kind of whirling of water or covert- such as a hollow bank or great roots of trees or long weeds floating above in the water- where the fish can cover and hide themselves at certain times when they like.”
“Now you must know what time of the day you should angle. From the beginning of May until it is September, the biting time is early in the morning; and in the afternoon from four o’clock until eight o’clock, but this is not so good as in the morning.”
“Here you should know in what weather you must angle: as I said before, in a dark, lowering day when the wind blows softly. And in the summer season when it is burning hot, then it is useless. From September until April in a fair, sunny day, it is right good to angle.”
“From April to September the trout leaps; then angle for him with an artificial fly appropriate to the month.”
She then provides the recipes for twelve flies, two for March, April, May and July, three for June, and one for August. All have feather wings, while the bodies are made of wool. Below is a picture of a fly tied in this fashion.
“The Compleat Angler”
It was over one hundred and fifty years before the next significant book on the sport of angling was published, “The Compleat Angler”. It was authored by Isaak Walton, in 1653. It’s a charming read, written as a dialogue between Piscator, the fisherman, and Viator, a non-fisherman. Their discussions are rather wide ranging, the common thread being a celebration of the bucolic life of the 17th century, English gentleman. It is replete with poems and songs. One of the pleasures is of course angling, and Piscator takes it upon himself to teach Viator how to fish.
According to Arnold Gingrich, an angling scholar, there are nearly 400 editions of “The Compleat Angler”. For the purposes of my discussion, I am going to divide them into two groups. The first four editions, published between 1653 and 1676, and all subsequent editions, which include the chapters written by Charles Cotton.
Walton was not actually a trout fisherman, much less a fly fisherman. He therefore invited Cotton to write the chapters pertaining to trout and fly fishing for the fifth edition. It is this edition, and all subsequent editions, that fly fishers are most familiar with. Cotton is credited with many original observations. But Venables wrote his book, “The Experienced Angler”, in 1667. It was published after the first edition of “The Compleat Angler”, but well before the renowned fifth edition. I hope to demonstrate that Venables added far more to the angling literature than did Cotton, and that many of Cotton’s “original observations” were not so original.
In the first edition of “The Compleat Angler”, Walton begins his instructions with-
“And having told you these observations concerning trouts, I shall next tell you how to catch them: which is usually with a worm, or a minnow, or with a fly, either natural or an artificial flie.”
After catching several trout, Piscator gives the luckless Viator his rod, after which he observes-
“Though you have my fiddle, that is my very rod and tacklings with which you see I catch fish, yet you have not my fiddle stick, that is, skill to know how to carry your hand and line; and this must be taught you (for you are to remember I told you Angling is an art) either by practice, or a long observation, or both.”
Not being a trout fisherman, Walton credits the following instructions to a Mr. Thomas Barker. His first instruction emphasizes a light or fine presentation of the fly.
“Let your rod be light and gentle, – if you can attain to angle with one haire; you will have more rises, and catch more fish.”
He continues with-
“Cast to have the wind on your back, and sun (if it shines) to be before you, and to fish down the streame, and carry the point or tip of the rod downward; by which meanes the shadow of yourselfe, and rod too will be the least offensive to the fish, for the sight of any shadow amazes the fish, and spoiles your sport, of which you must take a great care.”
Next he discusses how to make an artificial fly, and instructs Viator to “match the hatch”.
“I confess, no direction can be given to make a man of a dull capacity able to make a flye well; and yet I know, this, with a little practice, wil help an ingenuous Angler in a good degree.”
“An ingenuous Angler may walk by the river and mark what fly falls on the river that day, and catch one of them, – and having always hooks ready hung with him and a bag of hackles, silk, wool – and if he hit to make his flie right, and have the luck to hit also where there is store of trouts, and a right wind, he shall catch such store of them, as will encourage him to grow more and more in love with the Art of flie-making.”
He then concludes with some final instructions on fly fishing-
“You are to take notice that the fish lies, or swims nearer the bottom in winter than in summer, and also nearer the bottom in any cold day. And let me again tell you, that you keep as far from the water as you can possibly, whether you fish with a flie or worm, and fish down the stream; and when you fish with a flie, if it be possible, let no part of your line touch the water, but your flie only. And now, Scholer, my direction for fly-fishing is ended with this showre.”
A bit later he adds two more insightful comments-
“You are to know, there is night as well as day-fishing for a trout, and that then the best are out of their holds, and the manner of taking them is on top of the water with a great lob or garden worm.”
“As affirmed by Sir Francis Bacon, that waters may be the medium of sounds; and it shall be a rule for me to make as little noise as I can when I am fishing.”
Summ of literature, prior to Venables-
So let’s summarize the angling literature, specifically angling for trout with an artificial fly, as of 1653. Fly fishing is but one of six methods, and only used sometimes in April through September, if and when the “trout are leaping”. They are to be fished with stealth, avoiding direct sight, shadow and sound. The tackle should be as fine as possible, down to one horse hair for best results. If possible, imitate the flies for which the trout are leaping. The method of fishing is what we today call Tenkara. This consists of a long rod (13-15 feet) with a short line attached to the tip, cast downstream, with sun in front and wind behind. The trout will be found in deep water, along banks, and around downed trees. In the summer, fish early and late, and in winter, fish when warmest. And finally, the “big boys” come out at night.
“The Experienced Angler”
Now let’s look at what Venables contributed to the literature in his book,“The Experienced Angler”.
He is the first to depart from the Dame’s instructions to match the fly with the month, and appreciates that at least some of the flies are aquatic insects. He also understands that the flies are specific to certain streams or water types.
“But I must here beg leave to dissent from the opinion of such who assign a certain fly to each month, whereas I am certain, scarce any one sort of fly continues its colour and virtue one month; and generally all flies last a much shorter time, except the stone fly, which is bred of the water cricket, creeps out of the river, and getting under the stones by the water side, turns to a fly.”
“Besides the season of the year may much vary the time of their coming in; a forward Spring brings them in sooner, and a late Spring the later.”
“Further also I have observed, that several rivers and soils produce several sorts of flies peculiar to them; yet some sorts are common to all these sorts of rivers and soils, but they are few, and differ somewhat in clolour from those bred elsewhere in other soils.”
He continues with a fairly long discussion of “matching the hatch”, and recognizes that it takes a bit of time for trout to adjust to a change in fly hatches-
“You may also observe that the fish never rise eagerly and freely at any sort of fly, until that kind come to the water’s side; for though I have often, at the first coming in of some flies, which I judged they liked best got several of them, yet I could never find that they did much, if at all value them, until those sorts of flies began to flock to the rivers sides, and were to be found on the trees and bushes there in great numbers.”
“When you come first to the river in the morning, with your rod beat upon the bushes or boughs which hang over the water, and by their falling upon the water you will see what sorts of flies are there in greatest numbers.”
“The first fish you take, cut up his belly, and then you may find his food in it, and thereby discover what bait the fish at that instant takes best.”
“Sometimes they change their fly, though not very usual, twice or thrice in one day; but ordinarily they do not seek another sort of fly till they have for some days even glutted themselves with a former kind, which is commonly when these flies die and go out.”
He then begins a discussion that continues to this day-
“But the angler, as before directed, having found the fly which the fish at present affect, let him make one as like it as possibly he can, in COLOR, SHAPE, and PROPORTION.”
And provides further direction on tying a fly-
“When you try how to fit your colour to the fly, wet your fur, hair, wool, or moecado, otherwise you will fail in your work; for though when they are dry, they exactly suit the clolour of the fly, yet the water will alter most colours, and make them lighter or darker.”
Next is presentation, and for the first time he documents that flies can be fished subsurface, in the film, as well as dry.
“The fore-mentioned fish will sometimes take the fly much better at the top of the water and at another time much better a little under the superficies of the water.”
And here another first, fishing upstream-
“And here I meet with two different opinions and practices, some will always cast their fly and bait up the water, and so they say nothing occurs to the fish’s sight but the line; others fish down the river, and so suppose, the rod and line being long, the quantity of water takes away, or at least lessens the fish’s sight; but others affirm, that rod and line, and perhaps yourself, are seen also.”
He continues with where trout are found and how they feed-
“The trout is found in small purling brooks, or rivers that are very swift, behind a stone, a log or some small bank, and there he lieth watching for what comes down the stream, and suddenly catches it up.”
And he observes what we might consider the precursors of “the San Juan Shuffle”-
“When shepherds or countrymen wash their sheep, though while they are washing, the fish will bite exceedingly well.” And, “When cattle in summer come into the fords, their dung draws the fish to the lower end of the ford, and you will have sport.”
He emphasizes a natural, life-like presentation of the fly, here describing “dibbing”-
“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.”
And continues, reflecting further upon the importance of size and color-
“If you angle in a river that is mudded by rain, you must use a larger bodied fly than ordinary, which argues, that in clear rivers the fly must be smaller; and this not being observed by some, hinders their sport, and they impute their want of success to their want of the right fly, when perhaps they have it, but made too large.”
“If the day be clear, then a light coloured fly, with slender body and wings. In dark weather, as well as dark waters, your fly must be dark.”
He concurs with the Dame and Walton regarding the best months and time of day to fish, but then adds-
“Fish rise best at the fly, after a shower that has not mudded the water, yet has beaten the gnats and flies into the rivers.” And, “Also after the river is cleared from a flood, they rise exceedingly well; they now covet the fly, having wanted it a time.”
Some more sage advice-
“When you angle for the trout, you need not make above three or four trials in one place, either with fly or ground-bait, for he will then either take it, or make an offer, or not stir at all, and so you lose time to stay there any longer.”
And lastly, how to play a good fish-
“When you have hooked a good fish, have an especial care to keep your rod bent, lest he run to the line, and break your hook, or his hold.”
With the information now at hand, I invite you to read the fifth or any subsequent edition of Walton and Cotton’s “The Compleat Angler”, and Robert Venable’s “The Experienced Angler”. I think that you will concur that while Walton and Cotton are superior literary authors. But our “overlooked” author/angler, Robert Venables, contributed far more to our understanding of trout behavior, the life cycle and role of aquatic flies, the making of effective imitative flies, and how to fish them.
written by Allan Simpson, June, 2014. edited November, 2018.