Old-Fashioned Angling

by Captain R. Bird Thompson

Angling is, I think, one of the most popular of British field sports; certainly, for one book written about any other kind, there must be half-a-dozen on the subject of fishing. I met lately with a most amusing old book on the "Art of Angling," published in 1801; and illustrated with very quaint old wood engravings of both fresh and sea water fish. It commences with a long anatomical and physiological description of fish, giving an account of their habits, method of feeding, &c. For this last the author draws considerably on his own imagination. For instance, he declares that mussels and oysters open their shells for the purpose of catching crabs, closing them when one creeps in, and thus securing their prey. The oyster also is declared to change sides with each tide, lying with the flat shell uppermost one time, and the convex the next. After this the author goes regularly through the alphabet, treating everything connected with fresh-water angling under its respective initial letter.

I suppose that at this time there were few, if any tackle shops, for most elaborate directions are given for making lines. These were to be of horse hair, and twisted in a "twisting instrument," whatever that was. The hair was to be with the top of one to the tail of the other, so that every part might be equally strong, and turned slowly, so as to allow it "to bed" properly; the different lengths were to be tied together either "by a water knot, or Dutch knot, or a weaver's." The line was to taper, beginning with three hairs down to a single one, where the hook was whipped on.

The rod, as a matter of the greatest importance, is duly treated. The wood was to be procured between the middle of November and Christmas Day; the stock or butt to be made of ground hazel, ground ash, or ground willow, not more than two or three feet long. The wood chosen to be that which shot directly from the ground—not from any stump—and every joint beyond was to taper to a top made preferably of hazel, though yew, crab, or blackthorn might be used. If it had any knots or excrescences, which were to be avoided if possible, they must be removed with a sharp knife. Five or six inches of the top were to be cut off, and a small piece of round, smooth, taper whalebone spliced on with silk and cobbler's wax, and the whole finished with a strong noose of hair to fasten the line to. This was for an ordinary rod; the best sort was made as follows:—A white deal or fir board, thick, free from knots, and seven to eight feet long, was to be procured, and a dexterous joiner was to divide this with his saw into several breadths; then with a plane to shoot them round, smooth, and rush-grown or taper. One of these would form the bottom of the rod, seven or eight feet long in the piece. To this was fastened a hazel six or seven feet long, proportioned to the fir; this also rush-grown, and it might consist of two or three pieces, to the top of which a piece of yew was to be fixed about two feet long—round, smooth, and taper; and, finally, a piece of round whalebone, five or six inches long. Some rings or eyes were to be placed on the rod in such a manner that when you laid your eye to one, you could see through all the rest. A wheel or winch must be fixed on, about a foot from the end of the rod, and, as a finish, a feather dipped in aqua fortis was passed over it, so as to make it a pure cinnamon colour. "This," the author adds, "will be a curious rod if artificially worked!"

The subject of fly-making, and how and when to use flies, is treated most exhaustively—no less than twenty-four pages being devoted to the subject. The materials named for fly-dressing are very good indeed, and very much the same as used now; but when the author tries to explain the actual method of using them he utterly fails. Anyone who attempted to tie flies in the way explained would produce most extraordinary specimens.

The author has taken very great pains, not only in naming the flies to be used each month, but the actual time of day for them, and the hours between which they must be used. Worms for bait are described and named with great exactness, and the best way to catch and keep them, also how best to scour them previous to use. I think, however, the method recommended for scouring one kind would be too much for any but a very enthusiastic angler—namely, to put them in a woollen bag, and keep them in your waistcoat pocket. Few persons could stand that, I think.

Many recipes for different sorts of pastes are given, but it is hard to believe that any fish would take them—"bean flour, the tenderest part of a kitten's leg, wax and suet beaten together in a mortar," scarcely sounds alluring; neither does a mixture of "fat old cheese (the strongest rennet), suet, and turmeric," appear to be very nice. To any of these pastes you may add "assafœtida, oil of polypody of the oak, oil of ivy, or oil of Peter." Well, I do not suppose that they would make much difference.

A great number of recipes for unguents, to smear over the worms used so as to make them more attractive, are given; and most extraordinary they are:—assafœtida, three drachms; camphire, one drachm; Venice turpentine, one drachm; beaten up with oils of lavender and camomile, is one recipe. Another is, "mulberry juice, hedgehog's fat, oil of water-lilies and oil of pennyroyal," mixed together; but the most elaborate one is as follows:—"Take the oils of camomile, lavender, and aniseed, of each a quarter of an ounce; heron's grease and the best of assafœtida, each two drachms; two scruples of cummin seed finely beaten to powder; Venice turpentine, camphire, and galbanum, of each a drachm; add two grains of civet and make into an unguent. This must be kept close in a glazed earthenware pot, or it loses much of its virtue; anoint your line with it and your expectation will be abundantly answered. Some anglers, however, place more confidence in a judicious choice of baits and a proper management of them, than in the most celebrated unguents." I think the concluding paragraph is delightful. I suppose it did at length dawn on the author's mind that people might object to carrying about such hideously stinking compositions.

The angler is told that "his apparel must not be of a light or shining colour, but of a dark brown, fitting closely to the body, so as not to fright the fish away." The impediments to our anglers' recreation are named. "The fault may be occasioned by his tackle, as when his lines or hooks are too large, when his bait is dead or decaying. If he angles at a wrong time of day, when the fish are not in the humour of taking his bait. If the fish have been frightened by him or with his shadow. If the weather be too cold. If the weather be too hot. If it rains much or fast. If it hails or snows. If it be tempestuous. If the wind blows high or be in the east or north. Want of patience and the want of a proper assortment of baits." Anglers are also warned "never to fish in any water that is not common without leave of the owner, which is seldom denied to any but those that do not deserve it." Another direction is given that would greatly horrify any Blue Ribbon army man who might see it, namely, "if at any time, you happen to be over-heated with walking or other exercise, you must avoid small liquors as you would poison, and rather take a glass of brandy, the instantaneous effects of which in cooling the body and quenching drought are amazing."

The laws as to angling and fishing generally are quoted at considerable length and seem most of them to be aimed at preventing immature fish being taken and preserves damaged. The penalties did not err on the side of clemency. By 5th Elizabeth, destroying any dam of any pond, moat or stew, &c., with intent to take the fish, was punished with three months' imprisonment and to be bound to good behaviour for seven years after; also by 21st Elizabeth, "no servant shall be questioned for killing a trespasser within his master's liberty who will not yield; if not done out of former malice. Yet if the trespasser kills any such servant it is murder."

I fancy the following, if carried out now, would rather astonish many fish dealers in the city of London:—"Those that sell, offer, or expose to sale or exchange for any other goods, bret or turbot under sixteen inches long; brill or pearl under fourteen; codlin twelve; whiting six; bass and mullet twelve; sole, plaice, and dab eight; and flounder seven, from their eyes to the utmost extent of the tail; are liable to forfeit twenty shillings, by distress, or to be sent to hard labour for not less than six or more than fourteen days, and to be whipped." I suppose most, if not all, of these enactments are now repealed, but if not, and they were enforced, a considerable sensation would be created by them.

One paragraph is very remarkable, as showing that over ninety years ago, the same views were promulgated, relating to the profit that might be obtained from fish in ponds, as have been brought forward in the Times and other papers during recent years. Our author says: "It is surprising that, considering the benefit which may accrue from making ponds and keeping of fish, it is not more generally put in practice. For, besides furnishing the table and raising money, the land would be vastly improved and be worth forty shillings an acre; four acres converted into a pond will return every year a thousand fed carp from the least size to fourteen or fifteen inches long, besides pike, perch, tench, and other fish. The carp alone may be reckoned to bring one with another, sixpence, ninepence, or perhaps twelvepence apiece, amounting at the lowest rate to twenty-five pounds, and at the highest to fifty, which would be a very considerable as well as useful improvement." Exactly; this has been written and pointed out in the papers year after year.

There are wood-cuts of every fish and full directions how to angle for them. For pike, trolling, live baiting, fishing with frogs, are all lengthily described; and also a curious sort of spinning, the motion being caused by cutting off one of the fins close to the gills and another behind the vent on the contrary side. I am sorry to say the author winds up by full directions for snaring and snatching.

It seems curious to be told that good places for roach fishing are by Blackfriars, Westminster and Chelsea Bridges, or by the piles at London Bridge; but that the best way by far was to go below the bridges and fasten your boat to the "stern of any collier or other vessel whose bottom was dirty with weeds," to angle there, as "you would not fail to catch many roach, and those very fine ones." The sailors on board colliers must have been a very different set in those days from what they are now. I fancy anyone trying to tie his boat to the stern of a collier, whether for fishing or any other purpose, would have a pretty hot time of it. The Thames, of course, is mentioned as one of the rivers where salmon were caught, though the localities are not named. Exact particulars are given for fishing for eels, but in those days they must have been a very amiable sort of fish, not at all like the obstinate and perverse creatures they are now, if they allowed themselves to be caught by sniggling in the way mentioned. You were to "get a strong line of silk and a small hook bated with a lob worm; next get a short stick with a cleft in it, and put the line into it near the bait; then thrust it into such holes as you suppose him to lurk in. If he is there, it is great odds that he will take it." The stick was then to be detached from the line and the eel allowed to gorge the bait. You were not to try and draw him out hastily, but to give him time to tire himself out by pulling. All I can say is, that if anyone ever managed to get an eel out in this way he must have had an uncommon share of luck. My own experience shows me that when an eel gorges your bait and gets into his hole, it is quite hopeless to attempt to get him out, and the only plan is to pull until something gives way, and that is never the eel, but usually your hook, and sometimes the line.

Our author having given every kind of advice and direction about angling, adds the following admonition:—"Remember that the wit and invention of mankind were bestowed for other purposes than to deceive silly fish, and that, however delightful angling may be, it ceases to be innocent when used otherwise than as a mere recreation"; and he winds up all he has to say about fresh-water angling thus:—"The editor having gone through the English alphabet, takes the liberty to tell gentlemen that the best way to secure fish is to transport poachers." A very wise piece of advice, no doubt much acted on in those days.

In the second part of the book, devoted to sea fish, no directions are given for fishing, but merely descriptions of them, and very curious some of these are. We are told of dolphins, that "they sleep with their snouts out of water," and that "some have affirmed that they have heard them snore; they will live three days out of water, during which time they sigh in so mournful a manner as to affect those with concern, who are not used to hear them."

Another fish, the "sea-wolf, taken off Heligoland, is a very voracious animal, and well furnished with dreadful teeth. They are so hard that if he bites the fluke of an anchor you may hear the sound and see the impression of his teeth." Certainly the engraving of it makes it an awful-looking thing, with a body like a codfish and an enormous head, with a huge mouth full of teeth like spikes. When the herring fishery is mentioned, it is curious that the author gives a full account of the Dutch fishery but passes over the English with a very brief notice. The account of the former is remarkable. Their vessels were a kind of barque called a buss, from forty-five to sixty tons burden, carrying two or three small cannon; none were allowed to steer out of port without a convoy unless they carried twenty pieces of cannon amongst them all. What can have been the use of this regulation I cannot imagine. A pirate would never attack a fishing-boat, and against a vessel of war they would have been useless. The regulations for fishing were very distinct. No man was to cast his net within 100 fathoms of another's boat; whilst the nets were cast, a light was to be left in the stern; if a boat was by any accident obliged to leave off fishing, the light was to be thrown into the sea, and when the greater part of the fleet left off fishing and cast anchor, the rest were to do the same.

Of the English fishery, the date of its commencement, the size of the nets and the names of the different sorts of herrings are merely given; these names are very curious, I wonder whether they are known on the coast now. Six sorts are given,—the Fat Herring, the largest and best; the Meat Herring, large, but not so thick as the first; the Night Herring, a middle-sized one; the Pluck, which has been hurt in the net; the Shotten Herring, which has lost its spawn; and the Copshen, which by some accident or other has been deprived of its head. When the whale fishery is mentioned, here too the description given relates entirely to the Dutch. As to the English it only says that in 1728 the South Sea Company began to work it with pretty good success at first, but that it dwindled away until 1740, when Parliament thought fit to give greater encouragement to it. The discipline in the Dutch whale fleet seems to have been very good; the following are some of the standing regulations:—In case a vessel was wrecked and the crew saved, the first vessel they met with was to take them in and the second half of those from the first, but were not obliged to take in any of the cargo; but if any goods taken out of such vessel are absolutely relinquished and another ship finds and takes them, the captain was to be accountable to the owner of the wrecked ship for one-half clear of all expenses. If the crew deserted any wrecked vessel, they would have no claim to any of the effects saved, but the whole would go to the proprietor. However, if present when the effects were saved and they assisted therein, they would have one-fourth. That if a person piked a fish on the ice, it was his own so long as he left anyone with it, but the minute he left it, the fish became the property of the first captain that came along. If it was fastened to the shore by an anchor or rope, though left alone it belonged to its first captor. If any man was maimed or wounded in the Service, the Commissioners of the Fishery were to procure him reasonable satisfaction, to which the whole fleet were to contribute. They likewise agreed to attend prayers morning and evening, on pain of a forfeit at the discretion of the captain; not to get drunk or draw their knives on forfeiture of half their wages, nor fight on forfeiture of the whole. They were not to lay wagers on the good or ill-success of the fishing, nor buy or sell with the condition of taking one or more fish on the penalty of twenty-five florins. They were likewise to rest satisfied with the provisions allowed them and never to light candle, fire, or match, without the captain's leave on the like penalty. These regulations were read out before the voyage commenced and the crew were then called over to receive the customary gratuity before setting out and were promised another on return in proportion to the success of the voyage. The vessels went north leaving Iceland on the left, to parallel 75°, but some, the author says, ventured as far as 80° or 82°. I fancy he had rather vague ideas on the subject of North latitude, as it was not until 1827 that Sir E. Parry reached 82°, the farthest point north ever attained up to that time.

Amongst other fish "stock fish" is mentioned, which is described as "cod fish caught in the North of Norway by fishermen who cut holes in the ice for the purpose. On hooking one, as soon as they pulled it out, it was opened, cleaned, and then thrown on the rocks where it froze and became as hard as a deal board, and never to be dissolved. This the sailors beat to pieces, often calling it fresh fish, though it may have been kept seven years and worms have eaten holes in it." But if the letter-press is curious, the engravings with which the book is illustrated are still quainter. The fish, whether minnows or salmon, reach the same length; the only difference being made in their breadth, even the whale is merely represented as rather thicker and with two little men with axes in their hands walking on it. The author undoubtedly took great pains in compiling his work, and in spite of all eccentricities there are many hints and suggestions that are useful even nowadays.