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Fishing from the Old Testament to the New Year

Fishing from the Old Testament to the New Year

Ron Cousins encourages us to take up angling and provides us with some fireside reading for those chilly February and March evenings with some cultural references to fishing through the ages...


The oft quoted statement from Samuel Johnson – the 18th century poet and writer regularly hailed as the most distinguished man of letters in English history – that “a fishing rod is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other” has done little to stop angling growing into the world’s biggest participant sport.

In fact, the good doctor wasn’t really original with his assessment as a century earlier Niort-born Jeanne Guyet included in her writings that “la ligne, avec sa canne, est un long instrument, dont le plus mince bout tient un petit reptile, et dont l’autre est tenu par un grand imbecile.” Imbeciles or not, we anglers have been around a long time.

There’s fishing in the bible, and it goes back a long way. In the book of Job a question is asked that in a more up to date form you can hear at the waterside today: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” And even if your Latin is a bit rusty you will have to agree that the advice given by Publius Ovidius Naso – better known to his fans as Ovid – is good for the 21st century angler. This Roman poet, who wielded his pen a few years before Christ was born, took time off from his erotic writing to “semper tibi pendeat hamus quo minime credas gurgite, piscis erit.” For any non-angler reading this, the translation is: “Ever let your hook be hanging where you least believe it; there will be a fish in the stream.”

Fishing was pretty popular in the 16th century if William Shakespeare’s writing is any guide.

In H.N.Ellacombe’s 1883 work 'Shakespeare as an Angler', the vicar and antiquarian reveals that in between writing Britain’s greatest plays, Shakespeare fished most of the rivers from Gloucestershire to Warwickshire. And didn’t the great man himself also write that “there is a river in Macedon and there is a river in Monmouth and there are salmon in both”?

The Bard of Avon also made other references to angling in his plays. In 'Antony and Cleopatra' the Roman politician and general Marcus Antonius was subject to a trick – sometimes played on modern-day anglers – when Cleopatra’s maid of honour, Charmian, says to her: “Twas merry when you wagered on your angling; when your diver did hang a salt-fish on his hook, which he with fervency drew up.” In Act 2 of the tragedy there is more mention of fishing: “Give me mine angle, we’ll to the river: there, my music playing far off, I will betray tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce their slimy jaws...”

The Stratford wordsmith is at it again in 'Much Ado About Nothing' with “the pleasant’st angling is to see the fish cut with her golden oars the silver stream, and greedily devour the treacherous bait”; and he also manages a mention in the gloom of King Lear when Edgar, one of the few still breathing when the final curtain falls, says, “Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.”

Shakespeare’s sometime fishing buddy, poet John Dennys, also helped introduce angling to a wider audience when the popular balladeer completed 'The Treatise of Angling': the first poetic treatise of the sport. 

A serious PR boost for angling came in the 17th century when Izaac Walton wrote 'The Compleat Angler', one of the best selling books of all time. He first put quill to paper in 1653 and updated his work over five editions. By 1683, when he became – as he had written in the book – “an excellent angler, and now with God”, the original 13 chapters had grown to 21. The book has been read the world over ever since and has fired the first urge to take up a rod in countless readers of all ages.

The whole spirit of fishing was summed up by Walton when he wrote, "We may say of angling as Dr Boteler said of strawberries: 'Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did'; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent a recreation than angling.”

Charles Dickens recognised Walton’s worldwide fame almost 200 years later when he used his name in 'A Tale of Two Cities' to – rather unflatteringly – compare bank porter Jerry Cruncher’s night time occupation as a 'resurrection man', removing bodies from graves to sell to medical students, to fishing.


Old Izaac would have been happier with another 19th century writer: Washington Irving. This American is best known for 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'; but in his 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent' you can find The Angler – a character sketch of Walton – that did much to spread the great man’s name and the love of angling among our stateside cousins.

America, where one person in six goes fishing, has certainly taken angling’s most famous writer to heart because among his many appearances on the printed page, he features in sci-fi writer Howard Waldrop’s 1980s short story 'God’s Hooks'; and, at around the same time, in David James Duncan’s book 'The River Why'. This brilliant fishing-themed novel, responsible for more recruits to the angling ranks, was made into a film starring William Hurt a few years ago. The plot revolves around a fishing-mad family where 'The Compleat Angler' is the most revered tome in the house; the husband, a fly fisherman, and his wife – who prefers to bait fish – quote from it while arguing about whose fishing is best.

Along with the 'fool and worm' slur on the good name of angling goes the idea that all fishermen exaggerate, if not blatantly lie, about their catches. This totally false accusation hasn’t been helped by the so-called 'Angler’s Prayer':

“Lord, suffer me to catch a fish

So big that even I   

When speaking of it afterwards

May have no need to lie.”

Definitely not written by an angler, but repeated on millions of coffee mugs to perpetuate the myth!

Jerome K Jerome may have boosted the popularity of the River Thames back in the 1920s with his 'Three Men in a Boat', but the anglers lining the banks wouldn’t have been so happy with him after he wrote that “some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous – almost of pedantic – veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.” Well, I suppose he does credit us with skill of some kind, unlike the American journalist Don Marquis who, around the same time, wrote that “fishing is a delusion entirely surrounded by liars in old clothes.”

In the second decade of the 21st century, fishing still goes from strength to strength, drawing new recruits from all walks of life and now helped by celebrity endorsements. Robert Redford’s beautifully crafted film 'A River Runs Through It' sent the numbers of people taking up fly fishing soaring. Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson and Kevin Costner are just three more of the familiar silver screen faces who spend their leisure time casting over the water, while guitar god Eric Clapton is as handy with a fishing rod as he is with a plectrum.

Among the professional sportsmen who fish are Tiger Woods, Ian Botham and Nick Faldo. When Marco Pierre White is away from the kitchen he is fly fishing; and Jeremy Paxman’s confrontational interviewing style is a front for this dedicated trout angler. Vladimir Putin is keen on all kinds of fishing, while after a year in office Barack Obama was signed up with a fly casting instructor so that he could get away from the Presidential pressures with a few hours fishing. The British Royal Family fish, and Prince Philip is patron of the country’s governing body for the sport: The Angling Trust.

If you’ve ever thought about trying fishing, do it now. There’s no better place than Poitou-Charentes, with thousands of miles of beautiful rivers, canals and lakes of all sizes that can be fished for a modest outlay on the annual Carte de Pêche. Call into a fishing tackle shop for some advice and information, or into the local tourist office to find out about the fishing schools that take place throughout the region during spring and summer.

And don’t forget: you don’t need to catch fish to enjoy a day’s fishing. The motto of The Fly Fishers Club sums it up: "Piscatum non solum Piscator" – there’s more to fishing than catching fish. Indeed, not long ago a man and woman fished the rainbow trout lake at Rutunda Log Cabins in Kenya without success. The woman wrote in the visitors' book: “Thank you for such a wonderful day. Sadly no fish to be found, but we had great fun trying.” What Kate Middleton didn’t mention was that Prince William had proposed to her and the result will be an angling wedding at Westminster Abbey on 29th April!

Address book

An online fishing channel where you can see what this sport is all about: 

A great insight to taking up fly fishing with loads of advice on the tackle required:   

Loads of information about all kinds of fishing in France:   

Also, take a look at the fishing videos on You Tube; some are really informative.


© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. Published 2008.