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The Compleat Angler
by Izaak Walton
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

Window commemorating Izaak Walton in Winchester Cathedral

Izaak Walton, English author and angler, was born at Stafford on August 9, 1593, and until about his fiftieth year lived as a linen-draper in London. He then retired from business and lived at Stafford for a few years; but returned to London in 1650, and spent his closing years at Winchester, where he died on December 15, 1683, and was buried in the cathedral there. He married three times, wrote biographies and this most charming of all sporting books.

Abridged: JH

The Compleat Angler

The Virtues of Angling


Piscator. You are well overtaken, gentlemen! A good morning to you both! 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.

Venator. Sir, I, for my part, shall almost answer your hopes, for my purpose is to drink my morning's draught at the Thatched House. And, sir, as we are all so happy to have a fine morning, I hope we shall each be the happier in each other's company.

Auceps. Sir, I shall, by your favour, bear you company as far as Theobald's, for then I turn up to a friend's house, who mews a hawk for me. And as the Italians say, good company in a journey maketh the way to seem the shorter, I, for my part, promise you that I shall be as free and open-hearted as discretion will allow with strangers.

Piscator. I am right glad to hear your answers. I shall put on a boldness to ask you, sir, whether business or pleasure caused you to be up so early, for this other gentleman hath declared he is going to see a hawk that a friend mews for him.

Venator. Sir, I intend to go hunting the otter.

Piscator. Those villainous vermin, for I hate them perfectly, because they love fish so well, or rather destroy so much. For I, sir, am a brother of the angle.

Auceps. And I profess myself a falconer, and have heard many grave, serious men scoff at anglers and pity them, as it is a heavy, contemptible, dull recreation.

Piscator. You know, gentlemen, it is an easy thing to scoff at any art or recreation; a little wit mixed with all nature, confidence, and malice will do it; but though they often venture boldly, yet they are often caught, even in their own trap.

There be many men that are by others taken to be serious, and grave men, which we contemn and pity: men that are taken to be grave because nature hath made them of a sour complexion - money-getting men, men that are condemned to be rich; for these poor, rich men, we anglers pity them most perfectly. No, sir! We enjoy a contentedness above the reach of such dispositions.

Venator. Sir, you have almost amazed me; for though I am no scoffer, yet I have - I pray let me speak it without offence - always looked upon anglers as more patient and simple men than, I fear, I shall find you to be.

Piscator. Sir, I hope you will not judge my earnestness to be impatience! As for my simplicity, if by that you mean a harmlessness which was usually found in the primitive Christians, who were, as most anglers are, followers of peace - then myself and men of my profession will be glad to be so understood. But if, by simplicity, you mean to express a general defect, I hope in time to disabuse you.

But, gentlemen, I am not so unmannerly as to engross all the discourse to myself; I shall be most glad to hear what you can say in the commendation of your several recreations.

Auceps. The element I use to trade in, the air, is an element of more worth than weight; an element that doubtless exceeds both the earth and water; in it my noble falcon ascends to such a height as the dull eye of man is not able to reach to; my troop of hawks soars up on high, so that they converse with the gods.

And more, the worth of this element of air is such that all creatures whatsoever stand in need of it. The waters cannot preserve their fish without air; witness the not breaking of ice and the result thereof.

Venator. Well, sir, I will now take my turn. The earth, that solid, settled element, is the one on which I drive my pleasant, wholesome, hungry trade. What pleasure doth man take in hunting the stately stag, the cunning otter! The earth breeds and nourishes the mighty elephant, and also the least of creatures! It puts limits to the proud and raging seas, and so preserves both man and beast; daily we see those that are shipwrecked and left to feed haddocks; but, Mr. Piscator, I will not be so uncivil as not to allow you time for the commendation of angling; I doubt we shall hear a watery discourse - and I hope not a long one.

Piscator. Gentlemen, my discourse is likely to prove suitable to my recreation - calm and quiet.

Water is the eldest daughter of the creation, the element upon which the spirit of God did first move. There be those that profess to believe that all bodies are water, and may be reduced back into water only.

The water is more productive than the earth. The increase of creatures that are bred in the water is not only more miraculous, but more advantageous to man for the preventing of sickness. It is observed that the casting of Lent and other fish days hath doubtless been the cause of these many putrid, shaking agues, to which this country of ours is now more subject.

To pass by the miraculous cures of our known baths the Romans have made fish the mistress of all their entertainments; and have had music to usher in their sturgeons, lampreys, and mullets.

Auceps. Sir, it is with such sadness that I must part with you here, for I see Theobald's house. And so I part full of good thoughts. God keep you both.

Venator. Sir, you said angling was of great antiquity, and a perfect art, not easily attained to. I am desirous to hear further concerning those particulars.

Piscator. Is it not an art to deceive a trout with an artificial fly? A trout! more sharp-sighted than any hawk! Doubt not, angling is an art worth your learning. The question is rather, whether you be capable of learning it? Angling is like poetry - men are to be born so. Some say it is as ancient as Deucalion's flood, and Moses makes mention of fish-hooks, which must imply anglers.

But as I would rather prove myself a gentleman by being learned, and humble, valiant, and inoffensive, virtuous, and communicable, than by any fond ostentation of riches, or, wanting those virtues, boast these were in my ancestors, so if this antiquity of angling shall be an honour to this art, I shall be glad I made mention of it.

I shall tell you that in ancient times a debate hath arisen, whether the happiness of man doth consist more in contemplation or action?

Some have endeavoured to maintain their opinion of the first by saying that the nearer we mortals approach to God by way of imitation, the more happy we are. And they say God enjoys Himself only by a contemplation of His own infiniteness, eternity, power, goodness and the like.

On the contrary, there want not men of equal authority that prefer action to be the more excellent, such as experiments in physics for the ease and prolongation of man's life. Concerning which two opinions I shall forbear to add a third, and tell you, my worthy friend, that both these meet together and do most properly belong to the most honest, quiet, and harmless art of angling.

An ingenious Spaniard says that "rivers and the inhabitants thereof were made for wise men to contemplate, and fools to pass by without consideration."

There be many wonders reported of rivers, as of a river in Epirus, that puts out any lighted torch, and kindles any torch that was not lighted; the river Selarus, that in a few hours turns a rod to stone, and mention is made of the like in England, and many others on historical faith.

But to tell you something of the monsters, or fish, call them what you will, Pliny says the fish called the Balæna is so long and so broad as to take up more length and breadth than two acres of ground; and in the river Ganges there be eels thirty feet long.

I know we islanders are averse to the belief of these wonders, but there are many strange creatures to be now seen. Did not the Prophet David say, "They that occupy themselves in deep water see the wonderful works of God"; and the apostles of our Saviour, were not they four simple fishermen; He found that the hearts of such men, by nature, were fitted for contemplation and quietness - men of sweet and peaceable spirits, as indeed most anglers are.

Venator. Sir, you have angled me on with much pleasure to the Thatched House, for I thought we had three miles of it. Let us drink a civil cup to all lovers of angling, of which number I am now willing to count myself, and if you will but meet me to-morrow at the time and place appointed, we two will do nothing but talk of fish and fishing.

Piscator. 'Tis a match, sir; I will not fail you, God willing, to be at Amwell Hill to-morrow before sun-rising.

Master and Pupil

Piscator. Sir, I am right glad to meet you. Come, honest Venator, let us be gone; I long to be doing.

Venator. Well, let's to your sport of angling.

Piscator. With all my heart. But we are not yet come to a likely place. Let us walk on. But let us first to an honest alehouse, where my hostess can give us a cup of her best drink.

Seneca says that the ancients were so curious in the newness of their fish, that they usually did keep them living in glass-bottles in their dining-rooms, and did glory much in the entertaining of their friends, to have the fish taken from under their tables alive that was instantly to be fed upon. Our hostess shall dress us a trout, that we shall presently catch, and we, with brother Peter and Goridon, will sup on him here this same evening.

Venator. And now to our sport.

Piscator. This is not a likely place for a trout; the sun is too high. But there lie upon the top of the water twenty Chub. Sir, here is a trial of my skill! I'll catch only one, and he shall be the big one, that has some bruise upon his tail.

Venator. I'll sit down and hope well; because you seem so confident.

Piscator. Look you, sir! The very one! Oh, 'tis a great logger-headed Chub! I'll warrant he will make a good dish of meat.

Under that broad beech tree yonder, I sat down when I was last a-fishing; and the birds in the adjoining grove seemed to have a friendly contention with the echo that lives in a hollow near the brow of that primrose-hill. There I sat viewing the silver stream slide away, and the lambs sporting harmlessly. And as I sat, these sights so possessed my soul, that I thought as the poet hath it:

    "I was for that time lifted above earth;
     And possess'd joys not promised at my birth."

But, let us further on; and we will try for a Trout. 'Tis now past five of the clock.

Venator. I have a bite! Oh me! He has broke all; and a good hook lost! But I have no fortune! Sure yours is a better rod and tackling.

Piscator. Nay, then, take mine, and I will fish with yours. Look you, scholar, I have another. I pray, put that net under him, but touch not my line. Well done, scholar, I thank you.

And now, having three brace of Trouts, I will tell you a tale as we walk back to our hostess.

A preacher that was to procure the approbation of a parish got from a fellow preacher the copy of a sermon that was preached with great commendation by him that composed it; and though the borrower preached it, word for word, yet it was utterly disliked; and on complaining to the lender of it, was thus answered: "I lent you indeed my fiddle, but not my fiddlestick; for you are to know, everyone cannot make music with my words, which are fitted for my own mouth." And though I lend you my very rod and tacklings, yet you have not my fiddlestick, that is, the skill wherewith I guide it.

Venator. Master, you spoke very true. Yonder comes mine hostess to call us to supper; and when we have supped we will sing songs which shall give some addition of mirth to the company.

Piscator. And so say I; for to-morrow we meet again up the water towards Waltham.

Fish of English Streams

Piscator. Indeed, my good scholar, 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, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.

And when I see how pleasantly that meadow looks; and the earth smells so sweetly too; I think of them as Charles the Emperor did of the City of Florence; "that they were too pleasant to be looked on, but on holidays."

To speak of fishes; the Salmon is accounted the king of fresh-water fish. He breeds in the rivers in the month of August, and then hastes to the sea before winter; where he recovers his strength and comes the next summer to the same river; for like persons of riches, he has his summer and winter house, to spend his life in, which is, as Sir Francis Bacon hath observed, not above ten years.

The Pike, the tyrant of the fresh-waters, is said to be the longest-lived of any fresh-water fish, but not usually above forty years. Gesner relates of a man watering his mule in a pond, where the Pike had devoured all the fish, had the Pike bite his mule's lips; to which he hung so fast, the mule did draw him out of the water. And this same Gesner observes, that a maid in Poland washing clothes in a pond, had a Pike bite her by the foot. I have told you who relate these things; and shall conclude by telling you, what a wise-man hath observed: "It is a hard thing to persuade the belly, because it has no ears."

Besides being an eater of great voracity, the Pike is observed to be a solitary, melancholy and a bold fish. When he is dressed with a goodly, rich sauce, and oysters, this dish of meat is too good for any man, but an angler, or a very honest man.

The Carp, that hath only lately been naturalised in England, is said to be the queen of rivers, and will grow to a very great bigness; I have heard, much above a yard long.

The stately Bream, and the Tench, that physician of fishes, love best to live in ponds. In every Tench's head are two little stones which physicians make great use of. Rondeletius says, at his being in Rome, he saw a great cure done by applying a Tench to the feet of a sick man.

But I will not meddle more with that; there are too many meddlers in physic and divinity that think fit to meddle with hidden secrets and so bring destruction to their followers.

The Perch is a bold, biting fish, and carries his teeth in his mouth; and to affright the Pike and save himself he will set up his fins, like as a turkey-cock will set up his tail. If there be twenty or forty in a hole, they may be catched one after the other, at one standing; they being, like the wicked of this world, not afraid, though their fellows and companions perish in their sight.

And now I think best to rest myself, for I have almost spent my spirits with talking.

Venator. Nay, good master, one fish more! For it rains yet; you know our angles are like money put to usury; they may thrive, though we sit still. Come, the other fish, good master!

Piscator. But shall I nothing from you, that seem to have both a good memory and a cheerful spirit?

Venator. Yes, master; I will speak you a copy of verses that allude to rivers and fishing:

     Come, live with me, and be my love,
     And we will some new pleasures prove;
     Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
     With silken lines, and silver hooks.

     When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
     Each fish, which every channel hath,
     Most amorously to thee will swim,
     Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.

     Let others freeze with angling reeds,
     And cut their legs with shells and weeds,
     Or treacherously poor fish beget
     With trangling snare or windowy net;

     For thee, thou need'st no such deceit,
     For thou, thyself, art thine own bait,
     That fish, that is not catched thereby
     Is wiser far, alas, than I!

Piscator. I thank you for these choice verses. And I will now tell you of the Eel, which is a most dainty fish. The Romans have esteemed her the Helena of their feasts. Sir Francis Bacon will allow the Eel to live but ten years; but he mentions a Lamprey, belonging to the Roman Emperor, that was made tame and kept for three-score years; so that when she died, Crassus, the orator, lamented her death.

I will tell you next how to make the Eel a most excellent dish of meat.

First, wash him in water and salt, then pull off his skin and clean him; then give him three or four scotches with a knife; and then put into him sweet herbs, an anchovy and a little nutmeg. Then pull his skin over him, and tie him with pack-thread; and baste him with butter, and what he drips, be his sauce. And when I dress an Eel thus, I wish he were a yard and three-quarters long. But they are not so proper to be talked of by me because they make us anglers no sport.

The Barbel, so called by reason of his barb or wattles, and the Gudgeon, are both fine fish of excellent shape.

My further purpose was to give you directions concerning Roach and Dace, but I will forbear. I see yonder, brother Peter. But I promise you, to-morrow as we walk towards London, if I have forgotten anything now I will not then keep it from you.

Venator. Come, we will all join together and drink a cup to our jovial host, and so to bed. I say good-night to everybody.

Piscator. And so say I.

Walking Homewards

Piscator. I will tell you, my honest scholar, I once heard one say, "I envy not him that eats better meat, or wears better clothes than I do; I envy him only that catches more fish than I do."

And there be other little fish that I had almost forgot, such as the Minnow or Penk; the dainty Loach; the Miller's-Thumb, of no pleasing shape; the Stickle-bag, good only to make sport for boys and women anglers.

Well, scholar, I could tell you many things of the rivers of this nation, the chief of which is the Thamisis; of fish-ponds, and how to breed fish within them, and how to order your lines and baits for the several fishes; but, I will tell you some of the thoughts that have possessed my soul since we met together. And you shall join with me in thankfulness to the Giver of every good and perfect gift for our happiness; which may appear the greater when we consider how many, even at this very time, lie under the torment, and the stone, the gout, and tooth-ache; and all these we are free from.

Since we met, others have met disasters, some have been blasted, and we have been free from these. What is a far greater mercy, we are free from the insupportable burden of an accusing conscience.

Let me tell you, there be many that have forty times our estates, that would give the greatest part of it to be healthful and cheerful like us; who have eat, and drank, and laughed, and angled, and sung, and slept; and rose next day, and cast away care, and sung, and laughed, and angled again.

I have a rich neighbour that is always so busy that he has no leisure to laugh. He says that Solomon says, "The diligent man makest rich"; but, he considers not what was wisely said by a man of great observation, "That there be as many miseries beyond riches, as on this side them."

Let me tell you, scholar, Diogenes walked one day through a country fair, where he saw ribbons, and looking-glasses, and nut-crackers, and fiddles, and many other gimcracks; and said to his friend, "Lord, how many things are there in this world Diogenes hath no need!"

All this is told you to incline you to thankfulness: though the prophet David was guilty of murder and many other of the most deadly sins, yet he was said to be a man after God's own heart, because he abounded with thankfulness.

Well, scholar, I have almost tired myself, and I fear, more than tired you.

But, I now see Tottenham High Cross, which puts a period to our too long discourse, in which my meaning was to plant that in your mind with which I labour to possess my own soul - that is, a meek and thankful heart. And, to that end, I have showed you that riches without them do not make a man happy. But riches with them remove many fears and cares. Therefore, my advice is, that you endeavour to be honestly rich, or contentedly poor; but be sure your riches be justly got; for it is well said by Caussin, "He that loses his conscience, has nothing left that is worth the keeping." So look to that. And in the next place, look to your health, for health is a blessing that money cannot buy. As for money, neglect it not, and, if you have a competence, enjoy it with a cheerful, thankful heart.

Venator. Well, master, I thank you for all your good directions, and especially for this last, of thankfulness. And now being at Tottenham High Cross, I will requite a part of your courtesies with a drink composed of sack, milk, oranges, and sugar, which, all put together, make a drink like nectar indeed; and too good for anybody, but us anglers. So, here is a full glass to you.

Piscator. And I to you, sir.

Venator. Sir, your company and discourse have been so pleasant that I truly say, that I have only lived since I enjoyed it an turned angler, and not before.

I will not forget the doctrines Socrates taught his scholars, that they should not think to be honoured for being philosophers, so much as to honour philosophy by the virtue of their lives. You advised me to the like concerning angling, and to live like those same worthy men. And this is my firm resolution.

And when I would beget content, I will walk the meadows, by some gliding stream, and there contemplate the lilies that take no care. That is my purpose; and so, "let the blessing of St. Peter's Master be with mine."

Piscator. And upon all that are lovers of virtue, and be quiet, and go a-angling.

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