Neil Travis - Nov 5, 2012

My nephew is a bibliophile when it comes to angling literature. Recently he loaned me a book from his extensive collection, a facsimile reproduction of The Experienced Angler printed in 1662 by Colonel Robert Venables. The subtitle of the book is Angling Improved, Being a general discourse of Angling. The original was printed for Richard Marriot, and were sold at his shop in St. Dunstan's Church-yard, Fleet Street.

Like many of the books on angling from this era it was not strictly a book about fly fishing. Venables fished with bait, but he was also a fly fisher. He described how to make your tackle and he referred to making a "fly rod long and light, easy to be managed with one hand, and casteth the fly far, which are to me the considerations chiefly to be regarded in a fly rod." This was at a time when most rods required two stout hands just to wield them, the lines were made of braided horse hair, and casting, as we know it today, was unknown. Rods made for fishing were similar to the Tenkara rods that coming into the vogue today in our country, except much heavier.

Interestingly, Venables makes mention of fish "rising at the fly" indicating that he may have been fishing flies on the surface. The following statement is most interesting: "All the fore-mentioned sorts of fish [he listed several species of fish including salmon, trout, graying] 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 in this your own observations must be your constant and daily instructor; for if they will not rise to the top, try them under, it being impossible, in my opinion, to give any certain rule in this particular."

Further he made the following observation: "You may also observe, what my own experience taught me, that the fish never rise eagerly and freely at any sort of fly, until that kind come to the water's side," Venables was obviously aware of the importance of waiting for the hatch before attempting to catch a fish on the surface.

Venables also noted that the angler could see what the fish were eating by careful observation. He wrote: "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; if divers sorts, and equal in number, try them all, and you will quickly find which they most desire." Good advice, even though it is over 300 years old.

In regard to artificial flies he wrote: "Let him [the fly tier] make one as like it as possible he can, in color, shape, proportion; and for his better imitation let him lay the natural fly before him." He went on to describe how to tie artificial flies describing many of the techniques and materials we still use today.

What I found most interesting was his list of fishing methods. "If the water be clear and low, then use a small bodied fly with slender wings. When the water begins to clear after rain, and is of a brownish color, then a red or orange fly. If the day be clear, then a light colored fly, with slender body and wings. In dark weather, as well as dark waters, you fly must be dark."

He gave advice about casting and hooking techniques. "Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish; therefore draw it back, and cast it again, that the fly may fall first. You must have a very quick eye, a nimble rod and hand, and strike with the rising of the fish, or he instantly finds his mistake, and forces out the hook again."

He described the ancillary equipment that the angler needed and how to make it. He described how to make a folder to hold things that the angler needed to carry on the water. "Take so much parchment as will be about four inches broad, and five long, make the longer end round, then take so many pieces more as will make five or six partitions, sew them all together, leaving the side of the longest square open, to put your lines, spare links, [leaders] hooks ready fastened, and flies ready-made, into the several partitions; this will contain much, and will also lie flat and close in your pocket."

"Have a little whetstone about two inches long, and one quarter square; it's much better to sharpen your hooks that a file, which either will not touch a well-tempered hook, or leave it rough but not sharp."

"Have a small pole, made with a loop at the end, like that of your line, but much larger, to which must be fastened a small net, to land great fish, without which, should you want assistance, you will be in danger of losing."

"Your pannier [creel] cannot be too light; I have seen some made of osiers, cleft into slender splinters, and so wrought up, which is very neat, and exceeding light: you must ever carry with you store of hooks, lines, hair, silk, thread, lead, links, corks of all sizes, lest you should lose or break, as in usual, any of them, and be forced to leave your sport in quest of supplies."

The final chapter of his little book contains a list of general observations, many of which you might find in a modern book on angling. Here are a few that I found very interesting.

  1. When you hook 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.
  2. The first fish you take, cut up his belly, and you may then see his stomach; it is known by its largeness and place, lying from the gills to the small gut; take it out very tenderly, if you bruise it, your labor and design are lost; and with a sharp knife cute it open without bruising, and then you may find his food in it, and thereby discover what bait the fish at that instant takes best, either flies or ground-baits, and so suit them accordingly.
  3. 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.


Á wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel – Proverbs 1:5, The Bible

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