“Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”-Norman Maclean
Though Maclean writes of an age-old focus of all anglers—the day’s catch—he may as well be speaking to another, deeper accomplishment of the best fishermen and fisherwomen: the preservation of natural resources.
Backcasts celebrates this centuries-old confluence of fly fishing and conservation. However religious, however patiently spiritual the tying and casting of the fly may be, no angler wishes to wade into rivers of industrial runoff or cast into waters devoid of fish or full of invasive species like the Asian carp. So it comes as no surprise that those who fish have long played an active, foundational role in the preservation, management, and restoration of the world’s coldwater fisheries. With sections covering the history of fly fishing; the sport’s global evolution, from the rivers of South Africa to Japan; the journeys of both native and nonnative trout; and the work of conservation organizations such as the Federation of Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited, Backcasts casts wide.
Highlighting the historical significance of outdoor recreation and sports to conservation in a collection important for fly anglers and scholars of fisheries ecology, conservation history, and environmental ethics, Backcasts explores both the problems anglers and their organizations face and how they might serve as models of conservation—in the individual trout streams, watersheds, and landscapes through which these waters flow.
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A Global History of Fly Fishing and Conservation
By Samuel Snyder, Bryon Borgelt, Elizabeth Tobey
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Trout and Fly, Work and Play, in Medieval Europe
Richard C. Hoffmann
Schîonatulander mit einem vederangel vienc äschen und vörchen, die wîl sie las ... Schîonatulander ... vische mit dem angel vienc, dâ er stuont ûf blôzen blanken beinen durh die küele in lûtersnellem bache.
[Schîonatulander caught grayling and trout with a "feathered hook," while she read ... Schîonatulander ... caught fish with the hook, standing there bare-legged in the cool of the clear, quick brook. (Author's translation)]
About 1217–20 CE, Middle High German epic poet Wolfram von Eschenbach depicted a fictive noble youth, Schîonatulander, a scion of the Grail dynasty, on an outing with his girlfriend, Sigune, cousin to King Arthur. While she sat on the bank reading and playing with a dog, he waded barelegged in a cool, clear stream to catch trout and grayling with a vederangel, medieval German for an artificial fly. This may be the oldest depiction of a leisured fly fisher catching trout.
The scene of Schîonatulander angling poses a curious historical problem of understanding not in present-day terms, which is deceptively easy, but in terms of medieval culture, the evolving behaviors and ideas of Europeans between the sixth and sixteenth centuries. What is going on here? In shaping an answer I start from three essential components — fly, play, and trout — and then move out to the broader histories of medieval fisheries and the idea of outdoor "sport." There, I want to observe two historic phenomena: (1) how the knowledge of the natural world embodied in Schîonatulander's fishing drew on the now nearly effaced traditional experience of nature by people who fished for a living, as work; and (2) how in the last medieval centuries some select parts of this knowledge began to be moved from storage in memories and transmission by voice to texts, written and soon printed, meant to define uplifting play in the natural world. My overall thesis is that cultures of medieval Europe knew fly fishing, trout, "sport," and "conservation," but not in their close present-day relationship. Only at the end of the Middle Ages did some new connections emerge.
A Long Tradition of Fishing with a Fly
Nothing is said of the artificial fly in the thousand years after Roman essayist Ælian (ca. 170–230 CE), who provided a now well-known hearsay description of Macedonians binding red wool and wax-colored feathers to a hook to catch speckled fish that were eating a certain insect. Wolfram's sudden portrayal of the sporting young fly fisher Schîonatulander (and his earlier allusion to the deceitful vederangel) initiated a slow rise in late medieval references to fly fishing. The artificial fly became a well-documented practice for catching trout and grayling in upland central Europe, England, northern Italy, and Spain.
Fly fishing in central Europe is so far traceable through passing references in legal and political records, such as the right confirmed in 1360 to a householding couple at Lambach on the Traun in upper Austria to fish with the fly even outside their regular license on the local abbey's waters. A political tract falsely attributed to the late Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund circulated in 1439 at the reformist church council of Basel; it called for free access to small waters for passage and fishing with the vederangel. Legal historian Hermann Heimpel cogently argues that fly fishing was understood as the common man's ultimate right of access for subsistence fishing in private waters owned by a lord.
Since the 1490s, moreover, several surviving German collections of fish-catching advice include recipes for making vedern. Within a century a hundred different fly patterns were documented. Pioneering Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner reported in his 1558 Latin volume on fishes that "Certain skillful fishers fabricate diverse kinds of worms and winged insects from feathers of birds in various seasons of the year, and place such bait on the hook: for grayling ... and for trout...." These, however, "change for the various seasons of the year...." He then offers six flies of the month covering April through September for each species.
The next oldest run of evidence for medieval fly fishing has its start in English manuscript and printed texts from the mid-fifteenth century. An anonymous tract called "Medicina piscium" in Oxford's Bodleian Library anticipates the thinking of Gessner's booklet:
And iff ye fisch for hym in the lepyng tyme ye must dubbe your hoke with the federys of a pecock or with the federys of a pertriche or with the federysse of a whyld doke and ye must lok what colowr þat the fley is þat þe trowght lepythe aftir and ye same colowre must the federisse be and the same colour must the sylke be of for to bynde the federysse to your hoke.
Similar views are differently expressed in a roughly contemporary tract in British Library MS Harley 2389. These mid-century English tracts are both older and independent of another English textual tradition which culminated in the anonymous but now well-known "Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle," which Wynkyn de Worde printed in the second Boke of St. Albans in 1496. The dozen named patterns for "dubs" recommended for trout and grayling remained until 1620 — the last new English references to the artificial fly.
Modern ethnography points to a tradition of fly fishing in northern Italy, although no manuals survive. Historical evidence relies so far upon a single work of art, a triptych altarpiece which Jacopo da Bassano (ca. 1510–92) painted for the parish church of Borgo del Grappa near Treviso (Veneto) in 1538. The artist grew up and then still lived in nearby Bassano, a town on the mountain-fed Brenta River. One panel of his altarpiece depicts San Zeno, a late Roman missionary and bishop of Verona, who allegedly caught fish to feed the poor. Late medieval iconography customarily shows San Zeno with a fish dangling from his pastoral staff or even from a robust rod and line. Jacopo, however, depicted the saint in full episcopal regalia holding a long, thin rod with a line from which dangle three artificial flies, one with a grayling still attached. Sadly the dearth of Italian scholarly interest in medieval and early modern rural life means that local legal records or manuscript collections remain unexplored. Thus scholars lack the supporting evidence for Italy that appears in similar English and German sources.
Finally, a well-established Spanish tradition of fly fishing for trout burst into the historical record with Fernando Basurto's Dialogo, a literary discussion between a noble hunter and a commoner fisher printed at Zaragoza in 1539. Ecological and cultural aspects of Basurto's work are treated elsewhere; the concern now is his clear portrayal of fly fishing for trout. Having in the practical section of the dialogue treated tackle, baits, and other species, the fisher tells how he had caught trout using natural insects and then goes on to their imitations:
The feather of the capon or duck or of another bird called a buñal is a very excellent bait for trout in the months of April, May, June, July, and August in clear water and swift streams. But note that the feather by itself is worth nothing if it is not tied to the body of some flies made of the same color of silk, at times yellow, at times brown, and at other times black, because these are the colors of the same flies that the trout eat in the streams evening and morning. And you should know that in different months there run different flies in the streams. And to find out in those rivers where there are trout, you must put yourself by the stream and look at the color of the fly that flies there and take it alive....
The old fisher instructs his protégé how to make these objects and to choose "feathers" for use when the trout are not rising, then continues:
With the feather one must fish, as I said, in swift streams without lead and without float but with the feather alone, throwing down the stream and going up the stream with reasonable speed so that the feather goes along the top of the water to the upper part of the stream, for in such a manner the trout eat real flies and so we fool them with artificial ones.
In a technical sense this considerable medieval record of fly fishing, established in three and perhaps four European linguistic cultures, thus achieved its epitome in the explicit and independent statements of imitative theory found in "Medicina piscium" and MS Harley 2389 and the printed books by Basurto and Gessner. On more than purely literary grounds, then, we may surmise that the technique practiced by Schîonatulander was familiar to at least some early-thirteenth-century and later audiences. Nothing in the early historical record, however, offers fly fishing as a novelty, invention, or distinctively recreational or conservation-oriented method.
Fishing for Fun
Fishing as a recreational activity has a broad, if obscure and neglected, history throughout the poorly documented medieval centuries before and the ever-better reported ones after 1200. In the summer of the year 831 and again in 834, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 813–35), son of Charlemagne, set aside governmental affairs to enjoy hunting and fishing around Remiremont in the Vosges. In an eleventh-century romance, a prince, Ruodlieb, twice goes fishing at a lake with friends "for fun" (ludant atque iocarentur). The latter fictional characters secured their catch with a seemingly magical powder called buglossa, an herb with chemical properties paralyzing to fish.
A real mid-twelfth-century young nobleman, the cleric Gui of Bazoches, wrote home to his mother that he was "dedicated to his games and studies" (Et ludis datus et studiis). In a somewhat later letter he explained to friends that having left Paris (due to some scandal), he spent more than a year at his uncle's small rural castle near Rumigny where he alternated devotion to his studies with "play in the out of doors" (ludere camporum nunc per aperta libet) at "lighter games" (leuibus nunc seria ludis), namely hunting, fowling, and fishing. When the season was right and he wanted "to fool fishes by various means" (pisces uariis ludificare modis), he used hook and line, nets, and the seine to take seven local fish varieties and so refresh a mind weary from the world and intellectual effort. By then more figures of high medieval literature were also fishing for fun. Among them was the "Fisher King" of the Grail cycle of chivalric romances, whose wounds prevented his hunting as a "pastime." Thirteenth- to fourteenth-century French works present a fictionalized poet Ovid catching inland fishes with nets, hooks, a seine, and traps.
Sketches and palace murals dating between the 1360s and 1410s in Verona, in the castle at Pavia, and at Castel Roncolo (Runkelstein) near Bolzano in south Tirol depict men and women in elite costume angling and catching fish in nets. So did a tapestry made in 1402 for Queen Isabeau of France and a panel painting of the court of Holland on an angling outing. In 1440 Doña Blanca, Infanta of Navarra, traveled to Valladolid to wed Prince Enrique, heir to the throne of Castile. To relieve the journey her escort, the Count of Haro, entertained her for three days with jousting, hunting, and fishing in a pond specially stocked with large trout and barbel for her pleasure. Beatrice d'Este, wife of Milanese Duke Ludovico Sforza (r. 1479/94–1505), herself fished with nets on a country outing and the court then picnicked on her catch of pike, lamprey, and other species.
The Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1493–1519) also enthusiastically engaged in fishing. Concerned for the aquatic resources of his lands, in 1504 he instructed his hunting office use reports of his Fischmeister, Martin Fritz, and compile a Fischereibuch von Tirol und Gorz, so that he could evaluate "such fisheries regarding use and pleasure" (solher vischwaiden allzeit zu nuetz und lust). Officials organized the finished product by regions and bodies of water and embellished it with six illustrative scenes of Maximilian and his court hunting and fishing. Each of the many entries identifies the fish varieties available in the water and indicates whether it might better serve the emperor's table (nutz) or entertainment (lust). The lake at Ambras, with its pike, carp, bream, and tench, was lustiger because its vicinity to the Innsbruck residence meant it could be fished with a net as pastime while hunting deer. The Himmersbach at Wiesen bei Rinn "has good trout and the prince may have fun there fishing with a small hand net and angling rod." The Emperor's Tirolean servants plainly thought he would enjoy fishing with everything from seines and traps to rod and line and for species from gudgeon and minnow to grayling, trout, and pike. Angling, however, is mentioned only as a means to pursue lust. Courtiers shown with rod in hand wave it over the water without weight on the line as speckled fish leap about. Maximilian further displayed his lust for fishing in his autobiographical Weisskönig, where woodcuts specially commissioned for his personal copy show the emperor angling in the midst of other fishing activities.
Encounters with Trout in the Middle Ages
Present-day taxonomists endlessly debate the lumping or splitting of the many highly variable and diverse European members of genus Salmo not salar. Because speakers of medieval European vernaculars referred to any spotted, torpedo-shaped freshwater fish as a "trout," we shall do the same. Still, early medieval texts rarely differentiated among generic pisces (fishes).
Medieval Europeans ate trout all across the fish's wide range. Trout bones occur in food waste from sites of early and central medieval date in northern Italy, along the southern Baltic coast and its hinterland, at the Cluniac abbey at La-Charité-sur-Loire, in central England, and at several monastic and lay sites in Ireland. Even from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, on which less zooarchaeology has been done, trout remains have turned up in latrines of castles from English county Durham to the Danube below Vienna, and urban sites from Otranto on Italy's heel to Orleans in central France. This is despite (1) the elevated fat content of salmonid bones, which reduces their survival in most archaeological contexts; and (2) the difficulty of identifying archaeological salmonid bones to species level, which inclines archaeozoologists to label large specimens salmon and smaller ones trout.
Excerpted from Backcasts by Samuel Snyder, Bryon Borgelt, Elizabeth Tobey. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword: Looking Downstream from A River
Jen Corrinne Brown
Introduction. A Historical View: Wading through the History of Angling’s Evolving Ethics
Part One: Historical Perspectives
1 Trout and Fly, Work and Play, in Medieval Europe
Richard C. Hoffmann
2 Piscatorial Protestants: Nineteenth-Century Angling and the New Christian Wilderness Ethic
3 The Fly Fishing Engineer: George T. Dunbar, Jr., and the Conservation Ethic in Antebellum America
Part Two: Geographies of Sport and Concern
4. Protecting a Northwest Icon: Fly Anglers and Their Efforts to Save Wild Steelhead
5 Conserving Ecology, Tradition, and History: Fly Fishing and Conservation in the Pocono and Catskill Mountains
6 From Serpents to Fly Fishers: Changing Attitudes in Blackfeet Country toward Fish and Fishing
7 Thymallus tricolor: The Michigan Grayling
Part Three: Native Trout and Globalization
8 “For Every Tail Taken, We Shall Put Ten Back”: Fly Fishing and Salmonid Conservation in Finland
9 Trout in South Africa: History, Economic Value, Environmental Impacts, and Management
10 Holy Trout: New Zealand and South Africa
11 A History of Angling, Fisheries Management, and Conservation in Japan
Part Four: Ethics and Practices of Conservation
12 For the Health of Water, Fish, and People: Women, Angling, and Conservation
Gretel Van Wieren
13 Crying in the Wilderness: Roderick Haig-Brown, Conservation, and Environmental Justice
14 The Origin, Decline, and Resurgence of Conservation as a Guiding Principle in the Federation of Fly Fishers
15 It Takes a River: Trout Unlimited and Coldwater Conservation
Conclusion. What the Future Holds: Conservation Challenges and the Future of Fly Fishing
Jack Williams and Austin Williams
Chris Wood, CEO, Trout Unlimited
Appendix. Research Resources: A List of Libraries, Museums, and Collections Covering Sporting History, Especially Fly Fishing