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The Compleat Angler, Isaak Walton

Anglers talk of this book with reverence, or did so when I was in my teens.  Back then I can recall taking a look, and finding it rather impenetrable, written in an archaic style.

All of this is still true, but I found it an interesting read none the less.  There is certainly a lot of talk of different fishes, from salmon and trout through pike and perch to eel, roach, tench, carp, chub, minnows and “sticklebugs”.  For each he gives their habit, how to fish for them, and even how to cook them – and he has many recipes for the most coarse fish.

The real interest for me was in how accurate his observations can be, contrasted against how he had no idea of what happens to (what we now know to be) migratory birds during the winter, and the ideas of generation of fish from mud and slime, or geese from barnacles.  Some things, however, never change; he describes the chemical dosing of bait to better attract fish, and the secrecy of top anglers as to exactly how they construct their bait.

The book is structured as a dialogue between two men, known as Piscator (the narrator) and Venator, his student.  Complete with interludes where they sing songs in the inn, and donate the lesser of their catch to local farmer’s wives.  The initial chapter is more formal, as these two discuss the relative merits of their sports with two others in a structured style.

This style makes it hard to read, but you can pick up a feel for his life and nature from hints that drop – so many references to his angler friends who are now deceased, and his happiness and content to be, as he claims, of modest means and content with his lot.

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