Aelian Lives

March 10, 2011 By: Paul Schullery

AelianMANY TIMES in my long, checkered career as a fly fisher, I have openly and willfully resisted the fishing advice of my betters. I found their wisdom somehow annoying. The last thing I wanted was someone bugging me with common sense. I just wanted to go out there and thrash around until I worked my way through all this arcane stuff on my own.

But most of the time during the past 30 years, I couldn’t seem to get enough of the experts and their ever-optimistic promotions about how I could be as good a fisherman as they were. And, though reading several hundred fishing books has had an intellectual impact rather like listening to the same bluegrass album turned up really loud fifty times in a row, I did learn a lot.

And yet, what has worked best for me—what has taught me more about how to catch fish, to say nothing about why I might want to—has been studying fishing history.

I would be interested in learning about fishing history even if it didn’t make me a better fisherman, but it has. It has because the long view—the generous sweep of history—rarely fails to reveal the continuity of good ideas and the accumulation of careful observation. History sorts out the silly, highlights the durable, and honors the brilliant. (And if you happen to enjoy the silly, history will acquaint you with it at its best.) No single modern book, and no single run of modern magazines, can equal that breadth of thought and theory. It doesn’t matter how old the fly fishing is. I’m still learning from the oldest fly-fishing writing we have.

But I have to overcome a lot of prejudice to do it. We fishermen get pretty set in our ways, and pretty sure of ourselves. Consider John Waller Hills’s congenial “A History of Fly Fishing for Trout” (1921), a recognized historical “classic” if ever there was one. Hills started by evoking a misty and irrelevant past. He pointed out (rather condescendingly, I thought) that in the second century A.D., a “Roman author” left “an account of fly fishing for a fish, apparently a trout, in a river in Macedonia.” The name of the author, Claudius Ælianus (whom we now familiarly call Aelian) was even relegated to a footnote. Hills dismissed this seminal fly-fishing episode as meaningless to us today because it had no connection to “the true history of fly fishing,” which, according to Hills, began with the publication of the British “Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle,” in 1496.

What entertains me about Hills’s approach is that he found it so easy to admit that though we fly fishers have a known history of about 1,800 years, the first 1,300 years didn’t matter. Luckily, a lot of people have taken a more penetrating view. Within the past 30 years or so, dozens of writers, mostly in England and Europe, have gone back to Aelian’s brief account. They’ve theorized not only about what river he might have been fishing (no consensus here), but also about what fish species it was (consensus: a trout) and, most of all, about what insect was being imitated and what the imitation looked like (consensus: we just don’t know, but some of us would like to think we do). Some of these people have risked life and limb traveling through a lot of unfamiliar country trying to figure all this out. That alone might make us wonder if Aelian is worth paying attention to.

So let’s listen to him for a minute. Aelian said, “I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Berœa and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astræus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians. These fish feed on a fly peculiar to the country, which hovers on the river.”

He then devoted a couple hundred words to the natural history of the insect, how the fish feed on it, and how unsuitable such a fragile insect was as bait. He explained that the local fishermen solved this problem by tying a fly. (It has been pointed out by students of this episode that Aelian never actually said that the fishermen were tying their artificial to imitate the actual insect he had just described.)

They fasten red (crimson red) wool round a hook, and fix on to the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in colour are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the colour, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to get a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive.

Eighty years ago, when Hills dismissed this story as trivial, it was probably easy enough to agree with him that it was “interesting rather than important.” But as more and more smart people studied it, and studied European angling history generally, it started to sound a little more important. Now I think it’s really important, and not just because the exact nature of the Macedonian fly itself has become one of the major mystery stories in fly-fishing lore.

Two of these new researchers, medievalists Willy Braekman and Richard Hoffmann, came to my attention about 20 years ago. They, especially Hoffmann, a professor of history at York University, Toronto, have published a number of previously unknown early documents on fly fishing prior to the time of the Treatyse. (Hoffmann’s numerous articles and one remarkable book have done more to reshape and clarify our understanding of the origins of fly fishing than any other writer, ever.)

The effect of having real historians take on fishing history was profound: Hills was not only wrong in announcing that the Treatyse was the beginning; he was way wrong. It soon became clear that there were local fly-fishing traditions scattered around Europe centuries earlier. North-central Europeans were fond of the vederangel(feathered hook) at least as early as A.D. 1200, and the documentation did not suggest that such usage was necessarily new even then. The documentary trail gets fainter as it gets older, but Hoffmann’s work reduced a 1,300-year blank space in fly-fishing history to 1,000 years, and gave some of us reason to assume that it could be further reduced as research continued.

Meanwhile, other writers reminded us of the survival of traditional fly-fishing practice in various isolated regions around Europe. These were traditions that involved noticeably Aelianesque tackle: rods with no reels, short lines, and straightforward hackled wet flies of the most utilitarian design. They were also traditions carried on by people with no particular interest in the literary end of the sport—people quite unlikely to leave a written record of their fishing.

Angling historians began to put these local stories together with what was already known. We already knew, for example, that in 1897, G. E. M. Skues, who would later become one of the 20th century’s most influential angling writers, visited Bosnia, where he was outfished by locals using just such minimal gear (with four-fly casts). These guys hadn’t learned to fish from the British, or from outdoor magazines; they had inherited their approach from nobody knew how many previous generations of locals just like them.

Other similarly local fly fishers have gradually come to our attention. In northwestern Italy, a style of this fishing known as alla Valsesiana employed similarly uncomplicated gear (with longer rods), and dated back beyond local memory. Other local practices are known to have thrived, either until well into this century or even until now, in Serbia and Spain. (The best summary of these pockets of local fishing tradition is in Andrew Herd’s “The Fly,” published in 2001 and certainly the most thorough and entertaining history of fly fishing.) I imagine there were, or are, others.

I enjoyed watching Richard Hoffmann whittle a few centuries off the front end of gap between the Treatyse and Aelian. But it wasn’t until I’d read some of these other writers—the chaps who were wandering around Europe with old maps trying to rediscover ancient drainages and obscure regional fishing techniques—that it suddenly dawned on me what was happening here. Whether they meant to or not, these guys were erasing the entire gap. Even without locating actual documentation of people fishing in each century between A.D. 200 and A.D. 1200, they were offering a plausible scenario for how fly fishing survived, mostly through local practice, mostly at the hands of illiterates who might have fished both for subsistence and fun, and entirely without leaving an obvious trace.

It’s a terribly satisfying scenario. For at least two thirds of the past 1,800 years, fly fishing thrived without all the social trappings and status that now surround it. It survived without tackle companies, international celebrities, books and magazines, ESPN, and certainly without history nerds like me rooting around in its traditions, trying to understand where we came from. Fly fishing survived because it was a good idea. It didn’t need literary celebration. It was just something you did.

Best of all, it worked really well. It had to, or most of these people wouldn’t have had time to fool with it. The writers who have been exploring all this history have urged us not to see these unnamed and unheralded fly fishers as rustics or primitives. They knew their rivers by living on them; they knew their tackle because they relied on it. They could outfish a young G. E. M. Skues in 1897, and I’ll bet their ancestors a thousand years ago could have, too.

Imagine how many of these anglers, on how many rivers, made wonderful discoveries, accumulated lifetimes of wisdom to pass on to their children, and had richer lives for the rivers they fished. No doubt much of this happened in the brutal social and political environment that the so-called Dark Ages are still famous for (medievalists discarded the term long ago for its inaccuracy and oversimplicity), but maybe the river lightened the mood of all that misery, a little, now and then.

Imagine as well all the lost learning in such a localized set of traditions. Here in one drainage, a few generations of men may have put together just the right combination of ingredients for the best flies and techniques possible. But unsupported (and unencumbered) by any written record, the craft was easily lost or set back. As Andrew Herd has put it, “Who knows what knowledge was painfully gained, only to be snatched away by plague, war or famine?” Who knows, besides that, how many, many times such knowledge was lost and regained?

On the other hand, who knows what knowledge did get recorded, by some literate member of this early angling society, or by some casual observer, or by some other forgotten Aelian? As I’ve pointed out before, even the compiler of the information in the Treatyse credited much of its instruction to earlier “books,” and those books (if they were not just an affectation, invoking pretend authority to heighten the Treatyse’s own) may not themselves have been without written sources. Our homework isn’t done.

The success of these traditional fly fishers has made me think more about how I fish. Several of the descriptions of their descendants, fishing in the past century or so, celebrate the extreme efficiency and deadliness of short, quick casts and brief drifts through the pocket water of small mountain streams. This was a game played up close. You didn’t reach out; you crept up.

That all sounded good to me. I fish mostly in places like that. As impressed as I have been by fishermen I know who make heroically long, elegant casts, I have been even more impressed by the ones who eased up so close to the fish that all they cast was the leader. This past summer, under the influence of Aelian and his heirs, these lessons have soaked in all over again, and I find myself eyeing each rock and pool from a different angle than I did before. I’m fishing leaders more than I have for years.

Thanks to all this new information, I also think about the origins of the sport differently. I don’t assume that just because Aelian told us about some fly fisher in Macedonia 1,800 years ago, that must be where and when it started. Actually, I don’t assume it started in any one place, and as far as Macedonia goes, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was already an ancient practice there when Aelian heard about it. These days the mood among the European fly-fishing historians is that the sport most likely found its way to England from these older angling communities, and I enjoy the reversal of stature that such a scenario delivers to Hills’s snooty view of himself as the heir of a purely British invention. It’s obviously a much more involved story than that.

In fact, I’ve wondered for some time now if fly fishing isn’t such an intuitively sensible practice that it might have started (and winked out, and started again) in many places over the centuries. Once hooks were readily made, why not? After all, Andrew Herd points out that “anecdotal evidence makes it seem probable that fly fishing was known in Japan as early as the late eighth and ninth centuries B.C.” Who’s to say it wouldn’t have been invented again and again, flourishing here and there, wherever fish will rise, until it finally fell into the hands of literate people who claimed it for their own and quickly forgot where they got it.