The first American fly-fishing story? Washington Irving's "The Angler"
I'm no expert on the history of fly-fishing, nor on fishing literature or nature writing. I am certainly an interested, passionate student who is willing to share what I learn on the Storied Waters tour, which will be a total immersion in both fly-fishing our most famous waters and writings thereabout. (Let's hope this is a figurative immersion, not a literal one.)
So where did all this writing about fishing begin?
Way back in 1496, Dame Juliana Berners wrote A Treatise of Fishing With an Angle, thus launching a long tradition of combining wit and wisdom with "how to" information and captivating stories about fishing.
A century and a half later, Izaak Walton recorded his passion for fly-fishing in The Compleat Angler, published in England in 1653, one of the most influential books on fishing and nature. Walton not only promoted the "brotherhood" of our sport, but also defined many of the fundamental concepts of conservation and environmental protection that are essential to providing clean water and habitat for fish and wildlife.
At the time Walton was writing The Compleat Angler, the Dutch were just settling the Hudson Valley above Manhattan, the island at the center of the New World.
Another century and a half later, Washington Irving lampooned the Dutch settlement of New Netherlands in his fictional History of New York purportedly penned by an equally fictional Deidrich Knickerbocker.
A few years later, in 1820, Irving published what is considered by many to be the first American fly-fishing story - "The Angler," released as part The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. which was actually published in England, as Irving was living there at the time. It is doubtful Irving himself really did much fishing (much of his writing, even in the first person, was pure fabrication), but he honors the great Izaak Walton nonetheless with this tale.
"The Angler" opens with the narrator describing a fruitless fishing excursion in the Catskills, before leaping back across the pond to sketch a colorful fisherman in the English countryside, likely modeled after Izaak Walton himself.
The opening segment takes place on an unnamed stream in the Catskill Mountains. The description sounds similar to the stream near which Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years, so my guess is that the stream in this story is the very same Kaaterskill.
For your reading pleasure, here is the opening of "The Angler." I love Washington Irving's wry and radiant prose. If you wish to read the rest, here is the link to an on-line facsimile of the original text.
IT is said that many an unlucky urchin is induced to run away from his family and betake himself to a seafaring life from reading the history of Robinson Crusoe; and I suspect that, in like manner, many of those worthy gentlemen who are given to haunt the sides of pastoral streams with angle-rods in hand may trace the origin of their passion to the seductive pages of honest Izaak Walton. I recollect studying his Complete Angler several years since in company with a knot of friends in America, and moreover that we were all completely bitten with the angling mania. It was early in the year, but as soon as the weather was auspicious, and that the spring began to melt into the verge of summer, we took rod in hand and sallied into the country, as stark mad as was ever Don Quixote from reading books of chivalry.
One of our party had equalled the Don in the fulness of his equipments, being attired cap-a-pie for the enterprise. He wore a broad-skirted fustian coat, perplexed with half a hundred pockets; a pair of stout shoes and leathern gaiters; a basket slung on one side for fish; a patent rod, a landing net, and a score of other inconveniences only to be found in the true angler’s armory. Thus harnessed for the field, he was as great a matter of stare and wonderment among the country folk, who had never seen a regular angler, as was the steel-clad hero of La Mancha among the goatherds of the Sierra Morena.
Our first essay was along a mountain brook among the Highlands of the Hudson—a most unfortunate place for the execution of those piscatory tactics which had been invented along the velvet margins of quiet English rivulets. It was one of those wild streams that lavish, among our romantic solitudes, unheeded beauties enough to fill the sketch-book of a hunter of the picturesque. Sometimes it would leap down rocky shelves, making small cascades, over which the trees threw their broad balancing sprays and long nameless weeds hung in fringes from the impending banks, dripping with diamond drops. Sometimes it would brawl and fret along a ravine in the matted shade of a forest, filling it with murmurs, and after this termagant career would steal forth into open day with the most placid, demure face imaginable, as I have seen some pestilent shrew of a housewife, after filling her home with uproar and ill-humor, come dimpling out of doors, swimming and curtseying and smiling upon all the world.
How smoothly would this vagrant brook glide at such times through some bosom of green meadowland among the mountains, where the quiet was only interrupted by the occasional tinkling of a bell from the lazy cattle among the clover or the sound of a woodcutter’s axe from the neighboring forest!
For my part, I was always a bungler at all kinds of sport that required either patience or adroitness, and had not angled above half an hour before I had completely “satisfied the sentiment,” and convinced myself of the truth of Izaak Walton’s opinion, that angling is something like poetry—a man must be born to it. I hooked myself instead of the fish, tangled my line in every tree, lost my bait, broke my rod, until I gave up the attempt in despair, and passed the day under the trees reading old Izaak, satisfied that it was his fascinating vein of honest simplicity and rural feeling that had bewitched me, and not the passion for angling. My companions, however, were more persevering in their delusion. I have them at this moment before eyes, stealing along the border of the brook where it lay open to the day or was merely fringed by shrubs and bushes. I see the bittern rising with hollow scream as they break in upon his rarely-invaded haunt; the kingfisher watching them suspiciously from his dry tree that overhangs the deep black millpond in the gorge of the hills; the tortoise letting himself slip sideways from off the stone or log on which he is sunning himself; and the panic-struck frog plumping in headlong as they approach, and spreading an alarm throughout the watery world around.
I recollect also that, after toiling and watching and creeping about for the greater part of a day, with scarcely any success in spite of all our admirable apparatus, a lubberly country urchin came down from the hills with a rod made from a branch of a tree, a few yards of twine, and, as Heaven shall help me! I believe a crooked pin for a hook, baited with a vile earthworm, and in half an hour caught more fish than we had nibbles throughout the day!
But, above all, I recollect the “good, honest, wholesome, hungry” repast which we made under a beech tree just by a spring of pure sweet water that stole out of the side of a hill, and how, when it was over, one of the party read old Izaak Walton’s scene with the milkmaid, while I lay on the grass and built castles in a bright pile of clouds until I fell asleep. All this may appear like mere egotism, yet I cannot refrain from uttering these recollections, which are passing like a strain of music over my mind and have been called up by an agreeable scene which I witnessed not long since.