If Izaak Walton is the Father of Angling then Dame Juliana Berners can be said to be the Mother. Who? Well over 150 years before The Compleat Angler, Dame Juliana is credited by many, with writing A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, which was published as part of the second edition of The Boke of St. Albans in 1496. Whilst some scholars dispute Berners very existence there's little doubting these are the earliest printed words on Angling, having been produced by William Caxton's apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde . Evidence for Berners (or Barnes or Bernes - there are numerous spellings!) existence points to her being The Lady Prioress of Sopwell, a Nunnery near St. Albans. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Treatise stood for over a century, as the definitive 'how to' manual for the Tudor angler. The work was also, undoubtedly, 'source material' for 'ol Izaak.
The slim volume covers everything from building your own rod, twisting and dyeing your own lines, advice on making your own hooks and floats, shotting patterns, bait recipes, tactics for each different species, even 12 fly patterns for trout. All this described in under 9000 words. In fact this early paragraph from the treatise sets out its agenda quite succinctly:
"If you want to be crafty in angling, you must first learn to make your tackle, that is, your rod, your lines of different colours. After that, you must know how you should angle, in what place of the water, how deep, and what time of day. For what manner of fish, in what weather; how many impediments there are in the fishing that is called angling. And especially with what baits for each different fish in each month of the year. How you shall make your baits breed. Where you will find the baits: and how you will keep them. And for the most crafty thing, how you are to make your hooks of steel and of iron. Some for the artificial fly: and some for the float and the ground-line, as you will hear afterward all these things talked about openly so that you may learn."
The work is practical and down to earth and much less 'poetic' (and flowery!) than Izaak's later tome, though the Dame does allow herself these recommendations for enjoying angling over other field sports...
"For if the angler fails with one, he may not fail with another, if he does as this treatise teaches: unless there are no fish in the water. And yet, at the very least, he has his wholesome and pleasant walk at his ease, and a sweet breath of the fragrant smell of the meadow flowers, to make him hungry. He hears the melodious harmony of birds. He sees the young swans, herons, ducks, coots, and many other birds with their broods, which to me seems better than all the noise of hounds, the blasts of horns, and the clamour of birds that hunters, falconers, and fowlers can produce. And if the angler catches fish, surely then there is no happier man."
Anyone reading this who is familiar with The Compleat Angler will be struck with the similarity in much of the advice. Coincidentally much of what I've quoted from Izaak's work in my articles this season is found in here; blood or honey for tench, toasted cheese tied on with silk for barbel, chopped worm, cocktail baits, pastes made with rabbit or cat flesh. Even the rather gruesome dismembering and mounting of frogs for Pike. They're all in the Treatise.
Also, I'm not the first to point out these similarities. In the past critics have accused Izaak of shameless 'borrowing', one even referred to him as being a "miserable old plagiarist" which I think is a bit strong. What is a shame though is that this earlier work, which obviously inspired Izaak is not more widely recognised; perhaps because of doubts as to it's authorship?
The treatise ends on 2 very 'modern' themes, proposing an early countryside code...
"Also, I charge you, that you break no man's hedges in going about your sports: nor open any man's gates but that you shut them again."
And making a plea for conservation of fish stocks...
"Also, you must not be too greedy in catching your said game as taking too much at one time... Which could easily be the occasion of destroying your own sport and other men's also."
Some things never change!
Something else which never seems to change is me trying to catch a decent fish in November. It is my least successful, (none of my PB's have been caught in November) and least favourite month. The first frosts are usually upon us and the rivers are full of leaf litter. This year was no exception. Despite a very mild autumn, November was punctuated by a number of short sharp cold snaps. Temperatures were up and down like a yo-yo. A busy time at work meant I didn't venture out very often and when I did, I struggled. Still, I wasn't the only one. Up and down the Kennet there were reports of anglers blanking. The 'barbel boys' in particular were having a torrid time of it. There were many better anglers than me failing to catch - it was at least a crumb of comfort. In order to restore some sanity a couple of short trotting sessions were squeezed in. One targeting grayling and one after chub. Both species duly obliged and I had a bonus perch of 2lb 6oz on the chub trip.
Then on the last day of the month I returned home from work on the Friday and was astonished to see the evening temperature still at 16C - that's over 60F in 'old money'! The previous days had brought some welcome rain so a snap decision was made to spend the evening on the bank as soon as my dinner had been consumed. Conditions were ideal - surely?
By 7.00pm I was marching purposefully across darkened fields under overcast skies with a fine drizzle blowing in my face from a steady southerly breeze. By 7.30 I was settled in my swim, by 7.35 I was landing my first fish! A barbel too, my first for 6 weeks. 'Twas no great size at a few ounces under 6lb but it was a very promising start and augured well for a good evening. I had a good 'feeling' about the session and reckoned there was a 'double' down there in the depths with my name on it!
Alas, events conspired against the fulfilment of my premonition. Firstly the amount of leaf litter in the river was beyond irritating. It made 'holding station' in one place very tricky. Secondly, the chub moved in. In the next couple of hours I had one of 3 and half pounds, inexplicably lost another of similar size at the net and in double quick time had a splendid brace of 5lbers which registered at 5lb 5oz and 5lb 7oz on my 'Waymasters'.
I had to wait past 11.00pm for my next barbel and when it came it was smaller than either of my brace of chub. An hour later and it was followed my another of identical size - perhaps it was even the same one. By now the wind had picked up and veered to a westerly. It was now raining hard and a warm bed occupied by a warm wife was suddenly a major attraction! I was packed up in 10 minutes and within a further 30 was quietly snuggling up to a recumbent, slumbering Jacqui, content that my November had at least ended on a high note.
A week later and conditions could not have been more different. December had heralded a high pressure system which was dragging cold air in from Siberia on a gentle easterly. Paul and I had decided on a trip to the Kennet at Speen, but our hopes for a good day's sport were dampened by a frosty, foggy start. The fog was not to lift all day. Paul, though had a jack within 10 minutes of starting and was helped in its landing by a woman taking her dogs for an early morning walk. The lady turned out to be the Mayor of Newbury and seemed rather pleased to have started her day landing the catch. Paul certainly attracts a higher class of ghillie!
I struggled, and up to lunchtime had had to make do with mainly gudgeon while Paul added a 3lb brownie and a nice perch to his early pike. I moved up to a deeper slower stretch and after 20 minutes of sparingly trickling in free offerings and edging the bait through I at last had a bite. Some thing solid at last, a chub and at 4lb 4oz it put up a really dogged battle before it eventually rolled into the pan net. After lunch I was off exploring again and was soon having a more productive afternoon. Half a dozen chub of remarkably similar size - all a bit over a pound, were topped off by another 4lber though this one was some 10 ounces heavier than the first. The freezing fog had failed to lift all day but this, my last fish of the session certainly lifted the spirits.
A week later and it was colder still. The wind was now a strong easterly and with a bright sunny day forecast it was a day for grayling fishing. When the temperatures plummet, grayling can usually still be relied on to feed. Or so I hoped. As I drove up the valley with the first light of dawn slowly brightening in my rear view mirror the thermometer in the car registered the outside temperature at minus 4. I would be glad of my thermals.
Once I'd started fishing the cold was soon forgotten. A pound fish, first cast, saw to that. This season I'm taking part in the National Grayling Survey* which is being organised by the Grayling Society and the Environment Agency. On this cold clear December day I caught 35, each measured, logged and returned safely. Having started with a pound fish I finished with one as well, a fine specimen of a pound and three-quarters and measuring a little over 40cm rounded off an enjoyable day.
*If you'd like to take part in the National Grayling Survey, logbooks can be obtained from DuncanKellett@aol.com