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How did they fly fish in Medieval Britain?

We know remarkably little about how people fished prior to the seventeenth century, although we can make an informed guess, based on the type of tackle they used and on how similar tackle has been used by peasant fishermen right up to the present day.

Treatuyse stained glass windowThe major source on Medieval fly fishing in Britain is a book called The Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle, which was published in 1496, but the problem is that although the Treatyse contains a list of twelve flies, the author didn't write anything about how to fish them, which has led to speculation that the list was borrowed from somewhere else.

Whatever the case may be, there are no earlier works, so the Treatyse remains our only printed source of information on the period. Yes, it seems extraordinary that we find ourselves in this situation, but bear in mind that in those far off days, all the fishing was done by peasants and the last thing any member of the ruling classes would have done would have been to pick up a rod. Few people could write and almost everybody who was literate wasn't a peasant - so before printing was invented, fly patterns would have had to have been passed around by word of mouth, which argues for there not being so many, because long lists of complicated tyings would have been impossible for anyone to remember. This is confirmed by the Treatyse and later lists, the patterns being fairly simple and tied with commonly-available materials, with wings made from capon, wild ducks and from birds of prey, for example. The illustration shows a stained glass window made for Andrew Herd, which shows all 12 flies from the Treatyse, arranged around a reproduction of the book's famous frontis plate - a recreation of the wasp fly from this set is shown at the bottom of the page.

Medieval fly fishermen almost certainly used two very broad categories of rod. The first type was six feet long at the most, and was made from a single hazel shoot cut from a hedge. Good hazel shoots were far easier to find back then, because hedges were far more plentiful and were managed much better, but rods like this were probably regarded as disposable, however much care was taken to select them and condition them. The second type of rod was quite different - fourteen feet or more in length, in two, or possibly more sections, the butt of a different wood to the tip section, which would, once again have been hazel. It is more than probable that rods of every intervening length were used, but we have no reliable record of this. One thing we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that whatever the length of the rod, it was fished with a twisted horsehair line tied to the tip - no reel was used and this remained the case until the 17th century. The limitations of this setup mean is unlikely that fifteenth century fly fishermen ever used lines much longer than twice the length of their rod, because it would have been very hard to manage the line and net fish if they had.

A page from the TreatyseIt is often assumed that fifteenth century fly fishermen cast the fly, rather than letting their line blow at the mercy of the wind, but we don't know for sure. If they did cast, it would have been with a simple "pick up and lay down," because the false cast wasn't invented until the nineteenth century. We have no detail on how a fly was fished, and neither do we have a single clue as to whether the fly was fished up or down stream. It is highly unlikely that we shall ever know for sure, although once again we can deduce how Medieval flies were fished, based on how anglers using similar tackle fished a fly in the 20th century. It seems extraordinary, but in the Balkan mountains it was still possible to see old men fishing with hazel rods and horse hair lines in the late 1990s, and in parts of Italy, the longer style of rod described above was still being used during the same period - it very possibly still is.

The majority of Medieval fly fishermen were after trout, since salmon easily outclassed the equipment that was available. Salmon were caught on the fly, but it wasn't common. Picture the difficulties of playing a fresh salmon on a short fixed line and you will understand why.

Wasp fly from the Treatyse The field craft back in those days was no different to ours, the angler being advised to stay out of the sight of the fish as far as possible, avoiding even his shadow falling on the water. We tend to think of the early fly fishing as a clumsy affair, but it wasn't, not unless trout have squeezed in a great deal of evolution in the last five hundred years. No, fifteenth century anglers were skilled men and women, who not only caught trout with equipment that we would regard as totally inadequate, but who also caught good trout in numbers large enough to sustain the possibility of professional fishing. Where the fifteenth century fisherman differed from his modern counterpart was in his dependency on and vulnerability to the weather. Our forebears prayed for enough wind to disturb the surface of the water, and to hide their approach from the trout - and when they had enough wind to fish, they prayed that it blew the right way. The day when a fly line could be cast into the wind was centuries away.

For what it is worth, the first mention of casting a fly wasn't made until 1620, and then it was by a man called Lawson, in one of his more economical moments. By an annoying freak of chance, every word on fly fishing left to us by Lawson is in the form of footnotes to a poem by John Dennys, which left little scope for long descriptions; it is a great pity that Lawson didn't write more, because the tone of his writing suggests that he was an expert fisherman. He advised fishing with:

… a line twice your rod's length of three hairs' thickness, in open water free from trees on a dark windy afternoon, and if you have learned the cast of the fly.

What about art? I can hear you say. Well, you would think art would help, angling being a common enough activity in the Middle Ages, but yet again, we come up against a stumbling block. The vast majority of art work dating from the period is religious in nature, so just about the only time fishing got a look in was in marginal illuminations in books, or in details in murals on church walls - and although there are many striking images, once again, there is very little hard detail.

So unless anything new turns up, that is all we know. You can read more in Andrew Herd's history of fly fishing, available from the Medlar Press.