Literary History

From prehistoric times down to comparatively late in the days of chronicles, angling appears to have remained a practice; its development into an art or sport is a modern idea. In the earliest literature references to angling are not very numerous, but there are passages in the Old Testament which show that fish-taking with hook as well as net was one of the common industries in the East, and that fish, where it was obtainable, formed an important article of diet. In Numbers (xi. 5) the children of Israel mourn for the fish which they "did eat in Egypt freely." So much too is proved by the monuments of Egypt; indeed more, for the figures found in some of the Egyptian fishing pictures using short rods and stout lines are sometimes attired after the manner of those who were great in the land. This indicates that angling had already, in a highly civilized country, taken its place among the methods of diversion at the disposal of the wealthy, though from the uncompromising nature of the tackle depicted and the apparent simplicity of the fish it would scarcely be safe to assume that in Egypt angling arrived at the dignity of becoming an "art." In Europe it took very much longer for the taking of fish to be regarded even as an amusement, and the earliest references to it in the Greek and Latin classics are not very satisfying to the sportsman.

There is, however, a passage in the Odyssey (xii. 247) which is of considerable importance, as it shows that fishing with rod and line was well enough understood in early Greece to be used as a popular illustration. It occurs in the well-known scene where Scylla seizes the companions of Odysseus out of the ship and bears them upwards, just as "some fisher on a headland with a long rod" brings small fishes gasping to the shore. Another important, though comparatively late, passage in Greek poetry is the twenty-first idyll of Theocritus. In this the fisherman Asphalion relates how in a dream he hooked a large golden fish and describes graphically, albeit with some obscurity of language, how he "played" it. Asphalion used a rod and fished from a rock, much after the manner of the Homeric angler. Among other Greek writers, Herodotus has a good many references to fish and fishing; the capture of fish is once or twice mentioned or implied by Plato, notably in the Laws (vii. 823); Aristotle deals with fishes in his Natural History, and there are one or two fishing passages in the anthology. But in Greek literature, as a whole the subject of angling is not at all prominent. In writers of late Greek, however, there is more material.

Plutarch, for instance, gives us the famous story of the fishing match between Antony and Cleopatra, which has been utilized by Shakespeare. Moreover, it is in Greek that the first complete treatise on fishing which has come down to us is written, the Halieutica of Oppian (c. A.D. 169). It is a hexameter poem in five books with perhaps more technical than sporting interest, and not so much even of that as the length of the work would suggest. Still it contains some information about tackle and methods, and some passages describing battles with big fish, in the right spirit of enthusiasm. Also in Greek is what is famous as the first reference in literature to fly-fishing, in the fifteenth book of Aelian's Natural History (3rd century A.D.). It is there described how the Macedonians captured a certain spotted fish in the river Astraeus by means of a lure composed of coloured wool and feathers, which was presumably used in the manner now known as "dapping." That there were other Greek writers who dealt with fish and fishing and composed "halieutics" we know from Athenaeus. In the first book of his Deipnosophistae he gives a list of them.

But he compares their work unfavourably with the passage of Homer already cited, in a way which suggests that their knowledge of angling was not a great advance upon the knowledge of their remote literary ancestors. In Latin literature allusions to angling are rather more numerous than in Greek, but on the whole they are unimportant. Part of a poem by Ovid, the Halieuticon, composed during the poet's exile at Tomi after A.D. 9, still survives. In other Roman writers the subject is only treated by way of allusion or illustration. Martial, however, provides, among other passages, what may perhaps be entitled to rank as the earliest notice of private fishery rights - the epigram Ad Piscatorem, which warns would-be poachers from casting a line in the Baian lake. Pliny the elder devoted the ninth book of his Natural History to fishes and water-life, and Plautus, Cicero, Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, Pliny the younger and Suetonius all allude to angling here and there. Agricultural writers, too, such as Varro and Columella, deal with the subject of fish ponds and stews rather fully.

Later than any of these, but still just included in Latin literature, we have Ausonius (c. A.D. 320) and his well-known idyll the Mosella, which contains a good deal about the fish of the Moselle and the methods of catching them. In this poem is to be found the first recognizable description of members of the salmon family, and, though the manner of their application is rather doubtful, the names salmo, salar and fario strike a responsive note in the breast of the modern angler.