The Delights of Fender-Fishing

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Compleat Angler, by Izaak Walton I should like to have met Izaak Walton.  He is one of the few authors whom I know I should like to have met.  For he was a wise man, and he had understanding.  I should like to have gone angling with him, for I doubt not that like myself he was more of an angler theoretically than practically.  My bookseller is a famous fisherman, as, indeed, booksellers generally are, since the methods employed by fishermen to deceive and to catch their finny prey are very similar to those employed by booksellers to attract and to entrap buyers.

As for myself, I regard angling as one of the best of avocations, and although I have pursued it but little, I concede that doubtless had I practised it oftener I should have been a better man.  How truly has Dame  Juliana Berners said that “at the least the angler hath his wholesome walk and merry at his ease, and a sweet air of the sweet savour of the mead flowers that maketh him hungry; he heareth the melodious harmony of fowls; he seeth the young swans, herons, ducks, cotes, and many other fowls with their broods, which meseemeth better than all the noise of hounds, the blasts of horns, and the cry of fowls that hunters, falconers, and fowlers can make.  And IF the angler take fish—surely then is there no man merrier than he is in his spirit!”

My bookseller cannot understand how it is that, being so enthusiastic a fisherman theoretically, I should at the same time indulge so seldom in the practice of fishing, as if, forsooth, a man should be expected to engage continually and actively in every art and practice of which he may happen to approve.  My young friend Edward Ayer has a noble collection of books relating to the history of American aboriginals and to the wars waged between those Indians and the settlers in this country; my other young friend Luther Mills has gathered together a  multitude of books treating of the Napoleonic wars; yet neither Ayer nor Mills hath ever slain a man or fought a battle, albeit both find delectation in recitals of warlike prowess and personal valor.  I love the night and all the poetic influences of that quiet time, but I do not sit up all night in order to hear the nightingale or to contemplate the astounding glories of the heavens.

For similar reasons, much as I appreciate and marvel at the beauties of early morning, I do not make a practice of early rising, and sensible as I am to the charms of the babbling brook and of the crystal lake, I am not addicted to the practice of wading about in either to the danger either to my own health or to the health of the finny denizens in those places.

The best anglers in the world are those who do not catch fish; the mere slaughter of fish is simply brutal, and it was with a view to keeping her excellent treatise out of the hands of the idle and the inappreciative that Dame Berners incorporated that treatise in a compendious book whose cost was so large that only “gentyll and noble men”  could possess it.  What mind has he who loveth fishing merely for the killing it involves—what mind has such a one to the beauty of the ever-changing panorama which nature unfolds to the appreciative eye, or what communion has he with those sweet and uplifting influences in which the meadows, the hillsides, the glades, the dells, the forests, and the marshes abound?

Out upon these vandals, I say—out upon the barbarians who would rob angling of its poesy, and reduce it to the level of the butcher’s trade!  It becomes a base and vicious avocation, does angling, when it ceases to be what Sir Henry Wotton loved to call it--“an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent; a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness, and a begetter of habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practised it!”

There was another man I should like to have met—Sir Henry Wotton; for he was an ideal angler.  Christopher North, too (“an excellent angler and now with God”!)--how I should love to have explored the Yarrow with him, for he was a man of vast soul, vast learning, and vast wit.

“Would you believe it, my dear Shepherd,” said he, “that my piscatory passions are almost dead within me, and I like now to saunter along the banks and braes, eying the younkers angling, or to lay me down on some sunny spot, and with my face up to heaven, watch the slow-changing clouds!”

THERE was the angling genius with whom I would fain go angling!

“Angling,” says our revered St. Izaak, “angling is somewhat like poetry—men are to be born so.”

Doubtless there are poets who are not anglers, but doubtless there never was an angler who was not also a poet.  Christopher North was a famous fisherman; he began his career as such when he was a child of three years.  With his thread line and bent-pin hook the wee tot set out to make his first cast in “a wee burnie” he had discovered near his home.  He caught his fish, too, and for the rest of the day he carried the miserable little specimen about on a  plate, exhibiting it triumphantly.  With that first experience began a life which I am fain to regard as one glorious song in praise of the beauty and the beneficence of nature.

My bookseller once took me angling with him in a Wisconsin lake which was the property of a club of anglers to which my friend belonged.  As we were to be absent several days I carried along a box of books, for I esteem appropriate reading to be a most important adjunct to an angling expedition.  My bookseller had with him enough machinery to stock a whaling expedition, and I could not help wondering what my old Walton would think, could he drop down into our company with his modest equipment of hooks, flies, and gentles.

The lake whither we went was a large and beautiful expanse, girt by a landscape which to my fancy was the embodiment of poetic delicacy and suggestion.  I began to inquire about the chub, dace, and trouts, but my bookseller lost no time in telling me that the lake had been rid of all cheap fry, and had been stocked with game fish, such as bass and pike.

I did not at all relish this covert sneer at traditions which I have always reverenced, and the better acquainted I became with my bookseller’s modern art of angling the less I liked it.  I have little love for that kind of angling which does not admit of a simultaneous enjoyment of the surrounding beauties of nature.  My bookseller enjoined silence upon me, but I did not heed the injunction, for I must, indeed, have been a mere wooden effigy to hold my peace amid that picturesque environment of hill, valley, wood, meadow, and arching sky of clear blue.

It was fortunate for me that I had my “Noctes Ambrosianae” along, for when I had exhausted my praise of the surrounding glories of nature, my bookseller would not converse with me; so I opened my book and read to him that famous passage between Kit North and the Ettrick Shepherd, wherein the shepherd discourses boastfully of his prowess as a piscator of sawmon.

As the sun approached midheaven and its heat became insupportable, I raised my umbrella; to this sensible proceeding my bookseller objected—in fact, there was  hardly any reasonable suggestion I had to make for beguiling the time that my bookseller did not protest against it, and when finally I produced my “Newcastle Fisher’s Garlands” from my basket, and began to troll those spirited lines beginning  

Away wi’ carking care and gloom
That make life’s pathway weedy O!
A cheerful glass makes flowers to bloom
And lightsome hours fly speedy O!

he gathered in his rod and tackle, and declared that it was no use trying to catch fish while Bedlam ran riot.

As for me, I had a delightful time of it; I caught no fish, to be sure: but what of that?  I COULD have caught fish had I so desired, but, as I have already intimated to you and as I have always maintained and always shall, the mere catching of fish is the least of the many enjoyments comprehended in the broad, gracious art of angling.

Even my bookseller was compelled to admit ultimately that I was a worthy disciple of Walton, for when we had returned to the club house and had partaken of our supper I regaled the company with many a  cheery tale and merry song which I had gathered from my books.  Indeed, before I returned to the city I was elected an honorary member of the club by acclamation—not for the number of fish I had expiscated (for I did not catch one), but for that mastery of the science of angling and the literature and the traditions and the religion and the philosophy thereof which, by the grace of the companionship of books, I had achieved.

It is said that, with his feet over the fender, Macaulay could discourse learnedly of French poetry, art, and philosophy.  Yet he never visited Paris that he did not experience the most exasperating difficulties in making himself understood by the French customs officers.

In like manner I am a fender-fisherman.  With my shins toasting before a roaring fire, and with Judge Methuen at my side, I love to exploit the joys and the glories of angling.  The Judge is “a brother of the angle,” as all will allow who have heard him tell Father Prout’s story of the bishop and the turbots or heard him sing—

With angle rod and lightsome heart,
Our conscience clear, we gay depart
To pebbly brooks and purling streams,
And ne’er a care to vex our dreams.

And how could the lot of the fender-fisherman be happier?  No colds, quinsies or asthmas follow his incursions into the realms of fancy where in cool streams and peaceful lakes a legion of chubs and trouts and sawmon await him; in fancy he can hie away to the far-off Yalrow and once more share the benefits of the companionship of Kit North, the Shepherd, and that noble Edinburgh band; in fancy he can trudge the banks of the Blackwater with the sage of Watergrasshill; in fancy he can hear the music of the Tyne and feel the wind sweep cool and fresh o’er Coquetdale; in fancy, too, he knows the friendships which only he can know—the friendships of the immortals whose spirits hover where human love and sympathy attract them.

How well I love ye, O my precious books—my Prout, my Wilson, my Phillips, my Berners, my Doubleday, my Roxby, my Chatto, my Thompson, my Crawhall!  For  ye are full of joyousness and cheer, and your songs uplift me and make me young and strong again.

And thou, homely little brown thing with worn leaves, yet more precious to me than all jewels of the earth—come, let me take thee from thy shelf and hold thee lovingly in my hands and press thee tenderly to this aged and slow-pulsing heart of mine!  Dost thou remember how I found thee half a century ago all tumbled in a lot of paltry trash?  Did I not joyously possess thee for a sixpence, and have I not cherished thee full sweetly all these years?  My Walton, soon must we part forever; when I am gone say unto him who next shall have thee to his own that with his latest breath an old man blessed thee!


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