Living

ERIC SHARP: Fishing the old-fashioned way

Each spring, I re-read Izaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler" to prepare for an ongoing if occasional experiment in fishing for trout with some of the limitations that Walton faced.

Like him, I use a rod over 15 feet long. But whereas his was made from various woods available in England in the mid-1600s, and probably weighed a pound or more, the one I use now is a telescoping, 19-foot carbon fiber "whip" from Italy that weighs six ounces.

Lacking his knotted horsehair line (although I did make and fish one in North Carolina 20 years ago), I tied 10 feet from the tapered tip section of an old No. 5 fly line to the rod tip, with an 10-foot monofilament leader. My 5X monofilament tippet was probably equivalent in strength to the two or three hairs from a horse's tail used by Walton and his protege, Charles Cotton (who really wrote the fly fishing sections of "The Compleat Angler").

Walton almost certainly fished wet flies, and he would have fished them in the top six inches of water. So I tied on a No. 12 dark Hendrickson wet, probably much like the March brown Father Izaak described in his book, and fished as much as possible from the bank and river margins. (Walton and his cronies didn't have waders, and the water was as cold as our trout streams.)

On the third drift through a three-foot-deep run, a brown trout swam out from under some overhanging tag alders, took the fly leisurely and bored back down. I lifted the rod and felt a satisfying series of tugs.

As in Walton's day, the rod didn't have a reel (which he would have called a "wynd"), but maintaining steady pressure, dropping the tip when the fish tugged hard and allowing the limber rod to absorb most of the fight was enough to bring an 11-inch brownie to hand quickly.

The small stream I fished doesn't have much of a Hendrickson hatch, but a few were coming off along with a smattering of caddis flies. I fished upstream, the way Cotton probably would, and tried to follow his dictate to fish "fine and far off." While 17th century anglers apparently often used lines twice the length of their rods, in my case "far off" meant about 30-35 feet.

After about 10 minutes a small brook trout struck while the fly was still floating, prompting me to switch to a bushy No. 14 stimulator dry fly. Overhand casting with a 6-meter was impossible along most of the brush-lined river, so I underhanded the fly to start each drift, like a bass fisherman's flipping technique, or simply reached out and laid it on the water.

Following the fly downstream with the rod tip, lifting to take up slack as it came toward me and lowering to give slack as it passed, worked well. In three hours I landed nearly a dozen 6- to 11-inch trout that virtually hooked themselves.

It was a fun afternoon, and I would encourage everyone to try it some time. Fourteen-to-20 foot cane poles sell for a few bucks at tackle and hardware stores, and they'll work just as well as my overpriced Italian whip.

In addition to trout, try Walton's tackle to stalk bluegills, perch and bass along lake shores. (He would fish for anything that swims.) It's a whole new ball game, and you'll find yourself doing some creative thinking about how best to manage it.

The ultimate example I've ever seen of someone using 17th century tactics was on the St. Lawrence River in New York State, where an expatriate Englishman named Bernie Haines stalks and catches big, spooky carp in waist-deep water by lowering a crawfish in front of their noses from about 15 feet away.

Admittedly, he does use a reel for this, but I suspect that if you fished from a kayak, you could dispense with a reel and use another 17th century tactic - tossing the rod into the water and letting the fish drag it around for a while. (This works only with wood rods, which float.)

If you haven't read "The Compleat Angler," you should. It's one of the most-published books in English (along with the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible), and though the language will seem quaint, it is clearly the work of a passionate angler.

And when you read it, you'll appreciate how easy we have it compared to 17th century fishermen who made their own tackle and walked for hours to get to lakes and streams.

  Comments