When asked why he never drank water, WC Fields replied, ‘Fish fuck in it’. The thought of water generally brings to mind fish. After the pursuit of women, the pursuit of fish is one of man’s oldest activities, the fish-hook one of his first inventions, and works on fishing among the very earliest in the history of printed books. Unlike any other sport, the literature of angling makes up a significant substratum in English letters: the sheer volume is not surprising, because it is today the most popular pastime in Britain, but what is remarkable is how much of this writing has a literary quality quite independent of the sport itself. Behind the activity of angling is a mentality that involves an essential act of the imagination which has for centuries fascinated the artistic mind, and has to do with perceptions of Nature and the spiritual world that are reflected in its rich, varied literature.
The received stereotype of the angler would hardly suggest this; an unsuccessful fisherman is seen as the epitome of human futility, a sedentary, congenital liar, probably inebriated and possibly insane. We all know what Samuel Johnson said about poles and fools (the remark actually originates with Martial Guyet a century before) and the pastime is proverbially foolish, the amabilis insania . The French speak of their eccentrics as capable de pecher a Ia ligne.
It is seen, too, as an archetypally British preoccupation, an activity intimately connected with the nature of our countryside and national character. ‘Angling is an amusement peculiarly adapted to the mild and highly cultivated scenery of England,’ wrote Washington Irving, and this is also true of piscatorial literature. The Compleat