Well, as I have noted in a previous post, interviews seem to be the craze for the fly fishing blog-o-sphere. So, I've decided to throw my hat in the ring with a twist. I am pleased to kick off this new series, "Interviews with Anglers Past," with an interview with the noted, famous, and potentially mythological Dame Juliana Berners. She’s most known for her authorship of a little text – “A Treatyse on Fishing with An Angle,” originally published in the 1496 edition of Book of St. Albans. Noted historian, Paul Schullery has referred to Berners as a ‘handy symbolic point of origin for the sport,” and it is a pleasure to have her hear on Headwaters today.
[Note: These, obviously, are fictionalized conversations with known and lesser known anglers in fly fishing’s history. I have created them based on my research into the history of the sport, readings of their texts, and their lives. The italicized portions of the interviews are direct quotes from their writings.]
(For your reading ease, I’ve translated her old English responses to more common vernacular!)
Headwaters of History (HoH): Dame Juliana, we’ll start with Mr. Schullery’s description of you. Yet, we’re curious to know when and how you started fishing.
Dame Juliana (DJ): Well, in my day, we grew up in such proximity to nature, if you will, it was a part of our daily life. After all, I learned to hunt and fish to feed myself, my family, or the students at the Abbey Sopwell. However, I learned that all of these activities were more than simply means of putting food on the table, but gave me an opportunity commune in God’s creation.
Hunting, in my day, was the more noble of sports and as you might know from reading the Book of St. Albans, and I was quite an accomplished hunter and falconer. However, fishing always tugged ay my heart in ways hunting never could. I always believed that
Thence it follows that good sports and honest games are the cause of a man's happy old age and long life. . . . among four good sports and honest games: to wit, of hunting, hawking, fishing, and fowling. The best, in my simple opinion, is fishing, called angling, with a rod and a line and a hook.
Before moving on, however, I would like to note that while Mr. Schullery has it right and I am a “handy symbolic point of origin” for the sport, I am clearly not the origin. I know that Arnold Gingrich once described me as “to angling literature as Chaucer is to English literature, representing all practical intents and purposes the very beginning.” Well that is just bollocks!!
I know it isn’t lady like to speak that way, but seriously. Clearly there were people fishing well before me and there were plenty who wrote about fishing, you just don’t really pay attention to them or their words were lost. Honestly, my words were so good, everyone else decided to copy them, particularly that Walton fellow!
HoH: In the Treatyse you describe in great detail the processes of building your own rods, lines, etc. Why is that so important? And, what do you think of where the sport has come with its materials.
DJ: Quite simply, if you want to be crafty in angling, you must first learn to make your tackle, that is, your rod, your line, your flies. To be honest, with all of the materials you have in your age of fishing, anyone it would seem, can pick up the sport. However, this should be a good thing as this means that more can enjoy this great gift of God, an honest game and cause of a man to lead into a happy spirit.
HoH: In your mind, what is the secret to successful angling and has that changed in the 516 years since A Treatyse?
DJ: Well HoH, successful angling depends upon understanding your surroundings, the type of water you are fishing, the season you are fishing. Simply stated, you must know how you should angle, in what place of the water, how deep, and what time of day. This is the beauty of the sport, no?
It forces the angler to understand nature’s workings at different times of the year, different times of the day, different seasons, and water conditions. For example, you should use fishing lines of yellow colour in every clear water from September till November: for it is like the weeds and other types of grass which grow in the waters and rivers, when they are broken. Or, in August you should fish with The drake fly, with the body of black wool and lapped about with black silk: wings of the breast feathers of the blackest drake, with a black head.
While the technology of angling has changed in the past several hundred years, the basic principles remain unchanged. Even as these new companies manufacturing flies find new levels of creativity to trick the trout to their lure, the basics of a fly such as a caddis or drake remain the same in my day as in yours.
HoH: Speaking of fishing today. If you were were alive today, where would you want to fish?
DJ: Well, I’d love to come up and visit Alaska. I can’t fathom trout and salmon the size of those in Bristol Bay. You know, I always said that the salmon is the most stately fish that any one can angle for in fresh water. The salmon is a noble fish. . . of great rivers. Bristol Bay is clearly a place of great rivers.
And the trout of Bristol Bay will prove me wrong for saying that he is a right dainty fish! Yes, that would be splendid, indeed. Of course, I've never seen what you call a rainbow trout, nor a salmon from the Pacific Ocean.
While I am on it, though, if I could come back from this grave, I would love to kick my greedy countrymen in the arse for proposing to build that Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. How sinful is that proposal?!
You know, in Treatyse, I insist upon manners, not taking more than your share, and respecting property. You must not use this aforesaid artful sport for covetousness to increasing or saving of your money only, but principally for your solace and to promote the health of your body and specially of your soul. If I were alive, I would write that you mustn’t let greed allow you to destroy the opportunities for other to seek solace of nature, through the fine arts of angling. That goes for greedy blokes over at Anglo American.
HoH: You know their CEO is a woman, right?
DJ: Well, I heard that. She’s still greedy.
HoH: One last question. Are you or were you real? Did you really write the Treatyse?
DJ: Honestly HoH, there has been a lot of debate and controversy. However, to those in the debate, I offer this: It doesn’t matter one bit now does it?
In the mythologies surrounding me, my life, the text, I truly have become ‘a handy point of origin,’ but more importantly I have been an inspiration to many, yet too few, women who have taken up the sport. It makes me proud to see women such as Joan Wulff who did so much for the sport and paving the way for women to take the sport up the way young leaders such as that "Rogue Angel" or "The Fly Gal" or the new female, fly fishing writers out there who write on their blogs, such as Dame Block at “Mysteries Internal.” She is right, there are mysteries internal (and eternal) in angling. After all, no matter the success in a day of fishing, at least the angler hath wholesome walk and merry at east, and a sweet air of the sweet savor of the meadow flowers. . and we hear the melodious harmony of birds. . .
. . . By the way, what exactly is a ‘blog’?
HoH: That is a longer conversation for another day!