With the development of the printed book (Gutenberg AD 1457), it became apparent that many people of Northern Europe were keen on fishing for leisure and sport. Books on the subject appeared almost simultaneously in the Netherlands, France and England, with Germany following not long after, but it was in England that the interest in angling first produced a flood of fishing literature.
The first thorough treatment of angling was printed in Westminster in 1496 as part of The Boke of St Albans, supposedly written by a woman, Dame Juliana Berners, possibly a prioress. In part of that book, The Treatyse of Fyshinge wyth an Angle, she deals with the art of making hooks. The best hooks are made of needles, she says — the finest darning needles for small fish, embroidery needles for larger fish, and tailor’s and shoemaker’s needles for the very big fish. She tells us how to make steel pliable, make a barb, shape and temper the steel (three times heating until red-hot). She recommends that the line be fastened to the inside of the shank, a piece of advice that has been repeated by many angling writers in modern times.
|For a long time afterwards, English writers continued to describe the making of hooks. The needles had to be of the best steel from Toledo or Milan. The modern expert will understand the advice given by William Lawson at the beginning of the seventeenth century: “If the steel is good, the point can never be too sharp, meaning: ‘If the steel is not of the best quality the point may break if you make it too sharp’.||
Handmade hooks as reproduced in The Treatyse of Fyshinge … from 1496. The hooks are without an eye, a flat (the ‘spade’) is hammered out in order to keep the leader or the line from sliding off the shank.
There are interesting items also in the oldest German book about fishing (and hunting), Waidmeryk, which was published in Frankfurt about 1531. The author recommends that the line be made of white (yes white) horsehair. The ancients knew better than many fishermen of our time who look down into dark water and think that a dark line is the least visible. They forget that above the fish there is a sky just as light as the one we landlubbers see above us. We should remember that white is the protective colour of most fish that expect to be attacked from underneath.
The classic book for sport fishermen, Isaac Walton’s The Complete Angler …, came out in 1653. Most of his wisdom and advice had been gleaned from earlier English literature on the subject. Strangely enough he did little fishing with flies. But Walton writes like a true worshipper of nature and goes through an impressively wide range of the questions a sport fisherman ought to be familiar with. Walton also tells the reader how to braid, knot and prepare a horse’s tail, in order to make the best possible line. (Threads of silk and vegetable fibre have been twined or spun, but, from time immemorial, recreational fishermen have recommended a horse’s tail).
When it comes to making hooks, Isaac Walton does an about-face. Instead of making hooks oneself, he recommends that one goes to an experienced hook maker. England’s best he says, is to be found in London: Charles Kirby in Harp Alley, Shoe Lane, ‘the most exact and best Hook-maker this nation affords.’ From him we can follow the development up to our own time. (Mustad Kirby Sea Hooks).