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Move over Dame Juliana: The Very First Words Ever Written about Fly Fishing

Move over Dame Juliana: The Very First Words Ever Written about Fly Fishing

(Al Hassal art)

This article was originally titled "The Very First Words Ever Written about Fly Fishing" in the Seasonable Angler column of the April-May 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. 

"I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish and it is this . . . They fasten red wool around a hook, and fix onto the wool two feathers which grow under a cock’s wattles, and which in color are like wax. Their rod is six feet long, and their line is the same length. Then they throw their snare, and the fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful; when, however, it opens its jaws, it is caught by the hook, and enjoys a bitter repast, a captive."

—Claudius Aelianus, circa 175-235 A.D.

On the XVIIth of the month, as was their custom, members of the Anglers’ Club of Rome assembled for their regular monthly meeting. Dressed in togas, they seated themselves on benches in two concentric rings facing a stone platform where guest speakers traditionally held forth. Some sipped wine and soon began snoring softly. Others munched grapes or olives, spitting seeds and pits on the stone floor.

Marcus Severus, the club president, opened the meeting as usual by asking for fishing reports. Gluteus Maximus, one of the club’s oldest, fattest, most esteemed members, who was known for always sitting down while he fished, struggled to his feet. He smoothed his toga, looked around, and began to speak, reporting he had fished the Nera, a tributary of the Tiber, on the XIIIth. “I caught two fish, which I tempted with the nether parts of a roasting fowl,” he said. “The fish consumed this bait with alacrity. What the fish are called I know not, but they were exceeding ugly and did not struggle much. I offered them as food to my servants, which they declined.”

Then stood Septimus Publius, who said he had fished for wrasse along the rocky shoreline of a small bay in the Tyrrhenian Sea on the VIIth. “Upon the beach I found the reeking remains of a dead crab,” he reported. “Since the wrasse, as you well know, is an eater of meat, I decided to use a portion of the crab for bait. I shooed away several gulls that were feeding upon it, fixed what was left upon my hook, and lobbed it as far as possible into the sea. The bait was seized almost immediately by a fish, a wrasse of such splendid size and color that I quickly decided to keep it. I presented it to my dear wife, who cleaved it in half and cooked it with pasta. We ate equal portions, so I suppose you could say we each enjoyed a half-wrassed dinner.”

He sat down amid a chorus of groans from his fellow members. Some pelted him with olive pits.

For a time no one else stood to report. Then old Sextus Aolus rose awkwardly, cleared his throat, and admitted that on the XIVth he had taken a skunking on the main stem of the Tiber. “Though it was not a wasted occasion, far from it,” he added. “From my vantage point I had the pleasure to observe a fair young maiden descend the bank to the river and, insensible as she was to my presence, disrobe entirely and bathe, to my considerable delight.”

This was greeted by hoots and catcalls by other members.

When the hubbub subsided and it was obvious no further fishing reports were forthcoming, Marcus Severus introduced the night’s guest speaker, Leonidas Wulfiviius, a well-traveled angler of some renown. He had been invited to tell about a recent fishing trip to Macedonia, a distant land no one else in the room had ever visited.

With dramatic gestures, Wulfiviius described how his Macedonian hosts had taken him to a river where local anglers had cleverly fashioned lures by winding bits of red wool around the shaft of a hook, then adding a pair of “wax-colored” feathers “which grow under a cock’s wattles.” This feathered creation, he said, was attached to the end of a braided hair line which in turn was affixed to the end of a short wooden pole or rod. The angler then used the rod to dap the feathered lure on the river’s surface, where fine, speckled, streamlined fish would sometimes rise clear out of the water and take the offering.

The First Words Ever Written about Fly Fishing
(Al Hassal art)

“It was a deadly method,” Leonidas said. “I witnessed them catch great baskets of fish. They invited me to try and I was amazed at how easy it was to catch the fish—and how much fun!”


One member asked Wulfiviius where a cock’s wattles were located, but he ignored the question. Another asked the name of the river he had fished. “They told me it was called the Astræus,” Wulfiviius replied, “but I think they made up the name to keep me from learning the true one. Those Macedonians treat us Romans with great suspicion, perhaps with some justification.”

The Anglers’ Club members who were still awake listened carefully to all this, but one among them, a youthful scribe, listened more intently than all the rest, apparently growing more excited at every word of Wulfiviius’s discourse. When the ­speaker had finished, the scribe, whose name was Claudius Aelianus—everybody called him Al for short—did not even stay for the raffle. Instead, he rushed from the chamber and ran through the dark streets to his room and lit a candle. As its flickering flame cast great dancing shadows on the bare walls, he brushed aside a stack of parchment scrolls containing the unfinished work that had occupied his time for many months, his De Natura Animalium (“On the ­Nature of Animals”).

He took up a fresh scroll, smoothed it on his worktable, tacked down the corners, picked up a stylus, and dipped it in ink, anxious to begin writing while Leonidas Wulfiviius’s words were still fresh in his mind.

Then he stopped for a moment to think about exactly what he was going to say. Leonidas Wulfiviius’s report was important and exciting; he had actually been there and seen the Macedonians fishing, had even tried it himself. That was about as trustworthy as information could be, much better than some of the second-, third-, fourth-, or fifth-hand accounts Aelianus had unearthed from ancient scrolls in various libraries and included in his work—a necessity, because he had hardly ever been anywhere or seen anything himself. Yet he remained troubled about the accuracy of some of those library accounts—could it really be true that goats breathed through their ears, or that beavers ate their own testicles? That’s what he’d found in the libraries, so that’s what he’d written about them, though it seemed unlikely.

Leonidas’s report, by contrast, was about as close to the truth as you could get without actually being there. Still, Aelianus thought, it might be a good idea to qualify Leonidas’s account just a bit and admit he had not actually been an eyewitness or participant.

Having made that decision, he leaned over the fresh scroll and started writing, beginning with these words:

“I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish and it is this . . . .”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Steve Raymond is author of ten fly-fishing books. His latest, Trout Quintet, will be released in March 2016 by Skyhorse Publishing.

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