The Compleat Angler and the Emergence of Fishing Writing

‘Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.’ Henry Thoreau

Fishing is not the pursuit of catching fish: it is the pursuit of trying to catch fish. The very real possibility that nothing will result from hours put in casting, waiting and reeling means that this popular pastime has become an easy target for derision. ‘The stupidest of pretended sports,’ wrote Lord Byron. ‘A dull diversion,’ claimed William Taplin in his 1803 Sporting Dictionary. Nevertheless, angling (a method of catching fish via a hook on a line) is one of the most favoured outdoor recreational activities around the world, possibly because it appears to have a kind of meditative, or therapeutic, function. ‘I like fishing,’ claims tennis legend Rafael Nadal. ‘Not actual fishing – I like the peace and quiet of being at sea. It’s different.’

If fishing is as much a state of mind as it is a sport, it’s no wonder that it has been a rich subject for writers across the centuries. After the Bible and Shakespeare, one of the most reprinted books in English is The Compleat Angler by Izzak Walton, first published in 1676.

Unlike other fishing manuals that were around at the time, Walton’s book captured the spiritual aspect of fishing by mixing practical advice with lyrical description and digressions on the nature of faith. As a result, a new genre of literature emerged: fishing writing that is never really about fishing, or never really only about fishing…

In A Twitch Upon the Thread, writer and angler Jon Days brings together over forty writers from mediaeval times to the present who use angling as a way to write about love, loss, faith and obsession. Taking the reader from riverbank to open ocean, from England to New Zealand, from the shore to the depths, this beautiful and erudite anthology showcases work by Günter Grass, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Raban, Ota Pavel, Keri Hulme and dozens more. And even if you know nothing about fishing, the writing itself will make you wish you did.

‘A lovely little anthology of writing on the idle pleasure of fishing.’ The Idler

‘A perfect gift for anyone who loves fishing.’ Jo Good, Radio London

‘I have come across plenty of fishing anthologies but I can’t recall one that captured my imagination quite as much as Jon Day’s.’ Simon Cooper, Fishing Breaks

Back to blog