Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

The first fishing book

The person with the best claim to be the author of the first English language book on fishing is Dame Juliana Berners.

Treatise of fishing with an angle (Courtesy Cheltenham Arts Museum on Flickr)

She was the abbess at Sopwell priory near St Albans close to where the River Ver flows. The book ‘The treatise of fishing with an angle' was printed in 1496 as part of the second book of St Albans. This was not very long after the printing industry took off. An even older manuscript version dating from around 1450 also exists, with both versions believed to be copies of the original text from around 1420.

The joys of fishing

The book opens with an analysis: ‘of the honourable past-times of hunting, hawking, fowling and fishing'. Dame Juliana reaches the conclusion ‘that the best of these is fishing with rod, line and hook'. Anglers' appreciation of the surroundings gets mention: ‘the angler hears the melodious harmony of birds, seeing young swans, herons' ducks, coots and many other birds with their broods'. There is no mention of cormorants or goosanders. Anglers were advised not to lay too long in bed for ‘whoever will rise early will be holy, healthy and happy'. That's still sound advice 600 years later.

Making fishing rods

There was no mail order or online shopping back then, with tackle shops equally thin on the ground. Making your own tackle was clearly the way to go. ‘You must cut, between Michaelmas and Candlemas, a fair staff, a fathom and a half long (around nine feet) and as thick as your arm, of hazel, willow or aspen. Soak it in a hot oven and set it straight. Then let it cool and dry for a month.' And the advice continues, later describing about the upper section of the rod can be made from blackthorn, crabtree, medlar or juniper.

Obtaining fishing line

Line was made of white horse tail hair. She recommends producing lines of six different colours, yellow, green, brown, tawny, russet and dusky and outlines the dyeing process in some details. Juliana advised the use of different coloured lines for different waters and in different seasons. ‘Green line should be used in all clear water from April till September with yellow the best choice in the autumn' as ‘it is like the weeds and other kinds of grass which grow in the waters and rivers, when they are broken'.

Line diameters

Juliana was well acquainted with the need for the right line strength for the different species. For a minnow, a line of one hairs thickness was sufficient whilst double the strength (two hairs thickness) was ample for growing roach, gudgeon, bleak and ruffe. Three strands were necessary for dace and great roach with four strands recommended for perch, flounder and small bream. For pike, she recommended the line be strengthened with wire.

Hook manufacture

Juliana describes hook making as the: ‘subtlest and hardest art'. The process required having access to a range of equipment from files, tongs and anvils through to hammers and knives. Needles made of steel were taken and heated till they were red hot. After cooling, they could be filed, tempered and bent. Once the hook was made, the horse hair hook-length was attached making sure that the line was attached on the inside and not the outside of the hook.

Float making

Juliana gave us the following advice. ‘Take a good cork that is clean, without many holes and bore it through with a small hot iron. Then insert a quill into it, even and straight. The larger the float, the larger the quill and the larger the hole'. For minnow fishing: ‘the float should be no larger than a pea, when targeting species with a line of two hairs thickness, a float the size of a bean was recommended and so ‘every line according to proportion'. There we have it; the concept of balanced tackle is not new after all.

Advice for those struggling to catch

Even in the 5th century, anglers didn't always bag up. Dame Juliana lists: ‘twelve kinds of impediment which cause a man to catch no fish, apart from other common causes which may happen by chance'.

  1. If your tackle is not adequately or suitably made
  2. If your baits are not good or fine
  3. If you do not angle in biting time
  4. If the fish are frightened by the sight of a man
  5. If the water is very thick, white or red from any flood recently fallen
  6. If the fish do not stir because of the cold
  7. If the weather is hot
  8. If it rains
  9. If it hails or snow falls
  10. If there is a tempest
  11. If there is a great wind
  12. If the wind is in the east (the fish will not bite then)

Game fish

The salmon: 'the stateliest fish, is a noble fish but cumbersome to catch'. Earthworms were the recommended bait early and late in the season with ‘grub worms that grow in dunghills' a midseason option. Fly fishing was already a recognised method in the 1400s. ‘You may catch him, (but it is seldom seen) with an artificial fly at such times that he leaps'. Juliana goes on to describe the trout as ‘a right dainty fish and a right fervent biter'. Options for catching include ‘a minnow on the hook and a ground line with an earthworm as bait with lampreys the recommended bait in the month of April. The grayling, or umber is a delicious fish to a man's mouth. A range of baits, according to season, are listed for catching the ‘lady of the stream' such as ‘dock worms, hawthorn worms and the bait that grows on a fern leaf'.

Barbel off the menu

Times were grim if barbel appeared on the menu. ‘The barbel is a sweet fish but it is a queasy food and a perilous one to a man's body, for commonly he introduces the fevers and if he is eaten raw, he may be the cause of a man's death, as has often been seen'. Cheese was the recommended bait in the spring months (there was no close season on rivers back then, indeed for coarse fish it was not introduced until 1878) and pellets later in the year. The use of pellets is not a new phenomenon either. Juliana recommended them as a bait for barbel. To make the pellets ‘take mutton fat, soft cheese and a little honey and flour beaten together for a long time. See to it that it sinks in the water, or else it is not good for this purpose'.

Chub baits and brains

According to Juliana, ‘the club is a stately fish and his head is a dainty morsel'. Of all the species mentioned in the book, there are more recommended baits for chub than any other fish. These include ‘the ditch canker that grows in a tree, earthworms, young frogs with legs cut off, stoneflies, the grub worm that lives under the cow turd, red snails, the codworm, the bait that lives on the hawthorn, silkworm, crickets, dor-worms, a grub that breed in the dunghill, a big grasshopper, young bees, young hornets, wortworms, great brindle fly's maggots, cherries, young mice without hair and finally the honeycomb'. The latter is an early reference to wasp grub and cake that can be deadly for chub to this day.

Juliana on carp and pike

She wrote: ‘the carp is a dainty fish but there are only a few in England. He is a bad fish to catch as he is so strongly reinforced in the mouth that no weak tackle can hold him. And as regards his baits, I have but little knowledge of them. But I know that the earthworm and the minnow are good baits for him always, as I have heard reliable persons say and found written in trustworthy books'. Juliana was not a great fan of pike. ‘The pike is a good fish but because he devours so many of his own kind, as well as of others, I love him the less.' Recommended pike baits include roach and fresh herring along with frogs and most bizarrely, a live goose.

Rare indeed

It is impossible to do full justice to the treatise of fishing with an angle in one article. Indeed, whole books have been written on the mysterious Dame Juliana. Some argue she has nothing to do with the treatise all but best I know, no named person has a better claim to its authorship.

Last Edited: 23 November 2017

photo of a location on the canals
newsletter logo

Stay connected

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and be the first to hear about campaigns, upcoming events and fundraising inspiration