Early flyfishers in Spain

Codex Manenssisne of my dearest passions is fishing. My granddad and dad tough me how to fish in northern Spain, and there is no doubt that those early days of my youth and puberty, fishing in the Duero river by Gormaz in Soria, will be always close to my heart. When I moved to Seattle I picked up on fly fishing (my eternal gratitude goes to my friend Lex Story for that), and since that point of my life I have devoted part of my time to the noble cause of pursuing fish with flies that I tie myself. Not that I don like gear fishing any more -I still love it and practice every now and then. But I have to admit that fly fishing has some sort of mist and indescribable aura that makes it stand above the other fishing techniques.

Having learnt fly fishing in the US has some serious consequences. All my fly fishing literature is in English, all the vocabulary I know is made of English words, all the insects I know (not many, I admit) are identified by their English names, and all the fishing media I normally consult (magazines, web pages, podcasts, dvds, and the like) are mostly from American authors. Nothing wrong with that, except that…

…I recently noticed that I cannot speak about fly fishing in proper terms when using my mother language. That bothered me quite a bit, so I started looking for information about “pesca con mosca” in the Internet. To my surprise there is not a lot of information or books on it, but what there is is really worthwhile.

The most amazing thing is thing about fly fishing in Spain is that two Unknown codixof the oldest printed books on fly fishing that are known to this day were written by Spanish authors.

El tratadico de Pesca (1539): written by a retired Aragonese soldier in 1539, Fernando Basurto’s The Little Treatise on Fishing, is the Spanish counterpart of The Treatyse on Fishing with an Angle. El Tratadico de Pesca is remarkable because it is the first known work which uses the literary form of a dialogue to establish the rank of fishing among other sports. In the book there are two characters, Pescador y Cazador, who establish a dialogue about the benefits and miseries of fishing and hunting. Does that sound familiar? The similarities to Sir Izaak Walton’s most well known work are pretty obvious, and considering this book is more than 125 years older that The Compleat Angler, one has to wonder how much influence Basurto had on Sir Walton. We have to remember that there used to be a close relationship between England and Spain in the early 1500s: Queen Mary I of England was half Spanish since she was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catalina of Aragon. Furthermore, she was married to Phillip II of Spain (her cousin), who was Consort King of England for some time. (Years later, after Mary’s death and protestant Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen of England he decided to take back England’s throne by force -hence the ill-fated Spanish Armada in 1588. But that’s a different story…). The commercial connections between the two countries were strong at that time, so it is very easy to suggest that some copies of Basurto’s book travelled to England and ultimately fell in Walton’s hands. Quite plausible and sensible, although we will never know for sure.

Basurto’s flies were tied on spade-ended hooks, and the materials were only silk for bodies and ribs, and soft hackles of chickens and the unidentified bunal. The hackles were tied in at the butt with the tip forward, wraps then being made over the butt toward the spade end of the hook, before the tip was turned up and bound back in the finishing of the head. Although it is not directly mentioned in the book, the descriptions of the patterns invite to suggest that the patterns sank and therefore were fished as nowadays’ wet flies.

The original book is lost, but not its content. You can download the book here (link, only in Spanish, sorry).

My favourite text is when Pescador says in a magnificent medieval Spanish: “Este libro va sacado de la esperiencia de muchos y grandes pescadores, y de la mía, que algunos años por mar y por tierra lo he usado, por apartarme de algunos vicios que son sepultura de los hombres y perpetua prisión de sus ánimas, lo qual escusa este exercicio por los nobles efectos de que está vestido; aunque en la verdad, no es sinrazón avisar a los menestrales que no todos los tiempos que corren buenos para pescar deven de yr a pescar, por las faltas que harían en sus casas; ni los clérigos todos los días, a lo menos antes de cumplir con Dios lo que deven en dezir su missa y rezar sus oras; ni tampoco los letrados por la falta que harían a los playteantes; porque como este exercicio sea tan codicioso, no es en las manos del hombre dexarse dél quando la ventura corre

The translation would be something like: “This book results from the experience of many and great fishermen, and from my own, since I’ve used it in the mainland and in the sea to go away from some vices that send men to their grave and their souls to eternal prison, which excuses this exercise for the noble effects it has. Although it is necessary for the reader to be aware that he should not go fishing at any good time for fishing, for the faults and problems that would create in their houses. Neither should priests go fishing before saying mass and pray their prayers. Neither judges for the inconveniences to their clients. Because even though this exercise is very addictive, it is in one’s hands not to let himself be carried away” I guess there were already fishing bums 500 years ago…

El Manuscrito de Astorga (1624). This book was written by Juan de Bergara,  possibly a monk at the Monastery of Astorga (León), after the instructions given by Lorenzo García, a local fisherman of the town, who according to the book is not the creator of the patterns, but rather the collector and verifier of them all. We have to remember that Astorga was one of the most important cities in northern Spain in the XIV, XV, XVI and XVII centuries, a real communication hub for all the pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela (St. Jacob’s Way). It would not be a surprise that many fly patterns in the book were not locally created, but originated in other parts of northern Spain or even south and central Europe and travelled in the pockets of those fishermen who wanted to enjoy fishing in their pilgrimage to see the Saint Jacob’s tomb.

The original title is “Libro de aderezar y adobar plumas para pescar truchas“, which translates more or less into “Book of feather tweaking and seasoning to fish trout“. There are 36 patterns in the book, and all of them are very sophisticated, densely tied and heavily dressed flies, in many cases being more complex than late nineteenth and early twentieth century British patterns. Some of the patterns have up to 5 different hackles, and they were obviously thought as floating lures. In addition to all the feathers, silk and flax threads were used for the body and the ribs.

The main problem of this book is that it does not give any detailed instruction on how to put all those materials together on the hook. Whereas Basurto’s book gave specific descriptions on how to tie the flies, Juan de Bergara’s text only gives very sporadic and cryptic instructions, such as “turned twice” or “put upside down”. This lead to what many Spanish fishermen knew as “Astorga’s Enigma”. Some books have tried to decipher the enigma in the past years, being this book (link) by García Gonzalez the one that is currently considered to give the best adaptation. Here (link) and here (link) you can see some pattern examples.

Another interesting thing about his book is the location of the original document. In 1963 the authorities of Astorga gave the original book to Francisco Franco, former Spanish dictator and a very well known avid angler, and since then nobody has known the exact location of the book. In 1975, after Franco’s death and the return of democracy to Spain, the family of the dictator never disclosed if the book is part of the family’s heritage and resides in their private library, or if it was given as a present to somebody else. A real shame. At least the content is public and even though there are not many hard copies, everybody can download it from the Internet. Here (link) you have the link to the original in old Spanish, and here (link) you have the transcription.

Finally, I would like to remark that it is a shame that the international fly fishing community is oblivious to these books, even though they could be considered as important as, or even more important, than other English classics such as The Compleat Angler or Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle. It is a paradox that Sir Izaak Walton is buried in Winchester Cathedral, his person appears in plenty of other books, there are many Piscator and Venator bridges in his meory, and his work is worldwide famous, whereas Basurto, Bergara and García’s contributions (or even their names!) are fully neglected, even by their fellow Spaniards. Another interesting paradox is that the feathers and cocks that are described by El Manuscrito de Astorga are internationally known by a French term (”Coq de Leon“) and not the Spanish words Gallo de León. It had to be some French anglers that used to go fishing to León, and not the local Spaniards, those who finally showed the World the properties of these feathers.

I guess this is one of our national defects in Spain, that we always think the grass is greener on the other riverbed and we tend to forget to honor what we have got or have accomplished. I hope this text contributed to partly fix that.


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