A school of fish: Izaak Walton at Madroño Ranch

Fly-fishing at Madroño Ranch

… doubt not, therefore, sir, that angling is an art, and an art worth your learning. The question is rather, whether you be capable of learning it?

Inspired by the recent Freshwater Fly-Fishing School at Madroño Ranch, I’ve been rereading Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: or, the Contemplative Man’s Recreation, Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing, Not Unworthy the Perusal of Most Anglers, first published in 1653. Despite that rather daunting subtitle, and a certain tendency toward the pedantic (it is basically a conversion story, in which Piscator convinces his new friend Venator of the superiority of fishing to hunting), it is a charming and gentle book, of interest to anglers and non-anglers alike. (I’ve interspersed some of my favorite quotations from it above and below.)

Thomas McGuane, in his introduction to the 1995 Ecco Press edition of The Compleat Angler, compares Walton to Henry David Thoreau, one of my heroes, and to Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne, but finds Walton a more serene and comforting companion than either. “Even in the seventeenth century, there was the need of a handbook for those who would overcome their alienation from nature,” notes McGuane, adding that “learned, equitable Izaak Walton, by demonstrating how watchfulness and awe can be taken within from the natural world, has much to tell us—that is, less about how to catch fish than about how to be thankful that we may catch fish.”

Freshwater Fly-Fishing School, held on May 13–15, was the third in a series of ethical hunting and fishing events at Madroño Ranch, all put on by our friend Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s Dai Due supper club. (We had Deer School in December and Hog School in March.) It was, like its predecessors, a thoroughgoing success, and we hope to offer many more such schools in the future.

Give me your hand; from this time forward I will be your master, and teach you as much of this art as I am able; and will, as you desire me, tell you somewhat of the nature of most of the fish that we are to angle for; and I am sure I both can and will tell you more than any common Angler yet knows.

The idea behind these schools is to bring eight paying guests out to the ranch for a three-day weekend, during which they receive instruction from Jesse and his buddy Tink Pinkard, a former fly-fishing and hunting guide in Montana, in basic hunting or fishing techniques and processing, butchering, and cooking the animals they kill or catch.

Not incidentally, they (and we) also enjoy a series of incredible meals prepared by Jesse’s “camp chef,” the amazing Morgan Angelone. (Her Friday night bison burgers have become a tradition, and Saturday’s dinner is always a multicourse feast featuring various preparations of whatever animal is the weekend’s designated victim, followed by her soon-to-be-world-famous Basque cake.)

… this trout looks lovely; it was twenty-two inches when it was taken! and the belly of it looked, some part of it, as yellow as a marigold, and part of it was white as a lily; and yet, methinks, it looks better in this good sauce.

The Saturday night feast at Fly-Fishing School featured fish prepared in a multitude of ways: in soup with aioli croutons, en papilote, grilled whole, fried, grilled “on the halfshell” (unscaled), in breaded cakes… truly, it was an amazing experience; by the time the last piece of Basque cake had been shoveled down, we were sitting on the porch of the Main House at Madroño in stunned silence. Shock and awe, baby.

… he that views the ancient ecclesiastical canons, shall find hunting to be forbidden to churchmen, as being a turbulent, toilsome, perplexing recreation; and shall find angling allowed to clergymen, as being a harmless recreation, a recreation that invites them to contemplation and quietness.

Fly-Fishing School presented a different set of challenges than did Deer School and Hog School. For one thing, the guests weren’t wielding firearms, so while they still ran the risk of wounds from stray hooks and filleting knives, the chances of serious injury or death were minimized, though one guest cut his thumb cleaning a fish, and another scraped his hand on a fall in a creek. (Walton called fishing a “most honest, ingenious, quiet, and harmless art,” which I guess is mostly true if you’re not a fish.) For another, while most people have at least a vague grasp of how to shoot a rifle, even if they need coaching in safety and accuracy, fly-fishing requires a set of not necessarily intuitive skills in manipulating rod, reel, and line—not to mention tying flies (Tink devised the “Madroño Ranch caddis,” made entirely from materials sourced at the ranch), hatch-matching, etc. Thus, Jesse and Tink were simultaneously more relaxed than at Deer or Hog School, and more exhausted by the intensive instruction required at Fly-Fishing School.

… you are to know, that as the ill pronunciation or ill accenting of words in a sermon spoils it, so the ill carriage of your line, or not fishing even to a foot in a right place, makes you lose your labour….

And is there really enough water, and fish, at Madroño Ranch to make such an undertaking feasible? Absolutely. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Tink’s assessment: “Madroño Ranch offers one of the most pristine backdrops for fresh water fly-fishing in Texas that I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting…. [I]t offers spring-fed creeks and streams that empty into a beautiful lake loaded with red-breasted sunfish, crappie, red ear sunfish, bluegill, and largemouth bass.”

Just so. The guests also enjoyed phenomenal weather, as a cool front blew in on Saturday morning. The wind didn’t actually do much for the fishing, though the anglers had better luck when they abandoned the lake, which is fairly open and exposed, for the sheltered banks of Wallace Creek. Still, even though I would characterize the fishing as good rather than great, the guests seemed happy just to be out in a beautiful place, in beautiful weather, practicing what was for most of them a new form of fishing.

I envy not him that eats better meat than I do, nor him that is richer, or that wears better clothes than I do; I envy nobody but him, and him only that catches more fish than I do.

Actually, that’s the thing I’ve always loved about fly-fishing: even when you don’t catch any fish, you’ve still spent the day standing in or near a body of water, which is its own reward. And in my admittedly limited experience, the physical movements of fly-fishing are not only beautiful to watch (at least when someone more competent than I is making them), they are almost magically calm-inducing. Indeed, I imagine that casting a fly rod can induce something pretty close to a Zen state, and a day of fly-fishing on which one catches no fish is only slightly less enjoyable than a day of fly-fishing on which one catches many fish.

… this day’s fortune and pleasure, and this night’s company and song, do all make me more and more in love with angling.

I suspect that the beauty of Madroño Ranch, along with Jesse and Tink’s light pedagogical touch and Morgan’s jaw-dropping cooking, would be enough to convert anyone to fly-fishing; my friend and hiking buddy Bruce Bennett didn’t stand a chance. Bruce is a devoted, even fanatical, fisherman, spending virtually every free weekend fishing off the coast of Louisiana, and while he had never been fly-fishing before, he took to it so quickly that Tink threatened to hire him as an instructor for the next Fly-Fishing School. Indeed, Bruce spent most of the weekend in or on the water and “in the zone,” largely oblivious to everything except the arc of his cast and the location of the fish. When he finally, reluctantly, came back to reality, he said, “This has been the greatest weekend of my life.”

Somewhere, I feel sure, old Izaak Walton was nodding and smiling.

What we’re reading
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Martin: Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler: or, the Contemplative Man’s Recreation, Being a Discourse of Fish and Fishing, Not Unworthy the Perusal of Most Anglers

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One Response to A school of fish: Izaak Walton at Madroño Ranch

  1. What a lovely account of a weekend I continue to hear great things about.

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