Who Was Izaak Walton?

When the men who founded the Izaak Walton League met for the first time in 1922, they could have called their new organization almost anything. They were Midwestern sportsmen, journalists, salesmen, and even one preacher. For many of them, the lands and waters they loved were along the upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa. Yet they did not choose a regional name or pick a name focused on a specific fish or water resource.

Instead, they named their new organization for the author of The Compleat Angler – one of the most original and influential books about the environment. In this book, Walton uses fictional characters to write about fishing as equal parts philosophy, recreation, social bonding, and conservation. Walton and The Compleat Angler had profound meaning for League founders who loved to fish, who understood that clean water is essential to human health as well as healthy fish and wildlife, and who saw Walton as an inspirational voice for conservation and the art of angling.

So who was Izaak Walton? Walton was born in 1593 in Stafford, a town about 150 miles northwest of London. His father was an alehouse keeper. In his teens, Walton moved to London and eventually became a prosperous shopkeeper who both sold cloth and made garments. In his personal life, Walton was a devoted family man as well as an active member of his local Anglican church. Walton eventually became an acclaimed biographer of notable figures including the poet John Donne.

In The Compleat Angler, he imagines how recreational sportsmen might form a “brotherhood” as stewards of the natural world. Walton’s anglers not only swap fishing tips and share fish dinners, they also develop a detailed knowledge of natural history and ecology and advocate for conservation.

Following in the steps of the character Piscator (who is a veiled version of Walton himself), we learn much about Walton, his love for angling and the outdoors, and his vision for conservation – and can see how his philosophy is embodied in the Izaak Walton League of America today.

Walton was ahead of his time. Izaak Walton understood that a healthy environment was essential to the outdoor recreation he loved. He promoted methods of wildlife management and sustainable fishing (size limits, seasons) that are fundamental to today’s science-based resource management.

Walton was a mentor. In The Compleat Angler, Piscator patiently teaches the novice not only how to fish but also how a healthy environment supports the sport he loves.

Walton was a practical angler. He was philosophical about fishing, but he was quite practical too. Walton wanted to catch fish. Many chapters in The Compleat Angler are about specific fish, their habitat, and how to successfully fish for them. It’s a practical guide for using the environment and resources around support this recreational pursuit. The approach is firmly grounded in a concept we embrace today but was not well understood or widely practiced in Walton’s time: sustainability.