This, the great debate on the innocence of the angler, took place between Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Byron opened it with some insulting remarks in his
in the 1820s:
And angling, too, that solitary vice,
Whatever Izaak Walton sings or says;
The quaint, old, cruel coxcomb, in his gullet
Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it.
And in his notes to Canto XIII, he declared, "No angler can be a good man."
The defense was first undertaken by the great scientist Sir Humphrey Davy in his Salmonia, the only angling book on the model of Walton's dialogue to come off with reasonable success. One of his characters sides with Byron because of the way Walton strung his live baits. The character who presumably represents Davy won't defend that; he fishes fly. But he exonerates Walton on his general character as a good man.
Then came Sir Walter Scott, who reviewed Davy's book in the Quarterly Review of October 1828 and made it the occasion of a long essay on angling. In it, dead serious, poet combatted poet. Scott:
Of the humanity of the pastime we have but little to say. Our author has entered into its defence against Lord Byron, who called it a 'solitary vice,' and condemned its advocate and apologist, Izaak Walton, as 'a quaint old cruel coxcomb,' who 'in his gullet/Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it.' We will not inquire whether the noble poet has, in the present case, been one of those, who 'Compound for sins they are inclined to,/By damning those they have no mind to.' And we can easily conceive that scarce anything could "have been less suited to Byron's eager and active temper, and restless and rapid imagination, than a pastime in which proficiency is only to be acquired by long and solitary practice. But in this species of argument, whether used in jest or earnest, there is always something of cant. Man is much like other carnivorous creatures—to catch other animals and to devour them is his natural occupation.
After giving a number of twists to the tail of his opponent on the theme of hypocrisy, Scott concludes:
My lady, therefore, who gives the ma�tre d'h�tel orders, which render necessary sundry executions in the piggery, poultry-yard, and elsewhere, is an accomplice before the fact, and as guilty of occasioning a certain quantity of pain to certain unoffending animals, as her good lord, who is knocking down pheasants in the preserve, or catching fish in the brook.
Of Davy's exemption of himself from the charge of cruelty because of his use of artificial baits, Scott said dryly: "Under the favour of such high authority, this is a point which none can know but the fish himself."—an observation reminiscent of Red Smith's on the humanity of cock fighting: "It ain't chicken."
Under the favor of such high authority as Byron and Scott, the issue they joined is beside the point. Anglers do not escape repentance for lack of remorse at killing animals. They simply don't identify with fish. The true cause of angling innocence is the absence of maidens (except maidens with rod in hand) in the angling idyll. There are no Scyllas, mermaids, Ondines or nymphs in angling literature. Indeed, in several hundred angling books I have read, I have found no maidens of any kind, real or imaginary; from which I conclude that maids qua maids are excluded by convention.