The Astorga Manuscript A.D. 1624

This is a book that talks about how to garnish and decorate feathers to catch Trout, so begins one of the most mysterious and at the same time important texts for understanding the evolution of fly fishing in Spain.

José Luis García González

Looking for inspiration to start writing this article, the figurative image of the Trojan horse comes to my mind. That gadget disguised as an offering and loaded with deception that, according to the chronicles, the Greeks left at the gates of Troy. Perhaps that story that Homer quoted in the Odyssey has something in common with what I want to tell today. "In the name of God and of Our Lady. This is a goodly book on how to tie and dress feathers to fish for trout in certain months". Thus begins the Astorga Manuscript. Known by fishermen, both from Spain, and from around the world, it has always been admired for the quality and quantity of the knowledge it collected, but its real value was always veiled for several reasons: the first, the late discovery of the document. The second, its subsequent appearances and disappearances. The third, the difficult interpretation of both the information contained in the text, and the method for making those artificial flies, which came to be considered as an encrypted puzzle between its pages, perhaps impossible to solve.


The story: a clergyman from the city of Astorga (León), Juan de Bergara, began to write a document in which, he, and later another person whose identity is unknown, compiled a part of the existing knowledge in the time about fly fishing and fishing flies, stating that they were already common among those Leòn fishermen. That unique copy, which was in the form of a small booklet, a leaflet, with twenty pages written in handwriting by its authors, later took the name of the city that saw it born and today is known as the Manuscript of Astorga. Since it was discovered there in the thirties of the last century, its surprising content did not allow an in-depth study, although the first news already warned of its importance. Shortly after the death of its last owner, Mr. Julio de Campo, the document was lost, because of a move, between the volumes of his library, until it was located again in the early sixties. Then it was acquired by the Diputación de León. Fu in questo periodo che le sue pagine furono fotografate e posteriormente trascritte da D. Jesus Pariente Diez. It is at this time when all its pages were photographed and later transcribed by D. Jesús Pariente Diez. Thanks to his work and dedication, we currently retain the content and forms of the Astorga Manuscript. And I say this, because in 1964 the León Provincial Council gave it to General Franco during a visit to the city of León. Since then the document is missing.



The manuscript and its language: the Astorga Manuscript is composed of a correlative succession of recipes to tie thirty-six fishing flies, ordered, as seems standard among the old fishing writings, according to the months of the year. In this case from January to San Juan, at the end of June. Reading its pages we are faced with a calligraphy, rather two, one of each author, relatively easy to read. The real problem arises when we try to understand what the authors wanted to say and why. Then the first step to approach its content was to understand the language and how to use it as a descriptive tool. The absence of details about how to proceed to join all the materials described to make the flies, their size, how to compose a gear, how to fish with them, etc., would lead us to think that these notes could be personal notes, exclusive property of the author, or for a small circle of connoisseurs. In this way, the lack of “how to” instructions would be justified, instructions that other close authors in time made in their writings with the intention of attracting an audience. In the Astorga Manuscript there are no explanations, because they are probably left over. We must recognise that these fly dressings that have come to us since the handwritten compilation in 1624 are the result of a much earlier tradition. Otherwise we could not understand the simple, but refined technique, or the elaborate combination of materials. Juan de Bergara already warns that his writing “must be taken and use with some knowledge of books by fishermen with a lot of experience".


There aren’t known documented information of those books or their content, although without a doubt these “contents” and “experiences” have been preserved in the guild language and in the narratives of the oral transmission, related to the current art of tying the traditional Leon flies. The key to the rescue of this treaty is largely due to its analysis and recovery. Thus, for example, before the question what trout fly trout are rising to, It is still common to hear a response similar to "To tobacco, ribbed in bone, with pardo crudo" The rest is left over, because all fishermen know how it is done and what the final aspect will be. That concise description that translates into a brown body fly (of a tobacco-like tone), ribbed with a dirty cream or white thread and topped with a Coq de Leòn Pardo’s rooster feather, with thick, dark or black spots, on a white background essentially contains the same descriptive technique that was used 400 years ago.


Let's see how Juan de Bergara described one of those flies, baptizing it, if someone had not done so before, as “raw vermilion mid-March and April: lleva un negrisco açerado claro luego una de pardo de obra muy menuda que no sea dorada encima desta, una de picapez, luego otro negrisco como el primero. Por capa dos bueltas de bermejo de gallo de muladar ençendido. Cuerpo de seda abinagrada a manera de acavellado escuro, papo y cocote seda leonada muerta. Vinco acul y blanco delgado y poca rropa en el ala tanbien se puede echar el cuerpo de çedaço y es muy bueno. La Caveça encarnada puede".


Which, interpreted, would sound like this. “Tie a Coq de Leòn Indio grey feather of light steel color. Then a Coq de Leòn Pardo rooster feather with very small spots, which is not golden. Above the latter, a feather of Kingfisher (Alcedo Atthis). Then another Leòn feather as the first one described. In the head two turns of intense reddish common rooster . The body in vinegar-colored silk similar to dark brown hair color. The top and bottom of the thorax with silk the color of the faded fur of a lion. Ribbing of blue and white color, with two fine twisted threads. Do not use an excessive amount of feathers to imitate the wings. The body can also be made of wrapped hemp fibres and the fly continues to be effective. The head may be flesh-coloured "Upon reading these lines, the question immediately arises: How could someone join in a centimeter of hook, five different threads to form the body of a fly and up to five different feathers to mimic its wings? But before raising an answer, we must approach the adobos y aderecos, the ingredients and mixtures that those fishermen used to make their flies.


Materials: Threads and feathers. In total, in the Astorga Manuscript there are thirty-nine different colours and textures of threads, mainly silk, but also linen and hemp. Threads and colours that shape the bodies of the flies and that embroider on them the marks or drawings that nature drew on the thorax or abdomen of natural insects, in addition to giving the precise color to the head of each imitation. In order to interpret the descriptions that the Astorga Manuscript makes of colours, it is necessary to understand that Juan de Bergara and the Second Author use pre-scientific names, in which objects, in this case the threads or feathers, are described by its resemblance to natural models, such as: leonado (the color of a lion's fur), avinagrado (color of vinegar), acerado (color of steel), ahumado (color of smoke).


Each fly has its own name, which tries to describe them without mentioning their author, origin or other features outside them. He prefers to reveal through it, some peculiarity related to its form, its color, its feathers, or even some behavior of the imitated insect. Thus in the catalog of names they appear: Negriscos (with the wings formed with feathers of Leon rooster of the Indio variety, or negrisco as the Manuscript calls them), Salticas (that jump), Longaretas (of elongated body), Encubiertas (with the wings covering the body). At present, regardless of photography and using only language, it would be difficult to achieve more simple, natural and pedagogical descriptions than those contained in the Astorga Manuscript.


Returning to the threads, without a doubt the protagonist is silk. Hardly used in the twelve flies compiled in the Treaty (1496) attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, it is nevertheless used with generosity also in the first Austrian fishing treaties of the time. In Italy, silk was undoubtedly also the quintessential material. In addition to the written reference of Eugenio Raimondi's five flies in 1632, which would undoubtedly deserve a few lines, traditional Valsesian flies are eloquent testimony to the use of silk. Along with silk, in the Astorga Manuscript threads and strands of linen and hemp are used, cited for the same purpose in later European writings.


If for the bodies the color palette is considerable, as for the feathers it is spectacular. In the Astorga Manuscript appears the first news about the feather of Leon and its destiny, artificial flies. We can consider its descriptions as the first catalog that details and differentiates a selection of sixty-six different varieties of  Coq de Leòn Pardo and Coq de Leòn Indio. Everybody writes his own story with the ink he has more at hand and in fishing and flies issues the same thing happens with the feathers. No doubt the existence of the Astorga Manuscript flies is inexorably linked to the fortune of having the feathers of these birds. The Leon rooster feathers described in the Astorga Manuscript maintain similar denominations today and all of them are preserved today. As for the peculiarities of these feathers and leaving aside their suitability to imitate the brightness and markings of the wings of any insect, they have the added value of the uniform and smooth structure of each of the barbule that make up the feather, which makes these retain their qualities, both dry and wet. In addition to maintaining the desired volume and shape, thanks to its flexibility.


Perhaps the ignorance of the properties of these feathers outside Spain is directly linked to the limited dissemination that traditional Leon flies had in past decades, their tying procedure and how to fish with them. But we must keep in mind that we can still have a natural material that comes from the first animal raised and historically selected to make fishing flies and that has survived all the innovations that are constantly incorporated into the world of fly tying. In the Astorga Manuscript, feathers of some other birds are occasionally used, such as the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), Quail (Coturnix coturnix), Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Curlew (Numenius arquata), Common Crouch (Gallinago gallinago), Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) or the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). These feathers are always mixed or accompanying Leon rooster feathers, complementing them at the discretion of who found in them the nuance, texture or drawing necessary for each model.


The discovery: the Astorga Manuscript flies. The time has come to answer the big question; How were the thirty-six flies described by the Astorga Manuscript in 1624? Since the first readings of the document, the proposed solutions had been partial and incomplete, and could not carry out beyond a few unsatisfactory imitations using the same method. Undoubtedly, the unexpected sophistication of those dressings was the cause of which it took to interpret them more than 100 years, although in the meantime and in spite of everything, this treaty became a reference. Solving the puzzle was going to decipher each of the riddles that contained the thirty-six descriptions. The valid solution would only come when it was possible to reconstruct all the flies, placing each material one after the other and, what was even more important, using a similar technique in all of them. The challenge was not easy and in order to achieve this, two premises had to be considered: the first, to be placed at the starting point. Stop being a fly fisherman of the XXI century, and think like a fisherman would have done at the beginning of the XVII century. The second, follow the instructions in the text. Failure to do so would only raise and refute one hypothesis after another.


It is impossible to synthesise in a few lines the whole philosophy of the Astorga Manuscript, which has also continued to enrich itself to this day, but a general approach to the peculiarities of its dressings can be made. To carry out the bodies of the flies the normal tying thread is not required. Commonly used today and with a considerable historical projection, the tying thread is the first one that is tied and the last one that is cut, serving to hold the rest of the threads, hairs, feathers or other materials. In the Leon tradition, each of the threads is attached to the hook individually, wrapping itself successively on itself. The next step will be to weave the colours, textures, shapes, drawings and transparencies of the body of each imitation. So far, although laborious, nothing seemed impossible. When it was time to make the copy of the fly wing, the problem arose. The only known way to place the feather in traditional Leon flies, still used today, was described in the Luis Peña Manuscript of 1825. This document, written after the Astorga Manuscript and which ran the same fate, is organised in a similar way. It compiles forty-one models of artificial flies, some of them based on those of 1624.


The Luis Peña Manuscript deserves a separate chapter. It is another of the great and unknown contributions of the "Spanish school" to fly fishing. In view of its models, the work of the generations after the Astorga Manuscript to continue the lines that it defined is evident. The technique used to place the feathers and that was transmitted from fisherman to fisherman until today, is concretized in pulling the single fibers of the feather, separating them from the stem, to regroup them later and tie them on the head of the imitation, placing them to simulate the wings of an insect in a fan shape. Using this procedure, fibers of different feathers can be mixed in the same plane. A technique that resembles the procedure used in painting to make a mixture of colors on the palette itself, before applying the brush on the canvas. This technique did not allow to comply with the instructions given by the Astorga Manuscript. Throughout the text, the use of two similar ways of placing the feathers was suggested, offering two different results. On the other hand, for the same model required the placement of different varieties of Coq de Leòn Pardo and Coq de Leòn Indio feather indicating that in the final result, they should highlight details of any of the particular feathers. Mixing the barbules of the feather in similar proportions this was not possible. To complicate the matter further, in some cases he asked that others be placed, on or between, the others, rolled up in turns on the hook. The solution was none other than applying logic and ingenuity.


In summary, when the recipe says a feather, a complete feather must be placed directly on the fly, and so on how many identical or different feathers the author lists for each pattern. Sometimes one over another and sometimes next to each other. In the case of feather turns, we must roll it over the hook, the number of times it indicates. Returning to the simile of the painting, in the feathers of the Astorga Manuscript the mixture of colours is not done previously on the palette, but directly on the canvas, superimposing strokes of different colours. After that enigma what was really hidden was an evolutionary process, in this case towards simplification. Circumstances arisen throughout history, such as a punctual bird shortage, or the increase in the number of fly fishermen and, therefore, the demand for these feathers, or other reasons of strict economy adopted by artisans and fishermen in the construction of their flies, they stopped using whole feathers and began to generalise the tying with fractions of them.


Its value: the solution to the "enigma" of the Astorga Manuscript flies may now seem obvious, but its search has for decades been the challenge of countless fishermen throughout the world. In my case it has meant sixteen years of work, whose results have transformed the effort and worries into a privilege. In addition to the pleasure of contemplating the degree of evolution and refinement that the artificial flies had at the beginning of the XVII century, it is evident that after the Astorga Manuscript there is the first tying school of realistic flies in history.


His philosophy; use all the knowledge and means at your fingertips to copy nature. In view of the results, it does not seem exaggerated to speak of “entomology”, even when one hundred and thirty-four years remain until Carl von Linné structures the classification of the Animalia, Plantae and Mineralia kingdoms, based on the similarities and differences of their anatomical and morphological characters. In the Astorga Manuscript there are references to different parts of the body of an insect, such as colica, papico, binco, costeras (abdomen, thorax, segmentation, ventral and dorsal longitudinal bands) It also differentiates the male from the female of some species, and data are even cited about the time of year or the time of day when some insects hatch. That which Fernando Basurto had written in The Dialogues of the year 1539, “to succeed in the rivers where there are trout, it is not enough to stand by the current and look at the color of the fly that flies through it and take it out of the living, which if true is correct, it is enough not to leave trout in the current”, the Astorga Manuscript, eighty-five years later, fulfilled it perfectly.


The tools: Ingenuity and observation. Materials: feather, silk and steel. With flies already in hand, there is only the approach to the technique used then to fish with them, luckily not yet extinguished, fishing with a rod. The old hazelnut cane, naked, without rings or reel, commonly used in many areas of Europe. Fishing with this rod we will rediscover that both the patterns of the Astorga Manuscript, as many others that are part of that distant history of fishing, are neither wet flies, nor dry flies, but the most versatile flies that those fishermen could do, in addition of surely being the only ones they had. Therefore, in the case of the Astorga Manuscript, its importance lies in its content, and not in clarifying whether in the seventeenth century fishermen opted for dry fly or drowned fly fishing. They simply fished with fly and their models, apart from beauty, were not ineffective, both for their studied realisation, and for the expert hands that "on" and "inside" the waters of our rivers gave them life of their own.


In conclusion: as for the importance of considering our history and that of our fishing flies, I must say that as a fly-tier, years ago I realised that the previous step to free creation was irretrievably passing through the cultivation of knowledge. Both of the current patterns, as of those that were and that are the only scale to be able to assess our true degree of evolution, also clearing the way in the search for unattainable chimeras that may have been already invented centuries ago. For that reason when facing the dressing of an artificial fly, I always wanted to understand how to do it. For this reason, it is a pleasure to know that the Astorga Manuscript laid four hundred years ago the foundations of the Spanish school of fly tying and that its foundations are still fully current and constantly evolving.


If we add to this that these historical concerns are shared by many people throughout the world, the satisfaction is even greater. Without going any further, few years back the valsesiana style and the leonesa style have officially twinned. The work done so far on the deepening and mutual knowledge of both techniques, raises the possibility that they have already been linked at some point in history. Each one with its own identity and singularities intact, have many similarities, among which fortunately the flies they use are not found. And I say fortunately because this confirms that creativity and practicality always inhabit the side of a fisherman, wherever he is. The collaboration is currently focused on the recovery and common defense of two of the oldest known forms of fly fishing and what is even more important, which have been preserved and still practiced. I will never forget the words of my dear friend Arturo Pugno, when when he first saw the flies of the Astorga Manuscript, he exclaimed with admiration: “how much art to catch a fish”.


But, excuse me, blinded by passion, think that in these matters of history and fishing, I have been telling you about my first love, I have forgotten the Trojan horse that the muses brought me, tied to the front lines. So to release it again, I can only say that fly fishing is a dispute that is fought on a game board, water, in which two opponents measure their strength: on one side the cunning of the fish and the Another fisherman's wits. The pieces that move on the board, the fishing flies, are nothing but small Trojan horses that the fishermen present in front of the fish. Subtle deception that disguises a small hook as a delicacy and intention. Knowing when, how and why, someone made them will certainly not make us fish more, but it will fish better.

Thanks to Roberto Messori for permission to reproduce this article published in Fly Line magazine n. 1 2016.