Monday, 2 May 2011


I really don't know why these fishing magazines bother to go to the trouble of changing the photo on their covers every month/week - it's always the same format as far as I can see, and the captions are a rotation of about 10 old favourites. I actually believe that one or two magazines share the same fish, which is pulled out of the water to pose in an undignified position, then chucked back in until the next time. Maybe they take all the photographs for their covers for a whole year on one day, to save the effort? If this was France, that 70lb carp would be a banquet for the whole village, but we don't eat it in this country.

It is strange weather here this weekend - bright sunshine and a very strong east wind, like coastal weather. Were it not for the wind, I would have noticed more of the Mayflies which have started their annual hatch and are fluttering around looking for something to cling onto, so that they can go through an inexplicable ritual of shedding one skin for another, leaving their old black one behind like a flimsy ghost. It must be difficult to get a grip in these conditions.

They remind me that the fishing season has started and I must begin my inexplicable annual ritual of going into a Post Office and buying a rod licence, then not bothering to use it for the entire season. It's the idea I like - probably more than the activity itself. I have all the kit for fly-fishing, including two different length rods to allow for trees, etc. but I have only ever used it once, and then it was on a boat in the Lake District with a horrible hang-over, having drunk like a fish the night before.

I blame Isaac Walton. I cannot remember when I first read that book - 'The Compleat Angler' - because I have had many copies of it which I have given away to friends. I can't stop myself - every time I see a copy in a second-hand bookshop, I have to buy it.

I am sure you know it, but if you do not, I will tell you that it was written in the mid 17th century and is basically a conversation between an angler and a hunter on the relative merits of each other's chosen sport, and includes handy hints on fishing as well as recipes on the best way to cook the fish - including carp, which is prepared by stitching various herbs and butter into the gut cavity before baking. Needless to say, angling comes out on top.

What makes this book so compelling and peaceful is that it was written right in the middle of the only Civil War that England has ever experienced - Isaac Walton managed to fish his way through the tumult and chaos of civil strife, often right in the heart of the action. There must have been times when he heard the distant boom of cannon fire as he cast his line into the placid waters.

When Walton wrote The Compleat Angler, fishing was just fishing, but since then it has split itself into two distinct disciplines - fly-fishing and the aptly named coarse-fishing.

We all start out as children chucking a line into the water with a bent pin for a hook and a piece of feather for a float, hanging from the end of a length of bamboo pole. That is basically what coarse fishermen still do today, except that they cannot even be bothered to stare at the float any more, so have electronic sensors attached to their lines which give out irritating 'beeping' sounds every time a fish swims anywhere near their dyed-red maggot, and the peace of the river bank is destroyed by these gizmos.

Essentially, these electronic devices are to wake the fisherman up, because - as far as I can tell - coarse fishing entails setting up about £2000 worth of equipment on the bank, drinking about 7 tins of cheap lager, eating a Spam sandwich, then falling asleep. I imagine it also entails getting away from the wife and screaming children too - in fact, this may be the sole point of the exercise.

The fly-fisher must be awake at all times, however, and will often go home with 'tennis elbow' from the repetitive stress caused by the constant casting of the tapered line, which must be deftly swung backward and forward over his head if any distance is to be achieved.

Compared to the coarse fisherman, the fly-fisher can spend a ludicrously large amount of money on his kit, considering that no electronic devices are ever used. A Hardy rod can be upwards of £8000, then there are felt-soled waders, patent lines, fly-tying equipment (for the real nutter), £300 Polaroid sunglasses, hats, vests, etc. etc. The market certainly exploits this little obsession, and I do not think that anyone knows how many books on the subject have been written since Walton wrote the definitive one about 360 years ago.

In reality, of course, your average brown trout will have a go at a piece of bright red wool hanging off a bent pin which is attached to a length of string tied to a bamboo pole held by a seven year old girl - but don't tell anyone, for God's sake. You could destroy a whole industry overnight.

So - like many other sporting activities in the British Isles - fishing is divided into two distinct social classes, though it has to be said that the Countryside Alliance is doing it's best to break the barriers down by organising fly-fishing trips for Moslem girls and children from deprived backgrounds, etc.

It is the young blood that they want to inject into the sport of fly-fishing, when incidents involving sleeping coarse-fishermen being tipped head-first into the river by passing Hunt Saboteurs are becoming more common each summer.

Us fly-fishers are too fast for the antis!


  1. There is a saying 'A bad day on the river bank, is always better than a good day in the office'; or similar. Quite right, although the actual catching of fish I find of little interest; unless they're big edible sea fish.

  2. I wonder if scatalogical fetishists have a magazine called 'Crap Talk' ?

  3. Can't see the point in course fishing. Ripping some poor carps lips off and then near asphyxiating it on the bank whilst being molested for the camera seems wrong (very,very wrong now I read this back).
    I only go fishing for the diner plate which is probably why I'm losing so much weight.

  4. I don't like killing things for 'sport' either, Chris, which is why I only ever shoot clays with my shotguns, but that's a personal thing. I'm quite happy to eat things with a face, because - by the time I've finished with them - they don't have one anyway.

  5. My family used to fish for trout a lot in the Sierras in the summer. We were there at a cow camp, and fish was a welcome change from beef. Then the family gave up the summer range, so when my brother wanted to take his 7 year old daughter fishing, he no longer had access to the trout streams. First he took her to several lakes, where she was bored standing and waiting, and never got a bite. Then he took her to a trout "farm." Her hook was barely in the water when a fish grabbed it. The proprietor netted it immediately and clubbed it before the the child's eyes. Horrified, she screamed and bawled all the way home. It's a different world now.

  6. Yes Jan, even for me as a long grown up adult (in one way), I have felt a twinge of remorse when I have beaten the life out of such a beautiful creature, but - hey ho - that's life and death. What was missing from your niece's experience was the 'sport' element. Give the creatures a sporting chance, even if you are looking at them through a high-powered telescope mounted over a high-powered rifle. Don't shoot them in a coop unless you are a farmer, eh?

  7. Reading this post was a bit like watching bowling on TV. It hurt but I was too lazy to get off the couch.

    Yes, I'm kidding. Its just that John G was talking about napping and you are going on about fishing and I feel the need to eat a big bowl of bran.

  8. Fishing and napping are obviously not disconnected Donna - I almost sent myself to sleep with this post, and these days I - like John - don't need an excuse for it.

  9. Thanks chris , Cro, Tom and Jan for the reality check. As a commercial fisher, we have to compete politically all the time against sport fishers who try to shut down commercial fisheries to protect their 'ocean classics' 'river classics' etc etc, with the resultant weigh-ins and photographs.

    Recently several beaches on the south west coast of Australia have been closed to commercial fishers and this is not due to overfishing (onshore bait fishing has never been a problem for fish stocks) but from pressure from anglers and beach goers. These commercial guys have been there for several generations and their natural history knowledge now leaves the beach with them.

    On talking to competitive anglers in caravan parks when they rock up with 100k boats and rigs, they say, "Oh we don't EAT the fish. We catch and release." Like that is some kind of moral imperative.

    It is an industry and a sport and please, isn't catching good food and letting it go (to let it die of a busted bladder and sink to the bottom) kind of offensive in a world that is overfished and growing short of food?

    I have given up on clicking 'next blog' from A WineDark Sea because I always come across rabid anglers displaying dead fish they will never eat. So depressing!

  10. Even more depressing is that fish pictured. It probably wouldn't weigh quite so much in the Carp-Talk wank fest, if it were not so full of roe.

  11. Catch and release - that's a laugh. I often catch sight of sea 'sport' anglers bounce the fish off a sharp rock or two before 'returning' their catch to the sea. Much more humane to give it a well aimed whack with a priest and eat the thing.

  12. I wouldn't go fishing for anything that I wouldn't eat. In Cornwall a couple of weeks ago, I watched a launch go out every morning on a coastal trip with sight-seers on board, then in the afternoon, it would go to one spot and drift whilst people fished with lines. By about 4.o'clock, it would be surrounded by serious fishers, and quietly chug back into harbour. There's no way the 'sportsmen' could push the local fishers off the water around there.

    The local angling club around here allow you to keep two trout a day on their licence - that's enough for managed stock, a meal for two in the evening. You have to put the carp back in the ponds though, and there are some monsters lurking around, I can tell you. I used to eat the pike that the anglers pulled out of the river when I lived next to it - they would not, and used to put them back until they predated the entire stretch of the fish they REALLY wanted to catch - inedible things with spines up their backs.

  13. Hmm. 'Sight Seers' - sounds like that old woman from 'Don't Look Now'...