By Paul Halas
Why would a sane person go fishing?
How many times have I been asked that question: what’s the big deal about going fishing? For the past few decades I’ve resorted to giving a glib answer slotted into the ten or so seconds before the questioner’s eyes start to glaze over. How do you do it? How do you begin to explain a lifetime’s romance in just a few paragraphs of text?
Maybe a good starting place is trying to express the commonality of fishing with rod and line – a simple sounding activity that actually has as many variations and offshoots as there are religions. Not only are there a thousand ways to angle for a fish, the field is rife with technicalities and jargon that are incomprehensible to the lay person – who will have zero interest in understanding any of them anyway. But from the tribesman luring taimen in Siberian torrents to the Buenos Aires businessman flicking out a fly for trout in Patagonia, the tycoon trolling for marlin in the Baja California to the the factory worker bamboozling small roach in the Bridgewater canal, there is a commonality. And it’s not simply the action of pulling in a fish.
I thought I’d seek help in the vast world of angling literature. Tens of thousands of books have been written on the subject, the majority in a golden age for the genre dating between the mid points of the 19th and 20th Centuries. I have about thirty titles. But somehow for me the most poignant writing about going fishing is by George Orwell in his novel “Coming Up for Air.”
In my memory the book is about fishing, but on re-reading it I realise its main themes are the asphyxiating effects of the quotidian, disappearing worlds on the cusp of two world wars, and the nature of memory. But if Orwell hadn’t been a fisherman at some point in his life, he certainly had an uncanny understanding of how it gets under your skin. To quote George Bowling, the book’s main character: “Here I’ll make a confession, or rather two. The first is that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison, even women…” He continues, “…if you gave me the choice of having any woman you care to name, but I mean ANY woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time. And the other confession is that after I was sixteen I never fished again.”
What is it that drives anglers? Mystery and fascination comes into it. Beneath the water’s surface film there’s a completely different world, an alien world, just a few feet from you. It’s a world where the rules are different, where to sustain numbers species must produce progeny in the tens of thousands, where cannibalism is the more the rule than the exception, and where existence is most usually brief and brutal. It is also an astonishingly beautiful, surprising, timeless and ever changing world. It is populated by a host magnificent creatures, small and great, and the greatest of all of them, for the angler, are the fish… To be sought, to be understood, to be lured, to be admired and, in most cases, gratefully released with a minimum of disturbance.
Angling begets rumours, legends and folklore. Sometimes absurdly, sometimes in fact. Most waters have tales of unlikely, mysterious leviathans, which keep anglers returning time after time for even the remotest chance of striking it lucky. There was the tiny drainage pond in the middle of a Wiltshire field that supposedly contained a monster carp. Of course it didn’t, but that didn’t deter fishermen from far and wide. The Stroudwater Canal contained a 27 pound pike at Ryeford Lock, although no one had ever caught it and a fish one third of that size would be exceptional from that water.
Yet monsters exist, and in unlikely places. Not so many years ago receding floodwaters on the River Cherwell left the decaying corpse of a pike in the corner of a field that fishery experts estimated at between 55 and 60 pounds – near enough a world record. The Cherwell is only a smallish sized river. My closest encounter with an exceptional fish was a pike caught from a modest sized gravel pit on the last day of 1989. Suffering from a rotten hangover I miscast my sprat bait just a few feet from the bank, and felt too poorly to bother recasting. Instants later I found myself attached to a large fish and twenty minutes later it lay upon the grass… and I had gone into shock. My companions and I tried weighing it, but our scales only registered up to 32 pounds and the fish was obviously considerably heavier. From the instant it went back into the water that fish’s reputation grew, helped by the fact that the Polaroids we took of it were of poor quality due to the cold. For months afterwards anglers turned up trying their luck with the beast, but if any of them they succeeded they kept very quiet about it.
At school some of my fishing friends were naturals; they just seemed to have an instinctive knack for “reading the water” and catching fish without much evident effort. Me not; I was always a plodder, always had to work at it. But graft has its rewards and as a famous sportsman once said, the harder I work the luckier I become. The thrill never leaves leaves me, whether it’s latching onto a large catfish in the south of France that’ll take forever to bank and leave me with days of backache, or seeing that I’m pulling in a gold-flanked rudd that must weigh all of a pound. I get a boost of adrenaline, I start to shake. The buzz never diminishes.
And that I hope starts to explain why we do it. From the commercial cod fishermen of Nova Scotia who spend all their free time and holidays with a rod in their hands, to the carp fanatics who camp out for weeks on end in hope of that single bite that will lead to the fish of a lifetime. The stressed Japanese salarymen trying to fool rainbow trout in their squeezed hours off and the young kids at the local brook pulling out gudgeon and minnows, all have something in common. The fascination with that strange other world at their feet, and their passion for the things that swim in it.
For all the heartbreak when you realise your own stupidity has cost you the fish of a lifetime, all the times you’ve endured fishless cold and wet, longing for the point when you’re fed up enough to go home, all the times you’ve carefully baited up your own secret spot only to find it taken over by Yahoos – it’s all worth it.
Paul Halas a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party last year with a heavy heart.