the fishing question

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Is there a place for angling in the 21st Century?

By Paul Halas

I’m going to declare an interest, because I’ve been a keen angler for over sixty years, but during that time angling has been the subject of its fair share of controversy. My more Woke friends know I practise “the gentle art” and I’m guessing they’re too well-mannered to take me to task – but the odd askance look hasn’t gone unnoticed.

One time at junior school a group of girls tied me up with a skipping rope to teach me what a worm feels when it’s on a hook. It wasn’t that enjoyable an experience, but even remembering something that happened to me aged eleven demonstrates I’m aware that the sport has many opponents.

On the face of it, trying to stick a hook into a living creature – for our pleasure – doesn’t sound too good. I’ve read plenty on whether fish feel pain or not, and as far as the scientific consensus is concerned neither the ayes or the nays have landed a knockout blow. Research has shown that fish have very limited cognitive abilities, and function largely through instinct and learning from repeated experiences. (There is, however, a fascinating exception: an African freshwater fish called the Mormyrdae, which communicates what appear to be quite complex messages via electrical impulses, and have consequently developed a proportionally very large cerebellum. This makes the Mormyrdae the Brain of Fishdom, but otherwise nearly all fish, including the revered carp, have a brain that would make a chicken look like Einstein.) I’m not a scientist, but as for knowing what happens when you catch a fish I have a fair bit of experience. When hooked, a fish usually does its utmost to swim away from the direction it’s being pulled in, or it heads for the nearest cover. Once landed and returned to the water (unless you decide to eat it), it swims off and quickly resumes what it had been doing.

Sometimes a fish appears to be unaware that it has even been hooked for several seconds or longer. A sizeable catfish I caught in France behaved like a sack of flour until after a minute or so I really started heaving at it, whereupon it decided to make a rush downstream towards the Bay of Biscay. Most anglers who fish for large specimens have experienced something similar. It seems it’s the pressure on the line rather than the hook that is producing the reaction.

Silurus glanis 02.jpg
Catfish. A 56 lbs (25 kg) specimen didn’t know it had been hooked.

Fish that are caught and released don’t tend to suffer too much from the experience. The most outrageous example was in the 1980s, in one of the lakes at the Cotswold Water Park. A perch of around two pounds (approximately 900g) used to hang around in the margins of a couple of fishing spots, waiting for odd maggots or worms to come its way. You could see it hovering in about two feet of water, saying “c’mon, feed me!” We called it Muggins or something similar. It was too easy to catch, and anglers would actually go out of their way to avoid its attentions. It didn’t appear to mind being hooked at all, and after every capture it would resume scrumping maggots without a care.

Perch, photo by Dellex, Wikimedia commons

Repeat captures are commonplace. Last month I caught the same 11.5 lbs (just over 5kg) mirror carp twice within a half hour. A few years back I managed to lose a small lake’s largest inhabitant, a 25lbs (11.4kg) koi carp, only to return the next week and complete the capture. The angling club’s log book recorded that the gullible koi would come out around four times a year – and certainly showed no sign of ill-effects.

Here’s the odd thing that non-anglers simply don’t get. We fishermen and women absolutely adore fish. We think they are the most wonderful, beautiful, enigmatic, fascinating creatures on the planet. Just look at almost any photo of an angler holding a specimen-sized fish and see the ecstasy and wonderment in their eyes. It seems an anomaly to be besotted by them and at the same time want to catch them – but when you’ve got the bug it’s the most natural thing on Earth.

Carp fishing. Catch and release. Lucky fisherman holding a big common carp. Freshwater fishing. Catch of fish stock photo
Object of obsession and desire.

Look at the world fish live in, under the water’s surface it’s the law of the jungle – squared. Most fish lay a lot of eggs; a mature roach will spawn around 200,000 eggs, which compared to other species isn’t at all unusual. For a water’s roach population to remain stable 199,998 of those little roachlets are going to perish, nearly all of them violently. There are very few fish that at some point in their life cycle are not cannibalistic. A good bait for catching a big pike is a much smaller pike. Big fish eat smaller fish, as do grebes, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, mink, otters… It’s underwater warfare, a daily ritual of massacre and be massacred. Fish are chomped, maimed, impaled and gulped, and viewed through the distorting lens of human sentiments – which habitually anthropomorphise the natural world – Mother Nature is endlessly cruel and wasteful. Angling is pretty small beer compared to what fish experience throughout their lives. And compared to commercial fishing, where billions of fish are hoovered up by giant trawlers and left to suffocate in the holds – a mere bagatelle.

While Mother Nature holds sway under the water, most of our UK waters are far from being natural. Human development has dammed, drained, polluted, abstracted, re-channelled and generally degraded our watercourses to such an extent that we have virtually no waters left that aren’t affected by our activity. I was going to make an exception for some northern lakes and lochs, but then climate change is killing off some of their native, and in a few cases unique, fish populations, so we can safely say we’ve acted like a bunch of egotistical, insane ecological terrorists, and fish have suffered more than most from our actions.

Polluted River. Green Polluted River in urban environment stock photos
Ecological terrorism

So isn’t angling fanning the fires of our pressured fishes’ problems? Well, quite the opposite in fact. A few years ago a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth was asked how the organisation viewed angling. It has a positive effect on the environment, was the answer, anglers act as guardians of our rivers. While the Environment Agency carries out much valuable research and helps with numerous conservation schemes, it often has a far too cosy relationship with the (privately-owned) water companies, which get away with polluting and unsustainable water abstraction on an industrial scale. Fish in our rivers have to contend with diminishing water levels, industrial effluent, poorly-treated sewage, agricultural run-off and hormones, fertilisers and in some cases an imbalance of predation. (Where fish populations are already under pressure, the reintroduction of otters has had an adverse effect on the fish, small aquatic mammals, waterfowl and ultimately otters themselves.) It was found in some rivers that fish not only had deformities caused by hormones entering the water, they also contained a shocking amount of cocaine. Coked-up carp – amazing.

The most effective protectors of fish are anglers. There are over three million of us, and that creates a powerful voice. Angling organisations such as the Angling Trust take the fight to the polluters and despoilers in the law courts and by applying pressure to politicians. Angling is a major boost to the economy, and while those in high places may only shed crocodile tears over the environment a deficit in the balance book, not to mention credibility, concentrates minds wonderfully well. And if Lord Snooty McBooty uses his wealth and privilege to keep his salmon beat on the River Spey pristine and pure, well and good… I’ll come and have a go for the salmon after the Revolution.

The beautiful river Itchen is the preserve of wealthy anglers, photo Phil Hall

Back to the original point: is there a place for angling in the 21st Century? Some people will always have misgivings about it. But for the way it brings us closer to nature, for the peace of mind it can give us, for the thrill us getting close and personal with the most wonderful creatures, for the sense of achievement of catching a personal best, for the feeling of well-being produced by leaving the rat race for a few hours, for the well-being of fish themselves and the environment, yes, it definitely has a place.

Paul Halas’s 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 two years ago with a heavy heart.

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