Last Sunday I took my youngest daughter, aged four, on a walk down the bridle path to the stream at the bottom of our lane. The first strong winds of autumn had brought down several big branches and a billion leaves, so that our landscape had suddenly become crunchy and bare. The plan was to take a rod, a float and a jar of worms, to see if we could become ‘experts’ at catching fish.
You see, the idea of becoming an ‘expert’, in whatever field of endeavour, is terribly important, according to my daughter.
"If you are an expert, you are very good," she told me with a serious frown and after a little thought added: "And you can have as much chocolate as you want".
We agreed to differ on this latter point, but after some debate (and a little selfishly, I must admit) we agreed that the art of angling might be a good place to start. To be honest, she wasn’t entirely convinced that a ‘fishing expert’ is worthy of much respect, but she is still young enough to believe that grown ups are steeped in wisdom. Soon enough, she will become disillusioned with that idea, but at the moment I am enjoying the hero worship enormously.
So the next day we outfitted ourselves with warm clothes and spent a little while digging worms out of the compost heap. This turned out to be tremendous sport in itself and I was reminded of my days as a student in Devon, when Charlie Dring and I would enjoy catching peeler crabs so much that we often left hardly any time at all for the main pursuit, beach casting for bass and flounders. On one occasion, we drove home with a dozen or so soft-shelled crabs, and, having caught nothing else, ate them fried with garlic and chillies. In retrospect, I have to say that they were fairly disgusting, mainly because we didn’t know how to clean them properly, but the effect of a gallon or so of rough cider made the experience tolerable.
Many years later, digging bait with my daughter, we both felt the same sense of elation every time we unearthed a juicy wriggling worm and we soon captured enough to fill the bellies of a dozen large perch.
Having become expert worm catchers, my daughter and I set off for the river with great anticipation. Even though the weather had been dry overnight, the mud still squelched satisfyingly beneath our wellies.
By the way, I know that my angling friends will give me a knowing look when I tell them that I took my four year-old on a fishing trip.
"Ah ha." They will say, nodding to each other with a calloused look in their eye. "A bit young isn’t she?" And they’re probably right. But read on, because I think that there might be a salutary lesson to be learned by even the most cynical grown up.
The upper river Wey has a rich brown colour, even in summer and is a delightful little stream. On our stretch there are three deep holes where, on one memorable evening, I caught a chub, a dace, a roach, a perch, a wild brown trout and a gudgeon on consecutive casts. The most special hole of all has a fallen alder tree at the top end and the tangled roots of a conker tree at the other. And in amongst the roots, scoured when the floods come pouring in during winter, lives an enormous perch, at least the size of a piglet. Well, at least my daughter believes me.
On our way down to the river, we encountered the first major obstacle, the Grand Bank Of Leaves. Under a canopy of mixed oak and chestnut trees a tremendous rustling mound had been swept waist deep against the bank. For one ridiculous moment I contemplated telling my daughter not to kick the leaves, before grabbing her by the hand and wading in, both of us hooting with laughter. We soon found that by marching back and forth, we could create the sound of surf on a pebbly beach and by closing our eyes, we transported ourselves to desert islands, rather like some virtual reality game, but vastly superior.
We were also distracted by some splendid conkers on our way to the river, which, as any child born before the advent of the silicon revolution will know, are far more than large seeds of giant trees. To the very young they are in fact smooth shiny brown treasure. And, just like valuable gems, the more of them you own, the lesser in value they seem to become. One perfect example, kept in a warm pocket and fondled reassuringly is infinitely more important than a bucketful allowed to become mildewed in the garage.
To older children, a conker attached to a coarse string also has the tremendous added benefit of becoming the centrepiece of many gladiatorial battles. As we walked, I explained the relative values of the ‘cheesecutter’ as a deadly weapon in a game of conkers, but my daughter had already found a new pursuit.
The average puddle may only be a few inches deep, but depending on the size of your boots and how hard you stamp, it can either make a piffling splash, ankle-wellie high, or an hilarious trouser-drenching tidal wave. Even in this simple game, my daughter discovered new challenges. How, for instance, could she create the maximum possible splosh-factor on her daddy without an equal and opposite force on her own trouser leg. After a few puddles, I decided that it would be unwise to continue the experiment.
On arrival at the river, we crept quietly to the special pool below the fallen alder, shushing each other to keep silent, I set about untangling the float from the rod (an inevitable consequence of leaf-surfing and puddle-jumping) whilst my daughter chose the biggest worm from the tangle in the jar. I later discovered that she had secreted a couple in her pocket, presumably as pets.
Before long, the float sat brightly, circling the slack water of the pool.
"When will they come and eat it?" Asked my daughter, sensibly. A question that has plagued every angler since time began. Thankfully, she did not have long to wait or perhaps I would have lost her from the angle forever. The float bobbed.
"Look!" I said in a strangled whisper. I could not have been more excited if a black marlin had been mouthing the bait. As every parent knows, we live vicariously through our children. "There’s one! Wait for it, wait for it…"
With my arms around her, I could feel her little body tensed with anticipation. The float bobbed again.
Long seconds past, endless by her terms of reference, until with a will apparently all its own, our float dived suddenly down under the water, jagging as it went.
Together we struck and a live creature dived for the roots under our bank, the rod curving and shuddering as I resisted my daughter’s instinct to haul it up and out of the water.
"Pull!" Shouted my daughter, dragging the rod upwards.
"Let it go!" I laughed, both of us falling sideways onto a patch of dead nettles. More by luck than judgement, a large bristling perch surfaced and then dived into the main current while I wrestled daughter and fish.
Perch are wonderful. In every respect, they are most gallant of English fish. In size, perhaps not the most grand, neither do they fight in the most muscular fashion, but in appearance and body language definitely the most heroic.
My daughter, on the other hand, was mesmerised. Of course, small children these days have preconceived ideas about what might come out of water. They have seen crocodiles and sharks on telly, they have kept goldfish in tanks, they have seen books and films of monsters and dinosaurs, but nothing really prepares them for the sight or feel of a live aquatic creature, straight out of their watery dreams and into their hands. Her response, based on her experience with a recently acquired labrador puppy, was to try to talk to it, while sitting down and stroking it gently with her fingertips.
"Can we keep it?" She said.
Conservationists will be pleased to hear that we decided to put the perch back. I have to say that this isn’t because I am against eating perch, which are delicious filleted, dusted with flour and shallow-fried with butter and thyme. Or that I am particularly sensitive about killing to eat, because I have a personal policy that if I am happy to eat supermarket meat, I should be entirely happy to eat meat that I have caught myself. No, I just wanted my daughter to appreciate the importance of ‘care’ on the bankside. Later, I can teach her the more complicated issues, but aged four, perhaps it is too early.
My daughter carried the perch cradled in two hands, to an easy gently sloping run, where she released her catch and she beamed with pleasure. I did too.
We didn’t catch any more fish that day, but then we didn’t try very hard. We decided that we were hungry and needed a bacon sandwich (with ketchup), a big cup of tea and a snuggle on the sofa in front of the telly.
Later, as I was putting her to bed, bathed and smelling deliciously of shampoo, she asked: "Can we be experts tomorrow?"