And so, to a slightly non-sequetous mixture of soapbox threads; but mostly, wives, modern angling practices, and the close season.
My mostly perfect wife, Anna, had on her pitying look, so I don’t think she meant it as a compliment. All the same, I was rather pleased at her pejorative sideswipe, after all, who enjoys their fishing more than the kids. And by enjoy, I don’t just mean success in landing vast fish, or filling three keepnets full of fish, or casting two-hundred yards to margin fish the opposite bank, or standing proudly over a matched set of four 3 lb. test-curve Armourlites, in the hope that someone will comment on the immaculate turn-out of the outfits. By enjoy, I mean that kids, at least the lucky ones, are still capable to being enthralled by anticipation of a day on the river, and still delighted at the flurry of their gossamer connection to a modest dace. And the lucky ones I mentioned? I believe the lucky ones are those who have failed to discover carp over ten pounds, and rods with red stripes, and bolt rigs, and boilies. The lucky ones are those whose sights are set dizzyingly on a roach of ten ounces, and if they’re unbelievably lucky, a red-eyed tench of a pound. The lucky ones dream of a new float that will sit just so, and a day tucked into the cow parsley, as their quill gyrates to the lust of a …… well, who knows? In some of the most beautiful angling words ever written, Bernard Venables describes the homecoming of a new child fisherman: The tempering of the boy’s reception will depend upon the sensitivity of his parents; if he has those that he deserves, in the mist of their distasteful anger they will see in his eyes, peering from mud and tousle, the rapt and brooding delight.
Forgive me, because I’m aware that I speak to the great majority. So I’ll say it softly, and I’ll say it sadly – guys, you’ve lost the plot. I know things move on, evolve, improve, but modernist fishing has gone too far: it doesn’t seem to be fishing any more. And if it isn’t fishing what is it? Well more than anything else, I think it’s become one big competition – a sad improvement on the glorious sport I remember – fishing fit only for a Pokemon World. It has to be bigger, it has to be new and improved, it has to be more efficient, and it has to have six ball-bearings for each day of the week. Where oh where is the glorious simple bliss of Isaac’s Corinthian quest? I just feel so sorry for the young who graduate immediately to a life of lunkers and HNV baits. They have been sold a hideous nightmare of instant gratification from which there is no waking. For them, with their twelve month season, no sleepless nights as the 16th of June approaches: for them, fresh from their conquest of a twenty-pounder, no twinkle of pleasure at the iridescent, metallic flanks of a gudgeon. How they have been cheated, this new generation.
It happened to me, by stealth. Inch-wise it got me. So year on year I changed from the fishing-intoxicated child, to the well-tackled-up youth, to the sophisticated technocrat adult with funds enough to buy those Starship Enterprise reels, and ruthless rods cooked to perfection by a man with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, and no soul.
Thank God, with a little help from my friends, I eventually woke up to my hyper-shallow predicament. Things are different these days. When I’m fishing in England, I’m equipped ‘traditionally’. Using all those lovely folklore tokens of nicer fishing times, I sally forth as when a boy, in search of those remembered moments of bliss: and perhaps for the lost innocence of unknowing.
Argue as long and as politically as you like – the old close season was exactly what the waters, the fish, and the anglers needed. Coarse fishing stopped on a cold and rainy day in March, and started again with warm dawn mists off a tench lake. It was like being re-born, and the breathless anticipation of it all was worth a hundred lost days. The 16th June is the 16th of June. No other day will do for the start of the season.
This year we laid early plans for the 16th. Voting was six to one for a little pond in Herefordshire, where the carp and tench generally run two to the pound, and the occasional three pound wild common looks positively Brobdignagian.
On Wednesday I dropped into the local tackle shop to buy some bits, and was met by a wall of cigarette smoke: ‘the boys’ (who were, to a man, all wearing earrings just like their Mums’) were discussing the recent poor results at the pit. ‘Where you in tonight Shine?’ Shine regarded the questioner for a moment, and replied, ‘The bushes, and if that f----- git Darrin drops in there I’m gunna chuck the f----- out.’ From my position near the split shot, I heard Walton, Sheringham, and Walker, all groaning, and turning in their graves.
At 4 am. the chums turned up to collect me, and that’s when Anna offered her opinion of our maturity quotient: that’s my girl. Tim’s very smart Germanic people carrier smelt wonderfully of cheesepaste, groundbait, and hemp. The air was full of expectation.
We parked by the little Saxon church, and waded through waist-high grass to the edge of Laxley Wood. Over the stile, and into the cool dapple of the beeches. Anxious eyes peered through the maze for the first flash of water. And there it was.
I don’t know who Hobb’s was, but I guess he must have been some once impressive notable, to have a pretty fishing pond named after him. At less than an acre, Hobb’s Pond doesn’t attract the lunker brigade, and judging from the wild tangle of untouched brush, it hadn’t attracted anyone else bent on fishing in the close season. A moorhen more used to the isolation of its own company, scuttled away as seven middle-aged boys approached with Wizards at the ‘present arms’.
For all our lackadaisical inclinations towards the business of fishing, I’m pretty sure we all moved up a pace as the mist-enshrouded lake opened up before us. Paul shot off to the corner, where he’s known conspicuous success in past years (what these days is described poetically as ‘filling the shed, or ‘bagging up’). The others of us dropped into the nooks and crannies of Hobb’s, and tried to assemble our kit with hands a’tremble. The staccato ratchets of seven Aerials, with a collective age of nearly five hundred years, were heard to grate , as line was fed through rings that would not stay still. Then plop, plop, plop, as hooks baited with secret pastes were sent on quest. We sought truly wild carp, and gleaming tench with bloodshot eyes.
Predictably, having acquired the highly-prized peninsular swim through the charity of his fellows, Inskip was first off the mark. Wild carp are tremendously strong and fast for their size, and true to its speedy genetic heritage this one headed for the distant hills, at the double. A fifty-year-old Wizard bent to its work, stopping the carp within yards of the far bank weed-beds. Then the carp whizzed, and it whizzed some more. The reel purred away furiously, and Inskip beamed the smile of a man who’s found Paradise. Slipped back into the margins, the fish may well have been bemused by the joy of its grateful captor, and upon being thanked for dropping by, with his impeccable manners.
The sun blazed down upon us for three days, while passionate carplings careered around the weedbeds in a frenzied lovefest. Bees certainly did drone away in the cow-parsley, and the fisherfolks’ chores blended seamlessly into each other. From fishing, to eating (oh what wonderful eating) to drinking (oh what wonderful drinking) to conversation with friends of the worthwhile variety, then back to fishing. We took our pleasures piecemeal, and while the dew was on the grass, and as the bats fluttered around our rods in the afterglow, those happy little torpedo carp visited our lives. We all caught fish, but more importantly, we were all fishing. Kevin, who doesn’t usually say very much, but who unfailingly moves us all with his good nature, summed up his own view of the proceeding when he said, ‘If I sat in the middle of a field for three days, men in white coats would come to take me away. If I sit for three days at the waterside with a fishing rod, no-one takes any notice.’
Seven big kids, wedded to the bliss that fishing can be, left the waterside with a collective fond backward glance. Walton, Sheringham, and Walker, stopped groaning, and settled back to their long peace.
And with a ‘knight’s move’ shift so typical of my current state of mind, that returns me to the wifely thing. I knew it before those blissful days, and it’s all the more obvious now: I’m right, and she’s wrong. With or without the twinkle in her eye, the next time Anna swings some subtle little put-down in my direction I’ll smile inwardly, knowing that I’ve got the best of it. Others before have lived with this gulf of not understanding. And because I know I will never construct a paragraph so apt, so finely observed, or so catch-breath beautiful, forgive me if I again borrow some words; these from that wonderful angling writer W.M. Hill: Our women like to say that all men are boys. Hopefully, they’re right. But they have never understood angling boys and can’t help at all when sometimes we glance up quickly, peering across blurred meadows at small visions long gone.
If you nodded your head knowingly whilst reading this, or if the words caught in your throat, or if you had to dab at an involuntary tear; there’s hope for you. If not, then you have no heart, but more likely a cheap housebrick on a string, that swings from side to side.
There are, it seems to me, those who do not need to mix fishing and emotion. The other day I watched a chap on television playing a nice carp on a colossal pole outfit. The fish was pulling like hell, but 14 metres of carbon and a length of heavy pole elastic absorbed the fish’s efforts so efficiently, that all the angler had to do was hold onto the barely-moving butt of this crane-like ‘fishing rod’. I mean, I could see all too well that he could catch fish like that, but why the hell would anyone want to? A friend who I’m very fond of and admire greatly, says he won’t fish for carp in England because it’s not worth it, having caught thirty and forty pounders in Canada. I find that sad. Each to his own, and all that; but it’s still interesting to speculate on what others actually get out of what they’re doing.
It’s not just about using wooden rods and wearing tweedy trousers, although there’s much pleasure to be had from such talismans; it’s about recovering the spirit of angling that has been subsumed by our new hurry-scurry techno-world. Today is the first day of the rest of my angling life: and because I allow myself to see, as generations of boys of all states of maturity once saw, the joy is still there. Really, I can recommend it to you.