In 2006 Rod Sturdy had the pleasure of meeting and talking at length with the late Fred Buller, incorrigible angler, researcher and writer. Here Rod unearths much of what made the man tick and a wealth of little known facts about the great man.
Picture a neat and tidy study with a spacious desk and lined with numerous files and books on archaeology, history and art and of course fishing and hunting, all carefully labelled and classified; a place awash with pictures and maps of various kinds but dominated by the picture showing the head of a large pike, with menacing jaws half open, in one corner.
I have come here to sit and talk to Fred Buller, one of angling’s household names, one of the founders of modern pike fishing, and indeed of modern angling as such. He is an angler, hunter, writer, and dedicated researcher into man’s earliest relationship with his prey and the history of fishing.
Fred tells me that he became an angler at an early age. He spent every school holiday in Dorset on the Stour, which he describes as being simply ‘a fabulous river’ with observable shoals of large fish when he first came to fish there in the 1930’s. Fred attributes much of his ability to read water and his skill at fish location to those early days fishing clear water. He recalls being influenced by watching a Mr Westcott, an all-round angler and jeweller by trade in Blandford, and also a Mr Harding who used a fly rod for whatever method he fished on the Stour, including live-baiting for trout. So impressed was he with the Harding technique, that when he joined a local angling club in Edgware the young Fred turned up to a match on the reed-fringed Great Ouse ready to do battle with a nine-foot Allcocks ‘Test’ fly rod! Needless to say the day was a total disaster.
But Fred did in fact go on to distinguish himself as a match angler, on one occasion in 1957 taking a winning 64 lb pound bag consisting of two hundred and sixty-one dace. He shows me his most cherished match trophy, the Wilkes Cup (awarded for catching the most fish in a season) which he first won in 1954 and four more times before giving up match fishing. Fred has, of course, known many other distinguished anglers who have shaped modern angling, including the late Billy Lane, who Fred describes as having ‘magic hands’ when it came to his extremely fluid handling of tackle.
We discuss the subject of the state of angling now. Fred regards it as one of the saddest things that children are generally no longer allowed to enjoy fishing, either on their own or with their friends, during their formative years, as a direct result of perceived dangers to them if left unsupervised. He recalls that he and friends were, by contrast, supremely fortunate in having been able to enjoy marvellous times fishing together without any particular supervision, although clearly there must have been risks even in those days.
In the angling world Fred is of course automatically associated with a single species: pike. He declares his belief that the pike’s association with man in Europe is older than that of any other fish. It features in cave paintings which are over forty thousand years old. Fred believes that it was the first species to be caught on hook and line. When prey fish were found inside pike, some kind of gorge system was devised by early man to catch them: a gorge stone, the forerunner of the hook, would have had tapered ends and a narrow waist in the middle to attach the line round. He declares himself everlastingly fascinated with a creature which possesses such a menacing appearance even when only a few inches long.
We talk about big pike. Fred has devoted much time, energy and expense to the verification of reports of large pike. He has just brought out a sequel volume to his ‘Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike’ (1979). This new volume covers pike captured over much of the known pike-inhabited world, including a large number caught on the European mainland. His is motivated by the idea of applying scientific principles and of verifying or dismissing claims of big fish: it matters little, he says, whether information gathered supports or refutes the claim – the pleasure is all in the process. He quotes the example of a claimed ninety-plus pound pike caught, using a shoe last as a lure, on Lough Derg. Far from dismissing the story out of hand, he set out to track down the documentation connected with the capture. The story, it transpired, withstood close scrutiny. Fred makes the point that in certain cases, it is a matter of making a judgement about the available evidence. Bogus claims are usually transparent.
At this point Fred, despite declaring the book in question (‘More Mammoth Pike’ – 2005) to be the last one he would ever publish, has now produced a manuscript documenting over 400 giant Atlantic salmon, of which 143 were caught on fly. The qualifying point in the list is 50 lbs, but because salmon over 60 lbs are so sensational, they will be recorded even if not caught on rod and line. Clearly this near-octogenarian has no intention yet of scaling down his output.
Fred is also in the wider sense a historian of angling and its origins. He is due to bring out yet another book soon, this one dealing with medieval church wall paintings which feature fish and fishermen. He tells me that having recently completed a history of the fish hook in great depth, he hopes that a book ‘the Origins of Angling’, bringing together all of his historical pieces, will be published. Incidentally, one notable ‘Fred’ has had the pleasure of knowing was the Reverend Alston, a Church of Ireland priest. Alston’s knowledge of fish and fishing was immense and something which Fred used to tap into.
His researches have naturally involved travel abroad, notably to China and Russia in the 1980s. China he describes as ‘a real experience…and very exciting’. For Fred the excitement was triggered by witnessing people fishing with the same tackle which had been in use for centuries. His companion Frank Plum, a mutual friend of Fred and Hugh Falkus, drew Fred’s attention to the distinctive spoke reels anglers were using of a design originating in the sixteenth century! The two soon established that the general level of angling skills was excellent, although the tackle in use was fairly primitive. One aim of the trip to China was to visit museums with a view to seeing early illustrations featuring angling. In the event, this all came to nought, as it soon became apparent that any items of value had long since been exported!
Likewise when Fred went to Russia in 1981, he was confronted by something of a time-warp. He undertook the trip as a member of a party organised by Ken Sutton, former director of ‘Angling Times’. Fred and his angling journalist colleagues were the first ever to visit Russia at the expense of the then Soviet government, who were aiming to earn hard currency. The condition was that each member of the party had to undertake to write articles on the trip in the Western angling press. It proved to be a roaring success. The overwhelming discovery they made was that the Russians simply did not have any proper tackle available to them. There was for instance no suitable wire for pike traces. A gift of a simple Colorado spoon made to a boatman was received with great delight! Despite their lack of suitable gear, the Russian anglers they met had excellent watercraft and local knowledge, just as had been the case in China.
A family holiday in the Dordogne gave Fred the opportunity to go off during the daytime and view cave paintings featuring images of salmon and pike, fish that the troglodytes either trapped or speared. Salmon were possibly the most important food item for these cave dwellers, who probably had a tally system to keep count of fish killed. During the day Fred enjoyed the excitement of viewing some of the earliest pictorial records of man’s encounters with fish, but always rejoined his family later in the day in time to take them for dinner!
Fred is of course a prolific writer. One of the most outstanding examples of long-running writing synergy of the Twentieth Century is of course the Hugh Falkus- Fred Buller partnership. One product of this was the celebrated ‘Falkus and Buller’s Freshwater Fishing’ – no mere text book, but a most erudite appraisal of all of the British freshwater species, with literary references and a history of tackle and methods used for each one. Each of the duo realised that they could achieve more together than they could ever do individually. The process involved their meeting once a month at least for a regular exchange of material for scrutiny and discussion. They understood that they needed to agree on everything which went into the book. They did of course have their moments, but Fred assures me that these were never allowed to hold up the process, as each was conscious of the need to keep on working together. Fred quotes with some apparent delight one of Falkus’s less complimentary descriptions of him as ‘the most awkward little bugger I’ve ever met in my life’, which could possibly have been a disguised display of admiration!
Fred tells me that he did most of the drawings and took most of the photographs for this jointly-written book, and amassed a file of literally hundreds of plates in the process. He acknowledges that he learned a lot from Falkus about writing. Falkus, on the other hand benefited from Fred’s awareness of how drawings and photographs could enhance a book. As a result the second edition of Falkus’s ‘Sea Trout Fishing’ was a great improvement on the first and became an acknowledged best seller.
Fred however rates the highlight of their partnership resulted in the publication of ‘Dame Juliana the Angling Treatise and its Mysteries’, the work which was thirty years in the making and represented the completion of a mammoth task. This not only involved modernising the original medieval English text of Dame Juliana’s ‘Treatise’, but also painstakingly re-constructing the tackle described for purposes of illustration, but mostly the examination of the enormous amount of material written about the ‘Treatise’ itself. In order to establish a possible link between Dame Juliana and Sopwell Abbey, Fred sought permission from St Albans Council for the removal of a scrub wood, which revealed the original landscape in the hope of establishing the exact site where the artist stood when he portrayed the angler, abbey and bridge which forms the well-known frontispiece of the work.
Interestingly, although the book was commissioned to be completed in one year, which soon passed, it was eventually published thirty years later. In 1967 Richard Walker persuaded his publisher to commission Fred to produce a book on pike to feature in the ‘Richard Walker Angling Library’ series. Fred set to work, but even after a year had elapsed he was not even near completing the task. Once more a commission ran out of time, but Fred was asked to carry on regardless. He worked in conjunction with the publisher’s designer and this, coupled with a large amount of Fred’s painstaking research, resulted in his superb volume ‘Pike’ (1971). Fred, not being a professional writer, decided not to take on any more commissions for fear of having to skimp the research work, which he so greatly enjoys.
Fred’s comments on writing in general interest me. Despite it being a lifelong passion, he has never found it an easy task. He admits to having learned much from Hugh Falkus. Other influences have brought home to him the value of writing as an ongoing process: for example seeing from an original manuscript of one of Wilfred Owen’s poems how many times Owen, arguably the greatest of all First World War poets, had made amendments and additions in order to improve on the first draft.
Apart from research and writing, Fred has an abiding passion for Ireland. He entertains me with stories of the type of unintentional humour which so typifies the Irish. Fred quotes Des Elliot, the well-known Irish angler Fred used to fish Loughs Mask and Corrib with. On one occasion Des asked his gillie how the fishing was. Paddy the gillie promptly replied: ‘The fishing’s wicked bad…no, I tell a lie…it’s worse!’ During the strike of gillies and boatmen in the 1980’s, Des and Fred went to a meeting of strikers in Cong. The Bishop of Tuam had involved himself in the strike and made attempts to mediate and bring about a solution agreeable to both sides. At the meeting, one of the strikers rose to his feet, gravely declaring that ‘the Bishop of Tuam’s verbal agreement…is not even worth the paper it’s written on’!
Fred traces the origin of his love of Ireland from his reading the 1930’s fishing reports in the ‘Fishing Gazette’, and later in the 1950’s, when he travelled across Ireland with Leslie Moncrieff to fish off the west coast in search of large porbeagle shark. He recalls passing signs to the mighty Loughs Con and Mask, and how painful it was not to be able to visit them. In time, Fred acquired a base, a cottage near Ballinrobe, where over the years many famous angling ‘names’ visited him. These include almost all of his friends, with the notable exception of Richard Walker, who was petrified at the thought of venturing onto a large sheet of water. Walker did not like sea fishing for this reason, and it took Fred a while to coax the anxious Walker into going out in a boat on Loch Lomond and on Grafham Water.
Ireland has changed unbelievably over the years, comments Fred, and tells me that there was a time when he used to have difficulty paying bills there, as there used to be a certain kudos attached to being owed money by an Englishman! And there was a time when he cannot recall seeing a woman in a bar – unless she was behind it, of course! Ireland has made great strides as far as material progress is concerned. Ireland has some of the most highly-skilled and highest-paid workers in Europe, but has in the process of acquiring material wealth suffered environmentally with the usual problems, including water abstraction and pollution. Fred slates the Irish Government’s failure to conserve salmon stocks by allowing uncontrolled drift netting – with the result that Irish salmon fishing is now no longer good value. He adds that the Irish Government’s recent, rather belated response of making this netting illegal will perhaps reverse the trend.
Fred tells me that his angling interests have become specialised over the years. Apart from an occasional outing for coarse and game fishing on the Test with friends, the only type of fishing he will now travel a great distance for is fly fishing for salmon. He is full of admiration for the fruitful efforts that have been made over the years to preserve and improve the salmon fishing of the Tweed, which Fred fishes a lot. The late Jim Miller of Hardys, who organised riparian owners to act as one man, was the initiator. The work has involved such measures as the buying out of nets and persuading most fishermen to return coloured fish. All in all a great success story, comments Fred. Ireland is of course still a regular fishing venue for Fred. He fishes Mayfly Fortnight for trout and enjoys a spell of pike fishing there in late November every year. And of course he fishes regularly in Ireland for salmon on the rivers Moy and Corrib.
The North Esk in Scotland is a location Fred loves to fish for spring salmon, as a guest of Allan Lane, the son of the late Billy Lane. He remembers talking to an Esk gillie about the reluctance of the fish to take a fly or bait despite the fact that there was a fish in every lie. The gillie’s comment on the situation was: ‘There are so many fish in the river, sir, they’re frightened to move in case their place gets taken’!
Despite his love of salmon fishing, Fred does not recognise any game-coarse fishing divide. He tells me that the real magic as far as he is concerned is to be able to see a fish, any kind of fish, and then catch it. Fred goes on to present his view of what fishing is. It is a sport which originates from man’s deep-seated urge to hunt prey, albeit in a modern form with a code of practice and regulated means of carrying it out and necessarily, and he is most adamant on this particular point, a closed season designed to protect the prey. And that is essentially what Fred Buller the sportsman is all about. In his long sporting career he has at various times hunted to hounds and shot. He is the archetypal hunter whose urge springs ultimately from the necessity of catching food for survival. He insists that he must retain the right to kill a fish for the table if he so wishes. His concept of fishing does not recognise the validity of consistent catch and release. He is very clear on this point and comments that coarse anglers who return all fish and who consider themselves immune from attack are mistaken…
As a final thought, he comments that perhaps anglers should develop the principle of self-regulation to ward off the interventions and attacks of outsiders.
As I leave, head buzzing with impressions and ideas gleaned from the day, Fred tells me in passing that he regularly spends the equivalent of a normal working day in his study researching and writing. I am left feeling admiration for my host’s dedication to the tasks he sets himself and the energy he pursues them with.
Copyright RJ Sturdy 09 May 2006
This article was first published in Waterlog Magazine No.57, 2006 (Medlar Press) and is reproduced here by kind permission of Jon Ward-Allen www.medlarpress.com