It’s mid May as I write.
Just eight weeks ago a small party of us leaned defensively into a bitter and blustering easterly that tried its damndest to drive us from the last precious hours of the coarse fishing season. Inspired by the knowledge that we were facing twelve weeks of enforced purdah, we narrowed our watering eyes, and peered at our floats, fast disappearing in the flat light of the early gloaming. At the end of the day the long weeks of the close season fell upon us. June the 16th seemed an age away, but we’re nearly there now, and plans for the opening are afoot.
What a difference those few weeks have wrought. Winter has undoubtedly gone. With temperatures well into the seventies, the rhododendrons and azaleas are in full riotous bloom. The house has put on its brilliant summer coat of wisteria, and Boston ivy. The sap riseth in plants, beasts, and man.
I hate the winter. In the heat of summer I dream of frosty mornings, with a grayling float stealing its way along a glassy, mist-covered river. The reality is seldom so idyllic, and often icy wind and rain turn those winter forays into survival exercises. I’m beginning to understand why the old North American Indians reckoned a person’s age in summers: ‘Passing Wind – a brave of seventy summers.’ Winters are times when folks are apt to die. No, no, no: not for me. Give me summer every time. Give it to me straight from the box, fully formed, brilliant, ringing with willow warblers, and smelling of cow parsley. Don’t ask me to have it creep up through March and April. Allow the wondrous miracle to happen, then thrust me at those buzzing banks and heaving lily-pads. And how should you achieve this? You should insist that I abide by a close season.
In recent years SOME anglers have discarded the old close season in favour of all-year-round fishing. I’m entirely in favour of that sort of person being allowed to fish twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. The great advantage is that the sorts of fishery where such behaviour is allowed, not to say encouraged, absorb the vast majority of the people I don’t want to find on the waters I fish. Such utterances are disastrously non-politically-correct, of course. And such thoughts are hopelessly elitist. Yes, I’m happy to admit, they are. In this golden age of the twenty-first century, where Jack is, apparently, every bit as good as his master (whom he calls ‘mate’) it is simply not done to suggest that one angler (or any other category of person you might like to nominate) is ‘better’ than another, in mind, word, or deed.
Once, whether or not there was any real necessity from the fishes’ welfare point of view, anglers, fish, nesting birds, countryside, and watersides; they all got a ‘rest’ for three months. Once, with mounting excitement, we beat our way through head-high lushness to reach the opening day tench. Once, we read our way through entire libraries of angling books, in anticipation of the coming season. Once, we cleaned and oiled our tackle with loving care, as the most tangible connection to angling wonders. Once, we learned to wait for things we loved, and despite the lack of C21st style instant gratification, we were better off. I offer you the thought that the angler who knows that he CAN go fishing twelve months a year, but doesn’t, because he feels that there is an alternative, less selfish way, is the better man. But by his action; or should one say inaction? that man opens himself up to the charge of elitism. WHAT a sin.
The problem seems to stem from the current British disease of dumbing down. No longer do we seek to trade up to finer thoughts and ways; we (but don’t include me in this) seek to drag everyone down to a level that the least of people can ‘aspire’ to. Elitism is ridiculed as anachronistic, and unsuitable thinking for a country ruled by, and for, the breathtakingly ordinary. I believe the close season to be an honourable institution that everyone should applaud. It is the anglers’ Lent, and in its advantages a lifeline back to the sanity this lovely pursuit once was. Maybe I’m entirely wrong about this, and maybe such ranting is just another symptom of becoming an old fart.
There are further indications of my deteriorating humour with the current version of fishing. I loathe the walls and walls of essential paraphernalia that now beat about me when I enter tackle shops. And I am appalled to hear, as I wait to pay for my hooks, the Benson and Hedges scuttlebutt about estuarine Wayne’s being ‘bleedin gutted’ because Fick Lip, the biggest fish in the lake, ‘came out’ at only ‘ferty-nine-like.’ Where is the tackle-shop smell of linseed-oiled-nets that I remember? Where are the willow baskets, and the cane, and the corks. Where is the seductive talk of the deep water by the bend, and the group of quietly-spoken anglers who could complete whole sentences without once having to inject the word ‘fucking.’
There are four weeks to go. In April I read William Hill’s beautiful little books Fishing Personally, and Fishing Without Tears. They are long out of print, but they are often available from second-hand book sellers. I always seem to read Bill’s books in April. They are blissfully restorative. The words are wonderfully laid, and he speaks to me of the angling world I now inhabit, at least, in my mind. They are small books only in size. The wealth of experience, understanding and vision they offer, is greater than Wayne of ‘ferty-nine’ infamy will ever know, or possibly imagine. Poor Wayne.
This month, amongst some trouty others, I read, again, Somewhere Down the Crazy River, by Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade. When it was first published (I think in 1992) I reviewed this for some prestigious magazine. This is my desert island angling book. I said in my review:
Somewhere Down the Crazy River is enthralling, essential reading for anyone who aspires to something more than a day on the local ‘cut’ and a week in Blackpool every other year. Here is a priceless education, and a vicarious thrill for any angler who is prepared to learn, rather than sneer, when he is required to read a word that has more letters than “marmalade”.
Buy the hard-back, if you can afford it: buy the paper-back if you can’t: if you’re totally broke insist that your local library orders it in you: and when you have read it, for God’s sake have the sense, and the grace, to be grateful.
The years have done nothing to dim my admiration for Boote and Wade: for the determination that went into the adventures that spawned the tale, and the literary excellence of their book.
What with all the varnishing and delicious sorting in readiness for the sixteenth, I think I’ll only just have time for The Gentle Art of Angling which I believe to be Bernard Venables’ writing masterpiece. Here are words to conjure a veritable day’s fishing behind closed eyes, and here too, for those with the sensitivity to read beyond the floridity of style, wisdom to last a lifetime.
In my study stands a newly-renovated Wallis Wizard. It’s rather special because it was made by the great Bob Southwell. On June 16th I shall use it to catch a tench. I may even catch two, or three, or a net-full. In the meanwhile I shall keep an eye on it, and it on me. There are lines to replace on the old Aerials (and the new Witcher) and I should get a coat of varnish onto the basket as soon as possible, or it won’t be really hard before it’s called back to duty.
All this breathless anticipation and pleasure is mine for free, because I care to wait.
I sometimes wonder whether I’m writing for an audience that doesn’t any longer exist in sufficient numbers to require a third hand for counting. I’m repeating myself, and becoming over-daring in what I fail to edit from my copy. An uncomfortable sign of impending bufferdom, I suspect. Perhaps I should simply retreat into the remains of the lost angling world I write about. The tribe is small but intact. Perhaps we have yet a few more Indian summers.
Hello! Is there anyone else out there?