by Adele A. Wilby
On occasions, while meandering the various English countryside and woodland paths, I have been pleasantly surprised to come across anglers. I have met fishermen dangling their lines in either a pond in some remote corner of the low-lying areas, or wading in water and casting a line down through the waters of a gently flowing river.
Brief dialogues with these men, and they have all been men, on how far they have been successful in their catches yield different responses: some are satisfied that they have indeed caught several fish and subsequently returned them to the water, while the response of less successful anglers is to express optimism that by the time they leave at the end of the day, they will most certainly have landed a fish!
However, arguably more interesting than whether or not the hooks have snared a catch is the demeanour of the men involved. Decked out in their layered fishing jackets with pouches containing various equipment adding inches to their already substantial, ageing girths; sturdy boots at various levels on the way up their calves, waterproof trousers well tucked in; hats of different shapes and sizes and colours; tackle boxes splayed open revealing their array of hooks and other stuff I have no knowledge about; standing or sitting, sometimes with the rod in hand, or not infrequently, just circling the same spot eyeing their rods, they exude more a sense of enjoyment and ease at the tranquillity of the natural environment in which they are immersed, than the actual fishing; it is their space, and they appear to relish the moment.
Nevertheless, neither a hunter of either animals or fish myself, the fascination over the pleasure these men, and some women, obviously experience in the challenge to catch a fish has frequently perplexed me. Why would anybody want to sit on the edge of a pond in any type of weather, sink a line and hook and wait to catch an innocent fish, or stand deep in water consistently casting a line back and forth down or up a stream, until a hungry fish in the wrong place and at the wrong time is snared on a hook?
I have never delved into these subjects with the fishermen I have come into contact with; I am not sure that such questions would be welcome, indeed they might feel offended at such trite, perhaps ignorant, questions about a sport they obviously feel is worth all the time and effort to learn and practice, and indeed the money spent on the equipment. However, recently a friend suggested the book, Blood Knotsby Luke Jennings that would be an alternative read from my usual choice in books, and the reading of it might shed some insights into what it is about fishing that draws so many men into the sport. I agreed to have a go at reading the book, and in the process perhaps learning the answers to the questions as to what is so fascinating about fishing that engages so many men in particular.
Not far into the book, I began to realise that perhaps the ardent anglers are right; there is more to fishing than sinking a line and hook into the muddy bank of a pond or river. My first ‘awakening’ was to realise that what lies below the water is of equal interest to the angler as that of the preparation of fishing equipment and is as much a part of the challenge when fishing. The habitat of the fish is as important consideration as the technique of tying knots and hooks and casting the line as a prelude to catching a fish. Jennings comments on this aspect when fishing in the river Thames: ‘It maybe that your hooks are caught in the rusting spokes of a bicycle wheel, that your bait has already been stripped from the hook by Chinese mitten-crabs’. However, the fisherman is not to be demoralised by the rubbish lying on the river bed for that is, he says, ‘the nature of fishing’, even though, ‘the odds are almost overwhelming against you and that is how you like it’ in which case, ‘all that you can do is offer your bait to the water, empty your mind, and reach for your thermos, your hip flask and whatever other comforting poisons you’ve brought with you. In other words, you must acknowledge the ritual nature of what you’re doing’.
‘The ritual nature of what you’re doing’ and an ‘empty mind’? Are those qualities of fishing and approach consistent with skills required to master a sport? Perhaps it is best put in more sophisticated terms when Jennings says ‘half of you is intensely expectant, while half of you enters a zone of no time at all.’ In other words, fishing it seems, is, for the angler, intense, both in terms of anticipation and experience.
My curiosity roused about fishing and the fisherman, I read on as Jennings narrates his autobiography bound up in an account of how he eventually mastered the ‘art’ of fly fishing: he has laced his history of learning and experiencing fishing into his personal and family history.
Jennings has written elegantly about his middle-class English family, and it does, in many ways, represent the quintessential middle-class English life style: conservative in outlook; proud to be a part of a family with a military heritage; patriarchal in orientation, and a lover of the countryside. His family is not untypical of many English families of the post-World War II era of the 1950s: a father who has a nostalgia for wartime experience; financial frugality; social class as an element in social relationships, and a determination that their child should attend ‘better’ schools seen mainly to be at a boarding school where his father before him had taken up residence to acquire the necessary education. But it is the story of Jennings love of fishing that is, for me, the centre piece of the book, and it is the opportunity to learn and master the sport of fishing that is an important feature of Jennings life at boarding school, and after.
Thus, we learn that Jennings was eight years old when he acquired his first fishing rod, an impulse buy by his father. But unable to gain any practical experience of fishing, Jennings turned to books written by the best anglers of his time to learn more about what fishing actually involved. Fortune fell his way at school when he established a friendship with a man as passionate about fishing as Jennings himself; the boy was set on a journey that took him to different ponds and streams in the English countryside where he was able to learn the technique of how to catch a fish. We are left in little doubt however, that catching that elusive big fish is more than casting the line in the water in the correct place, or flicking the wrist that will allow the hook to land just tantalisingly close enough to seduce the wary fish, or how well the knot has been tied or the best fly attached. The real skill, it seems, is in bringing all these components together into a harmonious casting action which optimises the probability of success, and it is that which excites the fishing enthusiast. Jennings practised the technique until he had mastered the ‘art of angling’. Commenting on the elegance of his friend’s fly-fishing ‘art’ when a trout came into view and became the target of the fisherman, Jennings says:
…Robert…his concentration total, waited until the fish had come up another three or four times before making his move. Then he raised the rod-tip across his body and gave the cane a single, deliberate forward stroke. The line wheeled upstream, unrolling at the top of its arc to flick out the leader, the fly’s forward progress arresting in a tiny puff of water vapour. It was, I think, the single most elegant physical action I had ever witnessed’.
Jennings frequently reminds us, that acquiring such elegance requires patience and practice, as all art forms do. A pity though, that the elegance of the gentle movement of the fish’s delicate fins swaying, and the sashaying of its firm, shiny, smooth body in the water could not have been appreciated on the same level, although Jennings does concede that fish have their own beauty. The carp with ‘their immensity, their ghostly elusiveness, their elemental strength when hooked…The wet-leather head with its small suspicious eye. The silver-grey mass of the body, every tarnished scale the size of a half-crown’ is one fish that he admires. Moreover, the fish, in Jennings’ terms, are distinguishable in their gendered behaviour: ‘the silvery elusive roach were as feminine in their character as the gladiatorial, bronze-armoured perch were masculine’. Inevitably he was ‘driven crazy’ by the roach! ‘To catch a prime specimen… and to linger for a moment on its exquisite fashioning –on the amber eye, the white gold of gill covers, the vermilion fins, the iridescent violet-scales is to forget the hours of frustration’, he says of fishing for that feminine roach. Perhaps his desire to snare the roach is consistent with his human ‘masculine’ behaviour, as opposed to tackling the masculinity of the ‘gladiatorial’ perch.
However, ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ is perhaps not the issue, but rather that the fish have ‘character’ and their habitat is the water that the fisherman must be attuned to if he is to snare one of nature’s beauties. Watching for the movement of the reeds in the water; for that special dark place near the roots of trees; for the air bubbles to pop up on the water surface; identifying the insects skimming the water; choosing the appropriate ‘fly’ that mimics the insects that fish feed on, is the work of the fisherman before he finally launches his challenge. Will he have chosen the right ‘fly’: the ‘elk hair caddis’, the ‘woolly bugger’ that imitates just about any bug, or will the ‘Chernobyl ant’ be as impactful as its name sake, or indeed will any of the vast number of dud insects do the trick and get the fish ‘hooked’ and bring joy to the fisherman, or will the fish’s instincts tell it danger is lurking, and with a flick of its tail propel it out of danger? Will the angler be an ‘outwitter of wild creatures’? The answer will reveal itself when the fisherman finally sends in the line; the challenge between man and fish on, and the fish, if snared, is not likely to go down easily. The fish’s muscle and guile is bound to be fully mobilised, curling its body back and forth in a frenzy of fear to free itself from that hook deep in its jaws in the battle between man and fish as the fisherman reels in his catch and wrests victory over the creature. Once onshore the fisherman, in Jennings’ younger days, proceeded to secure their victory by knocking the defeated fish on the head, putting an end to its fear and defeat. In more contemporary times, the fisherman shows magnanimity and spares its life, and, being the gladiator that it is, the fish is returned to the water to wait another day for it to face its next challenge in the watery coliseum, as the angler goes through the ‘ritual nature’ of fishing and prepares to launch yet another challenge.
For anyone interested in fishing, Jennings’ Blood Knotsoffers an insightful account of the joy of a boy who learns to fly-fish, and makes accessible the skill, or ‘art’, of fishing and the pleasure that many people get when fishing; there is obviously more to fly fishing than dangling the line in water and waiting for a bite. However, my brief excursions into fishing for yabbies in a country stream with my brothers as a young child is sufficient, I have decided, to exhaust my life experience as an angler. Thus, there is one less person in this world who will ever view fish as prey, and the catching of a fish as a challenge to be won. Instead, I will leave the fish to swim gently, and peacefully through life.