Here’s an article that appeared in the wonderful Waterlog magazine this summer and explains why I’ve not been writing so much recently…
It all started with the discovery of a worm in our garden. I am unsure whether an instinct was ignited, or whether it triggered some earlier yet forgotten connection, but I was compelled to act. Bubbling with the youthful excitement unique to a small child, I clasped the poor creature between my little fingers and ran into our house, looking for something… anything that might help me sate my desperation to fish. Disgorging cupboards and pulling drawers to the floor, I turned the house upside-down single-handedly, the squirming worm in the other, before I unearthed a pink ribbon, deep in a drawer.
Rushing breathlessly back out to our meagre garden pond, I wrapped the worm in the end of the ribbon and made my first ever cast. My excitement became despair as I watched the worm unravel from the ribbon, plop into the pond and sink, writhing into hidden depths along with my dreams of fishing that day.
Whilst other anglers will understand this instinctual pull, most of society, my parents included, don’t relate at all. My first fish was eventually caught a few years, later with marginally better tackle and skill, in Hampstead Ponds, North London. Distracted, I was chatting to a friend when a passer-by mentioned my float was bobbing around. Reeling in I found a wriggling silvery-golden roach, as exciting to me as Charlie’s Golden Ticket, which served to end my dry spell and further intensify my passion.
I think, peering into the ripples of memories past, that I decided to become a Chorister at Winchester Cathedral solely because the River Itchen bubbled past my boarding house and that I’d seen someone catching trout in the sparklingly clear water when I went to visit.
There were many times I pulled my reluctant Mum or Dad out of bed at 6 in the morning to go and sit by some lakes in the rain. Very few fish were caught. I can only imagine how tedious it must have been for them. Without a mentor or more knowledgeable angler than myself, I relied on the programme ‘Go Fishing’ and the books I read to pick up my craft and, being someone who learns best through gathering up knowledge from doing something and being shown, I was bad. I bought and used the wrong gear in the wrong places. Like that first fishing experience in my pond, there was far more anticipation than action.
Only a few fishing memories – many unremarkable – remain. There were no Damascene monsters. I remember aged perhaps 9, hooking and landing a sacred Koi carp handlined from an large ornamental pond in Thailand, to the horror of the local staff at the hotel. There were trips to the local ponds where, armed with a match-stick and a single maggot on a weeny hook I had some great hauls of teeny-tiny roach and perch. A hook straight through my finger (the largest thing I’ve ever hooked) resulting in a minor op at a local doctors surgery. A single trout, caught on my tackle when I’d gone to the loo by another angler in the Lake District. The odd crayfish and bigger perch and roach from London ponds. An eel from the Norfolk broads which slipped between the slats of my landing platform, wriggling away before I could claim to have properly ‘caught’ it, leaving me in floods of disappointed tears. I can only remember perhaps a dozen trips in a dozen years, most unsuccessful. There was little, it seems, to have sustained my dreams.
Later, in my mid-teens, I begged permission to fish in an old estate lake where everyone else was far more interested in the golf course. There, I started to come into my own. Fishing with three rods, I once had three carp on simultaneously – bringing two into the bank but losing a third on a rod that I’d clasped between my legs. My greatest day saw 14 fish brought to bank, including a few low doubles. Yet despite this increasing luck, aged about 16 I downed my rods and then didn’t touch them for close to 20 years. Fishing was no longer exciting, or interesting. Whatever magic that had cast its spell in my youth had slipped away, leaving me ambivalent.
In the subsequent two decades, I only fished a few times – catching wahoo and sailfish on a few trips in East Africa. I caught mackerel in the UK and went carp fishing on a couple of occasions with friends who had a plethora of the latest kit and I caught a few fish. My old tackle, which I’d brought along to demonstrate some kind of willing and past skill, served only to provoke laughter. Yet despite stirrings, the trips left me mostly uninterested. I’d felt an outsider, a disconnect between that old excitement and my knowledge, ability and desire.
As you get older you lose the childish wonder and excitement. Certainly, I no longer wake up at 5am, a gnawing bundle of anticipation before holidays, Christmas or buying something I’ve really wanted. A rod or a reel that previously would’ve had me salivating beneath the torchlit duvet covers of my youth are no longer a financial issue and yet there’s has been no draw… Fishing was, I thought, some adolescent fancy, a hobby relegated to immaturity…
…Until two summers ago.
A couple of trips fly fishing with a friend reignited a feint glimmer of memory. Now that I am a man – at least physically and financially – with my own car, sufficient income and free will, I no longer need to persuade anyone to take me fishing. Slowly the glimmer has brightened. A single fish in a few sessions was enough to rekindle something, drawing me in. It took a few trips, a few fish, a few copies of Waterlog – before I realised I’ve become hooked again. It’s crept up on me. I feel that youthful tingle stirring deep within me.
I am still unsure why I connect to fishing so deeply. Fortunately, now that I am older, perhaps wiser, I am also able to examine fishing and what it means to me more objectively. I am aware that the fish had little to do with it. In fact, I’ve realised, they’ve rarely had anything to do with it.
Reading ‘Waterlog’ for the first time, coupled with some of Chris Yates’s books and watching ‘A Passion for Angling’ have helped me understand this yearning. I don’t go fishing to catch fish. Fishing is my meditation. If anything, hooking a fish to me is the end of the anticipation and the beginning of the practical. Like a build up in a song or a kiss, it is often the moment before the break – in fishing the bite – the tension that occurs before the thing happens which is, for me, the purest, most magical moment. When I am actually connected with a fish, I feel a sense of anticlimax. I still enjoy playing and catching fish very much, but for me, it’s not the favourite part. Certainly I wouldn’t want to fish to deliberately not catch anything. If I was to cast an un-baited hook it would be almost the same thing yet it would be a hollow activity with little joy. I want to catch fish and will try my hardest to do so, but the catching part isn’t the climax that many believe it to be.
So what is it? I like to float fish far more than I do any other style of fishing. There’s something about it, the float providing a connection to a different world lying deep beneath the reflective surface. Watching a float is a meditation, everything else falls away and I am connected to it, which in turn is linked to the depths, almost plumbing a subconscious. Although fly-fishing never really appealed in my youth, that’s almost all I’ve done since this passion has been rekindled. A friend taught me the ‘New Zealand’ style, a way of float-fishing whilst fly fishing, where the fly sits deeper in the water, marked by a surface float. I’m told the purists frown on this type of fishing – some people believe trout should only be taken from the top of the water – but for me, this style of fishing is far superior. I am reconnected to the depths, and in turn myself, by that visual cue. It’s why I love it so much.
My passion has been rediscovered 25 minutes drive from my urban home, in a secret magical location that probably been the same way for hundreds of years. The routine itself holds some magic. I pick up a key, left for me behind a rock next an old estate building and then drive through a number of fields and locked gates. Then, passing through a canopy of oaks and beeches, I pull up next to the water. I’m received by a glistening, lily-fringed, four acre lake, protected in a valley by a ring of ancient woodland. Unlocking the beautiful gothic boat house, I look for the roosting bats above me that hang from two-hundred-year old rafters and load a punt in the cave-like basement, feeling a little like the Phantom of the Opera. Then, sliding out of the musty dark, through ancient stone arches and into the light – I am reborn. The weight of whatever stress I hold drops away as I drift into this heaven. Usually the only fisherman on the lake, I watch herons and kingfishers as I manoeuvre into the places I’m slowly learning might hold fish, weigh anchor and try to take a little time to savour the moment and prepare my tackle.
Here, amongst the trees, water and nature, I am at peace. Sometimes I take friends but part of me is relieved if they cancel. When free from company, I’m treated with a few precious hours alone. I’d like to say ‘with my thoughts’ but instead it’s more like ‘without my thoughts’. A time of tranquility, of gentle anticipation and, of course, a few fish.
And so, fishing has crept back into my life. I don’t want to go on long fishing holidays or catch the biggest fish. I’m not interested in new tackle or toys. I’m not even that concerned with changing my rig, or trying new waters. The simplicity is far more rewarding. Getting to know the ins and outs of this location – where herons nest, where fish move, the different lights at different times of day. Diving off the side of the punt to enjoy a summer night’s swim. Where to position the boat so as to prolong the warmth of the evening sunshine through the trees as the day fades.
I simply love being able to take myself away and spend some evenings reconnecting with the natural, with myself. Whether I catch a dozen or a duo of fish, I am somewhat unconcerned. For now, it’s trout, the location and it’s familiarity that satiates that need. I feel a gentle pull to head back to course fishing slowly growing within me, but it will come when it comes. Perhaps most importantly I feel a solid reconnection with my younger self. I am making up for lost time. After years of abandonment, of growing up and out, I am back fishing two times a week despite my full diary. I never had a fishing mentor or guide to take me and teach me, but now I am that man.
I’ve come a long way, yet I am back where I started…