This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Waterlog Magazine.
I once almost caught a trout between my legs.
Aged 8 or 9, frolicking in a murky River Itchen, my Dad lifted me up out of the water by my arms and somehow my ankles ensnared an olive brown trout of about a pound. Hauled skywards, I tightened my grip but after just a fleeting moment my ankles inevitably lost their purchase and the slippery fish wriggled free and plopped back into the water.
It would have been the first trout I’d ever caught. My father hadn’t seen what had happened but this intimate contact with my then elusive quarry had me excitedly gabbling for hours.
Anyone who knows the River Itchen will know that it is rarely murky, yet on this bucolic day hundreds of excited children were tearing up weed and throwing it at each other, drifting down the river in rafts, inspecting nymphs on the bottom of rocks, splashing wildly and giggling relentlessly whilst an aged statesman in a wheelchair serenely looked on at the scene from the middle of his garden. The trout and other river life I imagine were having a less enjoyable day, their usually idyllic habitat invaded by thousands of goose-pimpled legs, hence the reason why a usually evasive, wily trout could end up clasped between young ankles. Once a year this kind gentleman allowed the children from our school to use his gardens and the river that runs through it for an almighty picnic. Glorious, halcyon memories of England at its finest.
Until earlier this year, it is the closest I have come to catching a fish whilst swimming. This Spring, armed with a borrowed spear in Cornwall, I squeezed in two wetsuits and bobbing around more like an over-inflated lilo than a stealthy hunter, I managed to fight of the cold and buoyancy for long enough to spear a small pollock and, I’m ashamed to say, two wrasse. The shame blossoming later – at the time I was brimming with manly pride. I emerged triumphant from the sea, glittering with my prizes strapped to my weight belt next to my big shiny knife, emblematic of my connection with my Savage ancestors. If it hadn’t been for the ungraceful removal of my fins and the ten millimetres of neoprene impairing my ability to walk in a manner that might suggest I was a sane being – I’d likely have been asked to pose as a poster-child of hunter-gathering by passing tourists. Nonetheless, I michelin-manned my way back to our holiday house and casually deposited my prizes in the sink and declared dinner sorted and supermarkets for wussies.
My pride was short-lived – my mistake was to try to impress the locals by asking for a recipe for my recently hunted quarry. “The best recipe to ensure you draw out the natural flavour out of a wrasse” the manly fisherfolk in the pub wryly suggested, “is to sandwich it between two bricks and put it on a fire. Then when it’s well cooked throw the wrasse away and eat the bricks”. The internet served to humiliate further, suggesting that to spear wrasse – a friendly, kind and curious fish – was as difficult ‘as shooting a family labrador’. We ate it anyhow and it was surprisingly good, so we had the last laugh, along with my swallowed pride.
Which brings me drifting slowly toward my point: Given how much time us fishermen spend by the water, I am continually surprised by how little time we spend in it. We lovers of the water and all that lies within are surprisingly unlikely to pull off our boots, jackets and dive in.
Given the blackened fingernails and general cleanliness of the average fisherman, surely a post, pre or during-session dip, or perhaps even all of these, would only serve to improve our reputations and cohabitability? Are we all too aware of the creatures that lie within and therefore a tiny bit frightened of the things that we cannot see that may be lurking beneath a placid water, ready to chomp upon our delicate extremities? Is our imagination so vivid and fanciful that we allow our dreams of monster fish to prevent us from dipping our toes into the watery depths? I’ve yet to catch a snaggletooth big enough to cause me anxiety, but I still suffer a childish ‘what’s below me in this deep water’ fear that prevents me from going too far out, but it’s not enough to prevent the swim itself.
A now famous Patagonian guide learnt his trade by donning swimming trunks and goggles and spending a month submerged in the waterways of region, finding and watching trout from within their element, rather than above. Understanding more in that period about where fish lie, their behaviour and what they eat than decades spent casting from the bank.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that it’s worth swimming in order to become a better angler. Alas, in many course fishing locales, the visibility wouldn’t enable much more than an angler to appreciate that fish have highly tuned senses that are much more useful than their eyes. Instead I want to ask why on a glorious, hot summers day, anglers are restrained enough to prevent throwing themselves in? It’s a mystery why you’d want to be by the water but not enter it. To plumb its depths but not immerse yourself in it. The crystal coolness that’ll wipe away the sweat and heat of a summers day within seconds. To be at one with your quarry. To feel the water. After a day spent on the bank, surely you want to have one last cleanse?
I have a feeling regular readers of this magazine will know what I mean. Yet it so rarely happens. Who first decided that the two were incompatible? Is there some unwritten rule book, akin to golfers having to look like they’ve just stumbled out of a country tennis party, that means swimming would result in furrowed brows and letters to local club chairpeople? I hope not. The only good thing about golfing in my youth was being given permission to fish the old estate lake which served to frustrate the golfers who had to cross it. Fishing (and swimming) was certainly beneath them.
I’ve never been one for rules, so in the last couple of years since I’ve started fishing again, I try to swim as often as possible. A dive off the end of a punt into a lake, or a tumble from a bank into a river. It’s rarely allowed, but perhaps all the more pleasurable as a result. A swim to check, or more likely disturb, my swim. On one fishing trip, too lazy to walk to a bridge a mile away, I simply tied my gear to a log and paddled across the river to the surprise of some walkers I met as I scrambled gollum-like out on the far bank.
Swimming has also served to be a fairly good barometer of whether I should be fishing at all. Please excuse my wimpy fair-weather approach to our beloved sport, but one should be aware of one’s limits. Generally speaking, if I’m fishing in a location or at a time where I wouldn’t want to swim – think a canal in winter – then normally I think I might be pushing my obsession too far.
As such, good fishing is to me, good swimming. Namely, a natural setting where there aren’t many people and it’s not knee-deep in boiles, crayfish or shopping trolleys and where the ambient temperature is high enough to make the swim a pleasure rather than an temperature-induced exorcism-of-self.
John Wilson of ‘Go Fishing’ fame claims to have scuba-dived in weir pools and other places to better understand the fish he’s trying to catch. Chris Yates and Bob James from ‘A Passion for Angling’ seem to spend a good amount of time in the water, particularly in Redmire, although usually with the excuse of a bent rod in hand and fully clothed. Chris has also written a book called ‘Falling in Again’, which perhaps is a clever cover for a desire to cool off, so as not to upset the status quo.
Aside from these, I’ve discovered very few reports of swimming anglers, angling swimmers or us purebreds – swanglers. Google gives away little and there and on forums the only mention of swimming is accounted to fish not the fishers. Although delightfully swangling is, I have just discovered according to an urban dictionary online it is, ‘a word to describe achieving something in an uncommon or non-traditional way… Swangling, as stated, is an art… Above all, however, swangling is what the swangler makes of it’. What joy, the moniker fits. Perhaps it will be an olympic sport within couple of decades? You heard it here first.
Aside from the spearfishing, my first dive into my swim happened in mid-May this year and jolly nice it was too. As the summer has unfolded I’ve swangled on almost every trip. Just when I thought that my return to fishing couldn’t get better, swimming has enhanced it that little bit more. Combining passions and enabling a different perspective of the venue – the temperature, the feel of the bottom, an attuned sense of the silky wonder that is fresh water. Perhaps in years to come I will up my game and find some way to tie a lure to my toes and see if some leisurely front-crawl or breast stroke can entice a fish whilst actually swimming. I’ll keep the breaking strain low so that I don’t suffer the same fate as the Zanzibari fishermen I worked alongside – who told stories of inadvertent swims after hooking marlin whilst trailing thick lines trolling large lines from their outstretched ankles. Unbelievable, if it weren’t for the multiple bracelet-like scars on their ankles.
With so little mention of fishing and swimming elsewhere, I hope that I am not committing some massive taboo; some long-ingrained understanding that to swim whilst fishing is akin to a racial or sexist slur. I hope not because angling is, to many, a way of further appreciating and learning about the wonder of our natural, and to swim is to give that further and deeper perspective. So, I encourage you to entertain a spot of swangling next time you’re by the water and if you happen upon a fishing venue, likely in the South West, which contains or is fringed by an angler in sopping boxer shorts (or in even less populated venues his birthday suit) do come and say hello, if and when decency allows.