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Making a comeback: the Compleat Angler

Friday 08 January 2010

As Britain faces five months of electioneering, our countryside commentator John Sheard makes a vow to avoid politics until a general election is finally announced and write about things that really matter in the countryside – like fishing, for instance

IN A week when the Government finally came up with some sort of policy towards food production and the countryside I should really be discussing these new plans despite the fact that they are 12 years too late (See News, Thursday).

But with months of boredom, obfuscation and downright lies ahead of us – even if an election is called in March instead of the expected May – I thought instead that I would concentrate on a subject of real importance in our countryside: i.e., fishing or, as the immortal Izaac Walton dubbed it, the “contemplative man’s sport.”

River Wharfe
River Wharfe

I use the word “immortal” emphatically because his 17th Century masterpiece, The Compleat Angler, has never been out of print these past 400 years, the only book in the English language apart from the Bible which can claim such an achievement. It also happens that as a child I played by, swam in, and - illegally -fished the River Dove in Derbyshire, which was old Izaac’s favourite trout stream.

However, this is not about the ancient history of “the art of the angle” but a 2010 update on what was, and probably still is, the most popular participatory sport in the realm with the possible exception of walking. For the Environment Agency issued figures last weekend showing that they sold a record 1.5 million fishing licences last year, half a million more than in the year 2000.

The reason for this resurgence in legal angling – I’ll bet that there are hundreds of thousands more, mainly youngsters, who don’t bother to buy a licence – says head of fisheries Matt Crocker, is that it is a “cheap and cheerful sport” which people weathering the worst recession in living memory can afford. If that is so – and I feel it is only part of the cause – it means that the black clouds of these terrible financial times really do have a silver lining.

Now I know there are people out there – including many Labour MPs and other city-based metropolitans – who would have fishing criminalised alongside hunting and, they would hope, shooting. Thankfully, even New Labour has not attempted such a move because the vast majority of fishermen are urban based, working class men.

For them, the river bank is a longed-for escape from their work and home life – if, of course, they are lucky enough to have a job. For the unemployed - a section of society which has grown inexorably thanks to New Labour’s economic incompetence – the river bank or the canal towpath is a place to sooth the brow, cleanse the soul and be at peace for a few hours in the company of Mother Nature and her myriad wonderful works.

I happen to be a member of two Bradford-based angling clubs which have many miles of water in the Yorkshire Dales, as well as a rather snooty salmon and trout association in Cumbria, and I tend to fish only with a fly unless, in the many floods which we have these days, I resort to a spinner.

What better way to escape it all than to be out and about under a brilliant sun on an ice-cold, crisp day...

On reaches of the Aire, the Wharfe and the Ure where there are both trout and wonderful coarse fish like grayling and chub, I have passed many a happy hour talking about fishing with these so-called “coarse” anglers and I am often stunned by their knowledge, not only of fish but also of marine insect life, the surrounding vegetation, the birds and the mammals which share the river with them.

Never once have I ever encountered any inverse snobbery as a “game fisherman” – i.e., the wielder of a fly rather than a maggot – because they tend to respect my technique as I theirs. One thing is for sure: they catch one hell of a lot more fish then I do and I wish them all the best in that.

On New Year’s Day this year, out for a walk and lunch by the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, we met with a line of anglers taking part in an angling match which covered more than a mile of the towpath. The path itself was compressed snow, a challenge even to walk on, and these hardy anglers had been forced to break the ice on the canal before they could start their day’s sport.

We stopped an chatted with several of them, cheerful guys with a self-deprecating joke - “Must be mad to be here” was the gist of much of the chat – but they were still there when we had finished our lavish lunch and were making our way back home to put up our feet in front of the television.

And I suspect that the latter was the reason for the presence of these stalwarts on the canal bank. Christmas and New Year’s Eve had come and gone, the turkey was eaten and only the telly was left, a dull concoction of dog-eared repeats and so-called “celebrity” shows of such banality that it could cripple the very soul of anyone but a half-wit.

What better way to escape it all than to be out and about under a brilliant sun on an ice-cold, crisp day pitching your wits against a bream or a perch. And, of course, your fellow competitors because, like gardening, angling is a fiercely competitive pastime despite its “contemplative” image.

Our rivers are getting cleaner, the Environment Agency is spending £3 million on fish-restocking programmes, and television audiences are getting smaller and smaller despite a proliferation of channels. Like dear old Izaac Walton, fishing goes on and on, an integral part of English country life, a blessed escape from doom and gloom – and months of electioneering. What a relief. Tight lines for 2010!

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