September 21st, 2002
I'm going to make an apology in advance here. I have been stricken with an evil ague this week, one of those colds that fills your sinuses with superglue and your head with seal’s fur, and my train of thought may be even less coherent than usual. But stout yeoman that I am, I still found time to go fishing on Friday. I may not be able to speak or think, I thought, but I may at least be able to throw a fry imitation far enough to catch a hapless rainbow or two at Grafham.
As it turned out, it was more complicated than that. The fish were spooky and uncooperative, the weather was far too calm to produce anything like a ripple and the nose was setting new outdoor world records for production of unpleasant bodily fluids. But I spent the day in a happy reverie anyway, and even troubled a few fish – but my thoughts were elsewhere for most of the day. On my way up the A1, I drove across the river Ivel, a small river north of London that some people – although not me, even on a good day with a following wind – could jump across without much trouble. Most trout anglers barely give it a second glance, although it holds some fine chub and barbel – both species that adventurous flyfishers can have much fun chasing when they can’t afford to pay for the fishing at Hanningfield.
The Ivel has a special resonance that extends far beyond its fish. It was for many years Richard Walker’s local and much-loved river – and that tells me, for one, all I need to know about it. I doubt I need to give anyone a history lesson about this fine angler and all-round hero, but for our readers overseas: Richard Walker was a British angling Colossus, and a man who inspired countless youngsters to pick up a rod and learn about the joys of this odd sport of ours. He died in 1985, but not before he had made an immense impact on all kinds of fishing in these isles; among other things he invented the electronic bite alarm, conceived a superb mayfly nymph pattern still in widespread use today, invented the famous stickleback imitation that caught me my first reservoir rainbow trout and made a series of pioneering radio broadcasts from the bankside that, over fifty years later, still hold their own against more modern imitations.
At least as importantly, he wrote several books that still make my heart pound when I read them – in particular Stillwater Angling, a book that changed the way people thought about chasing fish in ponds and lakes here. He was a rare example of a man who you instinctively knew was a fishing genius; a man who had more original thoughts about his passion in a week than I have had in thirty years. He, more than anyone, is responsible for the fact that I now spend a hundred days a year bamboozling myself at watersides all over the world.
Most pursuits in life have their inspirational characters; I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, feels the same way about a crochet or welding legend as I do about Walker. But I think we, as flyfishers, are running out of them. I wrote some weeks ago about the paucity of knowledge about flyfishing in this country; and as the UK’s rural community marches on London this weekend in protest about the government’s inability to manage or think clearly about our rural resources, never have we needed passionate, articulate and convincing spokespeople more. There is a small handful of people in this country who have devoted much time and effort to making the voice of fisherfolk heard here, and their efforts should be applauded. But we have a much bigger collection of media wannabes; any number of people happy to stand in front of a camera and hold up a giant, factory-reared fish, any number of people happy to talk about how good they are at what they do, or how many fish they caught last week, or how many rods they can cast with simultaneously. How many of them can convince a politician that what we do is important in some way?
There is a very famous picture of Clarissa, a 44lb carp caught by Richard Walker in September 1952 – exactly fifty years ago last week – that held the British carp record for nearly thirty years. He is not even holding the fish in the photograph, leaving that task to his friend Peter Thomas. Walker cared not a jot about publicity or records, but he had the ear of influential people and spent much of his time using his phenomenal talent to educate others about not just how we do this, but why it matters. We could use him now, for sure. Meanwhile, I’m going fishing again, and I’m taking my polystickles with me. Cheers, Richard…