June 7th, 2002
Last month, I went fishing at Bewl Water with my friend Tom. Bewl is, for me, one of those waters that I suspect every fisherman has tucked away in a dark closet somewhere – a water which has only ever brought me grief and despair on a long series of hot, windy, fishless days. Last month my view of it changed dramatically.
It was an admittedly hard day, with a fiercely cold easterly wind, but Tom was into fish very quickly, as he nearly always is. By mid-day, he had five fat, overwintered rainbows in the net. By 4pm, he had his limit, after an admirable demonstration of persistence and technique. Meanwhile, I failed to satisfy the fishy examiners in every conceivable way. Indeed, not only did I not catch a fish, but I am fairly certain that I didn't have a take of any kind – not even the most casual enquiry, not the faintest hint of interest in any fly, of any description. And it suddenly occurred to me: I'm pretty bloody good at this.
Blanking properly requires a new approach to fishing. It is, in my view, a delicate art that requires a truly minimalist approach; an approach that absolutely requires a complete absence of action of any kind whatsoever. Only then can you drive home with the absolute confidence that there was nothing you could have done to put a fish in your creel, no conceivable way that there was a fish to be caught anywhere on the lake. It is, in a roundabout way, a confidence thing.
Days like this, days when your heart can genuinely fill with pride at a really honest and fruitless day's work, are few and far between. But looking back at a 30-year career, I can honestly say that I have mastered the art of blanking. I am certainly a far better exponent than the admirable G.E. M. Skues, a man for whom catching fish was generally an easier affair than catching a bus; but who wrote of two memorably blank days on the Itchen. Those days included the capture of twenty-one and twenty-four fish respectively – but they were all undersized, a crushing blow to a man used to taking braces and leashes galore.
Clearly, times have changed, and many of us would be grateful to catch that many fish in an entire season. Skues' definition was one that not many of us could recognise; certainly not those of us who, like me, have spent whole weeks fishing for tench at Blenheim Palace without the float registering the merest dip or tremble. I have blanked, properly, all over the world; I have caught no bass on Dorset's most prolific coastlines, no trout in New Zealand's most celebrated rivers, no trevally in Australia's most fertile estuaries, no barbel in England's most regal chalkstreams – and I have done it the honest way, without even a missed bite to regret or a lost fish to mourn.
The aforementioned Tom, who I suspect could catch fish on the M25, recently blanked in the classical style on a sea-fishing trip out of Weymouth with the august Really Wrecked SAC. He won't thank me for reminding him of this, but I can honestly say that I think he had a better day than I did. My tally was a solitary, confused, unseasonal mackerel – not a bad fish, but one that I was vaguely embarrassed to catch, not least because I was fishing for plaice at the time. I can honestly say that it added nothing of any substance whatsoever to my day's enjoyment – indeed, the unexpected bend in the rod made me yearn for more fish that were clearly never going to arrive, adding an unwelcome bittersweetness to what had so far been a beautiful, peaceful day at sea. He, at least, got to relax properly without troubling the piscine scorers.
This, I think, is the key to it all. I have seen grown men break their rods in frustration at a missed fish or a fluffed cast (and have come dangerously close to it myself) – and the greater the promise, the closer you get, the more frustrating it all becomes. At the end of a day on which you might have had a dozen fish but actually landed none at all, it is difficult to feel anything other than anger and self-loathing.
History and literature are full of people who spent their lives complaining about the things they couldn't have – women, especially, and in the case of Edgar Allan Poe women who were definitely beyond his reach – and they, I think, would have made terrible anglers. It is an old cliché that one should be careful what one wishes for, in case you get it; but it is far, far worse to wish for something and nearly get it. Much better to wander home in the knowledge that today, at least, your fishing's purity was matched only by its perfection.