Fishmail: Metamorphosis

February 8th, 2003

As poets go, Ovid should probably have a special place in the hearts of fishermen. Anyone who writes something called Metamorphoses would probably have had a pretty decent stab at understanding the life cycles of the Ephemeridae, for one thing, and probably tied a fairly mean mayfly nymph too; and anyone who spent years exiled in a fishing village on the Black Sea would inevitably have discovered that saltwater flyfishing doesn’t work. Whether or not this fine Roman poet was actually a closet fisherman is not actually recorded (although he did write a fragmented poem about it), but I thought of one of his more memorable quotes today as I received an interesting communication from the Salmon and Trout Association.

"There is no excellence without difficulty", wrote our exiled friend, and that’s a sentiment which I think most of us can fully understand. There are, it is true, a very few people who are so naturally gifted at their chosen work or pastime that their pursuit of it seems effortless. Unfortunately for the rest of us, aspiration to excellence involves a lot of hard work. That seems to be an entirely fair deal, not least because hard work invariably involves the acquisition of experience – something that I think is an essential part of being really good at anything. If you haven’t spent a lot of time doing it, you probably don’t understand it.

This lengthy preamble is a roundabout way of telling you that in my own small way, I aspire to a particular kind of excellence. I want to be a really good flycaster. There are lots of reasons for this – the main one being that it is many years since I consciously tried to be good at something, and it’s about time I rediscovered the joys of learning. And if I’m going to be good at anything, it might as well be something that I am passionate about. (Epictetus, another bloke from the distant past who had more than a few pithy aphorisms to share with the world, had this to say on the subject: "One that desires to excel should endeavour it in those things that are in themselves most excellent". Amen.) 

As things currently stand, I am no more than a reasonably proficient flycaster. After a good many lessons with Mr. Arden and an awful lot of hours of practice, it has become clear to me that while I can acquire the basic skills easily enough, I don’t have a natural gift for this – timing and coordination are not attributes with which my genes have overburdened me – and so I’m going to have to work at it. Last year, after some encouragement from Paul, I decided that I would become a certified flycasting instructor. Small steps; STANIC first, then maybe FFF and after a while, if the signs were good, I might attempt an assault on the lofty summit that is AAPGAI. I wrote to the STA, administrators of the STANIC qualification, and discovered it was in the process of being overhauled; and now, only a year later, they have sent me details of what this overhaul entails.

I won’t reproduce the contents of their communication in full, not least because it would take me a couple of hours to type it. I can’t even point you to any online resource which explains it in any detail, as the STA’s website is not exactly a glittering example of the genre. But here’s the gist of it. The new qualifications have been developed in tandem by the Joint Angling Governing Bodies and something rather ominously called 1st4sport, whose aim is apparently "to provide a cost effective and quality assured qualification awarding service". (Note the emphasis on money, and the lack of emphasis on grammar).

The new qualifications are arranged in hierarchical levels – just two to begin with, eventually to become four. The first one entitles you to be a coaching assistant only, and need not detain us long here. The second level – catchily known as the Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Angling – licenses its owner to teach people how to fish. It costs £352.50, involves compulsory attendance at a five-day course and is spectacularly limited in its scope. Some extracts: "An angling coach must be able to… choose a fly rod suitable for a beginner on still water. (Ditto rivers). …choose matched rod and line outfits for a beginner, using the AFTM system". So far, so good. But then: "…choose a light bait casting outfit for trout and sea trout". Not so good.

You have to know some basic stuff about knots and leaders. Then, and only then, do we get onto the casting: to pass this exam, you have to be able to show and teach a roll cast, a basic overhead cast, a line shoot and a combination cast involving all three, to a maximum distance of 12 metres. Oh, there’s a single haul in there somewhere, which apparently aids in "increasing rod bending for the cast". Right.

That’s it.

Well, that’s not quite true. There’s some stuff on accuracy, mending and wind. There is also some stuff about bait casting; playing, landing and killing fish; fly selection; fish and insect biology; and the safe use of boats. All very generic; all very useful for beginners; all very easily teachable by most reasonably competent flyfishers – but none of it at all useful to someone who has a couple of afternoons free and wants to know how to get the bloody line out to where the fish are. They can learn the rest from dozens of books, in depth, without having to pay somebody to teach them – or, better still, at the waterside – but it is unlikely that they can learn a good double haul that way.

If you want to start flyfishing from scratch, you could probably do worse than attend a course run by someone who holds a Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Angling. You would certainly learn something very basic stuff about what sort of rod to buy, how to tie the important knots, what sorts of flies you can buy in shops, how not to fall in the water or take someone’s eye out on your backcast. But you would not learn to be a good flycaster, because the time that you could usefully spend understanding how to do it properly will be filled instead with advice on selecting artificial baits and the safety implications of your choice of fly. And you will be taught things like this: "The rod tip drives the line out. The faster the rod tip moves, the faster the line travels and the more distance and control can be gained in the cast. Tip speeds depend on the spring action of the rod, with the lever effect added". How many really good casters would agree with that? Not a word about the importance of the stop, or how to increase line speed. There’s not even a mention of common faults and how to identify and correct them; surely one of the instructor’s most necessary tools.

Meanwhile, the instructor gets to learn almost nothing. I cannot see a single way in which my flycasting could be improved by taking this exam, or how my ability to teach others what good casting is actually about is in any way extended. The stuff that people actually have trouble learning – how to actually get a fly to where a fish is – is painfully underemphasised; meanwhile, the obsession with safety is banged home in what seems like every paragraph. As if they haven’t made the point clearly enough, you also have to attend a Good Practice in Child Safety workshop. Further, you have to agree to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau and you must have a first aid certificate. It’s all very worthy, it presumably exonerates the administering bodies from any blame in case of problems and it’s all perfectly defensible. But it is not about flycasting – and thus, it does not deal with the greatest barrier to people becoming good flyfishers.

There is, as yet, no information on what Levels 3 and 4 will involve. Whatever it is, I think that it is very unlikely that my metamorphosis from semi-proficiency to excellence is going to start with a Level 2 certificate. It’s not difficult enough. In my view, it focuses on the wrong things. And it is unlikely to elevate my skills and understanding to a level which would inspire me to be a good teacher. I am fairly confident that the time and money involved in acquiring it would get me to a much higher standard – and that way, I’d have some real knowledge and insight to pass on to others. But the arrival of this document has at least shown me that if I am to properly live up to Ovid’s dictum, I need to bite the bullet and give AAPGAI a call. More on all this next time.

 
Sean Geer (sean@fishmail.co.uk) is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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