August 3rd, 2002
Technology can be a wonderful thing, sometimes. For reasons that need not detain us here, I find myself unexpectedly far from home as I write this – far enough that there was considerable doubt in my mind about whether I would be able to find a way to deliver it. But thanks to a combination of infrared communication, the very latest handheld computer technology and a new, always-on variety of wireless data transmission, there is a better than even chance that you will be able to read these words on Sunday morning.
They are not, admittedly, the words I originally intended to write; partly because I am a long way from my trusty research tools and partly because my current circumstances have forced me to think about the impact I'm having on the world around me. As I write this, I am quite close to the spot where someone made a famous and substantial impact on the world, and one that ultimately enables me to transmit this column Guglielmo Marconi, the man who brought us radio.
Marconi made his famous discoveries at about the same time as Halford and his contemporaries were plying their trade on the rivers of southern England. It is hard to imagine that they might have foreseen a world in which their respective discoveries overlapped. But today, we take this for granted; the world's watery banks resound to the sound of mobile phones twittering merrily alongside the birds, a source of immense irritation to many but an undoubted safety aid to those fishing remote places and a general source of convenience for those who might otherwise not make it onto the water at all. GPS receivers tell us exactly where in the middle of nowhere we are; SMS messages tell us what our fishing companions are catching trout on a mile or two upstream; and GSM-based data technologies allow websites like this one to be created and updated from anywhere in the world, at almost any time. Like it or not, the wonders of wireless are becoming a standard part of the fly-fishing landscape.
We are no strangers to technology, of course. As this week's interview with Simon Gawesworth shows, even something as outwardly simple as a fly line is the product of immense technological research and investment. Our fly reels are made of alloys originally developed in the aerospace industry, our rods the bastard children of improbably complex mathematics and carbon fibre composite research. Breathable waders, polarised sunglasses and even floatants are high-tech marvels that we now take for granted; and even our fly-tying boxes are filled with holographic tinsels and synthetic fibres that breathe new, 21st-century life into our supposedly natural imitations. We are, to some extent, cyborgs – beings extending our capabilities with technology, pushing beyond our natural limitations with the aid of our scientists and their demonic inventions.
Extend these thoughts for a while and you arrive at the inevitable conclusion that this might not all be such a good thing. Noise pollution from mobile phones is one thing (and a very annoying and unnecessary thing it can be too) – but real, physical pollution of the environment is another, and there can be no doubt that the production of the plastics and polymers of which so much of our high-tech gear is made must at some point have a seriously detrimental and bitterly ironic effect on the environment that most of us fly-fishermen honestly believe that we protect.
What to do about this? It's easy to sit back and tell ourselves that this is just a part of modern life, and that the damage done to our environment by the manufacture of televisions and fridges and computers and cars greatly outweighs the damage that a few million fishermen impose by making their loops sexier and their feet drier. For many of us, the other ethical conflicts imposed by our sport are worthy of more consideration. Am I hurting these fish? Should I really be using hare and seal fur to tie my flies? And going back to my original theme, what are the long-term health implications – for me as well as for my fellow citizens – of these new, high-powered wireless transmissions? As I sit here admiring the pastoral landscape of my current surroundings, gazing across a trout-filled valley on a bright and insect-laden summer's morning, it is easy to forget about these things.
One of this country's most accomplished and thoughtful fishermen, the estimable Chris Yates, is well-known for his eschewing of modern fishing technology. He uses only split-cane rods and old centre pin reels; as much, I suspect, for aesthetic as conservationist reasons. But I doubt that even he is seriously contemplating a return to horsehair as an ethically sound alternative to nylon or copolymer. Convenience traps us all, one way or another; so effectively that it stops us thinking clearly, or even at all, about the impact we might actually be having on the waterways and their surrounds that we so love. I wrote last week of some of the social and cultural problems that we must resolve if we are to continue to pursue our passion; and today, I wonder if we ourselves might not present a greater threat.