June 22nd, 2002
Boats do funny things to people. There's something about getting waterborne that subtly changes the dynamics of a relationship – whether you're romancing a floppy-hatted nymphette on the Serpentine or merely twitching a nymph at Hanningfield, the fact that there is a boat involved seems to to have a mystical effect on the participants.
It's a long time since I did the first of these; the years have blanked most of the relevant detail from my mind, but I remember it well enough to be sure that nothing was ever quite the same afterwards. Fishing while afloat is a much more recent development in my life, and while the activity may not have quite the same frisson as that I enjoyed in Hyde Park in 1986 – I was young, naïve and impressionable then it has had a similar effect. Nothing tests your resolve, or a friendship, quite like being trapped inside 16 feet of wood or fibreglass afloat on some wind-swept, trout-laden body of water.
On the banks, you can at least put enough distance between you and your fishing partner to ensure that if you catch nothing, you can always lie about it. You can creep off for a quiet pee behind a tree, without fear of your partner's size 8 minkie becoming embedded in your most prized item of tackle and leaving you with the piscatorial equivalent of a Prince Albert. Your most inept casting can remain unseen and uncriticised, except by the rapidly-departing fish. And when you've finally had enough of being outwitted by your quarry, you can lie down somewhere on a grassy bank and dream about taking up golf instead.
None of this is possible in a boat. Once afloat, you are ruthlessly exposed in any number of senses. That minkie, seemingly so soft and unmenacing in its box, suddenly becomes a much more literal threat to your manhood than any kind of rejection by the aforementioned nymphette – and that's before you've had a chance to determine whether etiquette demands that you point it upwind or downwind. Grassy banks are replaced by harsh thwart-boards and muddy anchor-chains, nobody's idea of sensible substrates for golfy day-dreaming. Every bum cast is noticed and, often, scoffed at. And most importantly of all, your inability to tempt or land a fish is beyond concealment; indeed, it is lit up in glorious technicolour, an everlasting testament to your utter incompetence.
In the last couple of years, I have been lucky enough to do most of my boat fishing in the company of our genial host Paul. This has not been without its drawbacks. There's nothing like the close scrutiny of one's casting instructor to ensure that your expensive roll cast falls apart at a critical moment – only my experience on the banks of New Zealand's Waiau river, with not one but two APGAI instructors watching my every move, has induced such performance anxiety. If I ever I have needed a good supply of the flycasting equivalent of Viagra, it has been while afloat with Paul.
Yet, with a patience and understanding bordering on the saintly, he has endured some of the foulest temper tantrums ever thrown by a grown man. He has watched silently and uncritically as every attempt to cover a rise has resulted in a tangle or a lined fish or a missed strike. And I have watched as he caught fish after fish, while I felt not even the most tentative pull. Not since the owl and the pussycat went to sea has there been a more unlikely watery fellowship, pea-green boat or not (I should probably stress the fact here that he has never told me in song what a beautiful Pussy I am, although I suspect that he would quite like me to sail him to the land where the bong-tree grows). And as a result, I think I have learned more about trout-fishing in a couple of dozen days or so than in countless solitary weeks and months flogging the banks.
I've been on both sides of this in the coarse-fishing version of my life. I've hauled fish after fish from one end of a heavy, maggot-ridden punt while my partner's float remained horribly untroubled, painfully aware of the tension building between us; and been the fishless one in the same boat a day later. In both cases, I've discovered just how deep a rift fishing can create between two people – and how it can be sealed again with wise words or witty banter. There really is nothing like twelve hours trapped next to someone to help you truly understand who your friends are, and who they definitely aren't – whether you're chasing trout on limestone lochs, tench in estate lakes or trevally in tropical seas.
Like Greta Garbo, most of us have longed to be alone. It is one of fishing's most cherished clichés that fishing is at least partly about solitude; and anyone who has fished for more than about ten minutes knows some of the truth of this. But it is also about learning why this matters, and how to preserve it. I recently read a curious article which suggested that it was in some way bad form for chaps to go off and have a good time with their rods in groups; and while there may be some other contexts in which some may judge this to be so, nothing seems to me to be as reassuring or educational as the close presence of someone else to help you realise why, despite all its frustrations, it's worth persevering with. You may not want to dance with your boat partners by the light of the moon, but they may at least give you the confidence to keep on doing your dancing alone.