Fishmail: White Lies

August 11th, 2003

Clive White is no ordinary fisherman. In fact, he is no longer a fisherman at all, despite the fact that he has regularly graced the pages of the British fly-fishing press. A supposed expert in stalking techniques, White has for some time specialised in catching big, stupid fish from small, manmade lakes – none bigger or more stupid than the 36lb 14oz fish he claimed as a British record in 1995. This fish's particular brand of stupidity stemmed largely from the fact that it was dead before he caught it, as he confessed last month to the British Record Fish Committee; according to the angler himself, he found it lifeless in the margins at Dever Springs fishery and scooped it into his net.

The amount of coverage his confession subsequently received was staggering, to say the least. From Singapore to South Africa, newspapers gave him the opportunity to wallow in self-pity and moan about the fact that his deception and his so-called fishing addiction had ruined his marriage. While he was at it, he took the opportunity to pour scorn on fishing in general – “an unfair game – like shooting tigers in a cage”, apparently – and male fishers in particular, who he now apparently regards as sad, insecure inadequates with severe ego problems, according to one British weekly publication. He, however, feels much better about himself now – and I'm sure that you're all as relieved as I am in knowing that after eight years of shame, such a man can look at himself in the mirror again.

Let's leave aside the suspicion that his sort of post facto analysis is pretty much what you'd expect from a man who was so desperate for recognition that he faked something as ultimately trivial as a fishing record. Let's ignore the fact that in another version of his story he didn't just find the fish dead at all, but instead found a fish that had been reared by his mate Nigel specifically for the purpose of breaking the record, left on the bank for him in advance – a claim that Nigel rejects, but which has an awful aura of possibility surrounding it. And let's put on hold the theory that perhaps the worst thing about stocked put-and-take fisheries is that they produce people like Clive White. Let's not give this dishonest, hypocritical man any more publicity than he has already had, in fact. Let's think about the fish instead.

Whichever way you look at it, White's fish was doomed to an unfortunate end. Nothing unusual there, I hear you say – in the UK at least, even our bigger, more challenging waters are filled with trout whose entire existence depends on their usefulness for sport and food. This is something that anyone who wants to catch rainbow trout in these islands must eventually come to terms with – unless you live within casting distance of one of the vanishingly small number of rivers where they breed naturally here, you must fish for them where they have been reared and stocked. But in an ideal world, the waters in which these manufactured creatures swim are big enough and natural enough that the fish soon acquire some of their natural instincts and no longer regard trout pellets as their preferred diet; and in the process, they get a bit smarter and a lot harder to catch. At its best, reservoir fishing is as tricky and frustrating as that on the best chalk streams or the wildest freestone rivers, even if it lacks some of their aesthetics.

But none of these fisheries contain 36lb trout, for the same reasons that very few wild fisheries do; such fish are simply out of kilter with balanced ecosystems, and it takes rare conditions to produce them. The fact that small, stocked stillwaters now contain twenty- and thirty-pound fish in abundance is simply a reflection of the fact that there is a demand for them, not an inevitable part of trout biology. So far, so obvious. But as evident as this may be, it had never previously occurred to me that the life of a trout might be so dispensable that it would be considered acceptable to kill it and leave it on a bankside, without even any attempt to catch it in something approaching a sporting manner.

I don't have space here to debate the ethics of put-and-take fisheries in the depth that they deserve. Apart from anything else, it is now almost too depressing for me to do so. Until I read about Mr White's antics, I had dolefully concluded that put-and-take fisheries were a necessary part of the British fishing landscape, if only because they ensured the survival and knowledge of a pursuit that I generally regard as a pretty worthwhile one. The fact that for some of the people who frequent these places, fishing is about fame and recognition rather than the pursuit and respect of the fish themselves is a well-known one; few fields of human endeavour are without their share of obsessives and attention-seekers. But it is nonetheless grim beyond words that a man once regarded as an expert fisherman has proved himself to be neither expert nor a fisherman in any acceptable sense of the word. It is a relief to hear that he has given up fishing and taken up ironing instead; let us hope that he treats his trousers with a little more respect than he treated his trout.

 
Sean Geer (sean@fishmail.co.uk) is a freelance writer, journalist and fish pervert. He recently won the coveted Sexyloops Least Competent Fly-Tier award for the third year in a row, following a horrible accident with some deer hair and a bottle of red wine. In his spare time, Sean fails to write novels, makes barely credible origami fish and invents exciting new uses for tinsel.

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