Fishmail: In defence of fence-months

June 15th, 2002

As you read this, I will be out fishing. Nothing very surprising there, I hear you say; that is, after all, pretty much all I seem to do. (This is exactly why I am self-employed, by the way. Jobs have an inconvenient habit of getting in the way of the important things in life).

Today, though, is a special day, because it is the first day of the new coarse fishing season. For those of you new to this term or who have simply chosen to ignore it in disgust, British anglers use the expression 'coarse' fish to describe anything that isn't a trout, a salmon or a sea fish. This is not the place for a discussion of whether or not such a term is derogatory towards a group of fishes that are, by and large, handsome and crafty beasts. Suffice to say that it has been in common usage for centuries, and while flyfishing purists may indeed view it as a nasty and degrading exercise in drowning slimy worms and festering maggots, coarse fishing can be every bit as demanding and challenging as catching trout on the upper Itchen or the Henry's Fork. People have been dragging olive-skinned tench and marbled pike from muddy ponds for thousand of years, and while such pursuits may lack the finesse of fishing a size 28 midge on a zero-weight line, they can be at least as challenging as rising the the wariest trout on the clearest river.

Whether you buy this or not, there is one inescapable bond that brings trout and coarse fishers together. For some months of the season, we are not allowed to do it. Ever since I took up trout fishing in earnest three years ago after a lifetime of chasing bottom-dwelling relatives of the carp family, I have been expecting the significance of June 16th to diminish. One way or another, I can indulge my feverish passion for angling on every day of the year, without the need for an enforced period of fishy celibacy between March and June; months that in the years before I wielded a fly-rod seriously would be spent mooning around in pubs dreaming idly of mist-wreathed rivers at dawn. Now, all I have to do is drive for fifteen minutes and find myself beside a handsome Capability Brown-landscaped lake, throwing feathers and fur at fat, dimwitted rainbow trout for whom the concept of a break in the seasons is as meaningless as the idea of an evening without gin to a member of the royal family.

This is a curiously unsatisfying affair. The 'fence-months', as Izaak Walton called them – those months when in his time, rivers were fenced off either literally or figuratively to allow salmon to spawn and the fry to hatch without fear of interference – give us an opportunity to reflect on all sorts of things – the emptiness of our fly wallets, the dreadfulness of our roll cast, the pointlessness of fishing with mayfly patterns – that are otherwise unresolved in our hurry to get from one water to the next. Without these months, I fear for my sanity.

My old fishing pal Phil, as good and enthusiastic a tench fisherman as one could wish for in a bank or boat partner, strongly disapproves of my new-found fly-fishing antics. He thinks, I think, that I should really be sitting at home reading old copies of Angling Times and concocting new and exciting flavourings to add to my stewing hempseed, not buggering off to the other side of the world to catch spotty things with too many fins. And he is, in many ways, absolutely right – at least about the need for a self-imposed curfew of some kind. The fact that I can now fish all year means that I do fish all year – and god help me, I have even been known to take my laptop fishing with me in the weird (and as yet unmet) expectation that when it all gets a bit quiet I can rattle off a few hundred words for some unsuspecting editor who thinks I'm at home sweating furiously over his already late article.

When the powers that be created our close seasons, I think they assumed that the divide between coarse fishers and game fishers was set in stone, as immutable a divide as the Grand Canyon and one about as likely to be crossed in either direction by muddy canalside dwellers on one hand and overprivileged toffs on the other. While one really could not see the Queen Mum dropping her Victorian cane salmon rods in favour of a 40-foot graphite pole on the Grand Union, times have thankfully changed (as has she), and the disciplines are a lot more miscible than they have ever been.

I think it's time to rethink our close seasons and adopt a common period of complete and enforced abstinence for all. Only then will our fly wallets be refilled, our roll casts improved and our mayfly patterns properly ignored. I might actually get some sleep for a change, and the fish will be all the happier for it. I propose the first weekend in February, when it is far too cold for sane people to be fishing. And it has the added advantage that I will be in New Zealand, chasing spotty things with too many fins on the other side of the world.

Sean Geer ( 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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