Fishmail: Reasons to be fearful

July 27th, 2002

There I was minding my own business at Clapham Junction, waiting for a train impressively late even by South West Trains' standard, contemplating last night's Calvados excesses and wondering idly what the hell I was going to write about this week. I was, of course, wearing my favourite Loomis T-shirt – not everyone's idea of haute couture but a pretty standard item for fishy fashion victims like myself – and after a while, a gentleman of impressive stature loomed into my field of view. "Wot's G. Loomis abaht then mate?", he enquired cheerily. So I told him.

We've all been there. You tell someone that you're a flyfisher, and you get an instant response that Pavlov would happily have given up his dogs for: "J.R. Hartley! Eh? Eh? Hahaha!"

If you're in a good mood, you smile and nod wearily. Yes indeed: I indulge the very same passion as BT's touchingly retro hero of the Yellow Pages TV ads, and I thank you for reminding me of this. If you're a little hungover, or have had a recent row with your partner over the amount of time you spend chasing fish – to you not anywhere near enough, to her inconceivably vast tracts paralleled only by the age of the planet – your response may be less charitable: Well, I've never heard that one before. You really are terribly original, you know – you should be a comedian. And then there are days like today, when even the size and shape of your hilarious companion is not enough to prevent you from responding in a manner likely to get you thrown swiftly under the wheels of the 13.04 from Waterloo.

I survived this encounter, I'm pleased to report – my interrogator was sufficiently shocked by my sudden switch from friendly politeness to ranting vitriol that I was able to escape to the other end of the platform. But it made me wonder, as it has many times before, why the only thing that most British people know about flyfishing is a series of television advertisements featuring a naive, doddering and above all fictitious old man and his search for a copy of a book that never existed. (It does now, of course &ndash and like so many other flyfishers, I own four copies given to me by well-meaning friends). J.R. Hartley has lodged himself in the national consciousness and seems likely to stay there, an unlikely substitute for actually having to find out what this flyfishing thing actually is.

Now and again, of course, you'll find some smartarse who's seen A River Runs Through It ­ usually a film buff who'll talk about the lighting or Redford's direction, or (if it's a woman) the shapeliness of Brad Pitt's torso. Mention the fishing sequences and people's eyes glaze over - in many cases they really have no idea what you are talking about.

These, then, are our cultural flyfishing references – a decade-old advertising campaign and a film whose point nobody really understood. In New Zealand or America or France or America, tell someone that you're going fishing and the response is likely to be "I hear that Iceland's a pretty good place for trout fishing" or "Hey, bring me back a couple of fish if you get enough" or even, sometimes, "you should try upstream of the bridge on SH94. They're really on the sedges up there at the moment". Here, our inability to sustain and preserve our wild trout fisheries is matched only by our ignorance of why that might be important.

This is not a campaign to get flyfishing back on the cultural agenda, nor any kind of attempt to reopen debates about wild versus stocked trout. It would be insane to expect even a small fraction of any population to be really enthusiastic about something as individual and imprecise in its pursuit, and in any case there is no inherent reason why our passion should rate any higher on people's mental lists than beekeeping or tiddlywinks. Indeed, the British government seems bent on making damn sure that if anything, it ranks far, far lower; once it has got rid of fox-hunting and hare-coursing (both of which I will be very happy to see disappear into the mists of time, for what it's worth) fishing will undoubtedly be next on their hitlist. And in a place where J.R. Hartley is all that anyone knows about the bit of it that we enjoy, our support from the rest of the community will be thin indeed.

There is no space to contemplate politics or ethics here, or even to muse on how we might reverse the decline of flyfishing across the country. I'll say only this: while we are regarded as a bunch of eccentric, elitist old duffers, it is pointless to even try. This, I think, is what originally drew me to this website. If any publication has done anything to try and shift the view of flyfishing away from the elitism and esotericism represented by Mr. Hartley and his creators, it is Sexyloops. Meanwhile most of our magazines and other websites trundle along rewriting the same old stuff they've been churning out for years, reinforcing stereotypes and making no effort to follow the lead of more enlightened and contemporary campaigns in other parts of the world. Next week, I'll share some thoughts about how some of those might work here.

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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