Why We Go Fishing

Why We Go Fishing

David Stocker | Tuesday, 25 August 2020

So we are just out of lockdown in the UK. My local fishing is out of sorts – gales, heavy rain - and I am bored. Luckily, I visit a friend who lends me a couple of books that I spot on his bookshelves. The books, ‘On Fishing’ by Brian Clarke (2007), and ‘Blood Knots’ by Luke Jennings (2010) are very different, but what they have in common is an exploration of what it means to fish and to be an angler, something that might not be understood by people who’ve never known an angler, or never cast a line.

These books got me thinking about how we communicate to the non-fisher the appeal of our sport, and how we sustain our interest whilst out fishing, and in the sport as a whole. So I imagined myself giving a presentation about the appeal of fishing – all fishing - to an imaginary group of non-fisherfolk. But what would I say?
In his book, Brian Clarke writes that “The appeal of angling is about as easy to define as beauty or truth”, but I, for one, am up for the challenge, so here goes…

First, let’s start with a bit of background and a few facts; fishing with a rod and line primarily for enjoyment, rather than to acquire food,  seems to have started in England around the year 1500, which, in its historical context, was the start of what we now call the New World. Flipping forward more than 500 years to the present day, the UK is home to around 3 million anglers. In the USA today, the number of anglers is around 60 million. Fishing for sport is enjoyed by millions throughout the developed world, particularly in the USA, continental Europe and Scandinavia. In short, fishing hasuniversal appeal, and there are a great many peopleacross the globe who enjoy it.

Historically, angling has been a predominantly male activity, enjoyed at different times by all social classes. Women, however, have always been welcomed, and never more so than at the present time. People in the public eye who love their fishing include Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, Eric Clapton, Feargal Sharkey, Jeremy Paxman, Paul Whitehouse, Marco Pierre White, David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, John Terry, Jackie Charlton, Anthony Joshua, Martha Stewart, BarackObama, George Bush Snr., Jimmy Kimmel, Jack Nicklaus, Huey Lewis, Kevin Costner, Tiger Woods, to name but far too many.

And back in those pre-internet days when books were the thing, angling was said to have the greatest literature of any sport. It helped that no-one was writing well about football, rugby, athletics and so on, as people do now, but fishing was significant, complex and nuanced enough to inspire a great deal of putting pen to paper.

But ‘fishing’ is not really any one thing, and it is very much what you choose to make of it, which is a large part of its appeal. Just consider the following;

There is fishing in the sea, in river estuaries, and in freshwater, where rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and canals are options. There is fishing for one specific species, or several species, or for anything that comes along. There is fishing that is focused on big fish, and fishing that’s about catching lots of fish. There is fishing where you kill the fish to eat, and fishing where you put them back alive. There are highly active types of fishingwhere you’re on the move all the time, and there are more sedentary ways of going about it. There can be short sessions, day-long sessions, or holiday length experiences. You have the alternatives of daytime and night time fishing, fair weather fishing and foul weather fishing. Fishing can be undertaken from all manner of boats, and from the bank, or in the water if you’re prepared to wade. You can choose to fish alone, or with company. You can also fish competitively, for kudos and prizes. Fishing can be enjoyed at home and abroad, in environments ranging from waterways in the heart of cities, to fishing in wilderness destinations.

So whatever your personality, your temperament, your tastes and  your preferences, there should be some aspect of fishing that could appeal to you. But there is more.

At the heart of fishing is a special kind of magic, one that involves making the invisible visible. Fish are the least visible of our wildlife. You may observe signs of their presence, but you can’t see them  in deep or cloudy water. And when you can see them, you will mostly see little more than a dark shape. It is only when you have  landed a fish and removed it from its element to possess it for brief while, that you are able to admire its true form, and coloration. Who could not admire the burnished silver sides of the Bass, the buttercup and crimson livery of the Brown Trout, the bronze-going-gold scales of the Common Carp?

Problem solving lies at the heart of so many activities that appeal to human beings, and so it is with fishing, too. If you take your fishing even slightly seriously you will be thinking about solving the problem of how, on this day, at this place, in this weather, at this time of year, you are going to reach, tempt, hook and land a specific fish, or a haul of them. It comes as no surprise that there is so much fishing equipment to choose from. Humans have busy, inquiring minds, and every problem encountered when trying to catch fish is capable of suggesting a solution that might eventually be designed, manufactured and sold. Taken seriously, fishing in the modern age is very much a ‘detail sport, which can be fascinating, if, at times, a bit overwhelming.

To actually be fishing is to exist in a state of heightened expectation. You are always anticipating that the next moment will be the one when the fish takes whatever you may have on the end of your line. This can be sustained for hours. When you fish, you can acutely experience living totally in the moment. Getting into ‘the zone’ is akin to meditation. Focus can be total, blotting out thoughts, memories and emotions that may cause stress, anxiety and unhappiness. Therapeutic, relaxing, and absorbing are all words that have been used to describe the appeal of fishing. It comes as no surprise to learn that taking up fishing hugely helped Eric Clapton recover from addiction to the twin demons of alcohol and narcotics. It also comes as no surprise to discover that fishing is being used as a form of active therapy for breast cancer survivors.

Conversely, however, the appeal of fishing can be so powerful that it can create addicts out of participants. There are, of course, many worse things that you can become addicted to, but angling eats up time like few other activities. You need to take special care if you fish and value your family and relationships!

Fishing also has the ability to connect you with the long-suppressed evolutionary  instincts of your inner ‘hunter gatherer’. The challenge of extracting from the living world something that might feed you or your family has largely disappeared from human experience, and yet here is an opportunity to demonstrate to yourself and others, your vestigial fitness to survive.

Taken seriously, fishing puts you in touch with the cycles of the natural world. In order to fish, you need an understanding of how different species of fish behave, how that is tied to the kind of things that they eat in nature, how and where they breed, how the season, the weather and the temperature together impact on a creature in an environment alien to our own. This can be complex, but many lessons learned from fishing apply elsewhere in nature, so that to fish is an exercise in learning how nature works.

And if you do take up fishing, it won’t be long before you find yourself in the company of like-minded others. This might be  at the waterside, at the fishery café, in the fishing tackle shop, or online. Lifelong friendships founded on a shared interest can start this way, and endure for decades. The waterside can be an egalitarian place, too, with no place for social distinction based on class or wealth. All people are equal in pursuit of fish!

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that the fish will always have the last word. No matter how much you know about where fish are, how best to catch them, or how sophisticated, expensive or voluminous your fishing equipment is, there will be times when nothing works, and the fisherman catches nothing. It can be humbling. Now it may seem counter-intuitive, but this is why we keep going fishing. If we caught the fish we wanted to catch every time we went fishing, we would very quickly cease to fish. The same probably applies to everyone who enjoys a particular competitive sport. Were an individual or sports team only ever to win, where would  be  the incentive to continue participating in, or continuing to support that team or player? In short,  failure is as every bit as big a driver in a love of fishing, as success is.

David  Stocker. July 2020.