Fly Fishers' Republic

Wandle Restoration Part I

April 21, 2006

by Theo Pike

Theo Pike grayling fishing

Take me to the river

I’ll start this column with a bet.

If you’ve hit upon a site called Fly Fisher’s Republic, then cast around its links for long enough to find this article, you’ll be almost as fanatical about fishing as I am.

But do you know why?

Do you know why this sport holds onto you as it does – imaginatively, financially, and temporally – whether you’re reading this years or merely days after first picking up a rod?

Why your casting arm commences to twitch, and your mind to wander, deep in the dark close season, when you’ve simply been away from water for too long? And why, together, your arm and mind send you out to pace the towpaths, peering into winter-blackened depths, or prowl the shelves of newsagents in the grip of something that may not be addiction and cold turkey, but certainly looks a lot like it?

Does anyone know why this happens, in a sport that’s been described as a jerk on one end of a string patiently waiting for a jerk on the other?

At least one modern philosopher-fisherman thinks he does. When we try to catch a fish, according to both Ted Hughes and Bob Wyatt, we’re really trying to catch a glimpse of our original lost youth, childhood’s irretrievable innocence, the half-remembered best days of our lives, when mortgages didn’t have to be paid, or serious daily compromises accepted, and the world was an altogether simpler place.

As author of “Trout Hunting: the Pursuit of Happiness”, Bob is probably one of the clearest thinkers in our sport today. So it pays to listen to his theories – and Ted’s, too, though he’s not with us any more. And this is a good one, because it seems to address some of the questions we’ve all asked ourselves about our sport at one time or another.

Not least, it’s also a good theory because it helps to explain the rise, rise and eternal popularity of “destination” fishing – fulfilment of that ancient angler’s cliché that, once you’ve caught your first fish, and then lots and lots of fish, you’ll find yourself driven by curiosity to catch the fish that swim on the other side of the world. Finally, after nailing no less than 16 world-tippet-trophy-class marlin in one unbroken run, on a single upwinged size 26 Tupps Indispensible variant crippled emerger of your own design and tying, you’ll come home content to cast for just one Perfect Fish, the one you catch the way you choose, at a time and a place of your choosing.

It’s the ultimate mind-game. Afterwards, you may even hang up your king’s ransom of rods and be in that state of peace where catching a fish won’t even matter any more. (Not that any of that is really likely to happen – to you, me, or anyone else reading this column).

But what if you don’t need to go to all those lengths? I’m not immune to the charms of far-flung “destinations” either – the picture at the top of this page should tell you that – but what if nirvana’s waiting room doesn’t have to be mountain grayling, or megalithic sailfish and turbo-boosted bones, at the far end of a 14-hour flight?

What if you could recapture all that lost fishing innocence just by stepping out of your front door – and turning left instead of right? And what if you found that redemption wasn’t just for yourself, but for a river too?

That’s what I’m hoping this column may eventually suggest, at least as a possibility. Because, of all living systems on this planet, a river is the one that’s most capable of miraculous self-resurrection.

Shoot a man in the heart, and he’s dead. Fill a lake with toxic sludge, and that’s dead too. Cut deep through the living cambium of a tree, round the trunk, severing the vital arteries of the xylem where sap pumps under pressure into the highest branches, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to save it.

But simply stop pouring sewage – or road and mining run-off – or phosphates and nitrates and sheep-dip cypermethrin and conifer-concentrated acid rain and all the other careless wastes of 21st century civilised living – into a river, and it will heal itself.

Assuming that the upper tributaries haven’t already been raped and dried up by abstraction at source, minnows, bullhead and loach will drift downstream to repopulate the middle and lower reaches. Their food, the invertebrates, will come with them: olives, shrimp, stoneflies and caddis, swept down by winter rains. Coarse fish will arrive to colonise the barbel zone, stuck as spawn to wildfowl’s feet, and anadromous trout and salmon, lost like Salar, will run up from the estuary to spawn on newly-polished gravels. Even the thickest concrete culverts can be eroded, and the sturdiest steel pilings rotted and undermined. There are several places where I’m watching that happen right now.

In the end, the best thing for a wounded river is just to leave it alone. When push comes to shove, grind, and undercut, there are very few problems that flowing water can’t sort out for itself. Look around, and you’ll see a lot of rivers with problems like that – and all of them could do with a few thousand years without the human race to mess them around.

Many were “destinations” in their day, before the hordes fished them out, and thundered on to the Next Big Thing.

But unless all our modern hordes get catastrophically wiped from the face of the earth by plague, war, or meteor strike (the first more probable than the rest, at the moment), it’s unlikely that most of those rivers are going to get their healing luxury of just-in-time.

As Tom McGuane says, in his introduction to “The Longest Silence”, we’ve reached a time in the life of the planet, and humanity’s demands on it, when every fisherman must also be a riverkeeper.

Now, it’s not enough just to go fishing and hope it all turns out OK. Otherwise, next time we want to catch a fish, the fish might not be there. In fact, the river might not be there either.

Fishermen and women are the natural custodians of our waters – in whatever state they’ve been left to us. We wade and float them when we can, we walk beside them and watch them when we can’t, we dream of them when we’re scanning discussion forums on the internet far from their banks. We see their underwater secrets, and imagine meandering chalkstreams where others sneer at concrete gutters. Who better than us to guard them, and bring them the time-accelerated regeneration they so badly need?

We’re all in this together. We’re all in this to learn together, too. So I’ll be delighted if you’ll join me in this evolving text on bringing some of our most unregarded rivers back to their innocent prelapsarian promise.

And who knows?

Somewhere, not far away, you may even find a river of your own to redeem – and be redeemed by – and play with.

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