January 02 2012
Back in the very early 1990s, almost the first angling book I can remember reading was Jeremy Paxman’s brilliant anthology, Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life. As with the best literary compilations up to and including the Bible, all life is here. Skues vs Halford, Arthur Ransome on elver flies, and long extracts from American authors such as Zane Grey, Ed Zern and John Gierach: transatlantic writing “so fresh that it blows off the page like the breath of a Colorado mountain wind”, in Paxo’s own evocative phrase. And starting on page three, there was John Martin’s spine-tingling account of chub-fishing on the Trent on “a typical Christmas morning of the good old-fashioned sort (when) a slight misty haze, aided by a frost, had clothed the trees and hedges in a fantastic garb of glittering, scintillating white”.
Unsurprisingly, traditional Edwardian baits such as Martin’s boiled bullock’s brain and spinal cord never did become my weapons of choice, but as a mountain-loving child of the northern hemisphere I’ve been perfectly happy to buy into the rest of the mental programme of fishing through the deep and crisp and even… even when it’s not.
Despite last winter’s insistent flashback fantasies of snow and ice, it’s far more usual for me to wander out onto the Wandle or one of my favourite West Country rivers on damp grey days whose grimy chill keeps all but the most determined joggers and dog-walkers indoors, cocooned by telly and central heating.
Urban or rural, the banks of the rivers are muddy and bare, ragged with brambles and rattling stems of hogweed half swept away by late-autumn floods. Trout season is long past – the fish are deeply preoccupied with spawning, and you can often see dorsal bow waves arrowing over the shallows among freshly-polished gravel redds – but a well-swung streamer will sometimes draw a thudding strike from a trophy chub (pictured), and chalkstream grayling are happy to take little pink shrimp patterns right through to their own breeding season in March.
Maybe it’s the same contrarian spirit that got me into urban river restoration in the first place, but this is just how I like it: early starts, early finishes, cold fingers fumbling at heavy flies, and finally the long trudge back to coffee and mince pies by the fire. In the strange, quiet, contemplative hiatus between Christmas and New Year, you could even call it Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.