Isurround myself with fish: the brown and white aboriginal angel fish in my bathroom, the carved turquoise and yellow Zuni salmon in my study, trout decoys in the conservatory, at the bottom of my garden a pond filled with tangerine-coloured koi. In the unbearable holiday of lockdown, I spent a lot of time by the pond, sitting in the dappled light, letting the burble of the artificial stream work its emollient voodoo, hankering to cast a line into fast water. I should have been fishing; instead, I watched the fish in their languid patrol of the pond’s rocky edges. They glide, they hover, they dart under canopies of fallen leaves. Fish sleep with their eyes open: not our kind of sleep, more like our kind of daydream. Awake but not awake, just like me; living to eat and conserve energy, just like me; devoid of answers, just like me; comfortable in their doom, just like me. These days goldfish are my homies.
Fishing is an occasion for hope. In my case, in the first instance, it was the hope of making a connection to my father, Bert Lahr, known to most people nowadays as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. An older dad, cut off both by his comedian’s celebrity and his saturnine nature – there was no ball-throwing, no camping, no swimming, not much of anything, really, except the trips we took to fish a series of private Canadian lakes with various Native American guides. I was a spin-caster back then, more than seventy years ago. From our motorised aluminium canoe, using mostly daredevils, pikey-minnows and Abu spinners, we landed bass, wall-eyes, perch, muskellunge and pike. (Dad caught a 41-pounder on a troll with a live small-mouth bass fitted with a hook halter.)
On those long afternoons, with the outboard motor humming and our poles juddering, my mind wandered to the alluring mystery of water: the calm of the glassy lake’s surface and the turmoil underneath. Those bass which tasted so good fried in lard and matzo meal over an open fire also ate their babies. Those pike, who body-slammed our lures at such terrifying speed – 0 to 60 in a couple of seconds – were aquatic assassins; more than one of our guides had lost fingers to the razor-sharp teeth in their prehistoric snouts. From the boat, as a boy, I even saw a pike break water to catch a duck by its webbed foot as it tried to get airborne and then drag it under.
I’m a fly fisherman now, a proud descendant forty million years removed of Denisova Man, who evolved out of his Siberian cave to walk upright in order to catch fish from the rivers and oceans, to scarf all those proteins and omega-3s for his ever expanding brain. Then, fishing was survival: now, it’s mostly sport but the atavistic thrill remains addictive. ‘The tug is the drug,’ as they say on the trout stream. When I’m casting at shadows on the water, I’m hunting and gathering; well, more hunting than gathering. (Barbless hooks, a catch-and-release policy and my own ineptitude give the fish a better than even chance.) Built into the lingo of fishing is the fantasy of toil. We trout fishermen ‘work the water’ or ‘work the stream’.
Fishing is also play loss. No one who has known the wallop of actual unmooring loss would willingly go in search of it or want more. I have lost friends, parents, children. Over time, the pain loses its rawness, but the bruise never goes away. Fishing is different. Disappointment lasts an instant: a moment of exquisite misery that leaves no mark. Regret doesn’t linger either; erased by a new patch of water and the promise of more action. To the fisherman, hope is a thing with fins not feathers. Is fishing a sport or a ceremony? Both, I think. Part of the activity’s profound appeal is its holiday from woe – a world where the moment is everything, and where there is always another chance.
Unlike ‘leisuring’, where the angler sits at the water’s edge with his chair, his tent, his teapot, his bite alarms waiting for a fish to impale itself on his baited hook, fly fishing is a quest which requires active engagement with nature. Alertness is all. You don’t motor over the water, or snooze beside it: you wade the river and contend with its power. In the process, you are released into the river’s moods and rhythms. You become part of the aquatic world, surrendering to the ever shifting flow.
Not long after lockdown began, sitting in the garden listening to the murmur of the artificial stream and imagining myself knee-deep in a real one, I read that Pornhub, as its answer to the Covid-19 crisis, was offering its lubricious content free to the over-sixties. Right age, I thought, wrong offer. Fishing videos are my porn: all those voluptuous, writhing, saftig trout, the babes of the fast water world. Talk about hookers, lust, exotic positions! Trout really know how to play hard to get – a glimpse of swishing tail, an open-mouthed leap, the dimpling of water as they roll before you just out of reach. Their come-ons fill me – and every fisherman who ogles them – with churning desire. One double-click of a computer mouse, and you’re on Canada’s cascading Mackenzie River, or New Zealand’s winding Hope River, or the deep aquamarine pools of the Big Blackfoot River in Montana. The sensational locations vary, but the thrill remains the same. The piquant tension of the pick-up. (‘C’mon, baby.’) Then, the hook-up (‘Fish on!’) and the heart-slamming tussle (‘Keep your rod-tip up’). I’m not interested in small-fry, just ones advertised as ‘huge’, ‘massive’, ‘humungous’ in elaborate outdoor scenarios.
Fishing has been the subject of some fine writing: Thomas McGuane’s The Longest Silence, Luke Jennings’s Blood Knots, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs through It, which begins: ‘In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.’ Tom Fort’s Casting Shadows: Fish and Fishing in Britain may not qualify as ‘literature’; but it offers garrulous witness to a fine passion. Fort, who is a former fishing columnist at the Financial Times and the author of, among others, The Book of Eels, Against the Flow and The Far from Compleat Angler is a sort of aquatic anthropologist, an angler with an infectious curiosity about all things fishy.
On the page, Fort comes across as a bookish, daydreamy kind of guy. Fishing is by its very nature a meditation as well as an action. Unlike an American angler, Fort’s very British mind – Eton and BalIiol – doesn’t wander easily to excavations of the self but rather to ruminations about history and class. ‘I like to picture Prior More of Worcester on a fine summer’s morning in, say, 1521,’ he writes, as he sets off on his bike to find the original commissioned ponds, a botched journey which nonetheless yields a great deal of information about the pond as an ‘expression of status and wealth’ and on the carp imported as early as 1462 from the Low Countries to populate them. Fort is nothing if not intrepid. In search of Izaak Walton’s fishing path in The Compleat Angler (1653-76), Fort journeys to Tottenham Hale to explore the River Lea, only to conclude that the path described in the book was a literary device to conceal ‘the true purpose, which was to collect between the covers of one book everything Walton had ever learned about the recreation of angling’. He has better luck on the River Dove, finding The Fishing House, built by the poet and expert fly-tier Charles Cotton to memorialise his friendship and fishing adventures with Walton, to whose book he made significant contributions. ‘Was Shakespeare an angler?’ Fort asks, a notion which prompts an exploration of the River Avon. Four pages, five quotations and one 18th-century poem later, he concludes: ‘Who cares?’ In order to imagine the expertise of the legendary angler Robert Pashley (‘the Wizard of the Wye’), who ‘caught more than ten thousand salmon from the Wye at an average weight of 16 pounds’, Fort wades the river to try his luck, only to trip on a rock and fall in the drink. ‘I took this as a sign that the enterprise was futile,’ he writes. ‘As I hauled myself on all fours up the bank, Wye water cascading from my clothes and from inside my waders, the end of the handle of my landing net struck me a sharp blow on the end of my nose, and for a moment I wanted to cry.’ Here, where pratfall trumps pedantry, Fort is at his most endearing.
Fort’s shaggy fish story includes a five-page bibliography and a comprehensive appendix of freshwater fish with snippet rave reviews from sportsmen for each species. Fort is promiscuous in his enthusiasm; he has something eccentric to say about many of the varieties and his fishing of them. For instance, the chub ‘lacks refinement of looks’ but nonetheless is ‘a handsome citizen’. The roach is deemed ‘the most popular’; the bream gives ‘no more resistance than a piece of wet sacking’; the sturgeon is ‘rare and freakish’. From both a sociological and a narrative standpoint, the star of this piscatorian panorama is the ‘charismatic’ Atlantic salmon. The Samson of freshwater fish, the salmon’s unmatched clout defies rational expression; Fort’s description of the salmon’s strike – ‘like an artillery shell leaving the barrel of a gun’ – proves the point. While he gives the salmon its props, Fort feels compelled to conclude with typical fustian formality: ‘I speak as one who has flirted with salmon-fishing for a long time without ever falling in love.’
As early as the 14th century, when a robust cottage industry grew from pickling the delectable fish in barrels, the meaty salmon became an object of desire both for those who fished to live and those who lived to fish. Fort illustrates the importance of salmon to the community by recounting the dramas of profit and punishment enacted in the fish’s name. In 1559, for instance, a poacher called Donald Yet had his ear nailed to a beam in the marketplace after stealing six salmon from a trap. Greed, in the form of overfishing, plays a lively part in Fort’s saga. In 1755, two branches of the Clan Campbell quarrelled over a weir which prevented salmon coming up the other’s river. ‘Sir, I will have no more of your child’s play,’ the outraged Glendarnel Campbell wrote, after repeated attempts by his cousin to sabotage the weir he’d built on the River Ruel, adding: ‘I will drown you and all your unspirited men in your dam and make your bodies food for the fishes.’
Over time, as the fishermen attempted to increase their catch by scooping up the migratory salmon before they entered the rivers to spawn, ‘river net-and-coble nets’ gave way to ‘estuary nets’, which markedly raised the fishermen’s numbers but lowered the landlord’s fishing rental income. Legal challenges ensued, but not all the battles were verbal. In 1859, in a crackdown on illegal fishing at the mouth of the Tweed, 13 bailiffs pursued drift-netting Spittal fishermen who were going after salmon out of season. According to the Berwick Journal, the whole village of Spittal, which was across the mouth of Berwick town, turned out ‘not merely to a man but a woman … eight boats supported by the populace on land armed with slings … They not only drove 13 water bailiffs over the Berwick side, but gave chase, captured the bailiff’s boat and sunk her … the men were disguised in their wives’ bedgowns and there is likely to be some difficulty in identification.’
The story of fish and fishing is inevitably one of decline – decline of fishing stock, commercial fishing, fishing clubs, fishing rivers, even the invertebrates on which fly fishing depends. ‘Where are the young anglers? Where are the future defenders of our waters?’ Fort asks, unabashedly declaring himself ‘very protective towards the brook. It is so rare and vulnerable.’ Casting Shadows is a curious combination of celebration and lamentation. Fort’s chapter headings signal his sense of loss: ‘Salmon Plunder’, ‘Vanishing Act’, ‘Death and Transfiguration’. In his own shambolic way, both his intellectual obsession and his physical endeavour are acts of nostalgia, which keep alive the freedom and wonder of his youth, the account of which in the final pages gives uplift to his essentially downbeat saga. At his elegiac conclusion, Fort invokes a stream sluicing over gravel, the branches of a willow tree dipping over placid water, the current’s restless run between the beds of weeds ‘where a trout’s snout will surely lift at any moment to take the invisible insect’. The last line of his book is: ‘Don’t let that ever be taken away from me.’ Writing about the watery realm is his way of not losing it.
By his own admission, Fort is a keen but not too successful angler. The same could be said of his prose, which struts and stumbles at the same time. (Before setting off to walk in Izaak Walton’s footsteps, he ‘fortifies himself with a major fry-up’; and skewers Walton for lifting ‘other people’s work left, right and centre’). Even if his word-hoard is leaden, the aroma of wonder seeps through his sentences. Buried beneath the anecdote and the arcana is the poignancy of the fisherman’s encounter with nature. The majesty of silence, the flow of the river, the sway of the trees, the resplendence of the day is all we know of Heaven. ‘These I saw/Look ye also while life lasts.’ Those lines, taken from a Cumbrian gravestone, could also be his book’s epigraph, a plea for attention to the radiant world.