Many anglers and writers have addressed this question over the years but I thought I would chip in with my own thoughts on the matter. People who have never fished frequently fail to see what all the fuss is about and it can be hard for us anglers to articulate exactly what we see in our sport. The image of the dedicated angler, alone on the bank in all weathers, usually catching nothing or at best the occasional slimy, smelly fish are firmly stuck in the national consciousness. Anglers are seen as either working class coarse anglers, all maggots and flat caps or toffs with split cane rods and garbed in Barbour jackets. I personally don’t know anybody who fits either of those outdated stereotypes!
For me, fishing is about communing with the natural world. Being part of the natural order. Immersing oneself totally in a world older than our own. As a kid I used to think it was all about catching fish, bent rods and screaming reels. A blank day was a disaster and I fished very hard to avoid the ignominy of returning home fishless. The basic hunter gatherer was near the surface with me and I really loved the actual ‘catching’ part of the sport. That excitement when a good fish took the fly or bait was like a drug to me and the long, seemingly empty hours between those hallowed moments were the price I had to pay. Yet just under the surface there was an altogether deeper set of emotions which kept me returning to the river or sea. A longing to be immersed in nature. I strongly suspect this is a key driver in many fishers so let us examine this in greater detail.
There are lots of pursuits which take us humans back into the natural world. Some of us live in the countryside either through choice or birth. Other work in the great outdoors, making their living on the seas or from the very land itself. For these people the countryside is the backdrop to their every day, they cannot help but be immersed in the ever-changing dramas of the natural world. For the rest of us, time in the countryside is usually at a premium. Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in – modern life has moved the vast majority of us humans into towns and cities and away from the natural world. We possibly experience nature more through the medium of television rather than first hand. Watching David Attenborough may be highly entertaining and informative but it cannot replace actually feeling the full force of nature. Angling brings us back to nature.
The recent upsurge in ‘urban’ fishing is to be applauded as it provides an introduction to angling for countless thousands of predominately younger, city dwelling anglers. I have never been drop-shotting on an industrial canal but it does look like fun. A world removed from my playgrounds like Lough Conn or the small spate rivers of western Ireland maybe but if it encourages young people to pick up a rod and try to catch a fish then it is no bad thing in my book. Does this negate my argument that it is the interface with nature that attract us to the water’s edge? I don’t think so as there is a common thread here – the water itself. Be it a rushing mountain stream or a concrete channel through an industrial estate, if there are fish swimming in it the water will always keep us anglers coming back. That natural element and all its mysteries is a world we only barely understand. The lives of our quarry and all the small creatures therein fascinate us. Nature, it’s all about nature.
There needs to be an acknowledgement that actually catching something is a huge driver when it comes to getting out of a warm bed in the early hours to brave inclement weather. A bent rod is always in the thoughts of any angler, that glorious moment when battle is joined with a good fish. The scenery suddenly fades when you set the hook, the glories of the natural world take a back seat until the fish is safely in the net. Yes, the catch is part of the picture. I am guessing that most anglers were mad to catch fish as youngsters and as the years roll by the need to catch a fish at any cost diminishes somewhat. Possibly the competition anglers buck this trend as they live for catching more than the other guys, but the majority of us lose that edge, that necessity of bringing the corpse of a fish home with us.
The advent of C&R shows us that the catch is not the main driver for us anglers. We still spend huge sums of hard-earned cash on the latest tackle, travel inordinate distances, brave inclement weather and then return any fish we do happen to catch back to the water unharmed. That all sounds like a definition of madness! Yet the basics of being a part of nature remain the same. The assault on our senses which accompany every fishing trip combine to provide experiences which resonate with something deep inside us. The push of a swollen river in spate, the high, blue skies of August, mysterious tangled vegetation, the stars shimmering over an October beach or the Atlantic swell under the keel. Evocative sights, sounds and smells which connect us with a common past, long-lost but still remembered.
Of course there is more to it than just the reconnection with nature. The company of good friends, the craik, learning new skills, the joys of boat-handling and all the myriad other facets of our sport are part of the mix. You could sum it up by saying ‘its complicated’.