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June 2007 – Mayfly time and a fishing museum

Fishing used to be so simple. I went to the river and caught fish, or didn’t. These days I often find I’m seeking something extra, as if style has become just as important as substance.

Take a trip just a week ago to the Lambourn near Newbury. The forecast was warm and muggy, the kind of weather that pushes all the buttons if you happen to be a mayfly waiting to hatch. Well some buttons had been pushed on this occasion, but not many.

It must be a bit grieving for the lonely mayfly that hatches early without a mate; such a short life with nothing to do but get eaten. They were getting eaten too but not in the voracious way that trout gorge themselves on a big hatch. Few fish were rising.

Walking beside a narrow feeder stream on the way to the river I spotted a big trout simply quivering at the promise of food. Stalking a fish that’s holding station in crystal clear water under some overhanging bushes is no easy challenge.

Even if you can keep yourself concealed, the likelihood is that you will have one chance to place the fly in the right place. Lying prone, I elbowed closer and cast a fly over its nose. A big splash; missed it.

Ah, the promise, though. That large empty space in an angler’s brain labelled “optimism” was already bulging with the fattest trout, every one a record breaker. Three hours later it was still empty. There had been barely a rise. Then, as if someone had flicked a switch marked “life”, fish began to feed and I caught one, then another and another and another.

It seemed appropriate at this stage to risk one of the creations I had spent hours trying to perfect in the past few weeks. This Irish “straddle bug” wouldn’t have fooled the most sexually desperate of mayflies. It’s the sort of thing you think you have missed with the vacuum cleaner. But it fooled a fish and it fooled another. So there was an opportunity for some self-preening: a fish caught on my own hand-tied fly.

Was it more satisfying than a fish taking a shop-bought fly? Not really, to tell the truth. Nor did it herald an even greater feast. The switch was flicked off just as suddenly and the rise ended.

I know some anglers who scoff about “duffers’ week” when the mayfly are around but there are few more breathtaking sights on a chalk stream than a big mayfly hatch.

Watch them hove, glowing, almost translucent, in rich afternoon sunshine while smaller insects and midges buzz around just above the surface, and you begin to understand why so many anglers develop an interest in entomology and everything else in the food chain. Before you know it, you’re a conservationist.

It seems fitting, therefore, that the banks of a chalk stream have been singled out as a possible site for a conservation-focused National Angling Museum for the UK.

The museum proposal has been put together by Neil Freeman, the fishing auctioneer. Plans have yet to be finalised but the organisers have been researching a site not far from the Mottisfont Abbey beat of the River Test in Hampshire where Frederic Halford fished regularly as he laid down the etiquette and approaches of upstream dry fly fishing in the 1900s.

“I was given a large collection of tackle from a client who died and this would form the basis of the collection,” says Mr Freeman who adds that the project also includes a research, education and conservation section aimed at familiarising visitors with fish and their environment.

“The idea is that we would also create a mobile exhibition from time to time so that we could take some of the displays to Scotland during the salmon season, for example. If the water happens to be running over six feet one day and the fishing’s washed out, people could go along and look at it,” he says.

The museum will cover fly, coarse and sea fishing. The cut off point, historically, will be the 1970s. During research for the museum Mr Freeman has made contact with a number of other angling collections including the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, and a new museum in Tokyo.

The US museum, established in 1968, has the world’s largest collection of angling exhibits that document the development of fly fishing since the 16th century. It too has a travelling exhibit called Anglers All that has been taken to a number of US states.

The former Staffordshire home of Izaak Walton, author of the Compleat Angler (original spelling), has been turned in to a small museum but, as yet, the UK has nothing that can match the Vermont collection. A national angling museum in a country that has contributed so much to angling history internationally is long overdue.

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