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December 2006 - Angling for perfection

Dusk has settled and a half moon is shining over the splashes near Glyndebourne in East Sussex after a perfect day of driven pheasant. The stillness of the early evening is broken by the honking of an approaching skein of Canada geese. A flash from the barrel and a bird drops.

Not every angler is drawn to shooting. For me the attraction is largely social, but there is a magical stillness, waiting by water for flighting birds that shares the peace of the riverbank.Until the bang.

It was a good bird and the next day I set about plucking and dressing it. Choosing our well trussed supermarket meat, we don’t have to think about the innards or the head. Stretching out the wings, running your fingers through the fine inner layer of down you see and feel the real bird in all its glory.

But there’s no catch and release in shooting. This goose was cooked, and very tasty it was too. It’s after a satisfying meal on a long winter evening that I like to look back on my best fishing moments during the previous season. I had a few contenders this year although none that could be described as superlatives in the “biggest” or “most” categories.

By far the prettiest fish I caught was a beautiful silver hen salmon of about 12 lbs, a fine Dee springer. It’s not many years since riparian owners on the Dee were fearing that their spring run had been lost. Today, little by little, it’s coming back and, to ensure the recovery continues, every fish that’s caught is returned.

This was my only spring salmon and perhaps that was why it was memorable. But I don’t think so. Like most of the memorable fish, I recall it because I knew that my fishing – casting presentation, depth and fly - had come together in a way that seemed right in a part of the river where fish were concentrating as they moved upstream.

Some anglers are perfectionists from the moment they arrive at the water with their reels oiled and serviced, their lines slicked, leaders newly strung, every knot faultless, and the fly so well groomed and bristled you could take it to church on Sundays. Their first cast is inch-perfect, depositing the fly with all the grace of a prima ballerina in Swan Lake.

I aspire to be that angler and I’m learning all the time. But even when I achieve what might pass for the textbook approach I can rarely sustain it. Consistency is difficult. Even the best anglers can get caught out by a gust of wind and anyone can have a blank day when there are few fish about.

The perfectionists, however, will attend to every detail. If a wind knot appears they fix it. If a fly begins to unravel, they change it. Anyone can do this but it takes time to develop a fastidious approach. It takes even longer to read a stretch of water.

Sometimes it’s just about observation; sitting a while and noticing a fish showing where you haven’t seen one before. All the guides can tell you where the best lies are. But every beat of a big river will have other lies.

Some lies hold fish at certain water heights, then empty when the river flow changes. Others may have appeared after a recent flood and heavy scouring of the gravel. Ghillies, who live with a stretch of water, year in, year out will describe their beat like a well thumbed book, a surprise on every page, the plot changing with the years.

Drew Short, a Yorkshire-based fishing friend and one of the best readers of a river I know, will never rush to grab the hot spot when a beat is allocated for the day. His style is to hang back, let everyone else choose, then take what’s left. I have seen him catch fish where few would bother to cast a fly.

The other week he hooked a trout that was coming in nicely when it was taken by a pike of about 8lbs. He played both together until he brought them to the net. “I think the pike saw the net and decided to let go,” he said. The trout looked none the worse for its ordeal and swam off when returned to the water.

Nothing so unusual happened to me this year but I did have a memorable fight from a Horse Eye Jack that took a hundred yards of backing from the reel, not once but two or three times while fishing off Venezuela.

Beyond these individual experiences, the best news of year for game anglers had to be the Irish Government’s decision to end drift net fishing at sea for wild Atlantic salmon. The nets had expected to take some 68,000 salmon in 2007. Not long ago they were taking upwards of 150,000 salmon a year. Such has been the decline. Still, that’s 68,000 salmon that can return now to their spawning grounds in Ireland and south west Europe.

Stocks will take time to recover and the Irish Government will need to police the ban if it is to make it stick. In the meantime jobs must be found for those whose work has been displaced. What is working for the salmon, however, should be only the start. Other fish stocks could be restored in the same way. Traditional commercial net fishing must give way gradually to more sophisticated fish farming if worldwide fish stocks are to stand any chance of recovery.

See also: Irish v Icelandic fishing

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