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Donkin on Fishing - General Fishing Columns


February 2005 - Rodless Fishing

Any fox capable of displaying human emotions might have been a little bit put out last Saturday to find that the hunting ban had succeeded only in shifting the focus of its mortal peril from hound to shotgun.

Apart from a few changes necessary for compliance with the new law it was business as usual for hunts across the UK. Horses, riders, hounds and anti-blood sports protestors continued to follow their seasonal rituals with a few modifications that still allow foxes to be flushed out and shot within the law.

This leads me to the selfish conclusion that anglers should be safe from interference for a little while longer. Meanwhile most riders and hounds must get used to the phenomenon of foxless hunting and here there seems a clear parallel to be drawn with a coping strategy among anglers we might call “rodless fishing”.

Rodless fishing, like foxless hunting, is difficult to appreciate in its physical manifestation. This is because, to be effective, it has to be more of a state of mind. In this state the hunter/fisher is prepared to smother the hunting instinct under a blanket of indifference that in fishing, at least, is bred from a numbing familiarity with disappointment.

In its simplest form, to avoid the prospect of a blank day by the river, the classic approach is to stroll up to a piece of water, gaze at it for a time, then shrug your shoulders at its lifeless appearance and walk away.

Some may argue the “rodless” description in this context is a misnomer because, on most occasions, the rod will be at hand just as foxes will continue to be seen (and shot) in the nascent sport of foxless hunting.

There can be no doubt that the pure form of rodlessness is a more painful experience involving water brimming with promise. I dare not count the times I have turned up rodless by the side of a river - a rushing torrent in the Himalayas where I might have found the Mahseer, a river in Patagonia, where the sea trout grow to the size of salmon, or a tiny stream in New Zealand where every pool had its resident rainbow trout. These empty experiences form a bulky compendium of missed opportunities.

I have therefore added a complicating refinement: the rod. A collapsible fishing rod found its way in to my last Christmas stocking and in its first outing last month it was taken on a business trip to Soria in Spain. I popped down to the River Douro, running through the town and known for its trout. But the water looked dreary and the river was frozen in parts. The idea of casting a nymph seemed futile so the rod stayed in its case.

Back home I decided to have a go at Pike fishing. I have tried this unsuccessfully in the past. Instead of wandering down to the local canal I called Charlie Bettell one of the UK’s top Pike fishermen. His web site ( is full of useful information about pike fishing and so is the man himself.

But the prognosis was not good. He was fishing on his local water in Norfolk and the fish weren’t taking. “The water does not seem to be getting oxygenated enough to stir up much interest. This is the warmest winter we have had for years. The most favourable time for catching fish is prior to spawning and it may be that they don’t spawn this year”.

Contacting anglers on their mobile phones is another tactic of rodless fishing. If nothing is happening you may as well stay at home. There was a time when the mobile phone was anathema to fishing. The first time I saw an angler take a cell phone – one of those first generation plastic house-bricks - from a tackle bag was like a scene from a Bateman cartoon as anglers dropped their rods in shock and gillies sat open-mouthed on the bank.

Now, what was once seen as sacrilege has become the norm. One old fishing friend George Westropp, a retired partner at Deloitte Touche, argues that the mobile phone has liberated anglers. “It means that I can handle some important business while at the side of a river and no-one has to know where I am. I can have the best of both worlds,” he says.

Today everyone has a mobile phone. Gillies who once signalled their catches from boat to boat using handkerchiefs in a crude river telegraph can text each other instead. Not that there is much to say. My best Tay fishing this coming April will most likely be spent chatting on the bank resorting only now and then to rod and line. Spare the rod and spoil the fishing? I don’t think so.

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