Later on in life I became a fervid freshwater fisher, first for the so-called coarse fish, later for trout and sea trout and salmon and grayling. I turned away from the sea to the inland waters for a variety of reasons which seemed good at the time. The chief amongst them was that in those days sea fishing was so crude and coarse that it did not really rank as a sport. The gear used was terribly rough and crude, and sea anglers frankly were despised, I mean by us finicky freshwater fishers, for their lack of subtlety. We saw no delicacy in their approach, and there was none to see. Frankly, we thought of them as little better than morons, lined up elbow-to-elbow along the pier at some ghastly seaside resort, dangling great lumps of lead on lines as stout as hawsers, using rods with all the suppleness of boathooks. That was the general impression we had. It was wrong, even then. But there was a germ of truth in it.
Now everything has changed. The coming of a certain degree of affluence for the populace, and motor transport for more and more people—all this has meant that fishing has boomed in the most frap-jabberous manner. Fantastic. People with minds like computers and no morals at all have lodged a claim that three million people go fishing, making it easily the biggest participator sport. If you don’t count swimming, perhaps. Well, I don’t know how anybody works out a claim of that order, but neither do I care. Plainly there are a whole lot of fishermen around: you must have noticed. With the result that the angling waters of this blessed isle have become slightly congested. It is a sad fact that the availability of good fishing tends to decline as the number of people seeking it increase. Water abstraction, new building including road building, pollution, and popularity—all these factors work remorselessly against the freshwater fisherman. His opportunities tend to decline rather than to increase. Freshwater fishing is becoming a shade too crowded for some of us who like elbow-room and the sensation of being off in the wild places.
This is one of the factors, perhaps the chief one, which set slightly frustrated freshwater fishermen thinking about the sea. But there have been others. ‘Coarse’ fishing can still be had, very good coarse fishing, all things considered; but for some of us there comes a time when the business of catching a fish merely to put it back in the water begins to pall. Whereas game fishing—fishing for trout, sea trout, grayling and salmon—has become quite hard to find, and very expensive if good. I must say that to my mind game fishing, especially fly fishing, remains incomparably the most thrilling and satisfying aspect of angling; and this view is shared by many, too many. But it’s a declining sport, on the whole: too many anglers chasing too few fish. And this is where the lure of sea fishing really comes in. It is, virtually, inexhaustible.
Inexhaustible from the viewpoint of the sportsman, that is. Some fishing grounds in the deeps have been fished out, one hears, and the battle of the trawlers has some frightening implications, I don’t doubt. But it will take a hell of a lot of individual anglers to make much of a dent in the teeming population of the inshore waters.
And it is free. Free not only in the sense that no-one has to buy fishing rights in the sea, but free, too, of all the restrictions that hedge freshwater fishing around. The coast is free. The sea is free. If you can reach the water, you can fish it. You can fish it by night and by day. You can camp on the sea’s margin and fish it round the clock without anybody’s by-your-leave. You can light your bonfire on the beach and spend a thrilling night waiting for the pluck of the big cod, cooking bangers and bacon and brewing up hot drinks. You can roam the rocks and send your lure adventuring into the gurgling, pounding, sucking waves that swing the seaweed and the wrack in marvellous great whorls and vortices. You can go afloat and fish the tides around, no man’s slave. You can fish every day of the year. There are no close seasons, no rod licences, no permits, no water bailiffs. The sea is free.
I suppose that just for the pernicketty but sacred purposes of accuracy I had better mention that at some points around the coast access to the water’s edge is in private ownership and you can’t just park yourself where you wish and start fishing. Of course this is the case. At such points the coast is not free. But, by and large, wherever you can legally reach it, the sea is free.
And there are two more potent reasons for the increase in ‘the popularity, and desirability, of sea fishing. One is the wonderful fact that much of what you catch is highly edible. There is nothing in the whole gamut of grub which tastes better than a sea fish cooked as soon as it is caught. Even a few hours later, after the journey home, it still tends to taste fresher than you would have believed possible. Of course there are some sea fish which don’t rate high as items on the menu, but they are heavily outnumbered by the ones that do. I must say this means something to me. I don’t mean that I’m always thinking of my belly, but as you grow older you derive less satisfaction from simply catching fish, inedible and useless fish, in fact you grow quite dubious about the ethics of that business. You want a respectable reason for indulging in your predatory sport, and the best of all reasons is that you are fishing for the pot. I’m not going wearisomely into the confused ethics of fishing now, but will simply say this, that if it comes to a choice between catching your own supper and buying it from a shop, the sportsman who kills his catch cleanly and instantly has no need whatever to feel ashamed.
Finally there is the technological revolution which has swept the fishing tackle industry in the last few years. Fishing remains, and will always remain, a basically simple pastime: but the tools of the trade have changed almost out of recognition in the late ‘fifties and the ‘sixties and the prime result is that sea angling is now a sport as seductive as freshwater fishing—more so, to some temperaments. The key to this desirable change is, in a word, plastics—actually fibreglass. The coming of fibreglass rods, nylon or terylene lines, and modern reels has meant a real transformation in the feel of sea fishing. Rods are not only much lighter in the hand, strength for strength, than they used to be, but the whole outfit tends now to be finer than it was in the days of the hickory barge-pole and the greenheart poker. Monofilament lines are much thinner, for their strength, than the old flax braids; much less visible in the water, too. Even the sturdiest rods, those used for pier fishing, beach casting, and boat fishing for big fish, are lighter by far than they were in my youth. And everything has been tightened, streamlined, and scaled down to match. This makes the handling of the gear much more of a pleasure.
Mark you, there remains, at all times, one limiting factor which prevents tackle being lightened and fined down so far as some of us would like. That factor is the sea itself. Not the sea fish—big though they may run, powerful though they may prove. No, but the suck and hammer and rip and race of the sea itself, the sweep of tides, the swing and pull of currents, the swirl of surf—and the ruggedness of the sea bed, crushing shingle, snaggy rock, tenacious weed—these are the limiting factors which prevent us from going so far as we might wish in the way of lightness. You can fish for mackerel with a trout rod and for mullet with a roach rod; for bass with a salmon rod and for flounders with a pike rod. Lovely sport it is, too. But for much of the time, you are controlled by the nature of the live sea itself, persuaded by its power into using gear a good bit stouter than your freshwater gear. However, it is relatively so much lighter and finer than it used to be, and sea fishing techniques have been so refined in the direction of true sport, that the advances made by industrial chemists and enlightened manufacturers can be used with a fresh pleasure, even by the man who is accustomed to gin-clear inland waters and the refined tackle and technique which such water calls for.
And this was certainly not true when Wiggin Minor, slowly turning as green as his grammar school cap, used to catch mackerel and wrasse, pollack and pouting and bream, with a handline, or occasionally with Uncle Sim’s poker-stiff boat rod, near the upside-down battleship which blocks the South Entrance to Portland Harbour. I enjoyed it even then, I enjoy it far more now. Of how many pleasures can that be said, given the elapse of so many years . . . ?
One last thing may be said in praise of sea angling. It is the healthiest occupation known to man. True, it may quite easily kill you. It kills several anglers every year. When we come to the appropriate moment, I will, as in duty bound, sound the alarm about boat fishing. I do a great deal of boat fishing myself, but never recommend anyone to venture out in a boat. Your safety in a boat is absolutely dependent on the skipper’s knowledge, experience, and good sense. And even that may not save you. Boat fishing is heavenly, if you have the stomach for it, but it can be murderous. However, all forms of sea angling provide you with vast quantities of the best air available. Appetites grow out of all recognition. Sleep comes easy to the man who has spent a few hours sucking in the old ozone.
Nowadays, I catch a few perch and pike, but otherwise leave the coarse fish in peace. I cast a fly and a spinner at appropriate times, for the beguiling trout and sea trout and grayling, the kingly salmon. And I won’t pretend that there is any experience known to me, any physical or manual experience, that gives such a generous return, in terms of inner satisfaction, as casting a fly on the pearly surface of the stream where the bright waters meet. Like poetry and poker, it is a human activity, a human invention, which provides the right person with uniquely exquisite thrills. But sea angling is altogether a more robust experience. It is ampler, more open-handed, more bracing and large-hearted. You are keenly aware of the elements in their more rugged dimension: the infinity of the sea, its relentless power and music, the vastness of it all—these factors brace the spirit. Or crush it. There is something in common between the sea coast and the mountain top: they can elevate and enlarge, just as they may intimidate, the human spirit.
A day’s sea fishing may indeed be as tranquil as a day spent sitting on the verdurous banks of a disused canal. You may sit for hours on pier or jetty or harbour wall, dreaming away the sunshine in a placid reverie interrupted occasionally by inconsequent and indeed insignificant fish. But there are other occasions, the stuff of stories and dreams, which brace the whole system and infuse into the most torpid imagination those fleeting intimations of the heroic scale of life, which, once known, effectively banish boredom from the hours we have to spend in servitude between our acts of freedom and desire.