John Bailey: So, why DO we go fishing?

The exuberance of the catch - Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse loving life in the river!

The exuberance of the catch - Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse loving life in the river! - Credit: John Bailey

I don’t know if you managed to sneak in a viewing of Mortimer and Whitehouse’s Christmas Special, but as so-called consultant it was important that I did so.

I watched it with my 20-something stepsons who were unusually quiet throughout. I sensed from them that they enjoyed the scenery and they liked the more reflective moments, but that deep down, they could not quite 'get' why gents of Paul's and Bob’s age (and mine I hasten to add) actually want to catch fish in the first place. In their parlance, “it is what it is” and they didn’t bother to take it further, but the fact remains I went to bed pondering their unspoken question. Is fishing really all about a line with a fool at one end and a worm at the other, or is there truly a deeper resonance to what we love?

Of course, you and I as sibling anglers (can’t mention the Brotherhood of the angle anymore!) know that we thrill to the catching of a fish, that to us, it is the ultimate thrill riddled with excitement and challenge. Casting a fly or trotting a float is a valid physical skill, every bit as elegant as a cover shot in cricket or a half volley in football. Further, as anglers, we know that catching a fish is the peak of natural history conundrums and that you have to understand your quarry to hook it.

The joy of fishing, summed up by Bob Mortimer

The joy of fishing, summed up by Bob Mortimer - Credit: John Bailey

Hmm, not enough for millennials, so I’d add that what Paul and Bob enjoy is a sport that gets you outside, a sport you can indulge in, and improve at, until the day you die, if you are lucky. Fishing drags you into the real world, kids especially, and it grounds you and teaches you more than a hundred Attenborough films ever can about how the natural world actually operates.

Still dubious, then? Well, we’ve always said that it is embedded in our nature to hunt and to fish and that we have been doing it since the dawn of time. Following on from this line of argument, you could say that as hunter gatherers, killing what we catch to eat is utterly defensible whilst branches of Burger King continue to flourish. We live, still, in an age where animals are killed, often inhumanely, for us to eat and catching a fish supper by dint of our own rod can hardly be seen as a bad thing. Until every single one of us is vegan, angling is inviolable... though wouldn’t a 30lb carp prefer to be lovingly returned than stuffed in an oven?

Today, we are far more open to discussions on mental well-being than we were and there seems to be a reliable body of opinion that fishing is a great therapy and cure for the stresses induced by our modern, digital existence. I personally will go along with that: when I feel beleaguered, nothing soothes like a day by a river, the water washing my cares away.

The charity Casting For Recovery has been instrumental in introducing breast cancer sufferers into fishing, with apparent excellent results. And there is more on this. We know now that loneliness is a curse that many endure and a day on the riverbank is as good a way to bond and to relate to each other that I know of. My guiding career has been built around parents and children or old friends seeking a day’s fishing together. Look at Bob and Paul. They are like bookends, adjoining parts of the same jigsaw. Fishing has done that for them, even despite the strains that filming necessarily inflicts.

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I’ve always held strongly that anglers are guardians of the stream. I’m in no doubt that the ONLY naturalists that care about wild fish, that know a tench from a trout, are anglers. You might say that this is self interest, that we protect wild fish merely to catch them, but there is more to it than that, I swear. Fishers love fish whereas, to most, they are creatures on a slab or in a pan. I inhabit a world of fish conservationists and whilst I frequently disagree with their methods, I have never challenged their motives. There can be no doubt that fish are the poor relations in the world of conservation and they would fare even more poorly without us. Even without the Environment Agency perhaps!

I don’t think we should take the theme of this piece lightly and I promise you it’s not an exercise in semantics. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is shuffling around Westminster right now and it aims to give new rights and protections to any vertebrate creature, and that includes fish, of course. The start of a new year isn’t a bad time to whip up a few resolutions and one of the things my stepsons did like was the lightning release of Paul's and Bob’s salmon. “And Away” should be a motto we all adopt perhaps as we make our sport even more humane than it now is. It’s worth considering, don’t you think?