It would start with the cellar door. My dad’s friend Darcy would park outside our house with a wooden door strapped to the roof of his Ford Zephyr. Together they would then unscrew the hinges of our cellar door and add it to Darcy’s. With the two doors lashed down they would set forth on the most exciting adventure ever: pike fishing.
I was six years old. We lived in south central Glasgow and this was the most exciting and dangerous fishing trip I never got to experience. As I remember it, my dad told me they would have to approach the far-off, remote, pike-infested water across treacherous mud and swamp. Hence the doors. Leap-frogging. Until they reached the water’s edge.
Sadly, I never got to go pike fishing with the cellar door. Never even got to see a pike. There were no cameras in 1960s Glasgow. At least not in our house. I never even really fathomed exactly where they went. As a result, the mysterious quest burned such a ragged-edged hole of want in me that I spent decades of my life trying to fill it.
For me, growing up in Glasgow, fishing was about escape: mackerel trips in converted trawlers from Largs; perch pursuits in hilly heather-trimmed lochs; hired sea-going rowing boats off Rothesay. An escape from concrete to water. From suburbia to highland, heathland, estuary, beach or dangerous, weedy, slippy, sea-lashed, rock-strewn headland.
Danger was definitely an element I loved about fishing. When my dad put a size 3/0 stainless-steel long-shank mackerel hook through the heel of his thumb in a boat off Millport, it was the most fabulous gory drama. Something to recount and boast about at school. My only regret was that it wasn’t my thumb.
Just over 20 years later I found myself sitting at a desk in the offices of Just Seventeen magazine in Carnaby Street, working as their agony uncle and features writer, replying to tortured teen letters about unrequited love, while dreaming of ugly big pike that inhabited the flat, dark, drainage ditches of the Cambridgeshire Fens.
After work, I would drive up the M11, hands literally shaking on the wheel as I headed to Holywell, north of Cambridge, where I would lure-fish for pike and zander long after dark. When I lived in urban east London through my late 20s and 30s, fishing was also about escape. Escape from the city. Escape from computer screens and desks, to feel the bite of the east wind blow straight off the Russian steppes across the North Sea and into my face. To feel loamy Fen soil beneath my boots and an angry tooth-filled pike between my hands.
The most dangerous part about pike fishing, apart from potentially drowning or sinking into my father’s probably mythical bog, is the teeth. Unhooking a pike is an art, involving forceps and skill. Their mouths are thick forests of serried rows of needle-sharp teeth which, unless you wear gloves, shred and scratch computer-soft hands with cuts that seem to bleed for hours. I never wore gloves.
I would sit at my desk in Carnaby Street writing up interviews with Depeche Mode or quizzes about How to Tell if Your Crush Likes You More as a Friend and smile warmly at my scabby, barely healing cuts. Like they were my visceral connection to nature. To the outdoors. To water.
Granted, my masochistic obsession with pike fishing may sound unhinged, but there is very good evidence to support not just the physical advantages of going fishing, but the mental ones too. In the most recent lockdown, the powers that be banned people from going recreational fishing at sea or on fresh water, until a successful lobby from the Angling Trust, which highlighted the “huge benefits to individual health and wellbeing” of angling. The government listened and, shortly after lockdown began, announced that local daytime fishing at sea or in freshwater was allowed with one other person from outside your household – not just as a physical exercise, but as a mental one too.
John Ellis, national fisheries and angling manager for the Canals and Rivers Trust, says: “When you’re focusing on fishing, it is very hard to think about anything else. It clears the mind of other worries, at least temporarily.”
Recognising the social and mental benefits of angling is nothing new. The late poet laureate Ted Hughes said of fishing: “It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communication with levels of yourself that are deeper than the original self.”
Headway, the charity that helps people living with brain injuries, runs regular fishing trips, because they “help motivation and mental wellbeing, giving participants something to look forward to every week and something to talk about with others”.
So where can you go to escape the indoors and expand your mindfulness of things with fins? At the moment the guidelines stress “local fishing”, which could include lakes, ponds, rivers, drains, day-ticket waters, beaches and piers.
When I lived in east London, I fished the canals of the Grand Union, the Hertford Union and the River Lea and caught everything from 60cm-long eels to a 15lb pike covered in scars and leeches.
A fishing spot doesn’t have to be pretty to make you feel that you’ve been somewhere.
Now I live in Dorset, I can pound along Chesil Beach in search of a spot to fish for whiting, codling and bass in the summer. It’s 18 miles long: sometimes I can have a two-mile stretch all to myself.
Weymouth harbour wall offers a chance of “jigging” – line fishing with a special lure – for squid. Some are as long as your leg, and have a tenderness and a sweetness of flavour that will transport your taste buds to a new dimension.
Living in Dorset makes fish escapism easy – it’s the main reason I moved here – but our islands are littered with bodies of water that offer moments of calm as well as heart-stopping, rod-bending action. The Lake District is a paradise of wide waters and tiny ponds. The canals of the Midlands offer bream, pike and zander – one of Europe’s most prized freshwater table fish. The massive rivers of Wales hold barbel and chub that will rise to a floated dog food pellet.
Many of Britain’s reservoirs – from Chew Valley Lake near Bristol to the many near Walthamstow in north-east London, from Sywell in Northants and Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire to Bewl Water in Kent – offer day tickets to fish and some even have boats to hire.
And then there are the piers – Cromer to Sunderland, Swansea to Whitby, Plymouth to Blackpool – where the wind whistles, the sky expands, the weather blows straight in from another place and sanity can be found in a timeless quest for contact with something slippery. Something you might just hold, photograph and release, for the sense of adventure and journey. Or something you might take home and turn into dinner.
Either way, whether it rains or shines or sleets or snows, whether you catch or not, fishing moves a piece of the big open outside world inside you.
The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation stirred a hornet’s nest recently when it claimed only between 1% and 18% of fish survived being caught in recreational fishing. The two statistics were quoted quite out of context, and muddled: the 1% figure referenced the survival of by-catch in commercial fisheries, while the 18% cited as a mean survival figure was actually a mean mortality figure, itself gleaned from numerous reports on a wide range of fishing practices and places, none in the UK.
British anglers are, by and large, very good at looking after their fish, not least because of our enthusiasm for catching inedible species from canals and park ponds. But no matter what you catch, following some simple rules means a released fish will swim away unharmed, if a little nonplussed, not just 82% of the time, but all of the time. Doing this bit well is as important as doing the catching well.
Use barbless hooks. Play the fish quickly. Use a fine-mesh, rubberised landing net. Ideally, unhook and let the fish go without lifting it out of the water. If you want a picture, cradle the fish in the water, wait until your mate is ready, lift it quickly, say cheese and put it back. Do not squeeze its belly, or its gills. Picture or not, hold the fish upright in the water, wait until it gets its bearings and then let it swim away. If for some reason the fish takes its time, just take your time, too. Nature is a privilege.