Fennel's blog - bushcraft fly fishing

Rewilding Fly Fishing – Part 1

As a lifestyle author who occasionally writes about fishing, I’m often asked about the life-enhancing benefits of our sport. My answers centre upon Three Fundamental Facts:

  • Fact 1: Fishing enables Man to get close to Nature. Different styles of fishing encourage this in different ways. The sedentary coarse fisher, sitting quietly while waiting for the fish to discover his baited area, encourages nature to come to him. In contrast, the flyfisher enters the fishes’ world by matching the hatch, travelling light and venturing into wild places.
  • Fact 2: Fishing unlocks the primeval hunting gene. Catching fish reassures us that, should we be called upon to put food on the table, we can feed ourselves and our family. In doing so, we maintain our status as the Alpha Male and can beat our chest in defiance of the Bargain Bucket and Drive-Thru culture of convenience living.
  • Fact 3: Fishing encourages escapism. The deeper we travel into the natural world, and the greater the number of technological encumbrances we leave behind, the more likely we are to escape the fast-past lifestyle and stresses of the 21st Century.

That’s the theory. In reality, the modern fishing scene is not the simple and unburdened tiptoe into Nature that once it was. The sport today is fragmented: split apart by conflicting dogmas, specialisms and unnecessary competition. It’s mostly artificial, too, with coarse fish that are conditioned to eat human food (plate of luncheon meat, sweetcorn and bread anyone?) and stocked trout that are as wild as a Chihuahua sitting in a pink velvet handbag. But nowadays, the opponent isn’t so much the fish as our fellow anglers. It isn’t enough to catch ‘a’ fish; we have to catch more and bigger fish than our neighbour. The pressure’s on to compete. There isn’t time to relax amongst the flowers. All that wildlife stuff, we are told, is just a distraction from our primary purpose: to catch fish. If we fail to land an ever-increasing bag of fish, then we fail as anglers. To succeed, we must use the latest tackle developments, tactics and fly patterns, just as every generation of fishermen has done before us. But in doing so, we get further from our Three Fundamental Facts of angling.

In today’s fast-paced world, the pressure put upon us to catch fish makes our sport less recreational and more business-like than perhaps it once was.

(Do you have goals and objectives for the coming season? Have you translated these into strategies and tactics for each water? Do you have an end-of-year review with the river keeper as you submit your catch return? And if successful, will you allow yourself a bonus for good performance?) Heaven forbid the day when fishing becomes the cause of our stress and we go to work for some respite.

I’ve had this debate with anglers from all disciplines over the years. Usually it concludes with someone suggesting that ‘fishing’ is the act of catching fish by any means (such as nets, harpoons, or dynamite), whereas ‘angling’ attempts to catch fish with a hook (the angle). As such, angling – at least in the hands of the average man – is potentially a less efficient means of catching fish. This encourages the angler to fill his biteless hours with other pleasures: such as studying wildlife, practising his casting, or – in the case of modern carp anglers – by watching a battery-powered television. 

What would happen then if we stripped angling back to its most primitive form? Perhaps by selecting the simplest style of angling – fly fishing – and returning it to its origins?

What would it show to our fellow fly fishers and – more extremely – to the wider fishing community if we left behind all the gizmos and creature comforts and lived feral for a week in a remote and thoroughly wild angling location? With just a rod, reel, line, leader, hooks and fly-tying thread, plus some survival items and a great deal of inner spirit, would we be able to rediscover the pure and original pleasure of fishing? Would the Three Fundamental Facts take on the brilliance of truth as we sought to catch fish to stay alive? And if we made it through the week, would we be able to shake hands with our primeval self?

The experiment would work if we got the right team together. We’d need people experienced at flyfishing, bushcraft and rewilding; and perhaps someone who’s good with a camera, and another who’s good with a pen, who could document the whole adventure. Each would need to be hard-as-nails and be prepared to live basically – potentially on protein sources other than fish if the trout and local fauna were sulking.

Prospect of an earthworm breakfast aside, when brought together, these experts could create a new survival-based style of angling and capture it in a way that would inspire others.

Fortunately for us, I knew just the people to make it happen.

Thom Hunt is one of the UK’s leading authorities on wild food. He owns 7th Rise, a rewilding centre in Cornwall and is well practised at immersing people in a wild environment. Mark Aspell and Manse Ahmad are owners of the Wilderness Pioneers Bushcraft School near Oxford. They are experts in primitive skills such as fire-starting, camp building, making tools and equipment from natural materials, and – crucially – know how to purify water using natural means. Nicky Brown runs Wilderness TV – a production company specialising in fishing programmes. He has travelled all over the world in search of adventure. And I’m an author known for his desire to get away from it all. We’re all flyfishers who seek to catch wild trout in wild places.

After a number of phone calls, each of my ‘A’ Team accepted the challenge of a ‘rewilding flyfishing’ expedition. Thom would lend his foraging, hunting and cooking skills to provide our meals. He’d share his knowledge of ‘rewilding’ people in wild places to spark plenty of intellectual debate around the campfire. (More about rewilding in the next instalment, but for now read George Monbiot’s Feral and Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle). Mark and Manse would be in charge of base camp and provide us with heat to cook and stay warm, shelter to stay dry, and clean water to wash our electric toothbrushes. Nicky would document everything with his camera, and I’d be the one keeping a written log of events. We’d fish in rotation, with two people out hunting and foraging while the other two rested and kept an eye on the campfire (maintaining a steady supply of drinking water can be a full-time activity). And to uphold the survival element of our adventure, we’d tie our flies using whatever materials we could find in the vicinity. With luck, we’d be able to experience a ‘rewilded’ and totally pure version of flyfishing.

All we’d need to do was find the right location, pray for good weather, and tempt some obliging trout…


This article originally appeared in The Flyfishers' Journal, Summer 2015

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