Traditional Angling Evolution
What is traditional angling to you? Is it a sporting mindset that has nothing to do with tackle, or the quest for a specific angling image that enables a sense of timelessness and escapism when fishing? Maybe it’s both?
This blog, taken from Fennel's book entitled Book of Secrets, we consider how traditional angling, as we know it today, has morphed into something different to what it once was.
I’ve long been associated with traditional angling. My nickname ‘Fennel’ came from my earliest adventures with celebrated traditional angler Chris Yates; my Fennel’s Priory brand name was given to me by Bernard Venables, the original ‘Mr Crabtree’ and elder statesman of traditional angling; and I’ve been ‘in’ with The Golden Scale Club (reputed to be the UK’s top twenty-one traditional anglers) since 1996. I’ve been there in the thick of it for nearly twenty years, learning from and fishing with the best. Hence why I’m expected to write about the subject. But it’s not something I want to discuss. Why? Because traditional angling is not what it was.
Traditional angling values
Today, traditional anglers seem to be preoccupied with using vintage and traditionally styled tackle such as bamboo rods, centrepin reels, wicker creels and quill floats. Whilst these things are lovely and enhance the aesthetic appeal of one’s time beside the water, they aren’t the ‘be all and end all’ of traditional angling. Just because someone uses vintage-styled tackle doesn’t automatically make him or her a traditional angler. At least, not if his or her angling antics are urgent, competitive, ungentlemanly and unseasonal.
The seasonality of traditional angling
Being connected to one’s environment, moving and changing with the seasons, is a defining part of being a countryman. The traditional angler, being an old-fashioned countryman, should fish for different species in different locations using different tactics at different times of year. Traditional angling is different. It opposes the modern approach to fishing where the angler often specialises in one species, using one tactic on one water. (Not withstanding, of course, that an angler is likely to have a favourite specie, water, tactic or tackle item. We’ll allow him or her the indulgence of favouritism.)
Old school angling
Writing about the type of traditional angling that I practised in the nineties, when the coarse fishing season existed on all waters and traditional tackle was harder to come by, means that I’d be describing something that isn’t representative of traditional angling today. But I’m going to give my old school view in the hope that it persuades ‘modern-day traditional’ anglers that there’s more to traditional angling than tackle alone.
A champion of traditional angling?
“Fennel Hudson: author of Traditional Angling, degenerate of the Golden Scale Club and a leading advocate of fishing traditionally.” Hmm. This might once have been the case, but not anymore. Traditional angling’s evolved, and so have I. I’m still very much a traditional angler, valuing the pleasures of fishing, the excitement of catching fish, and the heart-warming aesthetics of angling, but I’m uncomfortable with the way this style of fishing has become fixated with tackle and seeks to govern itself with a new set of ‘traditional’ rules.
Traditional angling: how fishing used to be
Back in the 1990s, when I fished mostly for carp, barbel, tench, perch, roach and chub, traditional angling was the ultimate form of pleasure fishing. It sought to make the angling experience more ‘compleat’ by appealing to the angler’s romantic side. The beauty was in the detail. From the swirling dawn mists upon a mirrored pool, to the hooting of owls at dusk, to the timeless beauty of one’s attire and tackle, traditional angling lifted our spirits at every opportunity. It was passion for the heart and poetry for the soul. It was gentle, calming, sensitive, and diverse: very much a reaction to the stern-faced and ultra-competitive ‘modern’ sport epitomised by specimen fishing and match fishing. It was such a shame when traditional angling also became serious.
Traditional angling is a mindset. It has nothing to do with tackle
I am not a serious angler, sour-faced when the fish refuse to bite. I’m a pleasure fisherman who seeks lazy times beside the water. Rarely do I angle for fish. Mostly I fish for relaxation, connection with nature, and an escape from the fast pace of urban life. When I’m in this mood (90% of the time) I’ll bring out the vintage gear and slow things down. But sometimes I seek a bigger challenge. This is when I fish larger waters that require a different approach – such as loch-style fly fishing from a boat, or long-range casting with heavy leads. Naturally, and traditionally, I use tackle that’s appropriate to the challenge. Fibreglass or carbon rods can handle the exertions of casting heavy lines or leads better than their bamboo cousins, so I use them when required. They look different, so I settle in to a different style and ‘image’ of fishing. Does this make me a non-traditionalist? In some people’s eyes, yes it does; but I’m never eager, always fishing in a leisurely manner to appreciate the nature around me.
Traditional anglers: tackle tarts?
Not everyone thinks as I do. There are those who succumb to the beauty of pretty things*. Tackle ‘tarts’, as they are known, hoard and caress items of fishing tackle much in the same way that red-light floozies ‘collect’ their lovers. Whilst the act is real, it lacks depth of connection for me. I dislike the term and the association, especially in relation to vintage tackle or traditional angling, and instead seek a more meaningful, respectful and fulfilling relationship with a waterside environment.
*The exceptions are talented craftsmen and women who make their own fishing tackle, which – given the skilled workmanship and handcrafted output – has raised their angling to a higher form of art. (Traditional angling has always appealed more to the artist than the scientist, the romantic more than the pragmatist, as it celebrates the aesthetics of angling more than the mechanics and practicality of catching fish.)
Modern-day traditional anglers
Then there are those so-called traditionalists who are all-too serious, eager and stressed-out about their fishing. They’re the ones who have ‘target fish’ and conduct military-style ‘campaigns’ upon a water (just like modern anglers). They need to catch fish, all of the time, else they’ve somehow failed as anglers. They conceal their desperation in tweed and canvas, hoping that no one will notice their insincerities. But ‘image does not a traditional angler make’. They are modern anglers in traditional attire. Does this make them the frauds of the riverbank? Not really. They’re on a journey that might ultimately see them relax and see the bigger picture. They’ll eventually learn that there’s more to fishing than catching fish.
Elitism in traditional angling
Finally, there are the traditional angling snobs who create rules for other traditional anglers (I’m at risk of being one of these, given my strongly-held opinions), stating what tackle and tactics are allowed and condemning anything or anyone that falls short of their ideal. Angling has always been the great leveller of Man, so I don’t seek to be a snob. Irrespective of background, profession, or social position, one should just be able to ‘go fishing’ and enjoy one’s day – using whatever tactics or tackle that help us to relax. This is especially relevant to young anglers and those taking up the sport. Just let them ‘go fishing’ and not be constrained by too many dos and don’ts.
What, then, is traditional angling? It’s escapism, for sure. It’s eccentric, with anglers seeking to go fishing in a way that convinces them that they’ve stepped out of time to a more ‘organic’ age. In doing so they can get closer to nature. But mostly it’s a rebellion: a movement that began in the 1970s as a reaction to the cheerless face of the modern sport.
The origins of traditional angling
Led by celebrated angler Chris Yates, traditional angling gained momentum through his articles in the angling press, many of which featured adventures with his friends in the Golden Scale Club. He injected a great deal of eccentricity and humour into his writing and fishing, to ‘balance the scales’ of modern specimen angling (especially modern carp fishing) with the seemingly lost art of pleasure fishing for coarse fish.
The Golden Scale Club opted to use ‘vintage’ split cane rods as a way of demonstrating to others that they appreciated the gentler and more beautiful side of angling. Their tackle became the emblem of their defiance to the modern sport. And then Chris proved that big fish could be caught when pleasure fishing. He caught the British record carp while stalking small fish in the shallows of Redmire Pool. A 51lb 8oz carp caught on a one-pound test curve split cane rod, 6lb line and a size 8 hook. Such light tackle, and such skill, to catch a bone-fide monster. It made the angling headlines and Chris developed a large following of anglers who sought to fish like him.
It wasn't that traditional at the beginning
As the years passed, people forgot the origins of the movement. They also forgot that the tackle used by Chris and his friends in the 1970s was not especially old. The B James MKIV rods for example, which are synonymous with traditional angling, were made from 1952 to 1966. They were, at best, twenty years old when used by the newly formed Golden Scale Club. That’s not exactly ‘vintage’ as we now know it. It would be the same as someone today using tackle from 1990. Sounds extreme? Younger generations of anglers are already referring to tackle and tactics of the ’90s as being ‘vintage’. (Don’t believe me? Check the listings on eBay.) And why not? Many of these anglers weren’t born when the tackle was made.
A tongue-in-cheek reaction to modern specimen fishing
I can imagine a young angler today saying, “Cor, wouldn’t it be fun to fish like they did in the last century. Wow, those were classic times! John Wilson in Go Fishing, Matt Hayes in Total Fishing; we’d be seen as totally ‘old school’, at odds with the fashion-led modern scene. And wouldn’t it be great if we caught a huge fish ‘by accident’. Those trend-following anglers would never understand how we did it!”
Sounds eccentric, but when the traditional angling ‘revolution’ began in the 1970s, the revolutionaries were recreating a type of angling practised only twenty years earlier. And yet, here we are, thirty-five years later, still doing – and trying to master – the same old thing but with less awareness of the tongue-in-cheek humour behind it.
Traditional and retro angling
Anglers have ‘traditionally’ used the latest tackle and tactics to catch their fish. So to be a traditional angler, in the strictest sense, one should use the latest innovations. The so-called traditional angler, therefore, is not traditional. He or she is retro. Whatever the definition, traditional or retro angling is a reaction to the modern sport. It’s laughable, though, how ‘unmodern’ the specimen angling scene was in the 1970s compared to present-day.
I was born in 1974 and began fishing with rod and line in 1980. I’m a relative youngster compared to my friends in the Golden Scale Club (many of whom are now in their sixties and seventies), yet – at the grand old age of 35 – I’m finding myself feeling out of touch with the latest trends in angling.
Bedazzled and confused by the latest gizmos, I find myself looking back – with rather a lot of fondness – to the coarse fishing tackle and tactics of my youth – when tackle shops stocked Optonic bite alarms, monkey climber indicators, canvas brolly overwraps, and ‘composite’ carp rods with two-pound test curves. Yet this was exactly the sort of tackle that the originators of traditional angling thought typified the ‘ugly modern scene’. Hmm. Time sure has a way of making us see things differently.
Compared to modern-day sonar fish detectors, aerial drones and underwater cameras, remote control bait boats, bite alarms synced to one’s mobile phone, and electric generators that power in-bivvy televisions and beer fridges, the fishing of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was by no means ‘modern’. In fact, it seems archaic and laughable that something as simple as a braided hooklink could have been condemned as being ‘unsporting’ and ‘untraditional’.
Traditional angling: a reaction to competitive, modern fishing
With modern coarse fishing being progressively technology-led, the traditionalist’s reaction needs to be bigger. One rod is used instead of four, and the twenty-year-old rods that served the rebels of the 1970s have become the fifty-year-old rods that serve present-day traditionalists. It’s a creaking of intent: that our gaze is ever deeper into the past as we seek to maintain the pure pleasures of angling.
But traditional angling has lost its rebellious intent. Too many people have jumped on the bandwagon and sought to rationalise or dictate the sport. There are now too many ‘rules’ about how a traditional angler should fish – right down to the type of fabrics to be worn or baits to be used. What began as a revolution in the 1970s has, like the punk music that existed at the time, become diluted by the masses. Actually, it’s not so much ‘diluted’ as ‘controlled’. It’s become regimented, with an unhealthy amount of tackle elitism and condemnations regarding tactics. And it’s grown legs of its own, becoming something of a ‘sealed knot’ for those who appreciate angling history and enjoy using vintage fishing tackle.
A blurring of traditions?
The problem with ‘movements’ and new ways of doing things is that they eventually suffer from the same oppressive dogmas that caused the revolution in the first place. Traditional angling is no different. Holding it in a pseudo time warp of tackle imagery that never appeared together at the time (Edwardian clothing, with 1950s rods, and 21st century hooks and lines?) makes for many ‘grey areas’ of what is acceptable and what is not. And these grey areas are the most contested. It’s started a fight within a fight, which might cause the ultimate undoing of the movement.
Traditional angling, for traditional anglers
Anglers are a cliquey bunch. Their conflicting interests, enthusiasms and passions (which verge on religiousness) encourage love-hate relationships. There are a great many rifts between those who fish in specific ways or for dedicated species. Consider the styles and attitudes of game, sea, coarse, pleasure, specimen, match, traditional, modern, and ‘carp’ angling (which many anglers, wrongly in my opinion, regard as dirty four-letter word). Such contrasting imagery, stereotypes, rules, mindsets and doctrines. For angling’s survival, anglers should come together to defend and support the sport. Alas, the conflict caused between the factions means it is often a case of ‘never the twain should meet’.
The 'rules' of traditional angling
It’s not often said, but the ‘rules’ of traditional angling are built upon the highly combustible shavings of bamboo rods mixed with cravings for a ‘golden age’ that never existed – at least not as it’s imagined today. This sounds brutal, but halting one’s sense of nostalgia is as limiting as trying to prevent progress in angling. Why should someone in their twenties or thirties be required to dress, tackle up, and act as someone from the 1950s? Rose-tinted re-enactment aside, they should be allowed to feel nostalgic for whatever’s happening during their own lifetime.
Traditional angling's big secret
I’m about to say something that I’ve shied away from sharing for two decades. It is this: the higher you climb in traditional angling circles, the more intensely passionate and purist the fishing becomes. The bright flame of inspiration and achievement burns brightly. There’s great beauty in this, but also ugliness. It can be an elitist, pretentious, condescending, cliquey, ego-driven, dogmatic and political scene that favours the few and condemns the many. At its finest it’s a side-splittingly madcap bastion of hope for everything that is cherished in angling. At its worst, it’s a self-serving corruption of what is otherwise a beautiful sport.
After nearly twenty years of fishing traditionally with fellow traditional anglers, I’ve concluded that the upper echelons of traditional angling are – in places – the opposite of what I imagined them to be when I first picked up a split cane rod.
Be proud of doing things your own way
My fishing diaries from the 1990s are filled with ‘confessions for my sins’ because I was made to feel so inadequate by those whom I respected. I laugh at these comments now, but in my formative years my peers criticised me heavily for doing things ‘incorrectly’. For example: I was chastised for using an umbrella when fishing in the rain. Doing so, apparently, was too close to becoming a ‘bivvy boy’. Instead, I was told to use a rubberised canvas poncho and huddle under it during a downpour. Later I was ridiculed for using fixed spool reels. “Can’t you cast thirty yards with a centrepin?” they laughed. “What an amateur traditionalist!”
And then the final insult: caught red-handed using Heron bite alarms. They were forty years old and previously owned by their inventor Richard Walker, but they used electricity – something absolutely forbidden by the purists. I was hauled up in front of the Golden Scale Club and forced to apologise for the ultimate sin: “using alarming bite sindicators!” My punishment? I would have to float lighted tea candles down the River Test at Stockbridge. If a trout rose to eat one, and the flame wasn’t extinguished, then I would be reprieved. But until then I would have to live in shame of my deed and scurry about in the gutter with the rest of the wannabee traditionalists.
Sounds funny? I didn’t see any humour in it at the time. It destroyed my confidence, soured my love of traditional angling, and ended some previously close friendships. Hence why I temporarily distanced myself from the Golden Scale Club. (An organisation that denounces others with ‘awards’ such as the Black Gaff, Black Pyke, and Black B*llock seems rather self-righteous to me.) But I still love traditional angling, especially the gentle style practised by our forefathers, and my closest friends are still within the Golden Scale Club.
Traditional angling can still be pure, if you maintain the right mindset (knowing that it’s nothing to do with tackle) and realise that there’s more to fishing than catching fish. It’s a recreation, not a religion. Keep it in perspective.
Allow traditional angling to evolve
Those who belittle others, or seek to prevent change, restrict innovation. Like museum curators, they preserve the past instead of welcoming the present. This, in its place, is good. But so is creativity and adventure into new things. (So I should stop harping on, and accept that traditional angling has evolved.)
Embrace the richness and fullness of angling. Is a cork-handled and expertly whipped carbon rod so wholly terrible? Is a modern reel that runs smoothly, has a bail arm and clutch that works, worse than its clunky fifty-year-old grandparent? Who is to say? And who is to judge? Think differently about what is traditional and what is modern. (Clue: everything will become vintage; so buy quality items now and make them last.)
Keeping traditional angling locked in a pseudo 1950s trance is not healthy. It needs to change, mature and evolve. It needs an influx of something new. What is right for one is not necessarily right for the other. That’s what makes one’s uniqueness and self-confidence so appealing.
Use the best traditional fishing tackle, and the best of what is modern
When it comes to fishing tackle, use the best of what is old combined with the best of what it new (so long as it looks right and feels good together). If you buy and use quality things, they’ll never go out of fashion. Use the right tool for the job. Split cane rods were not designed to cast long distances with heavy leads or lines; centrepin reels are not designed to cast over forty yards; wicker baskets will dimple your buttocks if you sit on them for more than an hour; a sleeping bag laid directly on the ground will soon become damp and uncomfortable; and night fishing without a bite alarm will lead to sleep deprivation and illness.
There’s a reason why modern tackle items were invented. Use them. Who knows, they might become traditional some day?
This blog is a sample chapter from Fennel's book entitled Book of Secrets.
It forms the prequel to Fennel's book Traditional Angling.
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