Traditional Angling Evolution – A New Type of Retro?
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, wrapped together?
I believe that traditional angling, as we know it today, has morphed into something different to what it once was. I also believe that it’s about to morph again.
A unique view on angling
“Fennel Hudson: author of Traditional Angling, degenerate of the Golden Scale Club, and a leading advocate of traditional angling.” Hmm. No pressure then. Good job my passion for traditional angling remains. But I'll be the first to acknowledge that traditional angling is not for everyone. It can be seen as a rich person's sport (£3,000 for a top-of-the-range split cane rod) and occasionally elitist in its desire to escape the riff-raff.
As you read on, you’ll learn that I’ve long yearned for the ‘rules’ of traditional angling to be loosened. People, especially young people, need as few hurdles as possible for them to discover and enjoy angling. And for something to remain exciting, it has to remain interesting. This, in my experience, means that it has to be going somewhere. ‘Never changing’ is boring. It’s not long before passengers depart a static train. 'Traditional' runs the risk of becoming locked in a timewarp, so it has to evolve.
Hence why I'm always looking to refine and adapt my approach to traditional angling, seeking ways to forge a deeper connection with nature when fishing.
Today I’m on a different and unchartered path to the one I was on 20 years ago. It's seeing me blend traditional angling and bushcraft skills to create what some might describe as ‘modern-day primitive fishing’. It’s not about spearing fish or setting nettle-spun hand-lines; it’s about veering further from the path of modern angling to get back to basics.
I'd like you to think differently about traditional angling – so that you can forge your own opinion and maybe steer your own path.
The origins of traditional angling
The traditional angling movement began in the 1970s as a reaction to the cheerless face of the modern sport. Led by celebrated angler Chris Yates, it gained momentum through the antics of his Golden Scale Club and articles in angling magazines. Together they injected a great deal of eccentricity and humour into fishing, to balance the scales of modern specimen fishing (especially modern carp fishing) with the seemingly lost art of pleasure fishing for coarse fish.
And then Chris proved that big fish could also be caught when pleasure fishing. He caught the British record carp while stalking small fish in the shallows of Redmire Pool. A 51lb 8oz fish caught on a one-pound test curve split cane Avon rod, 6lb line and a size 8 hook. Such light tackle, and such great angling skill, to catch a bone-fide monster. It made the angling headlines, and Chris spent the next twenty years inspiring people to fish like him. (This was never his intention. He merely wanted to open their eyes to a different way of fishing.)
Nostalgia – from a different age?
Chris Yates and the Golden Scale Club were mostly in their twenties when they started the rebellion in the 1970s. They opted to use ‘vintage’ tackle as a way of demonstrating to others that they appreciated the gentler and more beautiful side of angling. The tackle became the emblem of their defiance to the modern sport. A split cane rod and centrepin reel became the traditionalist’s default outfit. It’s still so today, only that today we’ve forgotten the context of the origins of the rebellion.
The context we’ve forgotten is that the split cane rods and centrepin reels used by Chris and his friends in the 1970s (especially the B James MKIV rods) were only twenty-or-so years old. That’s not exactly ‘vintage’ as we now know it, merely the precursor to the more modern fibreglass and carbon rods that were appearing on the scene. Split cane bamboo rods were merely the rods of their youth, infused with the nostalgia of childhood.
Apply Chris’ 1970s reaction to the modern day and you might have people using fishing tackle from the late 1990s. Sounds extreme? Younger generations of anglers today are already referring to tackle and tactics of the 1990s as being ‘vintage’. (Don’t believe me? Check the listings on eBay.) And why not? Many of these anglers weren’t born before the Millennium.
I can imagine a 17-year-old saying, “Cor, wouldn’t it be fun if we fished like they did in the last century. Perhaps we could recreate the vintage antics of John Wilson in Go Fishing, or Matt Hayes in Total Fishing. Wow, those were classic times! 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’ too – they’d 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, forty years later, still doing – and trying to master – the same old thing, but with less awareness of the tongue-in-cheek humour behind it.
It’s not traditional, it’s retro
Anglers have, over the centuries, traditionally always 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. (The angler is also likely to be seeing an artist's view of angling, connecting to the softer, more romantic side of the sport, hence why the beauty of vintage and handcrafted fishing tackle appeals to them.)
A bigger reaction requires a bigger time jump?
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 properly in 1980. I’m a relative youngster compared to my traditional angling peers (who are now in their late sixties and early seventies), yet – at the grand old age of 43 – I’m find 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 fishing tackle and tactics of my youth – when tackle shops stocked Optonic bite alarms, monkey climber indiators, 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, drone and underwater cameras, and bite alarms synced to one’s mobile phone, 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 ‘unsporting’ and ‘untraditional’.
Yet with modern coarse fishing being progressively more 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 traditionalists of the 1970s have become the sixty-year-old rods that serve present day traditionalists. It’s a creaking of intent: that our gaze is ever more deeper into the past as we seek to maintain the pure pleasures of angling.
It’s about freedom – to be different
Traditional angling has lost much of its rebellious intent. Too many people have jumped on the bandwagon and sought to rationalise or dictate it. There are now ‘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 has, much 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 snobbery and a great many dos and don’ts regarding tactics. And it’s grown legs of its own, becoming something for those who appreciate angling history and enjoy using vintage fishing tackle.
Break free from the crowd. Do your own thing.
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 be the ultimate undoing of the movement. Better to do what feels right to you. Follow your heart. Seek beauty and romance. Be the pleasure angler who smiles at the sunrise.
Traditional angling is the ultimate form of pleasure fishing, it seeks to escape the conflict and competitiveness typified by the modern sport. But we anglers are a cliquey bunch. Our 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 specific species. Game, sea, coarse, pleasure, specimen, match, traditional, modern, carp (angling’s co-called dirty four letter word). Such differences, such competing doctrines.
It’s not often said, but the ‘rules’ of traditional angling are built on the highly combustible shavings of a bamboo rod mixed with the cravings of a 'golden age' that never happened – at least not as it's imagined today. Sounds brutal, but halting one’s sense of nostalgia is as limiting as trying to prevent progress in angling. It might be right for me and many of my friends, but 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 what happened, and is happening, during their own lifetime. I wish I could have said this to my twenty-year-old self.
“It’s only fishing!”
I’m about to say something that I’ve shied away from sharing for two decades. And 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, snobbish, cliquey, ego-driven, dogmatic and political scene that favours the few and condemns the many. At it’s finest it’s a side-splittingly madcap bastion of hope for everything that is cherished in angling. At it’s worst it’s a self-serving corruption of what was otherwise a beautiful sport.
It’s not all pretty, but it can be beautiful
After 25 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 bamboo rod.
My fishing diaries from the 1990s (when I was in my early twenties) are filled with ‘confessions for my sins’ because I was made to feel so inadequate by those I respected. I laugh at these notes 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-a-step to becoming a ‘bivvy boy’. Instead, I was told only to use a rubberised canvas poncho and huddle under it during a downpour. Later I was ridiculed for using Mitchell 300 and Hardy Altex fixed spool reels. “Can’t you cast 40 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 once owned by Richard Walker, but they used electricity – something absolutely forbidden amongst the purists. I was hauled up in front of the Golden Scale Club at our AGM and forced to apologise for the ultimate sin: “using alarming bite sindicators”. My punishment? I would have to float lighted 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 traditionalist wannabees.
Sounds funny? I didn’t see any humour in it at the time. In fact, it soured my love of traditional angling for several years and ended some previously close friendships. In fact, things were never the same again.
Traditional angling will evolve
There are those who condemn others and seek to prevent change. They will be the ones seeking to restrict what’s possible by keeping things as they were. Like museum curators, they’ll preserve the past instead of welcoming the present. This, in its place, is good. And so is innovation and adventure into new things.
Is a cork handled and expertly whipped carbon rod so wholly terrible? Is a modern reel that runs smoothly, and has a bail arm that actually works, worse than its clunky fifty-year-old grandparent? Who is to say? And who is to judge?
I am not a curator of the past, or a creator of the future. I’m just someone with a different view. I can see traditional anglers tiring of the rules of what can and can’t be used (“A 1956 rod with a 1976 reel?! How dare they?!”) to increasingly use a mixture of old and new tackle. They’ll eventually experiment with new angling techniques, maybe – in 30 years time – nostalgically using a spod to deposit their carp bait. In fact I’ll encourage them to do so, just as I encourage you to think differently about what is traditional and what is modern.
Do things by your own rules
What is right for one is not necessarily right for the other. That’s what makes one’s uniqueness and self-confidence so appealing. And when it comes to fishing tackle, use the best of what is old combined with the best of what it new. If you buy and use quality things, they’ll never go out of fashion. And use the right tool for the job. Split cane rods were not designed to cast long distances with heavy leads; centrepin reels are not designed to cast over thirty 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, if you can. (Though I applaud you if you sticking to more antiquated and beautiful tackle brings you more pleasure.)
My experience ‘at the top’ encouraged me to forge my own path – seeking to do things by my own rules to achieve my vision of angling perfection. Angling, after all, is a recreation. It’s meant to be fun. So these days I chill-out and let the politics wash over me. I allow my gaze to focus on the more appealing elements of angling, like friendships and looking after our special watery places. You may not know this about me, as my fishing books Wild Carp (2009), Fly Fishing (2009) and Traditional Angling (2010) were written mostly during my secret writing phase in the late 1990s. And they were all published before my daughter was born.
Becoming a father in 2011 changed my perspective on a great many things, especially how I viewed the ‘rights and wrongs’ of angling. Today, I encourage my daughter to ‘just go fishing’ and use whatever tackle and tactic she finds enjoyable and successful. I wouldn’t impose restrictions upon her style of fishing, especially ones that required the use of expensive vintage-style tackle as a prerequisite to her enjoyment. (They’re treats to enjoy later in life, as reward for good behaviour.)
I’m older now, wiser. I know that traditional anglers deliberately buck trends. We rebel. We seek freedom from rules and doctrines. Proud of our forty-year heritage, we seek to maintain angling as a leisurely and pleasurable activity free from competitiveness and one-upmanship. Ours is an idealised image that, when all the details are right, creates a heightened angling experience.
But it’s the big irony – that these passions are not at all traditional. The rebel goes against the establishment. With traditional angling now acting as a demonstration of that which once was, it’s becoming an establishment in its own right. Those with a rebellious streak will break free and do something different, anarchic, wild.
A new form of traditional angling
I'm fundamentally a rebel who hates being controlled. So I’m going in search of the wild side of angling, one that seeks to develop deeper connections with nature at every touch point.
Bamboo rods and wooden reels always appealed to me for their natural materials and 'feel' more than their history. Maybe I can extend this by only ever fishing with natural baits or imitations of natural foods? Maybe I can fashion my tackle from what I can find in the hedgerow? Perhaps I will choose only to angle for wild fish in natural environments? Maybe I’ll eat what I catch, or forage for an alternative supper when the fish deserves to be returned to the water?
I’ll go camping and fishing, seeing them as one experience, and study the wildlife around me. Angling will be central to everything, but catching fish will be low on the agenda as I relish the broader experience that’s possible at the waterside. In this respect, I can see there being a crossover into the realms of bushcraft – especially when it comes to how one interprets one's surroundings and exists during extended stays in remote places.
That's just my view, something that fascinates me and which I'll be doing going forward. Traditional angling has always taken a different course to the modern scene. It’s a slower course, a quieter course, a more natural course. Like a waterway, it ultimately broadens as it matures. It’s now a forty-year-old river that’s reached either a confluence or a fork. It’s changing, which presents a challenge to its ‘traditional’ nature, but it has the current to move beyond the next bend.
It will be interesting to see how traditional angling changes or broadens. How quickly? Maybe another forty years...
If you like this blog, you might like Traditional Angling, Fennel's Journal No. 6, and my other blogs about Traditional Angling. You might also like to subscribe to Fennel on Friday, where you'll receive a blog, video or podcast sent via email in time for the weekend.