John Bailey: Food for thought

I suppose as anglers all of us, this must be one of the most frequently asked questions we ever get asked about our sport.

It's pretty cringeworthy. I always curl up my own toes. Somehow, the question seems to imply that we're idiots sitting in mindless serenity. You know, a worm at one end and a fool at the other. Half asleep with a line tied around our big toe. Or just trying to evade the mother-in-law. The whole perception of us as brainless hobos sucking on a piece of straw absolutely infuriates me. So, any non-anglers out there, this is what we fisherfolk are REALLY thinking about.

First of all, angling is a sport and not a hobby, get that! Half the time, many of us are tramping miles to fish different swims with flies, lures or bait. When I used to go to Mongolia, for example, it wasn't unusual for me to walk at least 25 or even 30 miles in a day, fishing as I went. Or how about the salmon angler, up to his chest in a fast-flowing river, wielding a 16ft salmon rod with complete precision? Half the time when we're fishing, we're simply thinking about staying alive! It's absolutely not all sleepy stuff, stretched out on a bed-chair.

During a normal session, I guess a lot of us will be thinking how to improve on what we're doing. There are a thousand things that can be going through our minds. Should we put more bait in or not? After all you can put it in but you can't take it out. Should we stick or should we move?

Perhaps the fish are just where we're not or do they just need a bit of coaxing? Do we attack a different part of the swim? If we're on a lead, should we move to a float? Should we change bait or hook size? In truth, the lazy angler is the unsuccessful one and there aren't many of us whose minds aren't buzzing throughout a normal few hours bankside.

I guess a lot of us are also constantly watching what's going on around us and computing what we should be doing from what we see. For example, if a couple of pairs of grebes are diving continually in a bay, this will indicate there are prey fish there and probable predators like pike and perch. I take binoculars with me so I'm constantly scanning the lake for rolling tench or bream. Or looking for bubbles or for slicks of water amongst a ripple where a big fish has just rolled beneath. Through binoculars you can see when there is a fly hatch and that almost always coincides with a feeding spell that you need to exploit.

Or perhaps you're watching out of sheer admiration. Kingfishers are perhaps my own object of desire. I love their colour, their grace, their speed and their halcyon perfection. I like to watch the geese go overhead in great skeins, especially now winter is here. I love the late dawns and the early dusks of winter. Only yesterday, as the sun set early, it highlighted a burnished dog fox on the bank opposite, rooting for rabbits. That's when all anglers are thinking what a wonderful world we inhabit.

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There's more, there are even further levels of thought, believe me. One thing about living a life of fishing is the variety of fishing focuses that get thrown at me each and every day. Just yesterday, I received a super email from an old friend, one who was pivotal in the tackle industry before his retirement a few years back. Philip, then, had to be hugely business-orientated but now, in retirement, he can fish more and take more onboard from his fishing.

I've fished with Philip mostly down on the River Wye where he has a couple of delightful salmon stretches which he lets me use from time to time. His email yesterday was all about success. He's already had a golden season but this particular day was one to treasure. He'd already had four fish in a morning when, towards late afternoon, on a golden Wye sunset, the big one took. This is what Philip wrote.

'After a few minutes, the fish jumped in a perfect arc and I realised that it was truly huge. I fought within myself to keep down the panic.

The fish didn't race off in high-speed, long runs but played a solid game and gradually I managed to direct it into a calm shallow bay downstream of the croy on which I was standing.

The first time the fish came into the margins, it panicked, shooting out again into the main river, spraying water high into the air with its massive tail. Again and again the fish would make back for the main current but it finally accepted its fate and in the shallow water, the huge salmon lay on its side.

'I knelt down beside it and measured its length at 44 inches, making it around 33lb or so. Watching it in the water there, defeated by my side, I couldn't help thinking about the majesty and mystery of both our lives. Which of us, I wondered, is the most amazing? I knew that my salmon had lived in the river for two years and had then, by its own skill, swum to Greenland where it had waxed fat for the following three years. It had then returned to the river of its birth, the Wye, and now, here it was lying on its side depending on me to release it so that it could achieve its life purpose.

'As the fish swam away, its tail beat, showering me with Wye water and I wished it Godspeed. As I walked away from the croy, I thought that here I am on a planet spinning around in space and I have just caught this totally amazing fish. I just cannot understand the amazing complexity of the life that we lead.'

I know how Philip felt. Often, I've landed the fish of my own dreams and it's like having the moon at your feet. I always take time out, like Philip, to look at the fish and to soak in the awe of its presence.

I'm not saying anything new to anglers but it might be good for non-anglers to realise that these are the sort of things that we think about.