Listen to this article
Just as no two people are alike, so you can apply this principle to anglers. There are those who would never kill a fish and there are those who hate to put them back. Some like to catch big bulbous carp; some to stand on a beach all night long in winter; others to work a fly on a chalk stream.
These different types like to argue too, which probably explains the solitary nature of angling, unlike shooting and fox-hunting, pursuits that lend themselves to showing off, where part of the appeal is the group dynamic.
I have shot occasionally – never enough to become good at it but just enough to know it has as much in common with fishing as cats have with dogs.
Cats are solitary hunters that creep up on their prey. They outthink it before they pounce. Dogs, on the other hand, spend a lot of time yapping and wagging tails, running around, barging and growling.
This is exactly the behaviour of the shooting party to which I have been invited for the past four years. By contrast, their dogs are fairly placid. At least this year no one brought any walnuts in order to demonstrate their “skill” in breaking them on the table with their forehead. That was last year’s stunt and, even then, someone had to go one better with a hazelnut.
Fishing is about rivercraft and problem solving. It’s a personal thing: you and the quarry. If anything, it is a study in introversion. It tends to attract the pedant and the perfectionist. Shooting is social, with plenty of sound and fury. Indeed one of my shooting companions wondered if people would still do it if they took away the bang.
There’s a stark finality to shooting that carries some obvious responsibilities. The shooter plays the role of executioner. The angler, however, can play God. Do you put it back or do you knock it on the head? This is the ethical dilemma of the angler. Do we hunt to eat or just for the fun of it? Is it fair to stalk a living thing for sport? Cats don’t seem to worry about this. Neither do most of their owners. So neither do I. Not often, anyway.
Thinking about the shooting/fishing overlap has reminded me of the John Buchan novel, John Macnab. The original challenges in the book involved poaching a red stag, a brace of grouse and a salmon from various forewarned landowners. The modern interpretation is to shoot a red deer, a brace of grouse and catch a salmon in one day. For much of this year, I have been pondering a fly-fishing Macnab.
A salmon, a sea trout and a brown trout ought to be quite straightforward. But the addition of a sea bass would make it interesting. Wondering about the feasibility of this project, I spoke to David Pilkington, one of the instructors at the Arundell Arms in Devon. While he spends much of his time with anglers seeking sea trout and brown trout, he can also point out good bass fishing spots within half an hour’s drive of the hotel.
The problem with the Cornish and Devonshire rivers is that they don’t have strong salmon runs. It would be tough to land all four species there in 24 hours. Come summer you could start at midnight for the sea trout, catch a brown trout early on, then nip up to the coast for school bass if you have planned it right for the tides. That would still leave the salmon.
A flight to Scotland would get you within reach of a good salmon river in time for evening. It is not a casual challenge because the tide patterns are crucial for sea bass. To stop any shortcuts I should also say that the fish would need to be caught from the bank.
So how about it? Has anyone done this already? There’s a bottle of champagne for the best attempt I hear about and maybe a whole case for anyone who can satisfy me that they have pulled it off. I would also be interested to hear of particular strategies or alternative Macnab-like fishing challenges in other parts of the world. But I am convinced there can only be one fishing Macnab and this is it: salmon, sea trout, brown trout and sea bass, caught from the bank on the fly in a calendar day.
See www.ft.com/donkin for more columns
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published