Sunday, 28 June 2009

How Do We Enjoy a Fish?

I caught this Pike last year. It wasn't the first Pike I ever caught, but it was the first Pike I ever landed, took home, cooked and ate.

The first Pike I ever caught I was just too astounded by the sheer enormity of having caught an animal so fierce and so beautiful that I just stood there on the riverbank, transfixed, gaping at it like a fool as it tugged on the line in the water at my feet. A few seconds passed like this as I wrestled with the shock of its beauty and the seeming sacrilege of my plans for it - and then it spat out the spinner and surged away to disappear into the waving green weeds downstream.

The first Pike that I landed - the fish in the photograph above - was, if anything, even more striking than the first. I'd gone out late in the day at the end of Autumn - dusk was becoming darkness and dense mists were rising from the floodplain fields behind me. The first cast of a red 'Flying C' lure produced an explosion at the bend of the river before me and this tremendous fish leapt out of the water and started to thrash at the line. Despite my shock, I landed it quickly and, as I say, killed it, took it home, cooked it and ate it.

Now I'm aware that I'm nervous writing this because in England at the moment, we don't really have a fishing culture that supports pulling fish out of rivers and then eating them. In England, by far the dominant notion of what you should do if you catch a Pike, say, is to lay it carefully on a mat, unhook the lure or deadbait that you used to catch it with, weight it, pose with it while an accomplice takes a photograph of you holding it - and then return it safely to the water.

This is the procedure for fishing understood as a 'sport' and there is, at the moment - and Izaak Walton would doubtless be amazed, but it's true nonetheless - almost no popular way in England of understanding what the word 'fishing' might refer to if it doesn't mean this. Catch and release: that's fishing . Coarse fish - Perch, Carp, Pike, Chub and the like - are almost universally caught, admired, weighed, photographed - and then put back in the water. That's what 'fishing' means here.

So there's been a very heated argument over the last few years - in on-line fishing forums and the sport-fishing press - that's been sparked almost entirely due to the influx into the country, temporarily or otherwise, of fishing folk from the rest of Europe. In most parts of mainland Europe, English 'sport' fishers have discovered to their dismay, the popular culture certainly does support the idea that 'trying to get some food' is one of the obvious, commonplace reasons why a person might take to the riverbank with a fishing pole.

Importing this approach into England, however, where the popular culture is very different as regards conventions on the riverbank, has proved far from simple and has sparked a furious series of arguments.

Certainly, a part of the heat has been generated by a number of Central European people who've been caught fishing in England without a Rod Licence. Scores of English nationals go fishing without a rod license (they're 25 quid a year and that's certainly been enough to prevent me getting one in the recent weeks since the season opened) and this is a matter for official censure and public disapproval - but a special fury seems to have been reserved for immigrants who have the temerity to behave as many UK citizens ordinarily do. People have been very cross about this - but it still hasn't been the big issue.

The big issue has been, I'd say, the question of the clash of cultures as regards the proper aim of a fishing expedition: do you go fishing in order to get photographs - or do you go to get food?

It's been very interesting to read the forums on this matter. Those whose fishing pleasure is organised around the 'sport' fishing model seem to be genuinely astonished and outraged with those whose enjoyment is organised a different way - and, interestingly, vice-versa. I read a fine post by a Scot who was treating the dominant English mode of fishing-enjoyment, sport fishing, with absolute contempt, "pulling them out of the water just to have a wee look at them!" - he was disgusted with the idea.

It seems to be that if you're a member of a group who are organised under one mode of enjoyment - 'fish are for food' or 'fish are for photos' - then it's baffling and infuriating to meet members of a group whose enjoyment is organised differently. If your group, say, enjoys a caught fish only with the eye, then meeting members of a group who enjoy them with the mouth as well seems to inspire a furiously disgusted revulsion.

So, I'm nervous admitting that I'm personally a member of the 'mouth clan': I enjoy eating fish that I've caught in the river.

It seems to be very difficult for different modes of enjoyment to exist together happily. It looks as though 'enjoyment' is a way that we define ourselves on a shared level that's set very deep. It's tricky enough getting along with people who think differently about things, who have opinions that we don't share - but living alongside people who enjoy things differently is a far greater challenge.


  1. HH
    great post as ever, and a thought provoking one too. My understanding is the two camps diverged after the disillusion of the monasteries. When the 'stew ponds' that fed the monks were drained.I'd love to hear your thoughts if you fond out any more about this interesting part of our culinary and sporting history.


  2. i used to be a very keen fisherman before i took up hunting with an air rifle,now i dont see the point in it unless i,m catching to was the pike by the way i,m hoping to try some this year,and perch and carp....oooh i,m getting hungry

  3. the grandfather of my chidren, and a dear old wiltshire chap, will tell you that of course we all used to eat river fish in living memory but that somehow along the way the poor old muddy river fish became unaccaptable to the modern (spoilt) palette. he told me in his younger days he ate every kind of river fish you can mention (he being 65 now not very old a tall!)i have never seen the point of fishing unless tasting and once caught a tiny boney rass whils crab lining with the kids and insisted on slapping it on the barbeque.
    me ex threw his fish back in the river but then he also knew a local stream which a trout farm flowed into and he took me there once or twice to catch these beauties with a tickle and a hand held line and hook. i loved the taste of those muddy river trout and of course he and his fishing buddies would treat themselves to a seafishing trip twice a year and us women folk would have a fair treat on their return
    theirs a stream half a mile away where someone let a keep net break (so the story goes) and the rainbow trout still swim gaily about (i've seen em!) and somehow the locals pretend that you can't eat them

  4. I'm with you, Hubert Hubert - and with Anonymous as well. I hunt and fish to eat, and I don't understand why anyone would want to stick a sharp hook in an animal's mouth just for a looksee.

    A lot of people do catch-and-release here in America too - especially with trout, because you can keep very few (if any at all in some spots), and folks still want to fish all day. But not me. If I throw a fish back, it's only because the fish is undersized and not a legal keep.

    Stories like this make me worry about what hunting and fishing could become in America. But I'm heartened now by the Slow Food movement. The gourmands are realizing that there's a whole world of good eats around here, and they're interested in picking up rod, bow and gun to get it.

  5. I fish because I want to eat them, not because I wish to make some fish late for their daily appointments. I don't stock the tank with catfish and hybrid bluegill for sport.

  6. I'm a simpleton. You fish so you can eat. You hunt so you can eat. I guess that's as far as I get.

  7. Good, dont be a sheep be your own man and follow your own heart and morals.Excellent blog by the way.
    Thank you,