Here are a number of essays, letters and other items relating to fishing. Some are serious, some not.

There are a few FISHING PHOTOS on the PHOTOS&PAINTINGS link on the left.

My tenkara experience

Our local fly tying group invited Stephen Cheetham to give us a demo of his choice. He brought Philip Sheridan with him and they introduced us to the tenkara style of fly fishing.

I had gone along with the sole idea of making up the numbers, having no interest in tenkara. By the time I had arrived back home I had made up my mind to buy a set of the tackle. In retrospect, I could see that my initial reaction to a demo of a Japanese fishing style was due to the fact that my perception of Japanese fishing styles had been (misleadingly) formed when I was in my teens, 50-plus years ago.

At that time I had started building my own split cane rods, and coincidentally the Japanese were sending their early production rods into our shops. It was clear that they had no idea about split cane rods. The outer surface of the blanks had been planed - you could tell by the coarseness of the grain - an absolute NO in forming split cane sections, only the inner surfaces should be planed. In addition I vaguely remembered a photo in the angling press of Japanese anglers seated shoulder to shoulder round a small concrete-lined reservoir. My conclusion was that the Japanese knew nothing about rod-and-line fishing.

I was wrong. Steve and Phil showed us that the tenkara style had been brought into the modern world from a hundreds-of-years-old Japanese mountain village tradition. Furthermore, a rod with a fixed line was very much in our own tradition before reels were invented. Modern tenkara rods are carbon fibre and are very finely tapered to give the right action for casting a short, light line and for bringing in a fish. However, I am not going to go into the tradition or the practice here. There are several web sites now related to tenkara style.

But how about that question that is ever on the lips of TV interviewers - 'How does it feel?'
Having spent most of my life coarse fishing, i.e. with monofil line, the first time I hooked a fish on a conventional fly line I was somewhat horrified by the weight of the line which now seemed like a huge hawser flapping about between me and the fish. Of course I got used to it, but moving to the level tenkara line was a pleasure. Together with this, the supple action of the rod helps to make the close contact that you have with the fish quite refreshing. The temptation to strain yourself in trying to cast beyond the horizon is removed. I think most people who are familiar with the conventional methods are most apprehensive about the necessity of hand-lining to land the fish but with a bit of practice it is not difficult, particularly if you are accustomed to the way a fish behaves. Of the five or so fish - trout and grayling - that I hooked on my first successful tenkara outing, using barbless hooks, I lost none. However, I must say that tuition was very welcome.

Urban fishing, tenkara style  Photos by P. Sheridan


Fly Fishing: On the subject of Purism, or the lack of it.

Essential information for the new-comer to fly fishing.

We have this way of making life more interesting – or difficult – by surrounding ourselves with rules. Thus: thou shalt not catch fish by blasting them out of the water with gelignite; or by trawling the water with nets; or by electrocuting them except in the interest of science; and so on. The last one is occasionally necessary so that we can know (i.e. science) that there are fish to be caught where experience of fishing strictly by the rules leads us to suspect that there is not a fish in the water. Of course, such very restrictve rules are not applied where the interest is commercial or more seriously a matter of survival. We only do it when we are in the pursuit of pleasure or as one might say, "Life enrichment".

This is not unreasonable. Life Enrichment might well be assumed to involve being At Peace With The World, which is certainly not fostered by a single bomb blast in the middle of the night followed by phrenetic activity in gathering the fish before the mink get them or the bailiff arrives. Our purpose is to grow closer to Nature and to this end our piscine pursuit as a leisure activity must be, well, leisurely. On the other hand we must recognise that our interest is likely to wane if there is no occasional material result, i.e. the capture of a fish. As far as such result is concerned it turns out that under any given set of rules, some people have more success than others; so we do need to settle on rules which are acceptable to all. Unfortunately it turns out that no agreed situation can possibly exist.

The abstract principles involved here do apply to many human activities but we are examining their application to fishing with rod and line, and more specifically to fly fishing. By way of introduction let us briefly look at the broader divisions created by our rules. The broadest is between Coarse and Game. This is a division between both anglers and fish. "Coarse" refers partly to the larger size of the scales which clothe other fish species than those of a small number of the trout/salmon family, also it is obvious attribute of those who pursue such species, i.e. the lower classes. "Game" is an expression invented by the Upper Classes and is derived from the fun to be had in hounding to their death all creatures of lower status. The game is known as "sport" and the rules which now surround it are a logical necessity resulting from the realisation on the part of the Upper Classes that without such rules, all life on Earth would now be extinct other than the Upper Classes themselves, who would then be lacking any quarry to hound to its death. A strange extrapolation of the division of the classes of fish is that those defined as game fish are also endowed with a level of aristocracy within the piscine world. Thus the salmon is "King of Fish". The trout does not quite aspire to such lofty title but might sometimes be referred to as "noble". In support of this weird concept, it is usual to cite that ubiquitous story of the pike, resident in a certain pool, scarpering with its tail between its legs (metaphorically speaking) on the appearance in the same pool of a salmon, thereby proving the natural superiority of the latter. This telling event has apparently been witnessed by every purist fly fisher worthy of his salt.

Among those who target the game fish there is a division between fly and bait. As far as the fly purist is concerned those who use live worm, shrimp or maggot (Oh no! Not the unmentionable one!) are on a par with the coarse element or possibly even lower. This gives reason to the Scottish rule whereby it is illegal to fish for salmon or sea trout on Sunday. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered at this? I will explain. As everyone knows, a member of the working class is fully occupied for six days of the week in pretending to earn an honest crust. He therefore can go fishing only on Sunday. If he is found to be fishing with the pretence of targeting only the lower species while in reality it is clear that no-one, not even this low specimen, would pass up a chance of snaggling one of the migratories, then his tackle can be confiscated and perhaps a portion of his undeserved wealth extracted from him. Hence one undesirable presence on the river bank is eliminated. Even in this supposedly enlightened age the rule persists.

So, dear reader, now we have a picture of the animosity between the two groups. The fly fisher understands the bait-basher to be a low-life clod who encumbers himself with so much tackle that he can barely drag it to the waterside, where he drops it heavily on the ground, digs a hole in the bank to make his seat safe, lobs a half pound of lead into the water followed by buckets of half dead and soon-to-be-rotting organic material, all guaranteed to spook every fish for a mile in either direction. What this clod sees in a fly fisher is a snotty-snobbish twit who prances about in the river (where the fish should be), thrashing the water in a kind of circus act with a whip , spooking every fish for a mile in either direction. Never the twain shall meet, largely because each refuses to recognize the presence of the other except where litigation is indicated.

This is not where ethical division stops. Indeed, as we leave aside the distasteful business of bait fishing and delve further into the world of the fly fisher, we find that inhibitions and prohibitions proliferate. Dry or wet? Weighted or not? To spin or merely waggle? Upstream or down? Let us briefly examine these contentious topics.

If you are an ultimate purist there is no doubt. Upstream dry fly is the only option. Downstream is not to be envisaged. It is too easy. Much better to whang your hefty fly line over the head of the rising trout, giving it fair warning that you intend to curtail its liberty. This is 'sporting'. When the fish has been scared out of its scales, you move upstream to the next one, wading through the lie of the last one you failed to catch. You can be sure that the fellow behind you will give plenty elbow room since there is no point in his moving forward until things have settled down. He will certainly not bypass you because this is NOT DONE! If you got onto the water first it is your prerogative to be the one who has first go at everything. Every angler behind is honour bound to stay behind, so this train of anglers proceeds upstream through the day. The uninitiated look on in bewilderment.

However,there is growing acceptance of the wet fly in rivers. The least objection from those who hang on to older values will be raised against the activity of Upstream North Country Spider. Actually this is not far removed from upstream dry fly since these 'spiders' barely sink and they are deemed quite sporting since you can't see when a fish takes them. Casting across and allowing the fly to drift downstream will raise a few eyebrows but is often acceptable. No-one, however, would cast directly downstream in any situation unless he is a thorough-going cad.

As far as other wet patterns are concerned, noses and eyebrows tend to become more upturned in direct proportion to the amount of weight that the fly carries. The safest way to put a weighted nymph into use is to make sure that the weighting is not visible. A lead wire underbody is thus fairly safe. A brass bead at the head of the fly, though common amongst the unselective majority, is highly suspect. Rather strangely, copper wire is exempt from this stigma so feel free to pile it on! (Visibly, that is. The strange thing about copper wire is that the invisible coils,the thorax base for example, might raise a murmur from that enigmatic creature, the wet fly purist!) Be strongly aware, however, that no metal component of a wet fly (or lure, dare we say?) is allowed to move. It must not be designed to either spin or waggle. This constitutes a spinner, not a fly. Perversely, if you are fishing for salmon it appears to be now acceptable to fit a large brass weight at the head of the thing which is still referred to as a 'fly'. Nevertheless, all movement must be provided by waggly bits of animal or bird.

On still water the situation is a little different. I will not waste much space on this topic since the very concept of fishing in still water (not including Scottish Highland lochs which is a different matter entirely) is ethically questionable. If you insist on doing it be aware that the above principles of weighted lures apply equally as in rivers. There is the additional question of whether some dry flies are actually 'floats', particularly when a wet fly is suspended underneath. Being a new concept, this method is best avoided. There is a danger of being torn limb from limb by irate adherents to the doctrine that 'float fishing is wrong!'

Finally, as far as choice of tackle is concerned, feel free to use any combination in your rods, reels and lines of carbon fibre, metals and synthetic polymers. Nevertheless keep in mind that the most kudos are to be earned by using older materials.

(In fact, such materials other than metals can safely be used in the innovation of fly patterns. The greatest of our fly dressers do it. Ethical progress has apparently not kept pace with material technology. But never metal!)

Choice of venue is no problem, since you will automatically be accepted or rejected according to your social status and the content of your purse. Do not imagine that you can 'discover' other venues. Rivers with muddy beds are not acceptable, no matter how many large trout they support. Pebbles are most desirable, though coarse sand will do. Do wade in the river. In fact chest waders up to your chin will in many circles (still water also) earn you the greatest respect and enable you to get right in there, where the fish were.

So now, gentle reader, we arrive at a position such that we may derive from all the foregoing a definitive description of the "Fly Fisher Purissimo". He is a millionaire hereditary aristocrat. He fishes exclusively for salmon and trout with greenheart rods, salmon in Scotland only and trout in Scottish lochs or English chalk streams. His reels are hand carved in wood. His lines are plaited horse hair dressed with goose fat. His flies are of fur and feather only, dressed on bone hooks. He has no concept of the appearance of a river viewed in a downstream direction.

By the way, tying a fly with a little weight to monofilament nylon and casting in is not fly fishing. It isn't bait fishing either, so what is it? Pass.

The foregoing is certainly a broad generalisation of the ethics of fly-fishing and the tyro is strongly recommended to be circumspect in his approach to whatever aspect of the sport he becomes involved in, whilst allowing to unfold in his understanding the ethical intricacies of his precise situation. One may detect in this situation a similarity to the Lilliput/Blefuscu egg problem.

J. B. Sunderland 2011

On casting a fly line.

When I was about eighteen I began building cane rods. I obtained all my materials from a firm called J. B. Walker, including a lifetime's supply of tonkin cane for splitting. (I am now in a position to know that it was, in fact, a lifetime's supply). Advice re building methods came from Dick Walker in the form of his little book "Rod Building for Amateurs" which I still possess. I built various kinds of coarse fishing rods including the Walker Mk4 carp rod , which I now use for barbel. And just for the sake of it I built one of Mr Walker's fly rod designs though I had no intention of taking up fly fishing.

Seven or eight years later I became curious about the mechanical aspects of fly fishing and decided to have a go with my self-built rod. I bought a second-hand silk fly line and reel from the local tackle shop and one morning took this equipment down to the river along with my usual float tackle. I purposely made it an early morning trip with the intention of making sure that no-one else would be about. Not that I had any worries about my ability to crack this whip, but I just didn't want to be seen with a fly rod where no such thing had ever been seen before.

I threaded the line, tied a length of monofil to it and one of my self-tied flies, which in much later years I found to be very strange flies indeed, but that's another story. I climbed up the rod to draw out a rod length of line, which included about three feet of monofil, released it, took a loop off the reel, waved the rod back and flipped it forward. Nothing happened. Flicking the rod back and forth a few times brought no change, I still had a loop in my hand and a rod length waving in the air. I put it all away and forgot it. More sensible ways of fishing were immediately to hand.

Move on about forty years... My son is about nine years old and we are on holiday on the Argyll coast, in a chalet which looks onto the head of a sea loch where a burn from the hills flows over into the tide. We have in a couple of previous years caught finnock here on worm and spinner. I can see, silhouetted against the sun on the water, a man and boy who appear to be fly fishing. I realise that the boy is my son.

It turned out that David was being given a casting lesson by a very generous angler. I did not interfere but went for a walk. Three quarters of an hour later I returned to see that my son was still casting the fly line but his tutor had disappeared. He had apparently lost his tackle to David for the afternoon. For months after this David pestered me to start fly fishing but I remained resistant until I had a career change and met Geoff. He was a fly fisher and one day he pointed out to me an advert for beginners' fly fishing sets, which he said were moderately good rods at a reasonable price. So I fell for it and ordered two sets. These carbon rods and modern composite lines were, of course very different to the old tackle. David and I set off to a quiet stretch of the river to have a go.

I attached the supplied leader to the main line and threaded it all through the rod rings until the tip of the main line emerged. On releasing it, the whole lot slipped back through all the rings due to the weight of the line. Starting again, I made sure that a substantial length was drawn beyond the rod tip before releasing it. OK so far. David, in the meantime, was doing his own thing. I tied on a strange little furry thing with a brass bead, expecting mistakenly that some sort of wet fly would be easier to start with than dry.

So to make the first cast. I drew a length of line off the reel and the weight of it pulled the rest back down the rod again. On the third attempt I had a full rod's length of main line hanging loose. Swishing it back and forward did not immediately result in anything that I could describe as casting a fly line but at least I realised that a minimum length of line would be necessary to achieve success.

Eventually it happened, and as the line drifted downstream taking the 'goldhead' in an arc, to my amazement I felt a tug on the line. I did not hook the fish but it boosted my confidence enough to start me on the road of no return.

J. B. Sunderland 2013



"First catch your cock and flay him", says Mrs Beeton as introduction to one of her famous recipes. This is a rather scant explanation of what must be an essential part of the whole operation, so with regard to eels I shall expand the detail. Therefore:-

First catch your eel and flay him. And flay him, and flay him. Then realising that he just won't stay flayed, read on -

I shall assume that you have some idea of where eels may be found. This is about 'how', not 'where'. However I will warn against any of those rustic ponds where tales of giant eels abound. You need an eel which you can eat, not one which can eat you. I suggest that a river within reach of its tidal zone is most appropriate.

Having decided where, the next most important point is to set off NOT to catch eels. Tackle up for some other bottom-feeding species – chub, barbel, roach or even gudgeon – and your chance of catching an eel will be greatly enhanced. This will be more readily understood when you realise what a supremely perverse creature the eel is. When the eel is hooked (which won't take long provided you remember not to think about eels), reel it in as quickly as possible. Give it no quarter! If you do it will take all available slack and more and hitch its body around some obstacle, forcing you to join in a tug-of-war which the eel is very likely to win. One way to deal with this if the water is not too deep is to get someone else to hold the line tight while you slip a large lead weight over it and catapult it down the line. When it bonks the eel on the toothy end the eel momentarily straightens out in shock or indignation and you can quickly twitch it away from the snag.

The moment you haul this serpentine sliver of slime close to the bank is the point at which it occurs to you that there are decisions to be made which might have lasting consequences, the immediate one being,

"Shall I use a landing net?"

My advice is – No. That mind's eye view which gave rise to the question is true, that is to say, you will end up with a Gordian Knot composed of eel and net, permanently glued with slime. The alternative is to lower the tip of the rod and walk backwards, drawing the eel up the bank. This works well provided that the line is substantial enough but now you find that you have a situation similar to trying to control a kite in a blustery wind.

But don't worry, you are getting closer. Follow your instincts – drop the rod and jump on the eel. Surprise! Despite applying all fifteen stones to your size elevens (sorry, am I thinking about someone else?) it squirms from beneath your wellies like toothpaste from a tube. Grab it with both hands! This brings an unexpected realisation – that what you thought was a flip-floppy length of fish is actually a solid muscle. It feels like a steel bar bending in your hands under its own volition and no matter how tightly you grip it, it 'swims' out of your hands. And every time it escapes your grip it sets off swimming through the grass on a sort of S-shaped beeline for the river.

However, your confidence is growing along with your acquaintance with the species. No, you can't go to the chippie, you are here and fully committed so let's get on with it. It has been said that when you turn an eel on its back it goes to sleep. If you ever manage to roll an eel onto its back please let me know if there is any truth in this. In the meantime we have to deal with reality. So take off your shirt. Desparate measures, I know, but you didn't think to bring a piece of an old towel and if you have nothing absorbent to grip it with, you are going to get nowhere so it's a case of 'Needs must'.

Having now got it under some sort of temporary control, take out your trusty hunting knife and cut off its head. This action has several advantages. Firstly, despite the continued activity of the remaining length of eel, you have the clearest objective evidence that it is clinically dead. Secondly you don't struggle to remove the hook. Finally, although when you put it on the ground it still apparently attempts to head off to the river, it can no longer see where it is going.

The eel is now ready for transportation.

If you are a bachelor take it home in the shirt. If not you will have to drop it in your box or bag and bury the shirt. You must not leave litter and you can't take it home. When you arrive home don't sneak around trying to see what the better half is doing; walk in boldly and claim the kitchen temporarily for your own. (You must be very firm and masterful about this if you are to succeed.)

Alternatively, take it to your work shed if you have one.

Once you have procured your working space, remove the eel from its wrappping and place it on the work top. Don't worry about the fact that it still has some wriggle left in it, it can't feel a thing. You must now decide, to skin or not to skin? I can say from experience that there is some personal satisfaction in removing the skin before cooking, also making it unnecessary for the rest of the family to pick at it when served. So proceed as follows:

The skin is removed by reversing it and peeling back in one piece. The only difficulty is starting it. Take a sharp knife and lift the edges of the skin where the head was severed, until there is enough to grip with a cloth between thumb and finger. Now you can either grip the revealed meaty portion with the left hand or nail it securely to a wooden board. NOT the nice clean sycamore bread board! Either way, haul the skin clear off the body to leave a non-slimy length of white meat. It might still display a certain amount of movement but this is a sham. There is no life left.

Finally, chop it into lengths of one to two inches. These portions will occasionally twitch or pulsate slightly, as if every one were about to sidle off back to the river. But ignore it and drop them all in the chip pan. (or 'deep fat frier' as they are now called).

Fry until starting to crisp at the edges, divide among the family and Enjoy!

You have a strange sensation, like butterflies in the tummy? This is an illusion. Reject it.

AN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION "Do fish feel pain?"

In the end the answer to this question, supposing there could be one, would not affect my intention to go fishing. Does this make me cruel? No, it makes me honest - unlike many who have been pressed into using facile and unrealistic arguments to protect their interest in blood and allied sports (e.g. hunters, 'we do it to control the fox population'). I made a similar statement to the angling press and they did not print my letter. I am rather sad that they did not dare to admit that whether or not a fish can feel pain would not affect their actions.

Apropos both this aspect of the topic and the earlier one "How can you say you love the fish but still catch them ...", I have realized that I can give a kind of definition of the situation as it presents itself to me. It goes like this:

On killing a fish - or buying meat from a butcher, it makes no difference - I have exactly the same sort of regret for the death of that animal as I have for the fact that in a increasingly short time I will also be dead. And that is precisely how I can celebrate life, including my own, and yet accept and even participate in its ending. Furthermore, if I die without pain I will be lucky. It is very unlikely that any other animal will be so lucky with or without our participation. That is the world we live in and I do not wish to deny it.

To get horribly philosophical, I wonder how many of the people who support animal rights (a strange notion - even 'human rights' is a shaky concept), anti-hunting, etc are in fact simply fantasizing about  the world they live in and trying to deny the fact of their own mortality.

Email letter to the editor of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying, not printed:

From: "Bernard Sunderland"
To: <markb.ffft@btinternet.com>
Subject: Pain research
Date: 01 May 2003 21:24

Dear Editor,

So, while one 'scientific' report tells us that fish do not feel pain, another tells us the opposite. Perhaps we will next manage to convince ourselves that worms don't really wriggle when impaled on a hook. Last season my son caught a trout on worm, released it and immediately caught it again on the same worm. This proves nothing. Perhaps it didn't feel pain, perhaps it couldn't remember the pain, perhaps it was desperately hungry. And as far as the construction of the brain is concerned, what any 'expert'  knows and what he thinks he knows are probably worlds apart.

Could we try to be honest? Whether a fish does or does not feel pain is not relevant for us as anglers, is it? Furthermore, it should be as clear as day to anyone that if we pursue this subject as a means of justifying angling, WE WILL LOSE against the weight of TV exposure and armchair pundits. We should not make the mistake that the fox-hunters made of foolishly clinging to an irrelevant half-truth (in their case, the over-emphasised suggestion that they do it 'to control the fox population')

So, honestly, why do we do it? I think, because we enjoy it: and this raises the slightly deeper question of why do we enjoy it? I believe that the age-old explanation that it satisfies our hunting instinct is the simple truth and in my opinion this provides a route to perfectly sound reasoning for angling to have an accepted place in civilised society.

I believe, therefore, that we should prepare a convincing case to show that angling is one of several outdoor activities which foster in growing people a balanced, responsible and mature attitude to human society and to the world in general. In common with such other activities it encourages a young person to direct his energies towards pitting himself against the natural world, for which I believe there is a deep-seated need in everyone. The lack of opportunity to do this is argueably a major cause of antisocial behaviour. Among the range of such activities  angling is particularly important because it is available to many who can not participate in more expensive, more exclusive or more strenuous pursuits.

Furthermore it fosters a meaningful appreciation of our natural heritage - meaningful, that is, as opposed to the artificial second-hand view presented by television - and leads to a direct understanding of ecology and conservation. It might be further pointed out that but for the angling fraternity there would be no public awareness of the state of our rivers which would consequently be either sterile water courses or poisonous sewers. Even those groups who are quick to blame anglers for harm to various bird populations - swans, goosanders, cormorants etc. - would be well advised to join anglers in ensuring that our waters remain capable of sustaining life.

We are being attacked with increasing vigour and the sedentary telly-viewing public is ripe to be turned against us. We need to ensure that we are represented in public ONLY by people who can speak plainly, convincingly, honestly and diplomatically. A difficult combination. We must try to avoid being trapped individually in outdoor interviews as happened to many unfortunate fox hunters who could do nothing but turn up their noses and bleat ineffectually.

Yours sincerely,