In Search of Everything
From Sticklebacks to Skate by David Tipping
It would be fair to say that when I was growing up in the 1960s, a significant number of anglers were true all-rounders who practised all the disciplines. Many were equally adept at trotting a float, launching a grip lead or casting a fly. Few anglers, if any, confined their fishing to single species, but by the 1970s the sport was becoming increasingly fragmented. There was a growing tendency to focus on a single discipline and before long, the disciplines themselves became sub-divided, giving rise to the era of specimen hunters, match-men and pleasure anglers. This trend was reflected in the angling media; magazines dedicated solely to coarse fishing, game fishing or sea fishing appeared on the market and soon displaced the generalist titles.
Ultimately, specialisation became the by-word. Carp specialists, barbel specialists, lure specialists, commercial match specialists, small stream fly specialists . . . the list is endless. For some individuals, specialisation has become a badge of honour; they seem proud to state ‘I know nothing about river fishing’ or ‘I wouldn’t know one end of a float from the other’. These days, angling is many things to many people. Just as a rugby league fan might have little interest in soccer or rugby union, so an angler might be fanatical about one aspect of the sport and indifferent towards another. Specialisation has also given rise to blinkered claims along the lines of ‘big carp are the ultimate challenge’ or ‘barbel are the hardest fighting fish of all’. Invariably such claims come from anglers who have never set their stall for estuary mullet, or tried to catch a common skate from the shore. Comparisons are meaningless without actually comparing.
So where does this leave those of us who still like to do a bit of everything - the small, but select band that enjoy all the disciplines and have an interest in all fish, big and small? Multi-species specialists perhaps? It somehow turns the term ‘specialisation’ on its head! I was fortunate to grow up in the countryside and became fascinated by wild places and wild things at a very early age. The shapes, colours and variety of the creatures I found and caught fashioned my formative years. Butterflies, moths, frogs, newts, grasshoppers and caterpillars were all hunted enthusiastically. The faster and more elusive those creatures were, the more of a challenge they posed, and the more desirable they became.
Arguably, the fastest and most elusive of all were fish. With hindsight, it was inevitable that my early enthusiasm for wildlife would ultimately lead to the waterside. Of course, my love of the wild did not end at the moment I picked up a fishing rod. There is nothing to compare with encountering an unusual insect, animal or bird in its natural habitat (the magic is lost if it is confined in a cage or an aquarium). Like many anglers I eventually became wrapped up in the big fish scene, chasing further and further afield to improve personal bests, but the hunger for catching new species never waned. After all, a new species is a personal best by default. Pounds and ounces were never the only motivation; indeed, some of my most absorbing fishing has been for species which would sit comfortably in the palm of a hand.
There are parallels with bird spotting. ‘Twitchers’ do not chase the length and breadth of the country to see a bird just because it is big; if that was the case, the swans on a local park lake would suffice. The appeal lies in tracking down something rare, something outside your previous experience, and adding another ‘tick’ to your list. Just as birds are not always easy to distinguish, so the identification of fish can be a minefield, something with which many anglers struggle (even those of considerable experience). The subtle differences between certain similar species are easily overlooked; conversely, seemingly obvious differences such as contrasting colour or fin shape are not always indicative of separate species. Hybridisation throws another spanner into the works. Sometimes even a quality photograph to check against references in books or online proves to be inadequate. Working it out is all part of the fun, of course.