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Book of the Week

This week we have an offering from one of angling's greatest writers, the inimitable Arthur Ransome. This chapter is from Rod and Line, without doubt one of the finest angling books ever written.

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The splendid Arthur Ransome with an equally splendid bream, caught in Russia, 1918.
On Giving Advice to Beginners

Rod and Line by Arthur Ransome
Fortunately, in fishing, we are beginners all. Fishing is not like billiards, in which it is possible to attain a disgusting perfection. It is not like chess, in which a sharp line seems to be drawn between those who play badly enough to enjoy the game and those who play so well that they have lost all spirit of adventure and haggle over pawns like misers over pence. The older a fisherman grows the more conscious is he that he has much to learn and he lays aside his rod in the end as a man dies knowing that all his effort has left him but a bungler. The better a fisherman is, the more conscious is he of his imperfections and consequently the more shy of giving advice to others. He is also likely to have learnt that the chief pleasure of fishing is to be still beginning and, unselfishly, he will be very unwilling to steal from a beginner any of the delight of finding out for himself. Long as the road is, distant the happily unattainable goal, the fisherman who has relished each stage of his journey feels that he is cheating his friend if he shows him a short cut. He is more inclined to give too little advice than too much. The way of the beginner, of the man who is really beginning to be a beginner, is consequently hard. It must seem to him that he is among priests who are determined to keep the mysteries of their cult.
MI fished a little while ago with a man, not in his first youth, who had wasted the flower of his life on business and golf and gardening and motoring and marriage, and had in this way postponed his initiation far too long. It was his second season. In his first season he had caught six trout. This season he had begun with hope and continued with determination, but he had caught no fish and was a little disheartened. His master had been much too good a fisherman. It is only young Know-all who tries to tell everything, but this man’s initiator had been so good a fisherman that he had hardly told his pupil anything at all. He had picked for him one of several second-hand rods, a small reel, a very fine tapered line and a handful of mixed flies and had put him by the river to catch trout. I watched him fishing, examined his weapons and decided that last season’s six fish had been six several miracles. With that rather whippy rod, that fine line and that diminutive reel, his master could have done very well, but they were not the instruments to make casting easy for a middle-aged man who had not been apprenticed in boyhood. This unlucky beginner had been told to keep his fly dry and had been allowed to see his master doing this, but had not been told the secret of the oil-bottle, which his master is able to despise. Accordingly he approached the water (a little stream with no cover) whisked his rod backwards and forwards as fast and as hard as he possibly could, and then, with a colossal effort, lifting one foot from the ground and striking forward with all his strength, he tried to send his fly out. The result varied a good deal, because the final effort was made without any regard to the position of the whirling line above his head. If his cast had failed to entangle itself while it was being used in an attempt to whip the air into cream, it hit the water pretty hard. If it had time to straighten in doing this, which was seldom, the fly immediately dragged. If it fell in loops, the poor man withdrew it with an additional splash. Here was a case in which, speaking as one beginner to another, something had to be said.
MHe was so downcast that he even allowed me to cut about four yards of the taper off his line, so that the weight of the heavier part compelled the rod to do some work. It was a pleasure to see his surprise at the result. The hint that speed through the air was unnecessary cured his wild rod-wagging and the suggestion that he could always tell if he had made a decent cast by noticing if the pull of the line would take out another yard was enough to make him discover for himself the trick of shooting. The next suggestion was of a more questionable character. It was that it was just as well to learn to catch fish with a wet fly before attempting the more delicate though often easier task of catching them with a dry. Within five minutes of wetting his fly and abandoning his more violent forms of exertion he had a rise from the best fish any of us saw that day. The effect of this rise was curious. It paralysed the fisherman. Up came the trout, with a head as big as my fist. The rod bent. The fish was on. But the fisherman was like a man who had seen a vision. He stood open-mouthed for a great many seconds, then dropped his rod point and began winding that ridiculous little reel. The line, of course, fell slack and when, in response to urgent (and perhaps regrettable) cries, he lifted his rod point again, the fish was gone. It had, however, turned him into a different man. Before, he had been asking whether it was not true that some men could never become fishermen. Now, he already regarded that fish as his and was prepared to fish for it for ever. He subsequently caught a little trout, but, remembering that monstrous head, rejected it as unworthy. There will be no stopping him now.
MHis discouragement had gone from him but his eagerness for knowledge was embarrassing to one who was determined not to tell him more than was good for him. Indeed he refused to be offended when told that stamping on the bank in casting was as bad as showing himself to the fish, though I fancy he did not believe it. He had a notion that he would fish better if he knew the names of his flies, and that evening I arranged them in his box for him, while he made a plan of the box on a bit of paper and wrote down their names in the right places. I warned him to copy Ulysses and to put wax in his ears when he heard men talk of flies, knowing, of course, that he would not do this but would add to his collection every time he passed a tackle-shop in town. We came to talk of knots. I had to show him the Turle and the easiest of all knots for fastening a line to a cast. He forgot them, I was glad to see, at once. I should otherwise have felt I was swindling him. Enough that he should see that it was possible to put on a fly so that it would not dangle or slip off, but too much if I had deprived him of the delight of learning for himself, by solitary experiment, how to do it. Not for anything would I lose my own happy memory of making sure of the blood-knot with a long suffering piece of string. That is the only honest way to treat beginners; to fend off from them, where you can, utter discouragement, but not, on any account, to tell them too much. They may think your reticence secretive. Twenty years later they will, if they have not forgotten it, understand that you were defending not your secrets but their pleasure.

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