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A beginner's guide to fishing

Robert MacDougall-Davis

18th May, 2010

Few sports bring you as close to nature as angling. Here's how, why and where to get started

Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler has been reprinted more times than any book in the English language, bar the Bible and The Common Book of Prayer. While this may raise a few eyebrows, it will come as little surprise to those who have discovered the joy of angling - Britain's most popular participant sport.

The real magic of angling lies not in the catching of fish itself, but in the connection that every angler makes with the environment. Fishing takes you to wild and beautiful places and provides a link to the natural world that is absent in so many of our lives.

Some forms of angling even provide the rare opportunity of a self-caught sustainable meal and, as allotment owners and mushroom collectors will tell you, there are few things in life as satisfying as eating food you have gathered yourself. So if you have yet to make your first cast, perhaps it is time you gave it a go.

The diversity of fish

Although Britain's freshwater and marine environments are far from pristine, reasonable water quality and a wide range of aquatic habitats support a dazzling array of fish. Our rivers, lakes and streams, from John O'Groats to Land's End, are home to Atlantic salmon, carp, chub, roach, tench, barbel, perch, pike, grayling, gudgeon, bleak, bream, brown trout and a host of other finned inhabitants.

Even the endangered European eel still slithers around our waterways alongside a range of invasive species, such as the zander, wels cat fish and rainbow trout.

Our inshore coastal waters have many species of fish despite countless years of unsustainable and shameful commercial over-fishing on the high seas. Vast shoals of mackerel surround Britain and dover sole, plaice, dog fish, skate, cod, pollack, weaver fish and the mouth-watering sea bass reside here too.

The range of fishing on offer

With such a diversity of fish species there is no shortage of angling opportunities in Britain. You could find yourself casting for giant pike on a lonely Norfolk fen, wrestling conger eels off the Cornish coast or fishing for gudgeon on the River Thames. The possibilities are almost endless and as Walton wrote: 'Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learned.'

To make the bewildering array of options a little easier to fathom, angling is split into three main categories: coarse fishing, game fishing and sea fishing.

Coarse fishing encompasses angling for all species of freshwater fish with the exception of trout and salmon, which are considered game fish. Coarse fishers carefully return their catch, whereas game and sea anglers may, within conservation guidelines, keep their catch for the table.

While some anglers love all kinds of fishing, others may become connoisseurs at catching one particular species. It really is a case of horses for courses. As a young boy I used to coarse fish day and night on the Oxford Canal, but now spend most of my time casting flies for trout and salmon in the highlands of Scotland and beyond.

How to get started

When trying to figure out where to start, you need to ask yourself a few questions such as: do I want to eat my catch? What fishing is on my doorstep and does it appeal? Do I want to fish on wild remote rivers in solitude or with other anglers on a pier or reservoir?

There is likely to be a type of angling that floats your boat, but it might take a little thought and experimentation to find it. The good news is that you don't need deep pockets to be an angler. Most fishing in Britain costs very little and, refreshingly, rod fishing is free along most of our coastline.

The easiest introduction to fishing and a great way to learn is through a friend. Failing that, the next port of call should be the nearest fishing tackle shop. Here you can find out about the local fishing on offer and clubs you could join.

Tackle shops are invariably run by passionate anglers who will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. You could even take part in ‘National Fishing Month' a nationwide initiative, starting in July 2010, to encourage as many people as possible to give fishing a whirl.

If you prefer the DIY approach then there are more books on ‘how to fish' than there are covers of Paul McCartney's ‘Yesterday'. There is also a raft of excellent websites and online angling forums which are packed to the gunwales with useful information for the first time angler.

How to be a green angler

By learning to fish you will inevitably learn more about the natural world, for angling, ecosystems and the environment are inextricably linked. Angling not only teaches you about the ecology of the fish you seek, but also about the entire ecosystem in which you fish.

Responsible anglers recognise the importance of environmental protection and in particular the need to prevent damage to the freshwater and marine environment. Good fishing goes hand in hand with a healthy ecosystem and it follows that many anglers become knowledgeable and ardent conservationists.

As our knowledge of freshwater and marine ecology has continued to improve, anglers have adopted an increasingly ‘green' approach to their fishing. Championed in the USA, ‘catch and release' is becoming very popular in areas where certain species are in need of protection. For instance, most sea anglers love nothing more than to eat a fresh, line-caught bass but, in order to safeguard the future of the species, all bass landed under 36cm must be gently returned to swim free.

The best way to become a 'green' angler is to follow the current conservation advice, with regard to issues such as catch and release, even if such advice is transient and not always infallible. As an angler you can also act as a custodian of the water by reporting signs of pollution and other concerns to the relevant authorities.

By simply buying an Environment Agency rod licence you are directly contributing to freshwater and marine conservation, as the £20 million generated annually by rod licence revenue funds much of the Environment Agency's habitat enhancement and fisheries work.

Another way to be a ‘green' angler is to join or contribute to one of the countless angling related organisations, such as The Angling Trust, The Wild Trout Trust or The Wye and Usk Foundation. These organisations go to great lengths to combat the myriad environmental challenges facing British waters. They help enhance the aquatic environment in many ways, including organising voluntary clean-up events, building fish passes, protecting spawning beds and bringing polluters to justice.

The outstanding conservation work undertaken by such organisations is not solely driven by self interest, but because the majority of anglers recognise the non-monetary and intrinsic value of conserving life and the planet on which we live.

Angling does not just help the environment, but it is also good for the soul. When on the water, time seems to stand still, but the birds continue to sing and the water still flows. Here lies the joy of angling.

Luckily, everyone, from small children to those who have received a telegram from the Queen, can learn to be an angler. It was Walton who wrote, 'As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.' So if you are looking for a hobby that gets you outside and teaches you more about ecology and the natural world, then why not give angling a try?

Robert MacDougall-Davis is an angling writer, photographer and adventure fly fisherman. His website is Wild about Fishing.

All photos in the photo gallery are by him.

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