Fishing lines: Freedom fighters

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One of the most popular styles of angling has not, to my knowledge, been much written about. Astounding, that, especially when you consider it requires no special skill, no technical knowledge and no expensive tackle. Its great appeal, however, is that it is totally free, even on some of the most exclusive waters.

The fishing term for this branch of the sport is guesting, or freelancing. Non-anglers know it as poaching. I'm not talking here about dynamiting or spearing salmon while they are spawning. That is beyond the pale, and illustrates only what a sad day it was when the rack and thumbscrew were outlawed.

Guesting may not be actually legal, but it's something that many famous fishers have done to an extent. It's very easy to stroll beyond your allotted fishing stretch, or take the wrong turning on an ill-marked map. Suddenly, you find yourself on an unspoilt stretch of river that you later discover to be the Duke of Westminster's exclusive patch, rather than the town club's pounds 20 a year fishery.

Poor map-reading may not be much of a defence in the eyes of the law, but most fishery owners will excuse the genuine mistake - which reminds me of a rather nice story. A friend who fished an exclusive Scottish salmon river earlier this year was under instructions to challenge anyone else he saw on the bank. So when an elderly gentleman came along with rod and dog, he politely asked if he could see his permit.

"I'm afraid I don't have it with me," the chap confessed.

"Then I must ask you to pack up fishing, give me your name and address, and leave the river bank," my friend said. "I am only a guest here myself, but I am under instructions to take the name of anyone else fishing here. The water has had a lot of trouble with poachers. Though you don't look much like a poacher, I'm sure you will understand my position."

"Absolutely," the man said. "I don't even have any identification with me, but I hope you will accept my word as a gentleman."

"Of course," my friend said. "Now, if you could write it on my card . . ." He passed the card back to my friend, who looked at it. "Lord XXXXXX? Wait a minute, isn't . . ."

"Yes, that's right, this is my water," the poacher said. "But I've very impressed you were so vigilant. Please give me your address and I will invite you up for a day when the fish are really running. It's not much good at this time of year, you know."

A happy ending. However, the Honest Mistake is far rarer than the I Didn't See Any Sign excuse. Private waters are, by virtue of that No Fishing board, always going to offer more promise than a pond you can fish for nothing. Local legend plays a vital part in this. Someone in the pub will always, for the price of a pint, will tell you about the giant fish he has caught there, and how he was playing a record carp when the bailiff appeared on the far bank, and he was forced to break the line to escape.

In the quirky new fishing magazine Waterlog, veteran angler Peter Stone tells of guesting on a lake near his home. It turned out to be the home of CS Lewis - so Peter can claim to have caught pike in Narnia.

I can actually top that one. I'm getting a bit old for the quick getaway, but as a youngster, I once guested (inadvertently, of course) on the Queen's water at Windsor. Next week I'll tell you how it happened, what I caught, and (in keeping with the festive season) what the consequence was.

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