THE PAPERS will be full of Ted Hughes this weekend. Ted the literary genius; Ted - Poet Laureate; Ted, ex-husband of Sylvia Plath. But I never knew him as any of these things very much. To me, Ted Hughes was much more interesting than just being a poet. Ted was a fisherman.
He shunned publicity and once said that people only seemed interested in him to ask questions about Sylvia. No such awkward questions from me since I knew little about her and had never read any of his work other than his writing on fishing. We shared a common theory on fishing and one that - until I said that Ted Hughes also thought it - would make people laugh. The theory was that shoal fish, such as rainbow trout, remember flies. So if you hook a fish and kill him, you can carry on fishing with the same fly. But if you prick a fish and either lose or return him you won't be able to hook another fish that day with the same fly. Change to another pattern, however, and the fish will take it. This is because if a shoal fish has a bad experience with a fly, he will go and tell his friends. Well, wouldn't you?
A friend once met him at the Arundell Arms, a splendid fishing hotel in Devon owned by Anne Voss Bark and her husband Conrad where Ted would go and eat (with good reason, the food is delicious, best chips in the UK and the best trifle in the world) and my friend found himself sitting next to him in the bar. "What do you do?' asked my friend in complete ignorance of who he was talking to. "I'm a farmer," said Ted.
He contributed to Anne Voss Bark's wonderfully evocative book, West Country Fly Fishing (published by Robert Hale), with no particular fanfare; fishing is a great leveller of folk. Along with the dry-fly king, the late Dermot Wilson (whose writing Hughes found "delightful and irresistible") and 10 other fine fishermen, Hughes recounted his experiences of fishing the west country. In his case his beloved River Taw, whose banks he lived beside, and the Torridge. Rivers he had fished for nearly 40 years. These two rivers are very close in parts and Hughes thought it was "only a geological fluke that kept them apart". When fishing one river, he would think of the fish in the other and if he received good news from the river he wasn't fishing it would "lift the hopes".
The decline in salmon numbers was a subject close to his heart. Hughes' first salmon weighed just three pounds. But even before that, his first sea trout weighed half a pound less and he tried desperately to convince himself that it was a salmon, even though a sea trout is just as fine a prize and as difficult to catch - they are desperately shy.
Early last year he made a rare appearance in front of two dozen or so people, mostly fellow fishermen, in a small hall in Bideford. A public inquiry was being held, its subject matter the sad state of the salmon. Hughes addressed an Environment Agency inspector and spoke of the damage done by nets that trapped salmon as they made their way back to the Redds to spawn, of abstraction, that resulted in low water levels, and of pollution.
A little before that, he had rallied together various fisherfolk, including high-profile names such as Jeremy Paxman and Jack Charlton, to demand that the government do something about the desperate netting situation whereby nets fishermen would not give up their livelihood, yet their plundering was putting the salmon at serious risk. Hughes & co's letter to a newspaper also showed support for the "indomitable" Orri Vigfusson, of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, who raises money through his organisation to stop nets' men fishing by paying them what they would have earned selling the salmon. The situation has improved but, sadly, to date this country and Greenland still allow netting.
No doubt sales of Hughes' Birthday Letters will soar now that he is dead. But a finer tribute, I think, or at the very least an equal one, would be to buy a copy of West Country Fly Fishing. All the royalties from the sale of this book go to the Westcountry Rivers Trust, an organisation that was born three years ago to conserve the rivers of this beautiful region and improve them.
Which in turn will go to help all the fishes that Ted Hughes, the fisherman, had yet to catch.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies