Jeremy Paxman

Why do anglers get so hooked?

Mark Kurlansky’s latest book fails to capture the charm of fly fishing and relies too heavily on secondary sources

‘Man Fishing in a New England Stream’ by Winslow Homer. [Getty Images]

The other day a friend asked me what a lascar was. Fair enough: it’s not a word you come across in everyday conversation. Perhaps he’d been reading Spike Milligan, where I last met it. A similar question struck me about the ‘unreasonable virtue’ which the American writer Mark Kurlansky sees in fly fishing. I have fished all my life and am no more or less virtuous that the next man. I searched for the answer in this book but failed to find it.

It is hard to understand why it was published. True, British writing about fly fishing has become a lackadaisical, threadbare thing. Monthly magazines are full of accounts of riverbank expeditions which end in a tussle, the angler’s rod ‘bucking like a bronco’, and eventually with a ‘bar of silver’ lying on the riverbank. Read one and you’ve read them all. American writers, such as Thomas McGuane, tend to try a bit harder.

Ah, but the covers of this book! They’re the thing — replete with a Hong Kong watercolourist’s homage to one of those big Victorian salmon flies. There’s a picture of the grey-bearded author sitting in the back of a boat. He appears perfectly normal, though for some reason he has adorned his hat with pink fluff — possibly a particularly garish salmon fly. He is holding a fish which is either very stale or partially filleted. There seems to be a golf club lying on the thwart behind him, which suggests he has his sports confused. Poor Kurlansky. He wasn’t set much of a challenge and he hasn’t covered himself in glory.

There have been dozens of fine books written by North American authors attempting to grapple with the business of pursuing trout and salmon armed only with a confection of feathers and bits of fur tied to a hook.

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