Don't let the curtain fall on the Basingstoke Canal fishing

Basingstoke Canal, summer, 1979. A  six-year-old lad, under the watchful eye of his father, clutches awkwardly on to the cork handle of an old fibreglass rod, eagerly awaiting the next instruction.

When it comes, he duly brings the little black onion float high over his shoulder and with a savage jerk whips it forward, the audible ‘swoosh’ instantly drowned out by a clattering splash. It lands, in a mess, just yards from the bank.

His dad, keen for the experience to be an enjoyable one, carries on uttering words of encouragement and the pair sit side by side, staring at the only part of the float that remains visible above the glass calm surface of the canal. Then it happens. Without so much as a dip of a warning, the orange tip suddenly disappears and the boy, his disbelieving eyes unable to transmit any coherent message to his brain, freezes like a rabbit in the headlights.

“Strike!” yells his father, reaching instinctively for the rod. But he’s too late. The lad gets there first and a few seconds later a small perch of no more than a few ounces is skipping unceremoniously across the surface towards a waiting hand. Excitement collides with disbelief and creates joy unbridled.

Fast forward 30 years and that same not-so-young lad (his angling ability, some would argue, barely improved) is now seated here writing these words in a city many miles from the scene of that life-changing first.

And although that has meant I rarely get to visit those same banks nowadays, it still doesn’t stop me feeling utterly depressed about a press release I received a few days ago.

There won’t, according to the news, be many more youngsters able to enjoy that same experience on the same venue. The immediate and long-term future of angling on the Basingstoke Canal hangs in the balance. Come March 14 next year and fishing could well, be banned.

Now, for reasons which are obvious, I have a vested interest in stories relating to the canal and the BCAA (Basingstoke Canal Angling Association), which runs the fishing on it.

All angling journalists have their favourite venues, the places they were brought up on or where they’ve had a run of success, and although mine might not be fashionable in the big-fish or big-weight sense of the word, I’m every bit as nostalgic about ‘my’ bit of water as my colleagues are about Fen drains, Colne Valley pits or Irish loughs.

The 32-mile canal that runs through Hampshire and Surrey is where I learned how to floatfish, where I got to grips with the basics of legering, and where I realised that polefishing wasn’t for me. It’s where I was taught about the changing seasons, where I discovered the delights of breaking dawns and setting suns and where I got to understand and enjoy the abundant wildlife ¬ the deer, the badgers, the foxes, the rabbits and the birds ¬ that accompany us anglers at the hours of the day when the less fortunate still sleep. Most of all, though, it was where I learned the most crucial lesson of all ¬ that fishing is so much more than simply catching fish.

So, yes, this piece is, in part, a slightly self-indulgent trip down memory lane. But only in part. It might be close to home but what lies at its heart is something that reflects much wider issues that affect the entire sport.

As with so many of our angling associations, success, failure, in fact their very existence, depends upon on thing ¬ the goodwill of those people prepared to volunteer their time for little more than the satisfaction of knowing  it’s essential.

Despite its apparent numbers, fishing has little financial muscle and most of the organisations, whether they be clubs in control of waters or otherwise, live on very tight budgets. The advent and growth of commercial venues, together with the decline in interest in our rivers, has only made the matter worse. Where once some clubs used to boast membership into the tens of thousands, they are now populated by just a few  hundred stalwarts.

What it means is that, more than ever, the life of these same organisations is down to the benevolence of individuals. And the Basingstoke Canal Angling Association is no different.

Since its formation in 1991 - before then the fishing was divided among various different bodies - it has endeavoured to sustain and promote angling on the canal.

Thirty local clubs are currently affiliated to the association and together with the 500 separate individual members, 3,500 people have access to its banks.

Motivated by nothing other than generosity, volunteers have bailiffed the banks, maintained the swims, picked up litter and worked with  other authorities to help ensure the wonderful diversity of wildlife that has made much of the canal a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

It’s paid dividends too. The success and hard work not only provides great  sport for the pleasure angler - the BCAA website claims that pike and carp  to 30lb have been caught - it has enabled the venue to host huge  matchfishing events as well. Five Nationals have taken place on the venue since 1997 (when 900 anglers turned out in the Division 5), along with numerous Fish O’Mania and Embassy Pairs qualifiers.
Matches are still a regular occurrence every weekend and if you ever needed a testimony of what a hard but rewarding venue it is, don’t listen to me - listen to Will Raison.

Not only did he too catch his first-ever fish from the canal, he puts many  of the skills that enabled him to become World Champion down to the days he  spent learning his trade on the ‘Basey’. Endorsements rarely come with greater authority.

But times have changed. Having already teetered on the brink of collapse - three years ago, the association, with no chairman, secretary, head bailiff or match secretary, is once again on the very brink of extinction.

An Extraordinary General Meeting has been called for December and the message is as clear as it is stark ¬ unless volunteers are found, a motion to dissolve the BCAA will be passed and March 14, 2010 could well be the day when fishing on the canal finally dies. If that sounds dramatic, it was meant to. The dire situation demands it.

Now I appreciate how easy it is to sit behind a computer screen in an office
120 miles away and implore, plead even, with people to give up their increasingly precious time for absolutely no financial reward whatsoever.

Lives are busy, and spare time invaluable so why invest it in bailiffing, administration and other thankless tasks when someone else will do it for you?

Because this time, there isn’t anyone else.

Angling’s foundations have been built on the work of volunteers, faceless heroes who might not claim glory for catching monster fish or winning matches, but men - and women - whose efforts far outweigh throw-away headlines that are here today and gone tomorrow. Whether it be coaching, stocking, maintaining or organising, these people are aware that having taken so much out of fishing, it’s only fair to put a bit back in.

Look, I know for most of you the problems on the Basingstoke Canal are remote, parochial and, dare I say it, irrelevant. But for every BCAA, there are countless other angling clubs and associations up and down the country desperately in need of assistance so if you can’t help here, I’m sure you can help locally.

It’s not overstating the problem to say that future generations are depending on it.