Steve Partner: Fearnley-Whittingstall - Angler and proud of it

As the camera continued to roll, the angler carefully ran his Avon float down the far-bank glide for the umpteenth time that afternoon, the orange tip still frustratingly visible as it bounced rhythmically in the flow. Only this time it suddenly disappeared.

A whoop of delight accompanied the bent rod and within seconds a twisting flash of silver was safely landed. It wasn¹t a huge grayling, perhaps no more than 1lb, but it was still a fish, and at the end of long day it was welcome.

Safely banked, the angler turned to the camera, removed it from the net and, with a single, swift and humane blow to the head, killed it stone dead.

There were no well-timed cut-aways, no clever edits and, especially telling, no mealy-mouthed apologies either. The fish was despatched and filmed in a manner that made it look exactly what it is an entirely natural process.

It was, after all, angling in its purest and most basic form: man wanting to catch a fish for the purpose of food.

That particular episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall¹s River Cottage Autumn series was watched by an audience of nearly two million people. And in this increasingly politically correct country famed for its love of animals, how many viewers do you think complained at the sight of the grayling being killed, filleted, smoked and then eaten? The sum total of exactly zero.

It isn¹t the first time that Fearnley-Whittingstall has caught and then killed for the camera either. The ethos behind the entire River Cottage project is self-sufficiency, and at some point throughout each of the series (and for the entirety of River Cottage: Gone Fishing) he has taken fish for the table. Yes, most have been from the sea, but common carp, grass carp, eels and pike have been on the menu too. None have ever caused his audience offence.

The general public, it seems, has absolutely no problem whatsoever with an angler eating what he catches whether they be more traditional sea species, or those less obvious ones that reside in freshwater.

Why? Because that same general public, rightly or wrongly, EXPECTS that to be the case. Fish are food. And that is the beginning and the end of the discussion.

Anglers, primarily those that target freshwater, do, of course, see their quarry in a different light entirely. They see them as sport, creatures to outwit, to enjoy for their sporting element as opposed to their taste. To them, the thought of killing what they catch is anathema.

But that really isn¹t how most of the country sees it. They see fish as an edible commodity regardless of origin. I am no great lover of Jeremy Clarkson, but in his recent column for the Sun newspaper he called it absolutely right.

Commenting on the abhorrent Tawainese video clip showing a carp being cooked and then eaten alive, he admitted, for the first time ever, that he felt a twinge of compassion for fish. Up until that point, he wrote, he had thought of them no different to vegetables. It¹s a telling comment.

While Clarkson¹s point might not be entirely wholly representative of the public, it does highlight just how low down the pecking order many people perceive fish to be. Even numerous supposed Œvegetarians¹, people who find the thought of meat deplorable, make exceptions for fish. And supermarkets happily display whole cod, bass, salmon, trout and mackerel on the fish counter when none, as far as I¹m aware, have yet to do the same with cows, sheep or pigs.

The point I¹m making is that fish are so inoffensive to the general public as to be almost invisible. As such, this misconception that angling is somehow under pressure from a growing band of antis is complete nonsense.

I keep reading in the AT letters¹ pages, or on internet websites, about these so-called antis and how we need to watch our backs at every turn. But you know what? I just don¹t buy it.

For far too long we have run scared of these supposedly all-powerful pressure groups, organisations like PETA who many within the sport believe watch our every move like hawks. If you listen to these anglers some of whom act like fishing¹s own version of the secret police you would believe that every badly held fish, every poorly presented catch picture, every odd-looking rig and every less than perfectly prepared bait will lead to our imminent demise.

Notwithstanding the fact that PETA and its like are run by deluded crackpots, for them to succeed they need the weight of public support behind them. And the public is no more anti-angling than it is anti-horse racing.

That is why Fearnley-Whittingstall is able to unceremoniously bludgeon a grayling to death without anyone giving a damn, and it¹s why the only people who complained about Robson Green¹s fish-handling during his very popular Extreme Fishing show were anglers themselves.

Look, I¹m not saying we shouldn¹t treat what we catch with both respect and care. To do that would be deeply irresponsible. But aren¹t we in danger of forgetting what we go fishing for in the first place? Yes, we can claim it¹s about being in the great outdoors, about enjoying the countryside and about connecting with nature. But ultimately we go because we want a fish first to be fooled into taking a baited hook, and then to enjoy the fight, or to amass as a big a weight as possible. Ironically and dangerously it could actually be this modern obsession with over-the-top fish welfare that, instead of shielding us from the tiny minority that may want angling banned, plays into their hands. The more we seek to protect what we catch, the more we make an unwitting admission of guilt. Remember, if we didn¹t want to cause a single moment of stress or pain then we wouldn¹t look to remove a fish from the water in the first place.

There is one example of this hypocrisy that is especially damning. On some waters, particularly those in the South, headstones have been erected to mark the place where the bodies of big, named, carp lay. Have you heard anything more ludicrous?

Not only does the humanisation of a fish give it a stature it doesn¹t deserve, but how can the same angler that sought to hunt a particular carp down, then mourn its death when he will undoubtedly have contributed to its demise? It is beyond my comprehension entirely. We seem to forget that fish are there, naturally or otherwise, for our pleasure or our table.

It¹s my opinion that we need to smash this myth seemingly perpetuated by some elements within fishing that the English public is anti-angling because it¹s patently not. The needless witch-hunts, provoked at the merest whiff of what these same people perceive as bad practice, has got to stop too. If it doesn¹t it will be us eroding our own rights and imposing our own rules, when in reality we have absolutely no reason to do so.

But, most crucially of all, we need to end the practice of apologising for being anglers. As we move into a more environmentally conscious era, a time when more and more of us are embracing outdoor pursuits with a renewed sense of vigour, fishing will only increase in popularity. One look at booming rod licence sales tells you that.

The public, as I¹ve said, are not anti-angling in the slightest. They may see us as eccentric, daft even, for wanting to spend our leisure time perched on a chair or box beside the water, but no more.

So when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall catches a fish, humanely knocks it on the head, prepares it for cooking and then eats it for his two million-plus audience, we should be thanking him for reinforcing something that seems to have been lost along the way. Because what he¹s doing isn¹t just the most natural thing in the world, it¹s also a very clear and a very public statement of what he is. Hugh¹s proud to be an angler and it¹s high time we all should be too.