Steve Partner: There's just no challenge

With more and more anglers travelling abroad to catch that 'fish-of-a-lifetime', Steve Partner asks whether they have any merit.

For many anglers it remains the ultimate dream.

To be able to travel abroad, often to places that are remote, wild or both, and do battle with some of the world’s largest fish is to fulfil a childhood fantasy.

Whether it be Canadian sturgeon, the Great Whites of South Africa, Florida’s tarpon, the Nile perch of Egypt, Norway’s giant cod, the variety of exotics that inhabit Thailand or the carp and cats that live a little closer in France and Spain, the variety of species available nowadays to the average angler extends far beyond just roach and bream.

The fishing world, it’s fair  to say, has become a much smaller place.

Cost, I’m aware, does still remain prohibitive to a few, especially in the current climate. It’s hard to justify a week’s holiday in some far flung destination when the economic pressures continue to mount. But there’s no doubt, even if it’s just once, a trip abroad is within the financial capabilities of most people.

On the face of it, the results can be spectacular. Images of smiling anglers with outsized monsters regularly adorn the pages of the fishing press, a sure sign of the increasing popularity ¬ and competitive cost ¬ of this specialised type of piscatorial pursuit.

But there’s something bugging me. I’m not entirely sure how much of a genuine angling experience they really provide. Catching experience maybe, but angling too? Not in my eyes. To me, the vast majority of these fish, the ones taken under the expertise of a guide, lack any kind of credibility at all.

This doesn’t, of course, apply to everyone. Some anglers visit countries armed with their own tackle and relish the challenge of understanding a new set of circumstances and a new range of species.

For them the buzz isn’t necessarily measured in mere pounds and ounces, but in the ability to learn fresh skills and outwit different adversaries.

Plenty more, though, go with the intention of letting someone else do the hard work. Now, on one level there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Entering a new country, where the language and customs, let alone the angling, is entirely different, is a daunting prospect. Why not let somebody else take that burden from you? Logistically too, travelling with lots of tackle (if indeed you own the kind of specialist gear needed to take on some of these leviathans) and bait can be a nightmare so, again, it makes sense for that to be provided at the other end.

But the question is, where does this help end? Providing the tackle? Taking you to the best place to fish? Making up the rigs? Baiting the hook? Casting the rod? In some cases all that’s left is the process of playing the creature to the bank or boat, the only real skill being that of posing correctly with what’s been caught. 

For some that’s enough. They have no further expectation than merely enjoying the fight, and allowing an expert guide to fulfil 90 per cent of  the tasks they’d normally do themselves is perfectly acceptable.

The thrill isn’t just in catching, more the whole experience of being on foreign shores.

Take this recent example. A group of lads from East Sussex headed over to British Columbia in Canada in pursuit of the magnificent ¬ and massive sturgeon that inhabit venues like the Fraser and Harrison rivers.

They hit the jackpot too. Under the guidance of local experts they shared more than 11,000lb of fish, with the best weighing it an estimated 600lb.

Suffice to say, none of the party had ever experienced anything like it.

There were, though, no triumphant claims of talent, no outrageous boasts about ability and no attempts to tell a fisherman’s tale. Success, they said with honesty, was down almost entirely to the guide.

In fact, each of the party treated the trip in exactly the way it should be. Huge fun, but no real measure of angling skill.

But that attitude isn’t one shared by everybody who travels abroad in search of the exotic. Some live in a deluded world where these fish, which to all intents and purposes have been caught for them, are worn like badges of honour. Tales are told, statistics reeled off, pictures published and careers built on supposedly epic adventures with monsters of the deep.

Most of it, though, is complete rubbish. How can, for example, catching a 100lb catfish from the River Ebro be considered a feat of skill when the guide has not only applied his local knowledge but the tackle and bait too?

Reeling in a fish on gear built to stop a tank is, literally, child’s play.

Yes, I know there are still some genuine pioneers out there. But 99 per cent of those anglers who travel abroad are at the mercy of their guide. If he’s good, they’ll catch. If he’s not, they won’t. And when so much of the job is done for you, I find it impossible to see how these fish can be viewed with any credibility.  

I know, because I have been on the receiving end. It might have been in this country and not abroad, but the principle remains exactly the same.

A few years ago I wanted to put together a feature on catching your first double-figure barbel. Despite having fished all my life it was a species I hadn’t really spent any time pursuing, and that 10-pounder had proved elusive. So I contacted one of the country’s best anglers ¬ Martin Bowler ¬ to help.

He organised the venue, choose the right time, assembled the tackle, prepared the rig, added the bait and showed me where to cast. All that was left for me to do was lift the rod when the freespool went into meltdown.

Needless to say, we achieved the goal within a few hours and I was pictured cradling a lovely 10lb 4oz River Severn barbel.

But had I really caught it? Did I go home floating on air because I’d achieved my goal? Did I enjoy recounting the story down the pub? Do I still look back on the capture with pride? Not really. Yes, in the literal sense I ‘caught’ the fish, but my contribution to the success had been about the same as those big-game hunters who rely on trackers to locate their target.

I might not have pulled a trigger, but all I did do was turn the handle of a reel ¬ neither requires a great deal of skill.

Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy the chance to broaden our angling horizons by travelling abroad in search of something a bit different. That so many of us now have access to such spectacular  creatures, often in equally spectacular surroundings, is one of the welcome by-products of a world that cheaper air travel has made much smaller. 

But no matter how big and impressive the fish that have been caught for us are, we must remember one thing.

Merely having a wallet fat enough to fund trips to all four corners of the planet is ¬ and never should be ¬ a benchmark of angling ability.