Steve Partner: This is why we should all be proud to be anglers

Why is fishing always having to defend itself and why, as anglers, are we often ashamed to admit what we do? Steve Partner believes it’s a matter of perception…

The crowd of idle British holidaymakers had barely moved a muscle all day. Under the baking sun of another cloudless day on the coast of southern Turkey they lay on the top deck of the pleasure boat as it cruised about the innumerable islands that litter this part of the Aegean Sea, the only effort expended being that of raising a glass to their mouths for refreshment.

Then the call went up.

“He’s got one!” a young lad shouted excitedly, craning his neck over the side. Beneath him the boat’s captain, having briefly anchored in a bay to allow a few adventurous souls a cooling dip, quickly winched aboard a small flash of silver before depositing it in an empty bucket.

Seconds later, his hook baited once more, he was in position again, armed with nothing more than a handline.

First one person joined the young lad to watch, then another, then another and, before long, just about the entire boat was straining over the side for a better look. If it had been any smaller, the vessel would have been in danger of toppling over.

The slightly bemused captain, enjoying his new-found audience, duly obliged with a second fish, then a third, a fourth and a fifth, each one greeted with a cheer as it was hoisted aboard before being dumped in the bucket where it was left to writhe and flap until dead. And you know what? Not one of the onlookers batted an eyelid. The fish, it seemed, were merely a commodity, there to act as entertainment in a brief interval between sunbathing.

As I stood on the periphery of the throng it dawned on me that I was the only one among them who seemed even remotely perturbed at what was happening. As a life-long coarse angler, the idea of treating what I catch in such a manner is complete anathema. But to the captain – who would surely be making them his dinner – and, crucially, his audience, it appeared to be the most natural thing in the world. This, the crowd seemed to think, is what happens to fish, isn’t it?

What this five-minute interlude did, when the boat restarted and everyone resumed their horizontal position and calm descended once more, was make me realise just how the general public view fishing. And, broadly speaking, at worst it’s ambivalent and at best, extremely favourable.

That it should take an event so random for that fact to dawn is testament to just where the sport has been positioned over the last 30 years. As anglers, especially those that target freshwater, it seems we spend our entire time defending our hobby in the wake of external attacks.

When scientists publish spurious data about fish feeling pain we are forced, from the back foot, to react. When crackpot pressure groups launch ad campaigns proclaiming the sport is cruel, again, we are pushed into a corner where we are compelled to respond. When wildlife dies on a local pond, without the right of reply, we almost always get the blame.

As a consequence, we have harboured a siege mentality that makes us believe the world dislikes us. But that really couldn’t be further from the truth. Just think about it. When was the last time a work colleague or friend, on discovering your love of fishing, referred to you as cruel? Never. They might consider you a bit daft, a bit eccentric even, for wanting to spend your time trying to catch something that you’re only going to return within a few seconds, but never cruel. That notion doesn’t enter their heads.

So why is it that fishing seems to spend so much time on the back foot, so much time being reactive when it should be being proactive? After all, the sport has a lot to shout about.

As we move into a more environmentally conscious era, a time when the general public is embracing outdoor pursuits with renewed vigour, fishing will only increase in popularity. One look at rod licence sales over the last few years tells you that much.

Few sports expose its participants to the delights of the countryside like fishing does, and fewer still instil an understanding and appreciation of the wildlife within it. Indeed, it is an essential prerequisite to success. Anglers, almost more than anyone else, get to see our landscape in all its guises, day by day, season by season, and few, therefore, get to understand its nuances more intimately.

The positive benefits are massive. Just ask the likes of Mick Watson, the man behind the successful ‘Get Hooked on Fishing’ scheme, or Les Webber of ‘Angling Projects’ of the power of the sport and they’ll point to hundreds of youngsters who’ve, quite literally, been saved by rod and line. And they are just two high-profile examples.

The problem seems to be that fishing has been so bad at selling itself. It has never been very clever at telling the world – or, more specifically, the mainstream media – just how good it is. Instead, our voice is only heard when we’ve come under fire. And then the representation has been poor.

 In fact, bar a couple of exceptions – Keith Art hur is just about the only high profile name eloquent and willing enough to put his head above the parapet to fight for the sport in the public arena –we have been woefully let down when pitched into debate.

Of course it’s often said the mainstream media is inherently anti-angling anyway. But that argument just doesn’t stack up. National, and especially local, newspapers have column inches to fill and will print fishing-related stories – as long as they have them. And as for TV, the success of Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing series is proof that if the material is right, angling can find air-time.

So what’s the answer? Simply, that fishing needs to be more proactive than it is now. Remember, there are more than 1m anglers in the UK and lots of great things happen within the sport every day – but who’s there relaying those stories to the world?

That crucial – but currently vacant – job is down to the newly-formed Angling Trust. As fishing’s governing body, it has a duty to safeguard angling’s future and the best way to do that is to further reinforce the public’s already favourable view of what we do.

 The Trust needs to be more aware of what’s happening at grass roots level and better placed to tell a news-hungry media about the countless things that contribute to making this the most popular pastime in the country.

It needs to use a portion of each of the £20 membership fees it demands to unleash a remorseless PR machine capable of inundating websites, TV stations and newspapers with press releases. Yes, many will fall by the wayside but the approach has to employ the ‘scatter gun’ theory – if you fire enough bullets, some will hit the target. Crucially, too, it needs to employ an eloquent and knowledgeable voice capable of dealing with the media.

If it doesn’t, the only time we’ll be heard is when we’re forced into a corner – and anglers deserve better than that. Our sport is one we should be proud of because, as those fascinated sun-worshippers in Turkey proved, no-one really has a bad word to say about us.