Steve Partner: Why Robson Green can help save angling...

AT’s Steve Partner has been fishing for nearly 30 years and thinks Robson Green, star of Extreme Fishing, isn’t the villain many believe him to be

There are some things in life that are easy to admit. Still laughing at Jim Davidson’s stand-up routine, preferring lager to fine wines and picking a fish and chip supper over a fancy restaurant might not paint a picture of a particularly cultured individual, but I reckon I can confess to them all without shame. Well, not too much of it anyway.

But, as an angler, liking Robson Green and his show, Extreme Fishing? Crikey, coughing to that at the moment is a crime tantamount to treason.

Well, the truth is I genuinely do think he, and his programme, are actually quite good. In fact, I’d go beyond that. I think his profile has helped put angling into the homes of millions of people who might not have normally welcomed it.

That I should require a tin hat for saying that will give you some indication of the controversy the man has caused within the fishing world. Internet forums have been overloaded with users spitting the kind of vitriol normally reserved for hardened criminals, AT’s newsdesk has fielded countless calls from angry readers, and pundits far and wide have universally condemned the show and its famous Geordie presenter.

Within coarse fishing at least, Robson Green has gone from likeable actor to public enemy No 1 in less time than it took him to land one of the fish on his programme.

For those who haven’t seen the show, here’s a quick synopsis. Robson basically jets off around the world to fish for some of the biggest – and most exotic – of the planet’s species. Nothing wrong with that, then.

But it doesn’t end there. As well as catching these creatures he has, on more than one occasion, treated his quarry in a manner that most find abhorrent. Fish are gaffed, clubbed and generally – in the eyes of a coarse angler – maltreated to the point of cruelty. And all of this is done while the jovial Geordie turns the air blue with a stream of expletives that is in such stark contrast to the Wilson and Hayes diet anglers have become accustomed to viewing, that it tastes all the more unpalatable.

Robson’s perceived misdemeanours continue, though. He further riled the angling community when he appeared on the BBC Breakfast show to promote his series and claimed that nine out of 10 fish die from exhaustion after being released. Whatever context it was said in, it was a stupid, thoughtless comment. So, with that kind of evidence, how do you defend the seemingly indefensible?

First things first – I’m not saying that I like everything Robson Green does. His on-screen delivery borders on manic and his bad language, even for a show that airs at 9pm, is largely unnecessary. The way he handles the fish is, at times crude, and the brutality in which some are despatched does the sport very little good at all.

But, hard as it may seem at first, just try to see the bigger picture here. Extreme Fishing is already in the middle of a second series, the first having secured, per programme, somewhere in the region of one million viewers. In today’s channel-heavy TV era, that’s an awful lot of people.

Instead of criticism, should he not be congratulated for getting fishing into the homes of so many? Shouldn’t his passion, enthusiasm and genuine love of angling be celebrated? Shouldn’t we be thanking him for helping to raise the profile of a sport that hasn’t been on mainstream TV for years? Whatever your stance, one thing is clear – his show has found favour with a huge number of people.

Maybe the problem is one of perception – and how people outside of angling view what we do.

Is it possible the public already believe that anglers, regardless of discipline, kill everything we catch anyway? Sound ludicrous? Well, consider this: When you’ve been on the bank, you’ve no doubt been asked by non-fishermen what you’re going to do with the fish in your net at the end of the day. And when you tell them they’re going back, you’ll almost always get a confused look followed by a ‘what’s the point in that?’

Could these same people, if they dwelt on what coarse anglers do, argue that putting a fish through the stress of capture only to return it, actually be a crueller act than taking it for the table? Using a living creature for sheer sport rather than food is something that wouldn’t sit well with some.

Remember, we are in a new, environmentally-aware, climate, an era that encourages us to know exactly where our food comes from, a time when our televisions are saturated with chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall showing us exactly how to kill, prepare and cook all manner of different animals. That considered, when Robson does take a fish for the pot, does it really make him the criminal he’s been portrayed?

What has to be remembered is that he’s a game angler first and foremost, brought up on the North-East game rivers where fish – trout mainly – were caught for just that purpose. To him, and millions of other fluff-flingers, the idea of catching something for the hell of it is as alien a concept as banging a fish on the head is to us.

Martin Salter, angling’s Parliamentary spokesman, went as far as to claim that it was a ‘tragedy’ that Green’s show had got air-time when the work of Hugh Miles, and his Catching the Impossible film, has yet to be picked up by a broadcaster. That, in my view, is a naïve parallel to draw. Like it or not, we live in a facile, celebrity obsessed culture, and however good Hugh’s film is, the fact remains that its principal star, Martin Bowler, might be 10 times the angler Robson Green is but he hasn’t had a No 1 hit, he isn’t one of the UK’s most famous TV actors and it’s unlikely many housewives have his picture on the fridge. Harsh,
but that ’s the reality – Green guarantees viewers, Bowler doesn’t.

There is another, wider, point here too. Aren’t we, with our increasingly holier-than-thou attitude towards our fish, in danger of displaying a deep hypocrisy? It goes without saying that fish welfare is paramount, and we can be as careful as we like with safety first rigs, soft mesh nets, unhooking mats and antiseptic swabs, but the truth is simple: if you really don’t want to harm fish, don’t pick up a rod.

Maybe it’s time to revaluate and put things in perspective. Maybe it’s time we stopped apologising and instead celebrated the fact that angling is one of the purest, most natural man-versus-nature pursuits there is. Maybe, too, it’s time to accept that Robson Green is, in the eyes of the public, the personification of a fisherman. And maybe it’s time to realise that he doesn’t deserve the huge amount of criticism he’s received.

I’m not saying he’s the ideal role model, and his gaffe on the BBC Breakfast show undoubtedly caused the sport damage, but I think this witch-hunt is unjustified. Yes, I know I’m going to need that tin hat again…