It is entirely typical of the myths that so often surround legends that everyone, from the minority who knew him to the majority who didn’t, seems to have a story to tell about the late Ivan Marks.
Most either relate to his undisputed genius as an angler, the simple brilliance of his logic (‘before you can catch a fish, you need to get a bite,’ he once said) or the warmth of his generosity. But I reckon that Tommy Pickering, former World Champion and among today’s most famous faces, tells the best one.
“When I was at school,” says Tom, “all the other lads had the names of bands like The Who and The Beatles all over their pencil cases. But I had Ivan Marks because he meant so much to me.”
Just two sentences and less than 40 words. Yet no-one, in my opinion, has ever managed to sum up the man’s influence on the sport more eloquently.
That same anecdote sprang to mind this week as we approach the fifth anniversary of the day when, at just 68, Ivan lost his battle for life. On December 5, 2004, the man who had won more big matches than anyone else and whose natural likeability transcended disciplines, died.
At the time I remember writing that angling hadn’t just lost a very good matchman, it had, in fact, lost perhaps its last great superstar.
And five years on, I’ve absolutely no reason to think any differently. If anything, I’m even more certain.
When Ivan Marks passed on, the angling scene ¬ a largely grey place populated by one-dimensional characterless media-made celebrities with a lifespan less than that of full fat milk ¬ bade farewell to a different era.
The last link to the past, when fame required more than the ability to win a few matches or catch the occasional big fish, had gone.
It is all too easy to look back on yesteryear with rose-tinted glasses, to make bygone eras appear more exciting than they really were and to make the greats of the time far greater than their influence merits. But not in angling’s case. For so many reasons, today’s fishing world really is several shades paler than it used to be.
Let’s start with tackle. Undoubtedly technological advancements have allowed anglers to be more successful than ever before. But at what price? In our unrelenting quest to catch more and catch bigger, literally no tackle stone has been left unturned. Poles are longer, rods lighter, reels better, line finer, hooks sharper and gadgetry more cunning. The odds are forever being tipped in our favour.
Angling innovations, once measured in giant leaps, are now gauged in mere millimetres. Think Dick Walker and bite alarms, carbon rods
and the Arlesey bomb. Think Fred J Taylor and the lift method, or deadbaiting for pike. Think Fred Wilton and HNV baits. Think Kevin Maddocks and Lenny Middleton and the hair rig.
Then there were the likes of Benny and Kevin Ashurst, the former noted as pioneering both the stick float and the use of casters, the latter for popularising polefishing. And what of that float angler extraordinaire, Billy Lane?
These men didn’t just share incredibly innovative and creative brains, they belonged to an era rich in innovation ¬ a time before technology levelled the playing field.
How many of today’s big names will be remembered for their genuinely groundbreaking brilliance? Not many. And that’s because there’s so little in angling left to invent, so little left to truly discover.
But it isn’t just better tackle ¬ and bait ¬ that has contributed to the demise of the superstar. Greater knowledge has played its part as well.
Fishing has simply become too easy, and the genius once required by men like Ivan Marks to rise to the top is largely unnecessary. The newsagents’ shelves, at one point restricted to just Angling Times, are now awash with innumerable how-to magazines, and the angler seeking advice on the internet is more likely to be drowned in a sea of information than he is to find what he’s looking for. Consequently very few edges remain left to be told.
Look, I’m not saying ignorance should be celebrated. But the sheer volume of information now available has made experts of us all and although it might be a generalisation, I have to concur with those who say that 90 per cent of anglers have 90 per cent of the know-how.
Only those who strive for that extra 10 per cent are able to separate themselves from the pack. If, then, we all know how to do it, in this media-saturated age we know where to do it too. Where once anglers wanting a 5lb chub, a double-figure barbel or a 20lb carp had to do their own homework, nowadays there’s barely a fish that swims that isn’t possible to target.
It might require a long drive or a substantial syndicate ticket, but we still know where these creatures live. What does it say about our sport when often the greatest asset a specimen-hunter can have isn’t watercraft or skill, but time?
Then, of course, there are commercial waters. Advocates of these venues will argue they provide almost guaranteed round-the-calendar fishing but that, for me, is a negative rather than a positive.
They have made fishing, especially matchfishing, so predictable that it’s almost impossible for any individual to rise above the rest. Matchmen used to be famous for a particular method ¬ whether it was swingtipping, trotting, wagglerfishing, legering or whatever ¬ but now, with the death of river and canal fishing and the upsurge in hole-in-the-ground identikit commercials, everyone uses very similar tactics. Wherever you go it’s nearly all about carp, poles and pellets.
There will, I accept, be those that argue otherwise. They’ll say that today’s crop of anglers compare favourably with those of yesteryear. I’m not so sure.
The likes of Matt Hayes, Martin Bowler, Terry Hearn, Keith Arthur and Des Taylor might be among this generation’s most high-profile names, but despite being very good at what they do, how many will stand the test of time?
Will any of them really be remembered with the same reverence and love reserved for the likes of Ivan Marks and Dick Walker?
Being famous is one thing. But having genuine star quality is quite another matter entirely and with that in mind, will messrs Hayes, Bowler, Hearn, Arthur and Taylor ever come to dominate, for example, a 2040 poll of the greatest anglers that ever lived?
There are exceptions, of course. Bob Nudd, the four-times World Champion, has the personality to go with his ability and has therefore entered angling’s affections ahead of other more decorated matchmen.
And John Wilson, surely, remains today’s stellar angler. But good as John is at catching fish, it was national exposure on mainstream TV that allowed him to rise higher than the rest.
With angling coverage now almost exclusively restricted to the wastelands of satellite, it’s unlikely that many, or any, of those that currently eat up the hours in between the DIY shows is ever likely to become the household name that John was.
So, yes, this generation does have its famous names. But in an era where even the worst tackle is still relatively good, knowledge is abundant and commercials have made robots of so many of us, fame in itself does not equate to stardom.
The era, I’m afraid, of the innovators, the geniuses and the characters died with Ivan Marks.
And held up against this truly inspiring one-off, even the most vivid of today’s anglers seem like blurred figures behind frosted glass.