After All 1708 fishing hero

After All: Reflections of an incomplete angler

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

With the summer holidays upon us, our columnist considers fishing and the stabilising role it has played in his peripatetic life.

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” – Henry David Thoreau.

“BEE COOL, Mackerel Fishing. Reef Fishing. Boat Trips...” I spotted this sign in the small and picturesque, almost toy-like, harbour of the Cornish seaside town of Looe. We were on a short camping holiday in Cornwall last July and fishing – mackerel or reef – was not on the agenda.

I was unable to unglue my eyes from that sun-drenched little billboard promising my favourite adventure – fishing, which I had not pursued for the last 20-odd years, having kept myself so busy that sitting on a bank (or a shore) with a fishing rod began to look like a selfishly hedonistic waste of time. From a dedicated and almost always lucky angler, I had been slowly but surely turning into a virtual fisherman, wallowing in the colourful reveries of my USA-based university mate Slava, who still fished regularly – in Florida, where he lived, and in Pennsylvania, where he had his ‘dacha’ (summer home).

I nearly forgot my once favourite quotation, that the time we spend fishing is not included in our lifespan.

I first heard that beautiful quote from my father – a particle physicist and a Doctor of Science – when I was seven or eight years old.
“So, it means that if we keep fishing all the time, we will never die?” I enquired.

My Dad only smiled. Too busy with his beloved particle accelerator, (which was recently bombed and shelled by the Russian invaders in Ukraine), on which he had worked most of his life, he wasn’t a fisherman – that was probably why he died at the fairly young age of 56, or so I still sometimes think.

I was hooked on fishing (metaphor unintended) from the pre-school age when in summer, I could often be found on the grassy bank of a small and polluted pond in the town of Liubotin, near Kharkiv, where I was often taken for holidays. In my hands, I would be holding a primitive fishing rod, made of a more or less straight tree branch. I would stand there from morning till night, causing giggles among the scantily dressed sun-tanned local boys. Their laughter would come to a brief stop only when I would ferret out a tiny perch or a crucian carp.

What was it that first attracted me to fishing? It must have been its sheer unpredictability in the otherwise so predictable and hence profoundly boring Soviet environment, with its ubiquitous dull slogans and equally dull people.

While angling, you never know what you are going to catch. That incomparable sensation of novelty and surprise was hugely enhanced in me with the gradual emergence of the ‘yar’ (a ‘ditch’ in Ukrainian) next to our block of flats in the very centre of the huge industrial city of Kharkiv (yes, the same city that has this year been mercilessly bombed by Russian invaders).

Well, it was not a ditch but rather a crater, made by an erroneous heavy shell during the 1918-1921 Civil War.

Rain and snowfall kept extending the crater, and by the time of my birth it had turned into a long and deep ravine, overgrown with weeds and wild grass. At the bottom of the ravine was a puddle of rainwater which gradually grew into a pond, fed by natural underground springs.

We boys spent hours in the ditch, which served as a rubbish dump throughout the 1950s and 1960s until some local aquarium buffs jokingly released the fry of tropical fish into the ‘pond’. Mysteriously, the fish started breeding happily in the yar, and soon we were able to catch some strange aquatic mutants with our primitive bamboo fishing rods (hence that abovementioned feeling of unpredictability), using sticky bread balls dipped in smelly anise drops from a local pharmacy as a bait.

Even now, whenever I take a sip of a fiery Greek ouzo, or a palate-burning French pastis, I am momentarily teleported to the fishing yar of my childhood.

The fish we caught were small, prickly and utterly inedible, but we enjoyed the sheer fun of fishing in the middle of a big industrial city – much to the contempt of Uncle Igor, a Second World War veteran and an inveterate fisherman who lived in our block of flats.

Uncle Igor had the character of a child. A brilliant fabricator, he’d spend hours in the courtyard entertaining children with stories of his wartime feats and his fishing achievements. He would go to fish in the country once a week and would come back reeking of vodka and carrying a string bag full of freshly caught fish that he proudly displayed to us.

We all adored Uncle Igor, although my parents suspected that his plentiful catches had been secretly bought at the Tempo food shop round the corner. Of course, we kept asking him to come and fish with us in the yar, but he dismissed our pleadings with a wave of his rough fisherman’s hand: “What do you take Uncle Igor for? Uncle Igor will never deign to fish in that dirty bog of yours where only small fry can be caught!”

He had a habit of referring to himself in the third person – as ‘Uncle Igor’.

One day, however, being more tipsy than usual, he succumbed, and grudgingly went down to the yar with all his sophisticated fishing gear: spinning rods, feathers, home-made spoonbaits and whatnots. We were most impressed by his folding fisherman’s chair with a tarpaulin seat.

Having unfolded his magic chair, Uncle Igor sat down and solemnly threw three spoon-baited lines into the yar’s opaque, urine-coloured water. We all flocked around him, watching his performance with our mouths agape as if it was a religious rite.

The fish started biting immediately, and all Uncle Igor’s three floats, made of wine corks, were diving, and jumping like crazy.

Uncle Igor reluctantly raised his world-weary bottom from the chair, hooked and started pulling. The fish was obviously heavy and didn’t want to give in. The silk Czechoslovakian line drew like a bowstring.

“See? It only took Uncle Igor two minutes to hook the biggest fish in this bog!” Uncle Igor, ruddy-faced and puffing, announced triumphantly.

We held our breath.

Soon, the top of a rusty funnel emerged from the water.

“What’s that?? A bloody steam engine??” Uncle Igor cried out in disbelief.

It was not a steam engine he eventually ferreted out. It was an old and rust-eaten Tula samovar – a huge coal-heated metal urn for making tea – which had probably been dumped into the yar by its owners when electric samovars came into existence.

We didn’t see Uncle Igor back in the ditch ever again.

When I came back to Kharkiv from London many years later, the yar was no longer there. I was told it had been filled up after a drunk drowned there. A small park was arranged in its place. And suddenly I felt a sharp pang of nostalgic pain for all those joyful days in the ditch, filled up by time, the days that could never be repeated.

I was standing on the grave of my childhood…

During my school years, I tried to fish whenever I could. I recall ferreting out a scary and disproportionately big-headed Astrakhan bull fish during a 1960s Volga River cruise on board MV Alexander Nevsky, on which I was taken by my grandparents at the age of 10. I fished at every single pier we moored at, and often from the lower deck of the moving ship too. My catches were later cooked for me at the ship’s galley and solemnly served for supper at the restaurant to the applause of other passengers. Somewhere in my archives there still sits a ‘Diploma’ from the ship’s captain, awarded to “the most active member of the MV Alexander Nevsky’s fishing team”. The ‘team’ of course consisted of just one ‘member’ – a 10-year-old me.

I fished in the Dnieper River which I cruised (at the age of 16) from Kyiv (then Kiev) to Kherson with my mother. I spent long hours on the edge of a small pond deep in a thick Estonian forest where I was once approached by the still active (it was in the 1960s) unit of ‘forest brothers’ – the partisans fighting for Estonia’s liberation from the Soviet occupation. They looked scary but were harmless (to me at least!), and politely refused to take my modest catch of three small carp which I had generously (out of fear) offered them as a gift.

I fished in the swift-flowing Lithuanian River Nemunas, and – shortly before leaving the USSR – in the very Siverskyi Donets River where a series of deadly battles with the Russians took place in May 2022. Then, in 1989, it was the most beautiful and peaceful fishing spot one could imagine, and I often wonder these days what it looks like now – pockmarked and disfigured by trenches and bomb craters.

Since coming to the West in 1990, I’ve only had a few attempts at fishing, all during various journalistic assignments. One of the best was probably in Port Howard (population of six) in the Falklands, in the company of a local farmer. And what wonderful fishing it was! Having barely remembered how to cast, I was able to catch five large, spangled sea trout within just 40 minutes. The Falklands fish simply could not wait to swallow my Silver Toby spoonbait. Or so it felt.

I remember catching a strange – striped and multi-coloured – creature called Sea Rooster from a glass-bottomed boat in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef waters using just a piece of line and a hook, without any bait! The fish was so beautiful that I immediately threw it back into the ocean.

Yet my most memorable fishing – or rather non-fishing (do read on!) – experience was in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, where shortly before my arriva, a local deckhand had reportedly hooked an orca – another name for a killer whale (and also – ironically – a nickname given by Ukrainians to the invading Russian soldiers – sorry, I simply cannot forget  about the war in my native country, not even for as second), having mistaken it for a fair-sized halibut!

The story in the local Homer News rag was headed ‘Orca Takes the Hali-Bait’ (ha-ha). It was substantiated by photos, made by the skipper, in which one could clearly see a hapless angler trying to pull out a torpedo-shaped submarine-sized whale, or at least pretending to do so.

I ran to the harbour and promptly booked myself on a halibut-fishing charter the following morning. “Remember all the fish you catch can be packaged and sent anywhere in the world,” a ‘fish controller’ girl told me from the window of her shabby wooden booth on the pier. I said that I didn’t want my whale to be sent “anywhere the world”: I wanted it to go straight to my house in London, even if they had to charter a special cargo flight for that.

“Sure!” the girl replied with a smile and proceeded to compliment me on my ‘lovely British accent’ (it was only in Alaska and, possibly, Tasmania that I could occasionally pass for a Brit).

But instead of hooking a whale, or even a halibut, I caught a severe bout of seasickness and spent all my time on board the Sea Witch lying supine in the boat’s tiny cabin. My only consolation was that, with my environmentally friendly fishing (i.e. fishing with no catch), I played no part in damaging Alaska’s burgeoning wildlife.

The boat’s owners were called ‘Sorry Charlie Charters’, by the way. I wish I had known it before embarking.

However, I did embark on that fishing boat in Cornwall last July, after all. How could I not, after all those non-fishing years? Besides the weather was great, and it only cost 20 quid for two hours!

‘BEE COOL’ was a purpose-built charter boat licensed for eight anglers (there were only three of us on that trip). Cat 4-coded to 20 miles from Looe, it (or should I say ‘she’?) had all the relevant safety equipment and even a toilet. Powered by an Iveco turbo diesel engine producing 250hp and chased by a tireless squad of screaming seagulls (a good omen!), it was smoothly trawling the emerald Cornwall waters.

Paul Woodman, the skipper, was a fifth-generation Cornish fisherman, who claimed to know every local rock, patch of rough ground, or wreck as he had “towed the trawl or scallop dredges into most of them.”

He seemed to know for sure where the fish were likely to be and why they were there – either feeding or spawning. He provided us with super-light, almost weightless, rod-and-reel sets and showed how to cast. All the rest was, literally, in our own hands.

Here’s a brief summary of that short, yet long-overdue, fishing expedition of mine:

  • Caught (mackerel, pilchard, pollack, whiting; Atlantic horse mackerel etc.) – 20 fish altogether
  • Let go – 10
  • Went off the hook without asking me – 5
  • Spotted without trying to catch – 2 mullet, 2 dolphins, 1 seal, and 27,844 hungry seagulls
  • Filleted (by the famous Pengelly’s fishmonger in Looe’s fish market) – 10
  • Barbecued and consumed the same evening – 10

Just like in some old fisherman’s tale, my wife was waiting for me in the harbour. Had she been there all the time from 8.15 am when we set off, I wondered, as I climbed up the steep slippery steps from the landing jetty onto the pier clutching the bag with my catch?

“What time is it now?” I asked her the moment I stepped onto terra firma.

She looked at her watch. “It’s 8.15 am,” she replied.

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