Not long ago we went fly fishing along a river in Wales for some sort of photoshoot thing. Whilst we were there, we met a man named Peter Sant.
Peter works at a dead fancy fishing shop down in London called Farlows and is an all-round fountain of fishing-based knowledge.
Seeing as I knew next to nothing about the art of using weird artificial flies to catch aquatic beasts, I pecked his head on the subject…
What’s the history of fly fishing?
Fly fishing itself has probably been developed across different continents, but the traditional British sense of fly fishing has been developed over the last few hundred years. It’s been more and more refined from the bamboo rods down to the fiberglass and carbon rods.
As far as game fishing is concerned, that’s been going on since there has been salmon and trout runs. In Europe, salmon has been caught on rods and used as a seasonal food source since the dawn of time.
How would they have been doing it back then?
When we were having a really strong salmon run in the old days they’d set up fish traps and netting. And when it became a past time, or a sport, various different techniques came in. 150 or 200 years ago they’d be using flies and lures.
The Victorians took it as a big part of their past time, getting the train up to the Scottish borders and fishing the Tweed. That was a big part of what they did. It was a part of their social calendar.
What sort of people would have been fishing then?
It would have been the gentry. It was very much a gentry sport like grouse shooting. They would be getting their trains from Euston Station, and they’d be off to their country houses, where they’d be met by their local ghillie who had probably been looking after that part of the river all their life.
What’s a ghillie? Is that like the fishing version of a Gamekeeper?
Exactly. He’s the keeper, he’ll know where all the right pools are. He’ll be making sure that the family has a really good catch. If you tip them well, they’ll look after you well. And the traditions are still their now. You got to the best rivers and the ghillie will be a really traditional chap wanting you to get a good fish.
How is it now?
There has been a bit of a step change. Fishing is a lot more approachable these days. You can get started with very little equipment.
What would I need?
The best way to start is go with a mate who’s into it. Or approach a good fishing tackle shop and ask them the best way. They’ll point you to a local water and offer you tuition. It goes a long way to have a lesson.
All you need is a very simple rod, a five-weight is a rod that’ll serve you on a decent size river or a lake. You can spend £50 or £700 and fundamentally they’ll do the same thing for you. Line is very important. That’s really doing the work for you. And then there’s a few other extras, like the leaders, a few flies and a little landing net – ever optimistic. And you don’t need any more than that. You don’t need the full wader outfit.
What’s the thing with the flies? How are they made?
Farlows has got an archive of old salmon flies, and some of the feathers used in there are from birds that are now extinct – you can’t get those feathers anymore. In the old days, they were really extravagant. Now, with modern nylons, they’re tied on a more industrial scale, but a lot of salmon fishermen will tie their own flies.
For trout fishing, there are two types of flies. You’ve got wet and dry. It depends on time of the day, and what’s hatching. Sometimes you’re trying to imitate a nymph, something that’s living in the water and hasn’t hatched yet, and then later on in the day you’re trying to imitate something that’s hatched and is landing on the water. It’s a very purist type of fishing.
So it’s not even trying to make a fly that looks like how it looks to humans, but how it looks to a fish?
I can tell these aren’t flies, I’m not an idiot. But I suppose to fish it’s different.
Exactly. You’re trying to make it look as natural as possible.
Will some people have the same flies for years? Will they have their ‘old reliable’ sort of fly?
A beginner will get through a few flies as they’ll losing them in trees and bushes, but generally, fisherman will have their favourites – the ones that they know work well. There’s quite a bit of psychology involved. Faith has got a big part to play in fishing… that and patience.
Who makes the flies?
A lot of fly tiers will learn to tie their favourites. It’s a bit of a winter part of the sport. In the winter they’ll tie enough for the season. Whilst they’re watching a spot of telly or listening to the radio, they’ll be tying flies.
And how would you make something like that?
Thanks to the beauty of Youtube, there are loads of instructions. You’ll start off with the basics, and then you’ll be tying these beautiful things.
That’s the next level.
Yeah, that’s the next level of geekery.
I suppose in winter, you’ll want to go fishing, but you can’t, so you’ll do the next best thing.
Exactly. You’re keeping the hand in during closed season.
What’s the legality of this? Can you just pitch up?
There’s open season and closed season. Closed season basically gives the fish chance to spawn. A lot of waters are different. There’s free fishing areas and then clubs where you’ll need a membership or a day ticket. The beauty of Britain is that there’s fishing everywhere. The water is getting cleaner now. Even in the centre of London there are places where you can catch trout.
Do you eat the fish you catch?
Some rivers let you take a few. You might get a two-fish ticket, which means you can fish all day and take two fish. We’ll always encourage catch and release, because a big part of the sport is outwitting the fish, then saying thanks and plopping it back. But we understand that people take them for the pot as that’s what they’ve done since the dawn of time.
Fishing is the sort of thing that people get really obsessed with. Why do you think people are so mad on it?
I think now people are very time poor. And when they do get free time, to spend it in an environment like this, by a river, it’s very, very peaceful. When you’re fishing well and you’re really enjoying it and you’re working the river, it’s hard to think about anything else. There’s a degree of escapism. You’re just concentrating on the moment. Without getting too zen Buddhist about it, it’s very much about what you’re doing at that time. There’s a really big appeal with that. I grew up fishing, and I’m well aware of how good fishing is for me.
And for people who are new to the sport, yes, there’s the aspiration of pulling fish out, but it’s about getting out there and enjoying the water.
Do you think people need that more now, with everyone being so stressed out and stuff these days?
Well, this is it. You don’t need apps for this. You can just stroll up and work the river. You can put your phone away and you don’t have to worry about replying to e-mails. Even if it’s just grabbing a couple of hours, you can still just switch off. People are looking for more of that.
Whether it’s fishing, or camping or hiking in the mountains, it’s getting away from the car and the iPhone. People are trying to communicate with us all day long, and cutting that off for a few hours is very healthy for the brain. A big part of it is enjoying that switch off.
When did you start fishing?
I grew up fishing a small river in Cheshire — chasing chub. I was about eight or nine. I was fortunate to grow up in a little village that backed onto the river, so I joined a little fishing club at my youth club and learnt to make my floats and all that. I’ve still got the same rod that I got when I was twelve, and I still use it when I’m coarse fishing.
I remember my first proper chub out of a river. It was a fish with a very big mouth, and it took a big chunk of luncheon meat. And then I remember my first trout on a dry fly, which was a magical moment. You’ve outwitted it… you’ve beaten the fish.
Is there ever any rivalry between different types of fishermen?
With a lot of sports, you have your traditionalists and your progressionists, but with fishing there’s a bit more common ground. There’s a common bond with people on the water. There’s good, strong community spirit.
You won’t be kicking off with carp fishermen then?
No, there’s not a lot of fist shaking. It’s a bit like surfing, with the long boarders and short boarders, they’re after a different thing, but the attitudes remain the same.
Like with any hobby, you could probably go pretty far with fishing. Do people ever take it too far?
A lot of the lads I work with take it to the nth degree. Some of the lads take it really pure. Tenkara is the next one. That’s just using a rod and a line. It’s a very, very pure way of working the river. The more proficient you get, the less kit you actually need.
Have you ever tried ticking for trout? I suppose that’s as pure as it can get.
No, but there’s ghillies who’ll say there’s a way of doing it. When it’s hot in the shallow areas, the fish will hang around and you can just scoop them out the water.
One last question as we’ve talked for a while now… why do you think some people are into things, like fishing, whereas some just don’t bother with anything? Some people don’t have hobbies.
Fishing covers all grounds. You find fishing folk across all classes. You can walk into any pub in any country and you’ll find someone who fishes. You bet your life someone in there fishes. If I get on the underground with a rod tube, you can guarantee someone will want to talk to me about it.