Fish are fashion victims. They’re as easily affected by the fickle fluctuations of fashion as any self-conscious teenage schoolgirl. Fish are the playthings of the piscatorial catwalk. One minute, one species is a supermodel. Next, it’s picking its way across the scrapheap of obscurity. An outcast. A fishing fashion faux pas.
Take for example the Rainbow trout. In the sixties, seventies and eighties the Rainbow trout was king of the British stillwater scene. This brash, flash American import with his big appetite, big muscles and big scary fighting style, made him the darling of British anglers, who’d grown bored of their native spotty brown trout.
So the rainbow was the It Fish of the day. Fisheries stocked bigger and bigger specimens. They even diversified into cheetah, tiger and brook varieties of the rainbow clan. And just as the rainbow looked set to be immortalised as our adopted hero, fashion changed. The stillwater revolution did a dodgy U-turn. Anglers got bored of easy fishing in freshly-dug puddles. Trout waters closed in a rush. And fly fishermen sought out a new challenge: wild brown trout.
After 20 odd years of ignoring our adipose-finned heritage, suddenly brown trout was top dog again. And anyone caught fishing for stocked rainbows, suddenly felt like a fat bloke wearing flares and sideburns. Caught in a scary fashion time-warp trap.
Grayling suffered a similar fate at the hands of man’s erratic following of fashion. The grayling was always prized around the rivers of Yorkshire where it was indigenous. A home boy. One of the hood. Celebrated as the fourth game fish. Known abroad as ‘white salmon’ because of its succulent light hued flesh, the grayling was loved. Loved because it provided sport and meat for anglers, who were short of trout and in need of rod bending action.
Southerners were of course jealous of the northern grayling. And colonies were begged, stolen or borrowed to transport into the Southern chalk streams in the early 1800’s. Early Victorian English anglers delighted in the introduction of this beautiful, big-finned, elegant swimming fly-sucking lady of the stream. Grayling fishing was all the rage. And grayling and trout were seen to happily co-exist.
But, by the beginning of the next century. After seventy-odd years of the good life down south. Suddenly grayling became the enemy. The new breed of purist trout anglers around the chalk stream circuit loathed the interlopers. The purists sought purity, mono-species. One sole spotted master race of brown trout. And so, the grayling holocaust began.
Every grayling caught by the Fascist fly brigade was murdered. Its fashion statement was now only a muffled cry for help. Help to escape the killing fields. And of course the tide of fashion once again turned and washed back over the quaking grayling.
Now, seventy years further on, the grayling have their own specialist society. Grayling culling is nearly stopped. And now there’s an international symposium and multi million pound research programmes underway to map the DNA codes of this curious arctic immigrant.
The barbel is another fish feted then abandoned by fishing fashion. The Victorians loved their barbel fishing. And Thames guides could make a serious living from the parties of well-to-do London anglers who escaped the city at the weekend with families and teams in tow, to engage in a barbel bonanza.
Several hundred lob worms would be introduced by the guide, at some considerable cost in order to prebait the swims, to ensure relentless rod bending action.
Yet, in the middle years of this century barbel was about as fashionable as a bikini in Lapland. Not only did no one purposely target them, they’d all but disappeared from the fish catching catwalk.
Then, one day, I remember being stood in John Wilson’s tackle shop in Norwich in ‘92 and him telling me he was writing a barbel book. ‘They’re the up-coming fish’ he told me. ‘Everybody wants to catch barbel. They’re the fish of the moment.’ And he was right. Barbel rode their own sky rocket of fashion fame scorching their way back into the fishing image centrefold stakes, within a matter of months.
Carp went through their dark days. Many of them. They were introduced by the Romans, but nobody even started fishing for them until the 1960’s. Now they rank up amongst the top five supermodels of the hook dragging hit parade.
Perch have never been fashionable. They’ve always taken a back seat. They’re loved by anglers. Youngsters invariably hook a perch before any other species. But they’re not respected, not the darlings of fashion in the way others are. Perch are due for an image change. In the same way that Lucozade went from being an old lady’s sick-bed beverage, to becoming the number one sports drink. So perch can one day achieve star status.
Chub too. Chub have dallied too long in the ranks of the also-ran. Chub have lacked the right PR push, to bully them up the front of fashion. Mark my words, their time will come. The chub is the Morris Minor of the fish world. But one day, reliability, fidelity and a habit of eating anything from a lump of cheese, to a size 14 dry fly, will be the thing that every angler seeks.
Catfish came from nowhere. Literally nowhere, because we didn’t really have any, until recently through legal and illegal stocking, many British waters can now offer cat fish angling, and a new buzz of fishing fashion awakes.
And what has evolved in recent years, is a fashion in foreign fishing. Any self-respecting adventure angler wouldn’t feel dressed unless he had a clutch of up-to-the-minute fish photos in his wallet. The bone fish, the Nile perch and the mahseer. Three species most anglers hadn’t heard of ten years ago are now de rigueur for the self-respecting adventurer of the fishing world.
But of course as with all these things nothing in fashion is new. Flares are back. Tank tops are all the rage. And the Victorians were chasing mahseer and Nile perch back in the days before monofilament had even been invented.
Fishing fashion may come and go, but anglers still seek a thrill. A tough tug on their line. So as long as there are anglers out there in search of a quarry, fish of some sort or other will always be in fashion.