Fancy stumbling upon a completely free archive of angling and natural science works? I know what you’re thinking- it sounds too good to be true. But this month, I’ve made a discovery that is simply too brilliant not to share. In fact, for anyone with an interest in the art, history and literature of fishing and the natural sciences, it’s something of a gold mine. Good timing, too, as I’ve been meaning to share exciting news of some great angling reads this month, from top notch angling quarterlies to a cracking new hardback book from George Barron.
From natural history to the tallest angling tales…
More on today’s reads in just a moment- but first I want to share some older treasures available for just a click! The vast archive I’m talking about includes whole books, scientific studies and some amazing artwork. Am I pulling your leg? Well, until a tip off from a family member, the words Biodiversity Heritage Library meant nothing to me… until that initial click became several curious hours.
In a nutshell, the curators of this collection have put together digital versions of an incredible number of antiquated and long out of print books. Basically, anything to do with the natural world is here and this includes fishing in a huge way.
Among the various treasures are dense and, yes, often dated works on all kinds of flora and fauna. Naturally, these include fish of every description- and predictably a great many of the studies from yesteryear were the works of anglers. Just making a few searches using fish names, in fact, yields a glut of content.
Yes, you’ll have to filter out the treasure from some of the trash, but there are plenty of quirky and amusing entries- not to mention some wonderful etchings, drawings and paintings within the many works. “Angling literature is a vast amount of unfished water” as one author puts it. Too true.
From centuries old books on fishing the River Trent, to accounts of catching Indian crocodiles on rod and line, you might find just about anything! Here are a few random titles to give a flavour and get you started:
Yes, these are old books. But there are some gems in there, among all the dated stuff about how to make your own rod rings, farm carp using 19th century technology or how to kill and cook everything that swims. In fact, one of the biggest finds in the whole collection is a book I had previously heard of: Grim: The Story of a Pike
Indeed, this novel has been quoted many times over the years across various angling books and anthologies. An attempt fuse literature with natural science into a page turning yarn, it’s an interesting read, translated from Svend Fleuron’s original Danish. By turns it’s lyrical and well observed, the next minute so over the top it borders on camp. Nevertheless, it’s an amusing work that will make you smile if not laugh out loud- a freshwater Jaws from 1921, if you like.
Grim is a suitable title for the book, for starters, given the amount of death, peril and drama involved. Some of the prose is quite delicious; other bits smell a bit like the deadbaits you forgot to put back in the freezer.
“To devour others and avoid being devoured oneself, that is life’s end and aim” – rings the books opening salvo. Sounds a bit like modern America? Personally, I would have gone with:
“Shit the riverbed, it’s a fish eat fish world out there.”
Besides attacking fish, birds and people, Grim the pike goes from one murder scene to another, escaping not only a heron when she’s a tiny jack, but having a brutal ruck with an otter and even an osprey. It turns out you could make it up, as the author clearly has. It’s toothy good fun though.
Stand out moment? Grim’s epic battle with an osprey would be up there. Yes, just to spell it out, our giant pike is attacked by a huge bird of prey, which is then drowned as it realises dinner was way too big to handle and gets stuck in a kind of death grip. In a passage of bathos overload, the author then goes on to describe how: “Grim lived all that winter with the eagle on her back- and felt strangely hampered in her movements“.
Erm, “Strangely hampered“? Our queen of pike had an entire sodding osprey fastened to her! Thankfully, it slowly rots away, although Grim has the claws still lodged in her spine until her dying day. For a year or so, however, the feathery tosser is just stuck there, like a kind of macabre warning against any living thing that fancies its chances against the world’s nastiest, biggest pike. In fact, the zombie-like decomposing remains of the bird continue to appear above the water as Grim hunts, presumably making the locals wish they’d never touched drugs in the first place.
It gets even better too; and while I wouldn’t want to spoil every surprise, Grim’s impressive CV of tabloid-journalist-on-crack level carnage also includes inflicting serious injuries on a newspaper editor. They really don’t write them like that any more. It makes my own collection of stories, Tangles with Pike, seem a bit tame I have to say.
Weirdly, this whole B-movie style plot also connects us to more recent times and this week’s very Angling Times letters page- in which we have an absolute gem of trivia. Apparently, a low budget freshwater Jaws type film called The Pike was actually planned back in 1982 by the British film industry. Joan Collins was lined up to star (and who wouldn’t want to see her eaten by a massive pike?), had the project not gone belly up. Apparently the model pike created for the project was a total cock up and actually broke during a press launch. I know what you’re thinking; it sounds about as plausible as the plot of Grim: The Story of a Pike.
If, by some wild coincidence, a wealthy millionaire with pals in the film industry is reading this, would you please, please, please relaunch the project? I would give my left testicle to be at the premiere. I’m sure lifetime glamour slapper Joan Collins would still be well up for it. A bit like Bob Dylan, for the past thirty years part of me has been convinced she’s dead, but apparently both are still kicking about. Actually, get Bob in on the act too. Perhaps he could play an elderly fisherman, who loses a leg after strumming his guitar with a careless foot dangling in the water?
Back to the archive collection, I have only really paddled the surface here. Besides fiction there is a horde of factual stuff and scientific books on fish. More than you could read in months. And yes, it’s free. These days, this seems par for the course. We all expect free content with scant regard to the huge amount of work that goes into this sort of archive. Hence, I would hope some readers would be decent enough to make a small donation by way of thanks. And no, I have absolutely no connection with the folks who set this collection up – but their generosity deserves some modest recognition.
For those interested in natural history, there are further delights, too. Indeed, the collection takes the viewer back to magical time when the wilderness still held secrets and every creature discovered on the earth had to be painstakingly drawn and recorded by hand.
Compared to today’s Instagram obsessed world, where every muppet on the planet has a camera in their phone, it’s like looking into a magical, lost world. Just take a look through the pages of Joseph Wolf’s Zoological Sketches and you’ll see exactly what I mean (now there’s an appropriate name for an animal nut if ever there was one). Full of incredible illustrations, it can still thrill the imagination almost 150 years after its release- although the number of now endangered and extinct species depicted might break your heart a little.
All in all then, you might have to wade through some pretty dusty stuff to hit the gems, but fascinating free resources like this are one of the true silver linings of the internet age. Happy browsing- and if you hit on any Grim level entertainment, be sure to let me know.
Current quarterlies: Fallon’s Angler 17 & Today’s Flyfisher
Also worth a big fat mention, although yes, you will have to spare the price of a couple of pints for the privilege, the current tide of quality angling titles continues. Fallon’s Angler, among the last bastions of the classic fishing tale, is still going strong at issue 18. There’s a good reason it’s always on standby on my shelf, for those precious moments when the baby finally decides to give in and go to sleep.
Once again, it’s a potent mix of content, with everything from sea angling to trotting on the chalkstream. One of the elements I also like is that each issue has a definite theme, the current issue being “the hand of man”. And on that score there are some thought provoking pieces that examine the whole wild vs cultivated fishing debate and the blurring of lines that occurs on our crowded island. Kevin Parr really goes to town on this, while there’s also a nice piece from Will Millard, along with Chris Yates and an excellent cast of writers.
You can also find my latest piece, on a red letter canal fishing session, along with an obscenely silly detour on cooking coarse fish from The General.
On the subject of quarterlies I should also mention Today’s Flyfisher, a glossy magazine that seems to hit the spot satisfyingly well in an era we’re constantly told of the demise of print. Issue 6 is no exception- and I love the way that it reaches way beyond the traditional limits of fly fishing. Ben Bangham’s piece on chasing catfish on the fly is stirring stuff, for instance, while the other content ranges from Chew Valley to Giant Trevally in the Sechelles. Nothing like a bit of variety!
The title I’ve yet to get my hands on in 2020, however, is Fly Culture. My loss, because from the earlier snippets I’ve read, there’s an encouraging crop of writers emerging, including the younger and more independent contributors we so badly need in angling as a whole.
A Fine Line, by George Barron
Besides the latest crop of book-a-zines, I’ve also been dipping into the new George Barron hardback at regular intervals. After the excellent At the End of the Line, it comes as little surprise that the new book is equally superb. Self-published works can be hit and miss at the best of times, but this is fantastically produced with a refreshing honesty and authenticity.
There’s certainly no substitute for direct experience in fishing, and it’s in the nuggets of wisdom and lively anecdotes that the book really scores. It’s personal, autobiographical and yet also packed with practical knowhow. Nobody ties a loch style fly quite like George, so his notes on materials, fly proportions and other matters also make this a great read for the fly tyer. Talking of the flies, these are beautifully photographed and the list includes some real must try patterns that really pop off the page. It’s fabulous stuff and a lovely book to dip into as the mood takes you. Order it from the author himself at www.georgebarronfishing.com
Other reading this month
Just in case that wasn’t enough to satisfy you this month, a few other bits are also worth a mention. The Angling Times gets a revamp this week. Not a complete reinvention, but there’s more watercraft, nostalgic and flat out entertaining content in the mix, which is always welcome. The purists sometimes sniff at how to material, meanwhile, but bloody hell has AT improved my match fishing the past two seasons. As usual, you’ll find me on the back page, featuring a slice of zander fishing with new Angling Trust man Phil Dunne in this case.
For the fly angler, I also recently spent an interesting session at Simpson Valley with former England international Gary Pearson (below), for the Turrall flies blog. On a tough, hail strewn day I should confess that I would very likely have blanked without keeping an eye on his expert approach. Give it a read here– I guarantee it will help you save a dry net on your next tricky small stillwater trip!
Finally, do keep an eye with the Angling Trust “Lines on the Water” blog. There’s always a positive mix of news and angling tales on this, with some truly uplifting projects going on around the country. Who doesn’t like a bit of good news in these dark times, I ask you? I’ll also be covering a perch and pike fishing trip with team mates John Cheyne (below) and Alex Clegg in the next few days. Happy reading and tight lines for now.