For a supposedly fairly tranquil pursuit, it is surprising just how often fishing appears as a backdrop to crime novels: Cyril Hare’s Death is no Sportsman; Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy; Colin Willock’s Death at the Strike; Victor Gunn’s Nice Day for a Murder; Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star. Between them they cover the whole gamut of fly, coarse, big game, sport and commercial fishing. Perhaps there is an association of ideas? After all, fishing is one of that triumvirate of activities––hunting, fishing and shooting––all of which have as their ultimate successful conclusion a death.
Other than occasionally dangling an optimistic rod into normally fairly unproductive waters, I have never really ‘gone fishing’ in the conventional sense of the phrase. However, from the relative comfort of the pages of crime fiction, I feel as though I have spent countless hours, gaiter-deep in a fast-flowing trout stream, waiting in happy anticipation for a fish to rise.
I realise why my imaginative preference runs to fly fishing as opposed to other variations of the sport; it is because fly fishing is the sport of preference of the Golden Age, coinciding with the period of crime fiction that most matches my sensibilities.
A lesser-known novel from that time is Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, first published in 1940. Rutland was the pseudonym of Olive Shimwell who, in a short career, wrote three excellent mystery novels: Knock, Murderer, Knock!––a title, which perhaps includes the greatest amount of punctuation per word count, and which vies with Westward Ho! as one of the few titles to end with an exclamation mark––Bleeding Hooks, and Blue Murder.
More than any other book, it is Bleeding Hooks, which has given me my literary entrée into the world of fly fishing. Little of it is tranquil. Far from my preconceptions of a chiefly sedentary sport, the fly fisherman is forever fidgeting around; always on the move; continually watching––the water; the weather; the mythical rise––often discomforted.
“Using his rod as a two-handed salmon rod and sweeping his line in a wide circle over his head for each cast was the tiring order for the next half-hour, at the end of which time an impish puff of wind blew the wet flies into his face.”
A close reading of Bleeding Hooks has taught me the best conditions for fly fishing; how to tie superior flies; a psychology of both prey and predator. However, ultimately, whether I am sitting beside the edge of a trout lake, floating out in a small punt, or sitting in the warm lounge of a fishing hotel, I still find myself preferring to hold a paperback book in my hand rather than a fishing rod.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow is no sportsman.