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A Jerk On One End, Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman by Robert Hughes

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Reviewed by Terry Lawton

A Jerk On One End is a slim volume written by Robert Hughes who hails from Australia although he has lived in the USA since 1970 where he has been the Art critic for Time magazine for more than 25 years. The book was published originally in hardback in 1999 and has just been published as a paperback, no doubt in time for the Sydney Olympic Games. Thank God fly fishing is not yet an Olympic sport.

The book is in three sections: Salt Water, Fresh Water and Troubled Water. Although Hughes fished with his family in Australia, there is nothing in the book to help anyone going to that country who might want to fish there. Perhaps this is understandable after the dressing down he got from his father when he caught a trout on a live grasshopper. 'You got that trout with a hopper. You will never do that again. People who use live bait on trout are not fit to fish. They are thugs. They are barbarians. They might as well be using dynamite.' I am sure those who have dapped live daddy longlegs or mayflies on Irish loughs will not see it that way.

He was to make up for it in later years when he caught a fish on a fly of his own tying on 'the near abstract perfection' of Spencers Creek, a tributory of the Snowy River. The fish was a deep-bodied rainbow with flesh of deep pink that he grilled over a fire of snowgum twigs for his lunch. 'I ate every scrap of him. I had never tasted anything as delicious, or as sacremental. Later.... it occurred to me that I had at last done something, in relation to fish, of which my father would have fully approved. But he was dead, and beyond approving anything.'

There is plenty of good atmospheric writing about the trials and tribulations of salt water fly fishing. The mighty marling caught by the likes of Ernest Hemingway. He would not take the opportunity to catch a large bill fish as the battle to bring it to hand to release it would probably kill it. And there are few enough os such specimens left in the seas.

Out on the flats fishing for tarpon, he writes 'Five or six at one o'clock, 100 feet out,' he (his guide) drawls, with the merest whisper of an exclamation mark.'. A fine turn of phrase. He certainly knows how to put Bambi in his place: 'the fawn with no anus'!

The last section, Troubled Water, is something of a diatribe against commercial fishing. And quite justified it is too. Cyanide fishing for reef fish? Yes, apparently. Not only does it kill fish, the fishermen if they get it wrong but most significantly, the practice destroys the coral reefs. He makes a passionate plea for a return to former standards and the need to conserve stocks of sea fish and, most important, their habitats.

As someone who disapproves of home freezing surplus fish, his comments on those anglers who must catch their limit every time they go fishing will make uncomfortable reading. And if those fishery owners who insist on releasing specially fattened fish into their waters and those who want to catch them, start to think about what they are doing and moderate or alter their behaviour, then Robert Hughes will have succeeded in his aim in writing this book.

He ends with a plea for moderation: '... to scale down your tackle, to accept the gratification of medium success with more demanding techniques in place of a big bag... Nobody really respects a meat fisherman, except other meat fishermen... It is better to release a fish than keep it, even when minimum-size rules permit you to keep it.' He claims that Dame Juliana Berners was the first to promote the concept of bag limits and catch and release back in the Middle Ages. Quite a thought.

A Jerk On One End, Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman by Robert Hughes. Published by The Harvill Press at £6.99. Paperback 115 pages. Also available in hardback.

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