Sir Ian Botham, cricketer, fundraiser, and, when he has spare time, fisherman, talks to Owen Amos about his passion, why it isn’t cruel, and why parents could do worse than give their children a rod and some bait.
CATCHING fish, according to fishinghurts.com, is “cruel and unnecessary – whether they are killed on the spot or thrown back into the water, injured and exhausted”.
On nofishing.net, they agree. “Imagine if you ran a barbed hook through your hand,” they suggest, temptingly. “Sure, you would survive the experience – but you certainly would prefer not to have it.”
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Here’s hoping the authors of either website don’t ever face an over from Sir Ian Botham. He would wind back to his 1981, 90mph, chest out, fist-pumping pomp.
“They should get a life,” says Sir Ian. “Anti this, anti that. Most of them haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. For them, ignorance is bliss. I treat them with the contempt they deserve. Get your facts right.”
And he hasn’t finished yet.
“If it wasn’t for us paying licences, looking after the river bank, there wouldn’t be rivers to fish in. It’s a free world and people are entitled to their opinion – but they need to get their facts right.”
It’s like someone leaping to the defence of a slighted family member, which sums up Sir Ian’s relationship with fishing. Since he was a teenager, he’s been hooked. “If I had the choice of giving up any of my hobbies, fishing would be the last to go,” he says. “Definitely.”
He started as a young lad on the River Yeo near Ilchester in Somerset. “A few roach and dace,” he says. “But I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” After cricket took over, he was reintroduced, aged 19, in Callender, Scotland, by his future wife’s parents.
“It just took me back,” he says. “I used to do a bit and I was in a situation where I had more time, I could understand it more. By the end of the first day, I was hooked. My passion grew, and has grown considerably since then.”
Then Sir Ian started fly fishing, and hasn’t stopped since. It is, he thinks, the calming effect of the running water – a sight and soundtrack far removed from a singing, swaying cricket ground. “I think it’s one of the most therapeutic things ever devised by and for man – and woman,” he says.
After all, when you’ve played 102 Tests for England, scored 5,200 runs, taken 383 wickets, and raised more than £10m for leukaemia research – not to mention the knighthood and job commentating on England across the world – it’s nice to have time to yourself.
“The fish is a bonus,” says Sir Ian, who returns all his catch, bar “three or four salmon”
a year. “I go out on the river to have a bit of peace and quiet, time to myself. In a 100-yard pool, you think you have gone up it in 20 minutes.
You look at your watch and it’s been three hours. It’s nice to have a moment on your own.”
In fact, his sole fishing companion is often Pinot, his Jack Russell. “If I go fishing, he goes fishing. He’s a great companion – although sometimes I think he’s only interested in the packed lunch.” His wife Kath, he says, is a “fishing widow” but comes occasionally. Liam, his son, takes his sons when he can.
His job means he has fished across the world.
If a country has Test status, it will also have water fished by Sir Ian. He’s caught salmon in New Zealand, marlin in Australia, trout in South Africa, bass in Zimbabwe and bonefish in the West Indies.
He wants to fish in Mongolia for taimen (a giant trout) and Murmansk, Russia, for salmon. But, until Mongolia or Russia gain Test status – which may be some time – New Zealand is his favourite. “That is stunning – you can be the only person for 10sq miles,” he says. “Terrific waters. You can be fishing where people haven’t been for three months.”
In England, Sir Ian – who lives in Ravensworth, near Richmond – fishes the Tyne at Bywell on the Dickinson Estate, just west of Prudhoe. That, too, is evidence of rivers’ revival.
Twenty-five years ago, he says, it was “seriously polluted”. Now it’s the best salmon fishery in England. “Even Chris Tarrant caught one there,” he says. “It’s a great river, not like it was 25 years ago. That’s another one for the antis.”
Sir Ian is just back from India, where he commentated on England’s tour. He had his eye on mahseer, which can reach 70lb. His former cricket colleagues, and current commentating colleagues, fish too. “Allan Lamb, Mike Atherton, David Lloyd, Paul Allott,” he says. “A lot of boys from my era are keen fishers.”
Sir Ian’s new fishing book, Ian Botham on Fishing, is dedicated to his grandchildren. He is passionate about catching the tiddlers early.
“So many parents are content to bring up a generation of couch potatoes, who need to be surgically removed from their consoles before you can even have a conversation with them when there is everything to play for out there,”
he says. “Take a young lad or lass and get them stuck into a big carp, or a 5lb trout, and you give them a window into a world that many of them will never have suspected existed – a sport full of the most fantastic moments.”
So, anti-fishing brigade: consider yourself told.
■ Ian Botham on Fishing (Weidenfield & Nicolson, £18.99)