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How to catch a pike with a Pot Noodle

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A German diagram of a pike-perch
A German diagram of a pike-perch Credit: Historical Picture Archive 

British books ruminating over the pleasures of fishing tend to be about those with flies attached to their rods. Think of Sir Edward Grey, former foreign secretary and the epitome of Edwardian gentility, whose Fly Fishing (1899) describes the pursuit of brown trout along a Hampshire chalk stream. Or the poetry of Ted Hughes (bar the occasional pike). As the author Jack Hargreaves noted of 20th-century fishing literature: “Salmon and trout were raised to pristine peerage and the rest were called by the new name of ‘coarse fish’”.

In The Old Man and the Sand Eel, Will Millard tips this tradition over like a bucket of maggots on a riverbank. A proud coarse fisherman, like his grandfather before him, Millard’s prey lurks in the murkiest of waters. Instead of artfully woven flies, he gleefully loads his hook with rotting bream heads so foul they leave an oily slick across the water.

To tempt a pike, he is advised by the fishermen in the old docks of his native Cardiff to use a lure shaped like a rat, because the fish have been seen battling it out with rodents. On another occasion, he “spent an entire afternoon fishing with a Pot Noodle on a whim”.

The book, Millard’s first, is an attempt to recapture the innocence of his youth, when he fished with his grandfather on the Cambridgeshire fens, by exploring lost waterways across Britain. His bible is a childhood copy of John Wilson’s Fishing Encyclopedia; his ambition is to seek out the largest of the creatures lurking in them.

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire Credit: Martin Pope 

His pursuit of these record-breaking fish is inspired by loss, both of his grandfather, and of a potentially record-breaking greater sand eel, which he momentarily hooked on the Dorset coast but let slip through his grasp. And it transpires that he is dealing with a third loss, too; the loss of his own youth, which slipped away without leaving him quite sure what sort of adult he was supposed to become.

Bill Bryson is a clear inspiration, and at his best Millard does a nice Bryson-esque turn in self-deprecation. He recalls being made to play cricket as a boy, despite being far more content scouring the fields for bait worms at dusk: “I couldn’t even catch a cricket ball, let alone throw it. They were rock-hard and frightening, much like the teachers and older kids who pushed past me in the corridor, and, as such, I tried to avoid them, all of them, at any cost.”

The downright dodgy waterways that Millard fishes means he encounters numerous weird and wonderful characters. Negotiating with a drunk Pole who tries to fight him for a perch Millard has fished out of the canal at King’s Cross is an early highlight. On occasion, though, the jokes can jar; either over-written, or veering towards the blokeish. A hot summer’s day “hovers somewhere between a damp gym sock and an overripe banana”. His analogies lapse into confusion: “as sure as King Canute knew he could not really turn the tides, I became convinced the pike were coming on to feed.”

Will Millard fishing the River Taff in Cardiff Credit: JAY WILLIAMS 

But Millard writes openly, and at times with a painful honesty. Few activities are as ripe for prolonged bouts of self-examination as coarse fishing. And over sedentary hours spent on the banks of various waterways, he leads us through the darkest times of his life, back to an unresolved childhood obsession with proving himself.

Now a BBC travel presenter, much of his 20s was spent tracing ancient tribal trade routes in Papua New Guinea before he embarked on the first solo descent of the Mano/Morro river which runs between Liberia and Sierra Leone. He describes contracting malaria and hiding in terror from poachers: “plumbing the pits of a very real, very visceral fear of death but I couldn’t seem to escape my hard-wired decision to push even further”.

The moment of epiphany when Millard realises the folly of his obsessions comes one evening on a stretch of a canal next to an M1 truck stop where he has abandoned his long-suffering girlfriend in an insalubrious hotel for the evening to try to catch a record-breaking eel. “I don’t need to be like this anymore,” he resolves, winding up his reel.

Even so, this is largely a book about male relationships, as Millard admits, and his memories of his grandfather and his relationship with his father are beautifully told. The former is a barrel-bellied fountain of fenland knowledge; the latter a “magical figure” who would hatch moths and butterflies in glasshouses and once kept a brook lamprey retrieved from a local eel catcher in a tank to the delight of his young children.

By different means, the two men poured an appreciation of nature into the young Millard. Towards the end of the book he comes to understand the tension between the different generations of his family and his own place within it.

And the fish? They remain as elusive as ever.

Joe Shute is author of A Shadow Above (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Call 0844 871 1514 to order 
The Old Man and the Sand Eel from the Telegraph for £12.99 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk