The first thought to strike one—and it turns out to be monstrously unfair—is: Hey, this must be where all those English soccer hooligans go when there's no game, no storefronts to smash, no foreign fans to beat up.
It's 7 a.m. in Scunthorpe, a large town a few miles south of the vast shipyards of Hull on England's North Sea coast. Milling about in the bright sunlight on the grounds of Quibell Park, a pretty little stadium, is a crowd maybe 2,000 strong. If one looks hard, one can pick out a few men in their 50s wearing blazers and carrying clipboards, but the great majority is younger and affects studded leather belts, lank hair worn long and meticulously filthy jeans. They appear to be the rabble one might run into—and maybe away from—at Wembly or Indy or on the infield at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, the kind that give the distinct impression they're looking for something to molest, stab or burn down.
But what these lads have very seriously on their minds is going fishing. At least that's what the 960 of them who constitute the 80 teams of a dozen anglers each (the other 1,000 or so chaps are spectators) are concentrating on as they prepare to compete for the 1981 National Championship of England, a title that in one form or another has been awarded annually, except in wartime, since 1903.
To an American angler, the style in which these Englishmen will fish, the equipment and baits they will use, in fact almost every aspect of the day's fishing, would be as alien as cricket would be to a Little Leaguer. Yet cricket, a sport molded by the English upper classes, draws in some ways an inapt analogy, because match angling, as this sort of fishing is called, is strictly working class. It was originated by the men who toiled in the ironworks of the Industrial Revolution, who flooded in from the countryside to labor in the dark Satanic mills of Manchester and Sheffield and to live packed into grim terraces of tiny houses.
With the advent of the railroad in the mid-19th century, such laborers found a degree of liberation. On weekends they could buy cheap excursion tickets back to the countryside and fish. The pellucid streams of the North and the West Country, where the laborers' ancestors might have cast, were now reserved for their "betters," because in those streams swam the game fish, the salmon and trout. But relatively close to the great industrial cities, fishing of a kind was available. There, in the sluggish, already polluted rivers of the middle of England, were what the gentry contemptuously labeled "coarse" fish—small, slimy species, for the most part inedible.
So match angling was born. If the fish were nothing to write home about, why not make a competition of it, have a bit of a gamble? Skittles alfresco, as it were. The anglers would divvy up a riverbank into short sections, called beats, marked by numbered stakes, and then draw lots to decide who fished where.
At first it was a rough-and-ready pastime. In 1953 J.W. Martin, a noted angler, wrote sniffily of a competition held in 1918, "This particular match had only about fifty contestants but they must have been selected from the very scum of the Sheffield dregs...the very lowest of the low grinders, men whose every word was an oath; men who exchanged compliments so painful and free that I should have thought would have blistered the tongues that uttered them. Those men consumed more beer and tobacco than was good for them, and in short conducted themselves in such a manner that any respectable angler who was looking on felt ashamed.... Every now and then one of the competitors would yell at the top of his voice to another fifty yards away to inquire in language more forcible than polite if he had 'copped owt yet' and that one would reply in still more forcible terms, 'Ave I....' "
Match angling has come a long way since, spreading right through Europe, including the Eastern bloc countries, but the sport is still resolutely working-class in England as elsewhere. Archie Bunker would definitely be into the sport, though a little past his prime now. British environmentalists have been ecstatic since the Atlantic salmon started to make a comeback in rivers like the Thames about six years ago, but matchmen, as these fishermen call themselves, have been conspicuously unmoved over the news.
Nothing, short of a groundwater sump, could be less like a salmon river than the body of water where the 1981 National Championship match was to be fished: a 10-mile-long canalized section of the Ancholme, a narrow, almost featureless waterway which is, therefore, ideal for match angling, the aim of the sport being to give every competitor an equal chance to catch fish.
But the Ancholme has a drawback. Roving in it are bream, some of them grotesquely large by matchmen's standards, three-, even four-pounders. They aren't there in great numbers, but a few anglers are undoubtedly going to draw positions where they will catch one or two, thereby turning the whole damn thing into a lottery. It seemed that luck, not skill, would prevail this day.