As I started this blog about hook-and-float fishing, I suddenly felt like an old man. Who even uses this outdated angling technology anymore? Whenever you hear the word “fishing”, you get images of bass fishing and their ultra-powered boats, gentlemen in tweeds casting their flies for Scottish salmon, girls in bikinis holding bright-colored tropical fish on charter boats. Hook-and-float is represented by an occasional drawing of a boy in an old hat, holding a crooked home-made rod, a thing in the past; and yet, I was once this boy.
My first rod was a clumsy three-piece bamboo thing. It didn’t have a reel; the line was tied directly to the end of the rod. In transport position it would be wrapped on the holder made of pieces of bent wire, that I duct-taped to the front piece, with a small pillow to stick the hooks to. But I caught quite a few fish on the really old-fashioned poles of willow. I would get into the densest middle of the bushes, where the branches shot out to reach for the sun, and some were almost perfectly straight. Cutting it down with a pocket knife was easier said than done, but once you’ve cleaned the leaves, it often bent and swung better than the store-bought piece.
My grandpa, who was my first fishing mentor, invariably had the same rig for his hook-and-float rods. He would tie a relatively big hook directly to the main line, without a leader, and place a weight a bit above it, so “the big hook” would lie on the bottom. Being an avid shotgunner, he never had a shortage of lead pellets for sinkers. Then he would tie a smaller hook on a finer leader above the sinker, so that it would float above the bottom, as he explained. He would always try to bait those hooks with different bait, to see what works.
The worm, of course, was the king of the bait. The heap of manure that one of the neighbors bought for fertilizer was an Eldorado, promising those awesome red and lean “manure worms”. Those bastards were tough as nails, quick as an old West gunslinger, and escape artists to rival Houdini, but they held well on the hook and the fish seemed to prefer them to any other kind. If you couldn’t find those, you could always count on the old, dumb, slow rainworms that you dug for in grandma’s garden. Or you could simply turn a stone lying reasonably wet ground, and here they would be, wagging their tails lethargically on you.
Worms were few and far between on the sandy banks of the big river where we used to spend our summers, and in desperation the anglers would turn to disgusting things: we’d take a fish or a bit of leftover food, let it lie in the sunshine until we saw them covered with flies, then bury it in the sand. As you exhumated the delicacy a few days after, it would be swarming with larvae, a bait great in every respect except the way of procuring it.
The bait of last resort was always around – the bread. You’d wet it with your own saliva, roll it in a small ball, and bait your hook. Needless to say, bread doesn’t hold on the hook very well, and you’d have to be very careful with your cast. Casting a hook-and-float rod is not as easy as it sounds anyway. A sure sign of a beginner is an over-the-head cast – a reliable way to get your hook immersed in a sensitive part of your own body or some other innocent object. But even if executed perfectly, the force of the collision with the water is usually great enough to disengage your bait from your hook, resulting in some happy fish and one puzzled angler.
Those who know how to resort to the pendulum cast, swinging the rod gently so that the bait, hook and sinker go gently there and back again, and then lowering them into the desired spot. Fishing on a new-to-you spot, you would have to do this often, because it would be the only way to determine the depth and the layout of the bottom. You raise the float up, cast, and if it stays horizontally on the water, it means the sinker is lying on the bottom and does not pull it down. You move the float lower and lower, until the sinker can’t touch the bottom and the float rises its jolly head. In these high-tech days, when you can see it on the screen of your fish finder, it sounds slow and stupid, but nothing teaches you better how to “read the river”.
There were a lot of skills I learned fishing with hook-and-float. Working with the knife, and sharpening the tool (those who tried to cut a willow pole know what I’m talking about). Making things such as traditional floats out of chicken feathers, wine corks, and sticks. The art of tying knots – at least three ones, one for the hook, one for the leader, and one more for securing the float to the line, for the moments when you were out of rubber bands. And, of course, the basic skills of catching the fish.
You can catch any kind of fish on a hook-and-float rig, but in most cases it’s something that is not as impressive as a tuna. Perch, crappie, bream – things like that, from finger to hand in size. Yet, small doesn’t mean insignificant. Any teacher will tell you, the way to learn anything is to do a lot of easy tasks at first, and then work your way up, decreasing the number but increasing the complexity. And the grandfather and the grandson, who were tasked to guard the camp during a backcountry fishing trip, would as often as not catch more fish with their humble hook-and-float rods than the “serious” anglers who went out, equipped with the latest fishing technology, to hunt for big fish.
You never value what you have, and as I cast my line into that old lake, I thought that hook-and-float fishing was boring. I dreamt about a spinning rod with a big modern reel, and chasing bigger, predatory fish. It was only later that I learned to appreciate the meditating nature of watching the float. It is only boring when you are not able to get rid of unrelated, irrelevant thoughts. If you succeed in proper concentration, however, you may reach the level of enlightenment any Zen guru would be proud of.
The float becomes your medium that shows you, as clear as on the TV screen, what happens down there, in the mystical and mysterious waters. How a small, tiny minnow nibbles on the bait, so that you may have to renew it shortly. How it goes away, spooked by a bigger though harmless competitor. How the crucian carp – you know it from the way how the float rises and flips to the side – probes your bait, and you know already that as soon as the float begins to move over to the side, you will have to set the hook in quickly, and feel the thrill of the struggling fish on your line!