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Thursday, October 12, 2017


The Old Man and the Sand Eel

Will Millard 
Penguin Books / 2018
336 Pages
Available Now 

Fishing in simplest terms is an obsession. It is a complicated and often fluid set of skills that depend on season, weather, location, bait, technique and hundreds of other possibilities. Then there is the adrenaline rush of hooking into a fish and the battle that ensues. It is all here in Will Millard's The Old Man and the Sand Eel. Yet, this book is about something more complicated and visionary. It is about what drives and shapes this obsession to fish. And while his adventures hooking fish are exciting to follow, there is more to this book than a guided tour.

The beginning of the book opens with the author catching a record-breaking Sand Eel, one that would put him in the record books, one that would make his mark on fishing in the UK forever. And then it literally slips away. This sense of obsession and finding the next big fish had changed the way he was fishing, changed his mindset to be more than just being there and fishing, but being there only for a big prize, a record fish. After some thought and reflection, Millard moves back to his early roots in fishing and realizes that he shouldn't be looking for the record fish, but the essence of fishing. Using his grandfather's old fishing guide, and the ghosts of his past, he begins a different quest. He begins to search for the unforgotten species and getting back to the root of his passion for fishing.

There is a clear connection in this book between family and fishing. It is this connective linage that resonates through this quest. He connects to his grandfather’s fish encyclopedia and his wisdom to rediscover why fishing is important. He mentioned the influence of the tall tale in fishing and how it related back to his grandfather. He says, "I should clarify that Grandad was no liar; he had definitely caught a big perch, but we were both fishermen after all. Memories blur and sometimes the distance between our palms can widen with time. Grandma left behind an old plastic ice cream tub filled with pictures when she departed, and right there, somewhere in the middle, I found a picture of Grandad with his most magnificent perch." Not only does this connect with the myth and storytelling that comes with time and the “distance between our palms” but it also speaks to the fact that he was an accomplished fisherman. It also resonates with his father who brought home a lamprey and held it in a tank overnight to study it. This magical moment in time is important in the curiosity and development of an emerging angler. "I remember it like it was there for the entirety of my early childhood. For the under-fives, time lengthens and memories compress in unusual ways; that one-night stand with the lamprey made a massive impression." This alien creature sparked his imagination for years to come.

There is another message in this book based on the ecology of a country that has seemingly filled most of its wild spaces. With the permits and processes to fish certain locks and waterways in the United Kingdom, it is clear that some of these locations where Millard finds fish are just beyond the glimpse of the majority of the people. These forgotten waterways and locks, home to a variety of ecosystems and connections are often overgrown, filled with debris, and beyond the idyllic fishing spot that one imagines on a perfect day of fishing. These lost places are fascinating, unexplored areas that seem just as exotic and interesting as the fish that might be under the surface.

Along with some of these lost locations comes the fascinating connections that are made when he comes across homeless people, people in business suits, criminals, and the law. These interactions are a fascinating part of fishing - with the age-old question, “any luck?” always part of the conversation. One striking moment that captured the elegance of this book is when he is fishing in an urban waterway and he pulls up a beautiful fish on the shore. “A man with a suit walks right past me without even acknowledging our presence. Even with the fish out of water the canal’s secrets remain invisible to those incapable of belief.” The suggestion that modern man is so self-absorbed that we can’t imagine this natural beauty or even see it anymore is sad and poignant in the changing world of technology and twenty-four-hour news cycles.

This book is more about family, ecology, and life in relationship to nature than it is a field guide to fishing. Yet, as we read about the hunt for the right conditions, the first cast, and thrill of the hook, it will get you thinking about grabbing your pole and heading out to your favorite spot. This is a well-written, good read for fisherman, naturalists, and anyone who has ever cast their lineout awaiting the first strike.