Caroline Bankes discovers why more and more women are taking up angling
It is late, you are tired and your husband rings with news that "he's bringing a few friends home for supper". Most of us would put down the phone, mutter expletives and brave the freezer's permafrost.
Not Gilly Bate. She grabbed a rod, rigged it up, went down to the family lake and nailed a couple of trout, although she had never caught a fish before. She was hooked on the sport from that moment.
Now, she regularly battles with Scottish salmon, catches bonefish in Florida, the finny Ferraris of the
oceans, and has recently fought and won a duel with a 65 lb spinner shark. We look at her with unashamed admiration as we don sunglasses and hats for a women's fly-fishing course run by the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA).
Bate is the course organiser and a leader in the army of women now abandoning the role of bankside picnic support team and storming the male bastion of fishing. It is an army whose ranks are swelling daily. At the Arundell Arms in Lifton, Devon, the proprietor, Anne Voss-Bark, says women now outnumber the men on some of their courses.
"They can fish just as well as the men, sometimes better," says the hotel's chief instructor, David Pilkington.
"It has a lot to do with the more deadly, focused attitude of the female. A man will put a fly over a fish a few times, perhaps changing the fly once. If the fish still won't take, he will shrug his shoulders and move on to find one that will. But a woman will dig her heels in and try every fly until she outwits that fish."
The surge in the ranks of female anglers is helped by the rising number of female instructors. Earlier this year, Ann Champion and Sue Macniven became the first women in Britain to pass the AAPGAI (Association of Advanced Professional Game Angling Instructors) exams.
Champion chaired the inaugural conference in Nottingham in March on "How do we get more women and girls into angling" and is confident that more women will attend courses, "if we have more female instructors".
One of the instructors on our women's day is Candy Bright. She decided to take the Level One instructors' course in game angling so that she could see more of her husband, Chris, who is already qualified. "There aren't many sports that you can do together and where you are an equal," she says.
A medical secretary on weekdays, she heads to the beautiful West Country rivers at weekends, a world away from the popular fishing image of men chopping maggots under green umbrellas by canal banks.
A report by the Environment Agency, "Public Attitudes to Angling, 2005", says there are 3.5 million freshwater anglers in England and Wales and another 4.4 million who would like to take up the sport. Many, like me, have fishermen in the family and want to enjoy the sport together.
Four years ago, the S&TA struggled to get six women on today's women's course at Meon Springs in Hampshire. Now, it has 20 attending and a quick show of hands reveals that more than half of us, including me, have never fished before.
Our day starts with a pep talk on safety, different fly patterns and the etiquette of fishing from Mark Eade, Bright's co-instructor. "Remember, most salmon records in this country are held by women," he says. "Men claim it's due to the female pheromones giving women an unfair advantage, but it isn't."
The real reason, he reveals, is the male ego. Get men together and they can't resist casting the longest line possible, whereas women understand a fish is just as likely to be lying under the bank at your feet rather than on the opposite shore.
"And women listen to what you say and do it, while men always think they know best," says Eade.
Physically, there is no barrier to the sport. "Successful casting is about timing, not strength," says Eade.
Holding the rod in one hand, we are asked to imagine it travelling slowly up the side of a house, then quickly up the roof and stopping briefly in the mobile-phone position.
"Remember, it's the rod that does the work," says Bate, as she sets off to help Janette Hollingbery net the first fish of the day. The wife of the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Winchester, Hollingbery has come with her two pre-teen daughters, Brooke and Jessica, who subsequently reel in a 10 lb monster. Now it is time for the novices to follow her lead.
Recently stocked fish lack guile, which attracts novices, while experienced anglers graduate to stalking specimens grown heavy on cunning. These brutes can grow to 18 lb, says Sam Seale, the fishery's bailiff.
But, as complete beginners, we definitely fall into the "wham, bam, thank you, Sam" category and we head instantly for the easier fish, clearly visible finning their way through the underwater jungle.
On the end of my line is a Damsel Nymph fly, the real version of which we had been shown earlier, swimming widths in a washing-up bowl. Twenty feet out, a trout is snouting its way towards me.
Dropping the fly a yard in front of it, I twitch the line to imitate the damsel's swimming motion and - bang! - there is a fish on the end, the jolt as sharp and unexpected as brushing an electric fence.
Screaming "I've got one!", with all the control of a girl who has grabbed the lead singer of a boy band, I try to remember the fisherman's mantra: keep the rod up, let the fish run, keep the line tight. Finally, a silver flank flashes close enough for my helper to slide the net under it and haul out my prize. The whole process is over in minutes, but the satisfaction lasts longer than The Archers omnibus.
With real regret, I drag myself away from the lake, telephone my husband and tell him I am bringing home supper.
"Well done," he says. And I think he means it. Or do I detect sadness at the realisation his boys-only fishing days are now a thing of the past?