There I was, in my salad days, standing on the windswept seawall at the Mumbles with a friend and two fishing rods. Whitecaps looked like a great mountain range in motion stretching back to the horizon, spindrift whipping up high enough to reach our faces. My fellow anglers had cast off their lines and were standing shivering in their mackintoshes and galoshes, leaning into the wind, holding on to the railing.
My friend, let’s call him Rob (his name was Rob), had brought me down to the ocean to partake in one of man’s oldest pastimes – recreational angling. Claiming to be nearly international standard, Rob certainly looked the part as he expertly set up the rods with the lines and weights and baits. ‘Now,’ he said, taking the role of sensei, ‘you pinch the line here, release the bale arm and… cast!’ I watched as the weights sang through the air, the line whizzing off the spool. Then the far end of the rod also flew off into the distance as it snapped in half. ‘Bastard!’ cried Rob, as he watched the end of his rod succumb to gravity and plop down into the water.
‘Is that supposed to happen?’ I said.
Hand over hand he pulled in the end of his broken rod from the water and up the wall.
Tutorial over it was my turn. I’d fished in my youth but was far from an expert, and had certainly never caught anything. Nonetheless, I managed to get my line a good fifty feet out and waited. What a fine thing it is, being around men’s men, men out hunting for food, for sustenance; real men. When they hauled their catches from the water they took brutal cudgels from their fishing boxes and beat their prey over the head to put it humanely out of its misery. Real men. I would be a real man too that day.
And it wasn’t long before I had my first bite. I felt like Ahab aboard the Pequod, locked as I was in the eternal struggle of man vs fish. And I was victorious. Squirming out of the water it came, maybe five inches long. I set it down on the seawall and it flubbed around. I sensed the eyes of my fellow anglers on the young buck with his first catch. I would impress them. I grabbed the cudgel. More eyes fell on me; this had become an event. One swift blow, I thought. I’d never killed anything before and didn’t really like the idea of it. I sort of wanted to give the fish back to the ocean but people were watching and the moment had me in its grip. I brought down the cudgel but it kind of slid off the fish’s body, most of the impact finding the concrete. The fish wobbled away from me and I struck again. To those bearing witness it must have seemed not unlike the game Whac-A-Mole as I scrambled around on my knees after my prey, whacking maniacally at it but missing or only landing body blows. At last I grabbed the fish with my left hand and raised my right and I swear, in that moment, our eyes locked, and the fish gave me a quick nod: End me. That final strike did the job. I was breathless by this point and as I looked up I saw all the anglers turned towards me, staring, a visage of shock on all their faces.
I looked to Rob.
‘It was a baby,’ he said, his face ashen.
Apparently they have to be above a certain size before you kill them. The little ones are supposed to be put back. I had just a beaten an infant fish to death in cold blood. I felt awful. I looked at my hands. How could I have done such a thing?
We cast off again and soon enough I had another bite. As I pulled in the line a second little sprat came forth, but I looked at Rob and we exchanged knowing nods. This innocent would be returned to its home. I unhooked the fish, aware of the other fishermen watching me once more, went to the railing and lobbed the fish high into the air, its scales shimmering as they caught a sunburst, and down to the safe waters, a fall of perhaps forty feet. It slapped into the surface and disappeared, only to reappear some seconds later, bobbing on its side. I stared at it for a moment, we all did, me holding back the urge to tell the fish to swim away, you’re free. But it didn’t swim away. For it too was dead. A quick one-eyed glance along the seawall returned open-mouthed fishermen in horror at what they were witnessing.
Rob pointed out some steps that led down to the water’s edge. ‘You’re not supposed to throw them,’ he said.
But he needn’t have said anything. My days of killing were already over. I looked out over the ocean, at the white speck that was the dead fish and I shook my head. It didn’t have to die. I haven’t fished since.