The Char Fishery of Lake Windermere
Some fisheries are sentenced to obscurity while others live their days in the spotlight of publicity, but few anglers can have been so thoroughly forgotten by history as the char men of Windermere. The extraordinary thing is that char fishing on the lake is a tradition at least a hundred and fifty years old and it still goes on, albeit on a vastly reduced scale compared to a generation ago, yet few people, other than the char men themselves, know anything about it and the history books maintain a conspiracy of silence about the subject. A page here, a paragraph there, is all you will find about one of the most complicated and interesting fisheries anywhere in the world and even then you will have to hunt down every word.
The irony is that the char fishery isn’t a particular secret - allowing for the difficulty of getting down to the shoreline, anyone with a pair of decent binoculars can see the boats on the lake and if you are on the water yourself the char boats are incredibly distinctive, thanks to the two poles arcing gracefully away from the stern. There really isn’t anything like them to be seen anywhere else in the UK and how this sight fails to capture the imagination of everyone who sees it is a total mystery to me; amid the rush of the water-skiers and the roar of the powerboats, the char men plod steadily across the lake, following lines that were laid down by their father’s father’s and which one can only pray will be passed down to their sons, because if this fishery goes, we have lost something really special. It is under threat.
The water quality in Windermere has been declining steadily over the past decade, with dire consequences for the fish population - when we returned after a twenty year absence it was obvious that while the roach population had exploded, the trout had collapsed, and the surface was covered in an algal scum to which the lake would have been a stranger in the past. There is a noticeable petrochemical sheen in places, which can only be due to the massive increase in powerboats, the reeds have vanished, the spawning beds are in poor shape and the effluent from at least one fish farm is finding its way into the lake. The good news is that there is universal agreement that something needs to be done, the bad news being that any serious debate is, as usual, being stifled by vested interests. Whatever is done - and something is going to have to be done, quickly, unless this beautiful lake is to turn into a cesspit - the one thing that everyone agrees is that it will be fine as long as it doesn’t deprive them of their right to do as they please, so the prospects for a solution don’t look good. None of this would be of any relevance to the char fishing were it not that the bottom has dropped out of the catches; in the past ten years the catch has fallen by two-thirds and with it has the number of fishermen, which is a shame, because if ever there was a model for a sustainable fishery, Windermere’s char are it.
So little has been written about char fishing on Windermere that its origins are shrouded in mystery - some say that the first char fishermen were monks, who used mother-of-pearl lures - but the roots of the modern fishery can be traced back as the late 1840s, when trolling with minnows began. The minnows were set up on fairly standard spinning tackle of the era, the dead baits fixed on hooks trailing from a silver ‘head’ spun by two tabs. There would have been nothing remarkable about this setup had it not been for the incredibly specialised rig which evolved over the next few years, designed to overcome the tricky problem of presenting the minnow at the same depth as the char, which feed at anything up to 90 feet down. Quite clearly, standard trolling gear wasn’t going to keep a dead bait swimming naturally at this kind of depth, so the boatmen took to using a pair of ash poles about fifteen feet long, from which they suspended a line attached to a one and a half to two pound lead weight. The dead baits were attached to droppers trailing off this line and as experience was gained and braided flax lines appeared, the setup became increasingly sophisticated, but we will get onto that in a moment.
It didn’t take long before it dawned on the fishermen that the char weren’t taking the minnows, either because they were getting more knocks than fish, or because the odd minnow fell off and a char took the naked spinner. Eventually some bright spark came up with the smart idea of throwing away the minnows and fishing metal baits instead - the catch rate shot up and the race was on to design the best bait, a competition that isn’t over yet by any stretch of the imagination. Many hours have been and are still are being spent pondering over the design of the ultimate char bait and we’ll get to that in a minute too, but meanwhile, a fishery of a very different nature had sprung up, because Windermere’s char were also being netted. The success of the rod and line fishery hadn’t gone unnoticed and there was a long period when the lake had enough char netters that they had to be licensed and allocated special areas to fish. Their boats were spread out right across the lake and to save the bailiff having to go out and read the name on every one, a custom evolved of specially-shaped bow boards, which were unique to each boat and mirrored by the shape of the roof apex on the owner’s hut, allowing the bailiff to identify his charges by silhouette. Some of the netsmen’s huts have been restored in recent years and the boards are still to be seen, but the boats are pretty much gone. The netting doesn’t seem to have been particularly intensive and the pole fishery continued alongside it.
By the 1920s the ‘modern’ method of char trolling had been perfected, the extraordinary thing about it being that it is pretty much unique to the English lakes and to Windermere in particular, which at its peak supported about 60 regular fishermen, the number being down to 20 now, all of them part-time. A long time ago, a cooperative effort established that the average depth of the top half of the lake was 78½ feet and this was where all the fishermen aimed to keep their ‘plumb’, the heavy lead on the bottom of their line; there are two different shapes of plumb, a cone and a keel-shape. The line was braced out over the side using a bamboo pole, although the old boys stuck with ash, and the boat was rowed at an absolutely constant speed with the aim of keeping the line paying out behind at an angle of 45 degrees or so, which meant that the main line had to be well over 100 feet long if the plumb was to maintain anything like the right depth. Eight or more droppers were hung off the main line using special swivels, with about ten feet between them, the top dropper fishing something like 14 feet below the surface, although depending on the depth of the lake and the whim of the fisherman, it might be fished anything up to ten feet deeper on a correspondingly longer line. The length of each dropper was up to the fisherman, but some used a top dropper up to thirty yards long, the general rule being that each of deeper droppers was a little shorter, so that when the boat was moving and the line was paid out at the right angle, the baits tied to the ends of the droppers fished in a vertical line behind the boat - this detail being important because char swim in shoals and otherwise the higher or lower baits might never be seen by the fish, limiting the catch. One of the niceties of the method was that most fishermen use wire of a relatively low breaking strength to attach the baits, so that if a pike takes, it will break off cleanly.
Which takes us on to the baits, the heart of this arcane art. As I remarked above, it didn’t take long for the fishermen to realise that the char were attracted to the glint and flash of the metal spinner much more than they were to the minnows themselves and in no time at all an arms race had developed as everyone tried to build the perfect lure - all of this being done in conditions of great secrecy which were maintained even during the charitable competitions fished on Windermere. There is no doubt that some fishermen were much more successful than others and being a fairly close-knit community, it didn’t take long for a generic pattern of flat lure about an inch and a half long to emerge, although the variations on this basic pattern are endless, given all of them are hand-made. The char definitely prefer bronze or brass coloured baits and the rate of spin and even small details of the shape seem to make a difference, although experiments with tinning the lures to give them vertical stripes didn’t increase the catch and were abandoned. The lines are coiled in special boxes, many of which have lidded sections where the lures are hung, safe from prying eyes - easier to understand when you bear in mind that the char regularly appeared on local hotel menus and that quite a bit of pocket money was at stake.
A helping hand was an advantage only if the other fisherman knew what he was doing and since in general anyone who knew what they were doing would be out there fishing for themselves, it meant that most fished alone, or with a close relative; it has only been relatively recently that it has been possible to pay for a day out with a char fisherman. Once the boat is on the lake, the line is paid out in stages, way having to be kept on all the while, because if the boat stops, the baits drift downward and run the risk of entangling each other and the main line. When everything is outboard, the fisherman makes for his beat, relying on memorised marks and listening for the jingle of the horse bells mounted on the end of the poles - when there is a take, he pulls on the lazy line and retrieves the main line hand over hand, coiling it very carefully back into its wooden box, all the while keeping the boat moving. One-armed paper-hangers need not apply, because it takes years to get the hang of how to coil and row, at the same time as coping with lively fish and avoiding getting run down by pleasure boats; when you consider that until ten years ago, forty fish a day was a good average and it was possible to catch much more than that, the lines had to be retrieved quite often, so it paid to be good at it.
And then, this indescribably picturesque method of fishing just went phut. Right up to the end of the last century, Windermere had plenty of char and now it doesn’t and it is no longer possible to take it for granted that you will see boats with poles fishing out on the lake. A few determined individuals are keeping char fishing alive, but if it isn’t to die on its feet and we aren’t to lose yet another of the small traditions that stops this country collapsing into a grey blur of mediocrity, something needs to be done about Windermere’s water. Does the char fishery matter? No, not really. Do the char fishermen matter? No, if they go, Windermere will not lose ten thousand jobs and no questions will ever be asked in Parliament because nothing dramatic will happen. I doubt anyone will even notice them go until it is too late and we have lost one of the small things that makes it good to get up in the morning and look out on the lake.