An in-depth look at the influence of Richard Walker on angling.

There probably isn’t an angler out there that hasn’t been influenced by Richard Stuart Walker, one way or another, even though he was born almost exactly a hundred years ago.  For those born anytime between 1940 and 1970 or so, that influence will be especially real and vivid, whatever species you fish for. Like me, you will all have read his books, his articles and have been aware, in awe even, of the twentieth century angling god.

Amongst historians there is the phrase called ‘the stream of time’ that is useful in assessing the impact any of us make, whatever our position in society. Of course, great men tend to be analysed more closely. Let’s take an example, Winston Churchill. Would he be remembered without the Second World War catapulting him to Number 10 and eternal glory as a war leader? In the same way, Walker was no doubt helped in his life of angling glory by the way society was changing around him. Post war technology to pioneer angling in the unique way that he did. Without the advances in monofilament line, reel, rod and hook design it is doubtful if he could have hooked or landed his record carp, for instance. However, even given these leaps that tackle had made, it still took someone like Walker to capitalise on them fully. Like Churchill, Walker was the man of the moment and he, more than any of his contemporaries, seized his opportunity for angling greatness.

Let’s add some other significant factors to this particular thread. By the 1950s, there was more general affluence and more anglers could afford better tackle. Even working men began to see more free time, too, from the 1960s and, of course, travel was revolutionised. Walker made his way to Redmire in September 1952 to catch that record carp in angling companions Pete Thomas’s car. The fact it broke down on the way didn’t stop private transport revolutionising the range that anglers could fish between the 1950s and the 1970s. Walker’s words, Walker’s tackle, more pay, more free time and the wheels to enjoy all this changed our fishing world.

 

WALKER THE ANGLER

Walker was an engineer by education and trade, he studied at Cambridge on the eve of the Second World War and brought a supremely logical mind to fishing. It is completely wrong to think angling mentality was mired in the bunkum of Izaak Walton’s day and the Victorian and Edwardian period had produced great angling writers like John Bickerdyke, Francis Francis and J W Martin, better known as The Trent Otter. Still, much mumbo-jumbo still remained, as Walker saw it, and his fishing was pledged to putting clear thinking into practice, whatever the species, whatever the bait, method or approach. Walker brought science to general coarse fishing, to carp fishing famously and latterly to stillwater trout fishing. He caught a record carp, a near record trout and huge barbel, dace, roach, bream, perch and virtually every species that swam. In pre-Walker days, the capture of a big fish was regarded as something that happened by chance, and perhaps happened once or twice in an angler’s lifetime. Walker proved that luck played very little part in the matter. He showed us that by applying logic, by using the right gear and placing the right bait, in the right place, at the right time could result in big fish for us all. Walker truly heralded in the age of specialist angling and made us all feel we could become specimen hunters ourselves.

Walker, though, was not simply a fish catching machine. He did, as they say, appreciate the roses along the way and the companionship of his own particular, very special gang of fellow fishermen. Yet, he would still say that a day without a result was in some ways a day wasted. Walker was at the bankside to catch fish and, should he fail, the day had to be scrutinised, analysed and put right. With Walker, it wasn’t catch at all cost but it seems that his career came close to that.

I never saw Walker actually fish, though I spoke to many of his companions who did on many occasions. Devastating efficiency was their general verdict. He perhaps wasn’t a great float man (though he pioneered a drift-beater for stillwaters) preferring big baits on the bed for big fish. It was this aspect of Walker’s fishing that inspired kids of my generation. I’d been brought up in Greater Manchester, on the float, on the canals for jam jar fish. Walker’s teaching gave young anglers like me the hope of big fish, fish we could barely dream of. Walker amassed PBs that were colossal for his time. When he turned from coarse to pick up the trout rod in the autumn of his career, he broke records in that arena, too. You have to give the man a 9.5 as an angler.

WALKER THE INNOVATOR

After university, Walker worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment during the Second World War, developing radar but also flying regularly over Germany where he was deafened in one ear by a shell which exploded just outside the aircraft. He went on to manage a company designing lawnmowers so his world was very much rooted in technological development. There was barely a tackle manufacturer of the time that he didn’t advise and his relationship with Hardy was legendary. When I worked for that company for twelve years, I’d have done it for nothing, so proud I was to follow in his hallowed footsteps.

There wasn’t much Walker didn’t influence in the world of tackle design. Floats. Fly lines. Fly patterns. Hooks. Bite alarms notably. Without Walker, would we have ever had Delkims, bivvies and the whole carp scene? Perhaps we would but perhaps later and in a different form. It is for the Mark IV Carp and Avon rods that perhaps he is best remembered. These rods, to Walker’s design, were the greatest of all steps into the modern age. Originally, Walker conceived them and built them in cane but they went on to translate very well into glass.

It wasn’t just tackle where Walker had his innovative impact. He talked to us about the thermocline, the importance of barometric pressure, moon phases, wind strengths and directions and the senses that fish use so successfully as their defence mechanisms. What a think Walker was. What a man.

WALKER THE COMMUNICATOR

Walker wrote his first article in the 1930s for a fee of less than a pound and then went on to write many thousands of illuminating columns throughout his career. He wrote books, too, and for many of us, the big three are ‘Drop Me a Line’ with Maurice Ingham, ‘Stillwater Angling’ and ‘No Need To Lie’.

‘Drop Me a Line’ was great. Maurice Ingham and Walker traded letters, pre-email, of course, and there is a tangible sense of excitement as the two anglers began to apply their original theories, especially to uncrackable big carp waters. The book is full of vibrant writing, humour, generosity and deep, affectionate friendship. It’s a true insight into the start of angling’s specialist era.

‘Stillwater Angling’ was, for most of us, a true bible. Walker was right in predicting the decline of river fishing and saw that stillwaters would become more and more important as the twentieth century progressed. ‘Stillwater Angling’ was a tome, a textbook, a complete guide for a new generation of anglers on a water type that was to a great extent unexplored and unexploited.

Whilst ‘Stillwater Angling’ was to a large degree, though not entirely, a technical treatise, ‘No Need To Lie’ showed the other side of the man. Published in 1964, it highlighted the best of his descriptive writing. The tales in it are wonderful, telling in richly evocative tones the ins and outs of his great, red letter days. It might have been an endless success story but Walker was ever modest, never patronising and always gave the highest of credit to his angling companions.

Walker appeared many times on TV and radio, notably on Desert Island Discs and it’s worth going onto the internet and listening to this in full. He was also an intensely active writer of letters. We corresponded between 1978 and 1983 and it was with the greatest sadness that I realised I had lost some thirty of his letters during a house move a few years back. If he wrote thirty to me, how many countless thousands did he write to all the other anglers begging him for his generous advice and support?

WALKER THE MAN

In angling, there has always been gossip, especially around the celebs of which Walker was one of the first. There is so much to say about him. He was certainly a force of nature. He had strong opinions and he was never backward in expressing them. There were times, in the sphere of his writing, that he could be accused of arrogance but, in the flesh, all his friends spoke of him being charm itself.

He was very much a part of the Joyous Crew that Fred J Taylor described, although, in truth, he was probably first amongst equals. You only have to read ‘No Need To Lie’ or any of Fred J’s works to realise that to fish with Walker was always a warm, life enhancing experience. He was very much into his music and songs often were sung at the end of the day.

My old piking friend Bill Giles of Norwich, talked of a 1960s trip that he, Reg Sandys, Pete Thomas, Fred Buller and Walker had taken to Loch Lomond. They’d camped and met at dinner times for food, wine and talk in the central caravan. Bill had placed a recorder on the table and taped the evenings’ debates. On the 25th December 1988, Bill gave me those tapes, all wrapped up as a Christmas present.

I played the tapes in the car as I drove home and at first found them hard to follow until I realised Dick’s habit of talking in so many different dialects. There were many exciting pieces. Dick always dominated but Fred Buller was a constant foil, holding his ground, countering argument with argument. The tapes show just why Walker was a centre of such a strong, intellectual group of anglers that included men like Taylor, Buller, Thomas, Ingham and Peter Stone. Generosity comes out of the tapes as he talks about helping people learn to trout cast. There is humour as he explains how his old granddad always used to give a taking pike ten minutes by his fob watch before striking. There is a great awareness of the need of conservation in angling and the promotion of new fisheries for the ever-growing number of anglers. He is also constantly controversial. On every issue he provokes debates and flares Buller into constant retaliation.

It’s no wonder that when Walker died, his friends found him impossible to replace. So did angling.

WALKER, VENABLES AND HIS LEGACY

It was my mistake never to meet Walker, though he often offered me a meal, a discussion and a bed for the night. My mistake. I did meet Bernard Venables, though, many times in the great man’s later years. It’s almost like a Ronaldo/Messi debate. Many of us were Walker men, an equal number followed the great god, Venables. It is very well-known now, of course, that Venables did not have a lot of time for Walker. I was lucky, of course, to be able to ask Bernard why and, for him, Walker stripped too much of the magic, the mystery and the soul from our sport. Bernard accused Walker of virtually declaring war on fish, of pursuing them by fair means or foul. Bernard believed that the Walker philosophy had bred a new and alien spirit in angling, an obsession with the self, PBs, big catches and personal glory. For Bernard, angling was about nature, contemplation, nourishing the inner man.

The obvious truth is that Walker and Venables in fact worked in tandem. They were complementary. Superficially, Walker appealed to the mind, whereas Venables pulled at the heart strings. In their different ways, they inspired millions, yes millions of us. ‘Stillwater Angling’ went hand in hand with Crabtree. Together, they showed us how to catch fish, love fish and live for fishing. Between them, they changed the face of fishing for ever. Walker and Venables truly were the Titans of our Time.

John Bailey