Caught by the River

Tickling Fish

15th July 2017

On this, the first anniversary of the death of the venerable Peregrine Eliot, we wanted to share his contribution to our first book, A Collection of Words on Water, published back in 2009. We’ll be raising a glass to the good man’s legacy in just under two weeks’ time, when we get on down at Port Eliot Festival. See you by the Tiddy.

Tickling Fish, by Lord Peregrine St Germans:

As a boy, I wormed for the abundant brownies in the Tiddy, the local river and part of the Tamar Estuary system. To call the Tiddy a river is rather extravagant as for the most part it is hardly ten feet wide and not quite three feet deep. Yet passing through it, I could see the migrating sea trout and salmon of up to six pounds. I was told they could not be caught on rod and line, yet everyone knew they were there because a 16-pounder had been caught in the wheel at the sawmill.

Years later an enthusiastic fisherman friend came to stay on his way to fish the Tamar. I told him about the fine fish in the Tiddy, three fields away, but that they were uncatch- able. He ignored me, and set out to try his hand with fly and spinner. After an hour, utterly exasperated, and to my sheer amazement, he took off most of his clothes and jumped in the water. Fifteen minutes later he had tickled three lovely sea trout onto the bank – one of them at almost four pounds. He was reluctant to explain to me exactly how he did it. As much as he was prepared to say on the matter was. “Just get in the water and feel about and catch ’em by the tail.”

I was determined to emulate his success. After many fruitless attempts I began to get the hang of it and, though I say it myself, I eventually became an accomplished tickler.

There was a time a decade or two ago when driving about the English countryside that I would regularly stop at small rivers, one of them a famed chalk stream and try my luck, more often than not successfully. My best day with a friend was 23 sea trout averaging 1.5 lbs whilst the largest fish I ever got to grips with was a 12 lb salmon – it took two of us to get it onto the bank.

I am happy to share the secrets of my technique which combines stealth, dexterity, and brute bloody force. Contrary to the orthodoxy of tickling, I work downstream kicking up the riverbed as I go. By doing so I benefit from working in muddied waters. As I move I also splash about and slap the water. This panics the fish into darting for the imagined safety of the banks. It is then a matter of very, very cautiously feeling about under the lip of the bank amongst the roots and reeds. Some of these recesses can be a foot or two deep in which case, depending on your level of commitment, you have to get down on hands and knees, take a deep breath and ease your- self into the crevice. Sometimes a fish can be found and tickled on the margins of the reed beds that swirl about midstream.

However warily one approaches a fish on first contact with it, it will frequently flit away but, should it not, the tickling process can begin. Slowly. Very slowly, as if you are caressing a lover, move your fingers along its flank and underside. Keep in mind the original meaning of the word tickle, which was not so much to make laugh, as to delight, or thrill.

Firstly you have to determine which way the fish is lying and exactly where its head is. Everything depends on finding the head and the gills. You must constantly and very lightly keep stroking it. Astonishingly, unless you make a clumsy movement, the fish will become quite docile. If the tail is the only part of it that can be reached it is quite possible to hold it and pull it quietly back towards you. On a number of occa- sions, unable to reach the head of the fish with my hands, I have reached in with leg and foot and slowly manoeuvred it back to within arms-reach to get a hand on it.

Having stroked and caressed the fish into a trance-like state, the next step is the kill. The surest way to hold onto a fish is to get your forefinger and thumb into its gills. This sounds impossible, but, as you are feeling around its head, you will detect that the gills are constantly opening and closing a little. Just sufficient so that when you make for the strike, you can drive your finger and thumb under the gills and into the opening and the furthest recesses of its gills. Ideally your finger and thumb should end up locked together from opposite sides. Your other hand should be round its tail as you pull the creature towards you in a lethal hug. When you go for the grab, it is no good imagining you are merely going to catch it, you must really want to KILL it. Using all the force you can muster, as if your children’s life depends on the outcome –
KILL it. At this moment you are doing something brutishly atavistic: killing with your bare hands. Not with a spear, club or gun nor a hook, net or dynamite, just with your bare hands. If you can’t face doing this, don’t try tickling it because if you miss, the fish will get away in a horribly damaged state.

There are caveats to consider when you go to a tickling. Firstly it is illegal and not all the creatures in the river are as benign as a fish. Several have teeth some even have fangs coupled with vicious reactions if cornered. There are rats and mink to contend with. These live at the back of the banks and, if you put your hand in their domain, you’ll get bitten and God help you if it’s a mink. There is another creature you’ll encounter that feels filthier than anything you have felt before and has teeth – backward facing teeth – namely a live eel. Apart from its fascinating life cycle, I can find nothing about eels that endears me to them.

So the next time any of you are seeing rises all around you, and been hitched several times on the same snag with only the mosquitoes biting, jump in the water and try a little tickling. When you get back to the lodge or the pub with a basket full of fish and tell them how you got them, they will just think it’s another fisherman’s tale.


A Collection of Words on Water is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00. It features contributions from the likes of Irvine Welsh, Jarvis Cocker, Edwyn Collins & Grace Maxwell.

See our full Port Eliot stage lineup here.