In the admittedly unlikely event that the question should ever appear in a survey, most Brits (after looking suitably puzzled) would be able to place a tick against ‘Have you ever used a handline?’ It’s almost a seaside holiday right of passage.
Picked out of a box or basket sat outside some harbour-edge shop, and procured at what was almost certainly an exorbitant cost (usually displayed, handwritten, on a piece of brown card), it will have been put to use immediately at the edge of the nearest jetty or quay. Braided orange line will have been lowered from the matching frame, and a baited hook sent in search of some finny excellence, more than likely returning with one small shore crab after another (most of whom will have made the ascent countless times before).
Along with almost any keen angler I have a reasonable collection of fishing rods, a couple costing a scary amount of money. Placed on the edge of a lake, sea or river, I will happily put one to use, but should I set out by canoe in search of a fishy dinner, my weapon of choice will almost invariably be a handline.
My first encounter with this fishing tackle workhorse was as a very small boy. One of my strongest memories is the smell. Far from being wound with some brightly coloured plastic material, the line on this rather ancient (even then) piece of kit was the deepest of dark browns. Despite much use, it was also rough and coarse, and still stiff with the tar that gave it its evocative aroma.
I’ve never seen them for real, but old photographs of the Northumbrian fishing village that produced my Grandfather, show large metal pots – cauldrons would be a better description. In the grainy black and white images, with keel boats and high prowed cobles pulled up on the sand behind, these pots sit on low stone bases along the inland edge of the broad sandy beach, waiting to boil the all important nets and lines, preserving them from saltwater attack. The treatment must have worked well. The line I used was at least thirty or forty years old.
Sadly, as is the way with boys, I wasn’t satisfied. All I wanted at the time was to graduate to my Grandfather’s almost inflexible greenheart boat-rod. With its vast wood and brass reel, the advanced age of at least nine or ten needed to be attained before this angling crane could be deployed safely. Back then, I may have used that handline with one eye always on that short stiff rod, but I’d love to be able to put my hands on that handline today. I can smell it in my imagination even now.
My current version is still made from wood. The line is even braided and brown, but the scent alas is missing. In search of something that looked suitably tarry, I noticed one day that the backing I use for my fly-reels is pretty similar, at least at a distance. As you don’t actually need much, I still had plenty left over, stored on its small white plastic spool.
Putting the handline into action couldn’t be easier. The line is unwound, and something attractive to a fish (we hope) is dropped over the side. Anyone keen to give this a go will probably appreciate a little more detail though, so here it is.
Take a standard handline (unless deeply offended by the aesthetics – or lack of them – that gaudy concoction of orange plastic will do just fine) and tie a generous brass swivel to the end of the line. A good long length (at least 6 feet) of stoutish nylon monofilament (say 10-20lb breaking strain) can then be attached to the free swivel eye.
You could then simply add a suitable spinner to the remaining working end and drop it in. I suggest trying either silver Mepps or copper Abu Toby. I prefer though to also add a largish stainless steel clip (one is shown in an accompanying photo) fastened through the swivel eye tied to the braided line. This can be used to hold a lead weight of suitable size (down to experiment I’m afraid). Attaching the weight here not only pulls the working bits down to the right depth, but also holds the swivel steady to ensure (or at least encourage) a twist free fishing line.
Once afloat, and in deep enough weed-free water, chuck it all over the side – or nearly all. Hold on to that frame!
Now here are the useful bits. To leave your hands free after letting out a good length of line (experimentation again), place the frame under your foot. This leaves hands free to paddle, but should mean that you feel any bite.
And to ensure that the whole lot doesn’t go over the side if you should hook something interesting, clip the line above your foot through a large climbing karabiner, itself attached to a thwart (to those in the know, an old HMS is good). Even if your foot comes off the frame during all the paddling or fish subduing fun, the handline frame can’t make it past the karabiner. This saves fish, money and tempers.
To catch the eye of a hungry fish an easy and gentle paddling speed seems to be about the most effective, although mackerel seem happy to grab at something at whatever pace it shoots by.
All manner of lunch and dinner delicacies can be tempted in this way, and our campfire has seen brown trout, sea trout, grayling and perch from freshwater (all our pike have so far been too small) and from the sea, such delicacies as pollock, plaice, coalfish, mackerel, garfish, sea trout, and cod (we didn’t eat the weaver fish).
Of course there is absolutely no reason why you can’t use feathers instead of the single spinner, especially when hunting mackerel. With a suitable weight, a baited hook can also be lowered easily to the bottom, or suspended under a float, your canoe (or whatever craft you choose) either allowed to drift, or be tied up to a convenient bouy.
Fishing rods are wonderful things of course (fly fishing is hard with a handline, although I have tried), but they are fiddly, delicate and take up a lot of canoe space. Once afloat a handline will do just fine, even if they don’t smell as good as they did.