IN PRAISE OF THE HANDLINE

Our handline in use in Spain.
Our handline in use.

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.

A modern plastic handline.
A modern plastic handline.

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.

Rewinding after a catch (perch tail just visible). I'm stood on a rock, untangling the line.
Rewinding our handline after a catch (perch tail just visible). I’m stood on a rock, untangling the line.

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.

Mackerel.
Mackerel.

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.

Swivel, clip, weight and line detail
Swivel, clip, weight and line detail

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.

That's lunch sorted, and dinner.
That’s lunch sorted, and dinner.

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.

Come on little fishy.
Come on little fishy.

 

OUR PAL

Our Pal in central Sweden.
Our Pal in central Sweden.

Between the 1950s and their demise in 1979, Canada’s Chestnut Canoe Company made a range of what they called Pleasure canoes, designed to provide the everyday paddler with a general purpose recreational craft. These pretty canoes came in a variety of sizes from 14 to 18 feet in length, with the company seeming to favour short and occasionally slightly puzzling names, such as Doe, Fox, Peach and Winter.

Originally, the 16-foot models were known as the Ajax or Moonlight, but from around 1954, and continuing a theme that included the Playmate (14-foot) and Chum (15-foot), the name was changed, and the Pal was released to the buying public. They liked what they saw. Responsive yet stable, and a convenient size, the Pal soon became very popular with a whole range of sportsmen, holiday trippers and day cruisers. Bill Mason did little to hinder the canoe’s reputation, using it regularly alongside his fabled and undoubtedly better known Prospector.

Mind you, Mason didn’t seem to have read the Chestnut sales catalogue. Ignoring the proposed leisure credentials, he set out to work his red Pal. Filling it with camping gear, cameras, tripods and painting equipment, he took it where few leisure paddlers, and I suspect the Chestnut designers, thought a Pal would go.

And here lies what I see as one of the fascinating quirks of the Pal. While the Pleasure and recreational tags suggest definite limitations for this craft, one of the world’s most eminent canoe campers clearly didn’t see them – and demonstrated this view in numerous films and books. Yes, he often used his Chestnut Prospector when out in the wilds, but Mason evidently enjoyed putting his Pal through its paces too.

So, with this heavyweight endorsement, how did I feel about loading up our Pal, and heading off into the wild?

Almost ready to go.
Almost ready to go.

Well, in brief, still rather tentative. This wasn’t helped by the fact that even our Pal’s builder, Alex Comb, states in print that this is the ideal canoe for ‘family trips or an evening paddle… in a lake or gentle stream.’ Even after I’d written to let him know how well our Pal had performed on its first few camping support forays in Scotland, Alex sounded pleased, but still a little dubious, and couldn’t resist mentioning that one of his Prospectors would undoubtedly suit the role better.

So after nearly a month spent in northern Scandinavia, our visit filled with ‘appropriate’ day trips, and supposedly less suitable wilderness camping expeditions, how has our Pal coped?

Well, pretty brilliantly really.

True, those stretches of river we paddled were rarely very challenging, and most of our time was spent on lakes, but then some of these lakes are truly vast (one even has its own shipping forecast). Many trips were made while hugging the shore as some pretty lively conditions were kicked up by a few days of stiff breeze.

Before setting out for Sweden, and even after our Scottish experiments, one of my concerns was that most of Mason’s Pal supported camping trips seem to have been made solo. On almost every occasion where film or photographs also show Becky, Paul or Joyce on board, it is his Prospector that is doing the load carrying. Would our Pal actually manage Susannah and myself, and all our kit?

A breezy arrival at a new campsite.
A breezy arrival at a new campsite.

For a start, our canoe would be carrying rather more than it had during our initial Pal camping trials in Scotland. I have to admit that one of my first acts on loading up and climbing aboard near Arjeplog was to check that we still had adequate freeboard. With a thumb under the gunwale, I was relieved to find my outstretched hand still left the little fingertip clear of the water. A good eight inches to work with then, and enough to quell at least this concern.

Of course the slight unease that hung around, still gnawing gently at my growing confidence, was just how this canoe, loaded as it was, might fare once the weather deteriorated. We didn’t need long to find out, and as we rounded a low headland, the pine trees shivering in warning on the sandy point.   A strong north-easterly swept down a broad section of the Piteälven, and what had until this moment been small cheery waves, were replaced in and instant by a rapid succession of rumpled bits that looked far less entertaining. Nothing huge of course, or anything that might have been a concern at home in Devon perhaps, but somewhat less reassuring about ten miles short of the Arctic Circle, and quite a distance from any settlement.

A picnic trip in northern Norway (and what a Pal was designed for).
A picnic trip in northern Norway (and what a Pal was probably designed for).

Edging clear of the sheltered water, our Pal dipped her nose into the first trough, lifted calmly to meet and part slice through the oncoming wave, and then carried on to meet each successive upsurge with apparent indifference. Even those nasty bits, where circumstance required a brief nail-biting (if you had time to release a hand that is) beam on turn, saw only a little water shipped over the side. The turn could be made quickly and easily, and I was impressed and pleased (and very relieved) by just the right mix of turn assisting lean and stiff resistance to the inevitable side on wobble. As our confidence grew, and we took on ever more turbulent conditions, our Pal just got on with things. Untroubled would be a good summary.

A perfect island harbour in northern Sweden.
A perfect island harbour in northern Sweden.

Not, I hasten to add, that any of the water we crossed was particularly challenging. Apart from being an unnecessary risk up there – we would far rather sit on the shore for a few hours, watching and waiting while the wind dropped – it’s not what we are looking for. Some people appear to live for those wild occasions, almost seeming to wait on shore on calm days until things should liven to the point where boat and handling skills are really tested. Not us.

Then again, the conditions were still pretty lively at times, when our Pal just inspired confidence. So would I recommend a Pal to anyone planning to head out into the wild with a tent? Well, yes… maybe, but crucially there are a few observations to offer, pertinent to both us and our particular Pal.

First off, and of some significance, is load size. I’m not though talking here about the tent and cooking gear for the moment, just the crew. While kit volumes and weight obviously matter, I’m sure it must help if any prospective Pal campers share one of our characteristics. Like Mason in fact, neither of us tend to trouble the needle on the bathroom scales very much (particularly as we don’t own a set). Susannah is lithe and graceful, while I am just plain scrawny. Put simply, we don’t weigh much. So while a Pal evidently doesn’t have the haulage capacity of a Prospector or an Old Town Voyager, it isn’t challenged that much when we climb in. Without wishing to be too personal, many single paddlers will weigh as much as Susannah and I combined. Mason has shown that the Pal will make a perfectly good solo camping canoe, and when the crew are as light as the two of us, quite possibly a pretty impressive doubles craft too.

A grey departure.
A grey departure.

But then there are a few details of our Stewart River Pal that I suspect are pretty important here as well.   Alex evidently rather likes this model, but it hasn’t stopped him looking for improvements. Recognising that the original had a tendency to be a little wet in poor conditions, he raised the sheer of his Pal by as much as an inch. Initially I thought this addition had just been made to bow and stern, but then I looked again at the lines and decided to break out the tape measure. Chestnut initially gave their Pal a centre depth of 12 inches, raising this after 1968 (including Mason’s Pal I believe) to 12¾. After a quick check I found that our Pal is more like 13¾ inches deep.

That’s a pretty significant variance, and must make quite a difference. No wonder then that I found plenty of freeboard, despite two (admittedly fairly light) paddlers, a far from light tent, a generous wannigan with plenty of food, sleeping bags, self-inflating mattresses and pillows, fishing gear, photographic kit, and a kitchen/cooking collection that even included a cast-iron Le Creuset casserole pot.

So, after all that specification and measurement peppered discussion, what do I think?

Well, that’s nice and easy. For us, in the conditions and environment we enjoy paddling and camping in most, our Stewart River canoe quietly lives up to its name. It might sound a little corny today, but our canoe simply makes a very good wilderness Pal.

A well earned rest.
A well earned rest.

GUOBIRBEALJÁŽAT NU NJOLGGIIDEDJE*

High on the tundra, not far from the Silver Road that runs between Arjeplog and the Norwegian border, we kept our eyes open for reindeer. They’re not uncommon up here, and we’d seen a couple down near the town, about 80 miles back, but since pulling out my SLR with its long lens, well… nothing of course.

Here they come, but how close?
Here they come, but how close?

Now a small herd, about eleven in total, could be seen working their way across the wide, treeless mountainside. They might pass quite close, and I joked with Susannah about where I’d like them to emerge.

As they made their way up the slope in our general direction, I dropped into position, lying where I had a good view over a stretch of levelish ground some way off. It might just work.

Reindeer do move fast, even across this sort of terrain, and I’d just had time to realise the front group was going to draw pretty close, when one of the mothers, leading her calf, burst from the bushes before me.

This close.
This close.
Followed closely by...
Followed closely by…

I don’t know who was more surprised.

Actually, judging from the look in her eye, I think the answer is pretty obvious.

I think their expressions say it all.
I think their expressions say it all.

*The earmarked reindeer took off (or something like that)

PERCH

One rule seems to apply to any form of fishing – small children are going to want to eat what they catch, whatever it is.

This one was a little too small, and soon went back.
This one was a little too small, and soon went back.

As boys, my brothers and I obeyed this rule religiously, working our way through such ‘delicacies’ as pouting, gudgeon, dace, dab, roach, pike and various forms of eel. At one Scout camp, set close to a lake in Wiltshire, my patrol somehow managed to locate a large reel of robust monofilament and a few hooks. With a tin of fresh worms we went after the portly trout that cruised the depths at one end, catching instead one small perch after another. Cooked (I think that’s what we called it) in frying pan over a roaring fire, I soon decided, even at that enthusiastic and generally undiscriminating age, that these were fish to avoid.

One for the pot, or something like that.
One for the pot, or something like that.

I maintained this view for decades, returning all by-catches, and when a Sami family swung their boat towards our camp one year and offered us three large perch, I smiled, and tried to look as grateful as I could (I believe the children, and adults, left with Cadbury’s chocolates). Without much enthusiasm (actually none at all) I set to work, soon presenting Susannah with her meal (I thought I’d give this one a miss). It didn’t take long to realise that someone was enjoying their dinner. Fortunately, I was encouraged to give perch another go, and saw the light.

Preparing our handline.
Preparing our handline.

I’ve managed to learn quite a few Swedish names for the local fish. Grayling for example are harr (and can be big), brown trout – öring (sometimes very big, but not when I catch them), salmon – lax, and Arctic char (still to be caught) are known locally as röding. I still haven’t found out though what perch are called in these parts. A Swedish fisherman I spoke to yesterday morning told us that he and his friends call them sea bass, but admitted he didn’t know the real name.

One thing I am sure about, is that they are really very beautiful, their striped green and black flanks set off stunningly by bright orangey red fins and tail. Perch are also tough little things. Even gutting them is hard work. As for further culinary preparations, and dealing with that skin, and those scales… Now though, I believe I have discovered the ideal way to cook these fish, and it couldn’t be easier.

This one even had a sauce accompaniment.
This one even had a sauce accompaniment.

Gutted, and with the head removed, I set about preparing the fire by doing the exact opposite of my usual fish-cooking arrangements. Instead of developing a bed of glowing embers, over which a trout or grayling might be gently grilled, I chuck on a few resin-rich chunks of pine, and blast our perch with the resultant flames.

The blast begins.
The blast begins.

Making sure the thick head end receives a decent blast, I judge the fish done when the skin blackens and might best be termed burnt to a cinder. This doesn’t take long, I guess about ten minutes, and once removed from the inferno, this near carbonised outer layer (natural tin foil), can be simply split open to reveal perfect white flakes of remarkably tasty fish.

Peeled, and ready to eat.
Peeled, and ready to eat.

They were a generous lot those Jokkmokk lakeside visitors. I’ve since learned that many Sami consider perch the best eating fish in their waters. I might just have to agree.