Sunday book review – Rivers Run by Kevin Parr


Kevin Parr wrote the book that I selected as my favourite of 2014, The Twitch – that one was a black comedy, though very funny, I thought, about a murderous twitcher. This book is very different, and is about Parr’s greater love – fishing.

And it’s not a laddish tale of bonking, drinking and murder but a contemplative tale about fishing, nature and love of the countryside.  Now I am no fisherman, having last caught anything with a rod and line about 45 years ago, but I very much enjoyed this book. If all fishermen (and they mostly are men) were like Kevin Parr then there would be more chance for fisherfolk and birding folk to work together to address the problems of the aquatic environment (and yes, it would take more of ‘us’ to be like Kevin Parr too).

This book has a lot of sitting by water bodies wondering about the fish that are under the water; and that meniscus is what separates us from fishermen to some extent. The angler has to sit on the edge of the water (mostly) and read the water and guess where the fish are and act accordingly to catch them – although there is a lot more to it than guessing.  Reading this book I would gladly acknowledge that many anglers are pretty good ecologists, and are much closer to real hunters than the Pheasant-blasters of lowland Britain. Reading a river, an ever-changing river, and understanding what the different species of fish need and therefore where they will be and what type of bait will catch them, does, I can see, grab the imagination and sounds quite fun. You could say it is a greater skill than birding – you could.

And also, Parr is very convincing that it is not the catching of fish which is the be-all and end-all of fishing – in a way that no grouse shooter has even come close with me when trying to explain the thrill of driven grouse shooting.

It helps a bit, for me, that there are birds liberally scattered through the pages of this book, but that is partly the point: it is a believable tale of how enjoying a day’s fishing is about enjoying the river, with all its wildlife, as well as yanking some fish out of the water.

I learned quite a lot about fish from these pages but it is also an engaging story of fishing at different ages and in different places and at different stages of one’s private life – and how fishing can be a solace and great fun at different times. And the author comes across as a thoughtful and very nice man who thinks about things and is easy to like. And that is how he is in reality too, on the basis of me having met him just the once.

I recommend this book to you whether you have no interest in fishing or even if you dislike the idea of catching creatures with a hook in their mouths, because you will find the book thoughtful and interesting and you won’t be able to dislike its author. He might even get you hooked.

Rivers Run: an angler’s journey from source to sea by Kevin Parr is published by Penguin Random House.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


22 Replies to “Sunday book review – Rivers Run by Kevin Parr”

  1. Why not sit quietly by rivers enjoying the wildlife without killing them?

    Or hooking them, weighing them, boasting about the size, and throwing them back to go through all that again?

    Or is that too difficult?

    1. I gave up angling partly because I just could’t reconcile what it did to the fish with the pleasure it brought me, I also became incredibly frustrated with the ecological ignorance and indifference to wildlife I saw in most anglers. The actual harm done to the fish, and only fish know how much that is, but having a hook in your mouth will never do you any favours, is incidental in the process of catching them, so I would not say it’s a cruel sport as such as hare coursing obviously is. Therefore I’d definitely not put anglers in the same category as fox hunters although there are welfare and ethical issues that need to be addressed, personally they became too much for me. As far as tradition, history, way of life etc are concerned they are far, far more applicable terms to use re angling than deer stalking or shooting the ‘grice’. The development of match fishing as a hobby and passion by and for the industrial poor shows human resourcefulness at its very best and turned the snatching of tiddlers from semi polluted canals into an expression of skill up there with painting and poetry. They didn’t have much but they made gold out of it. It certainly shows fox hunting up for what it is, red coated buffoonery. One of the most influential figures in my life, up there with Mr D Attenborough no less, was an angling writer called Richard Walker who was as good an example of any how an individual by clear thinking, observation, thinking outside the box, challenging orthodoxy, not being influenced by snobbery and preconceptions could revolutionise a whole field. One person can have a huge influence. I got an awful lot out of angling, but in retrospect I’m very pleased I didn’t catch many fish.

      1. You took the words right out of my mouth Les. Of course the way you put those words together was much nicer to read than would have been my take on the matter.
        Match fishing (or should that read match angling?) on canals and reservoirs was my passion from the age of twelve to twenty five but I began to see a side of match fishing that was ugly, especially in the way fish were handled and weighed.
        I’m in my fifties now and only occasionally enjoy a spot of fishing when I get a chance (barbless hooks, wet hands, and no keepnets are the order of the day when it comes to minimising stress or damage to a caught fish).
        Saying that I do question the ethics of fishing; yanking a creature from its environment for pleasure. Imagine if we set baited hooks on lines for birds or mammals, and dragged them to our feet, kicking and screaming? It doesn’t bear thinking about really.
        But the positive about fishing is that anglers can be seen as the guardians of our waterways, and if it wasn’t for fishing then I believe that much of our aquatic environment would be polluted and fishless. If only all anglers (fishermen?) would be more careful with the way they handle fish, take their litter home, and respect the environment, but that’s perhaps asking too much for some people.

        1. I agree with a lot of what has been said. But birds can be yanked out of the sky- I am thinking Portland and nets. Of course that is done in the name of science rather than as a leisure pursuit. But man is still disrupting the natural order of things however you look at it.

          1. Of course man is “still disrupting the natural order of things”, has done since he began to develop, and will continue to disrupt more than ever before. All we can try and do is uphold the law and try to stop illegal activities such as raptor persecution. I prefer to see fish being fished for rather than fish being denied their environment by polluting industrial and farming practices.

  2. As a former angler I think you’re spot on re fishing being closer to hunting than blasting grouse, although I never have or will do the latter. Some anglers are good ecologists and naturalists, but unfortunately most probably aren’t and you just need to read the angling press and the letters they publish to see that ecological illiteracy isn’t just limited to shooters sadly. Angling is the one field sport where not only should its participants be OK with ecological restoration they should be pushing for it like mad. Sadly not the case, they’ve been amongst the most vociferous opponents of beaver reintroduction for instance. Things are changing very slowly, but that’s due to individual anglers, representative bodies and clubs are largely still in the dark ages. What a phenomenal difference if they got on board, the game fishing lobby in Scotland could give the grouse moors a very hard time if they started kicking off about what muirburn does to rivers. The different methods to catch different species in different conditions are utterly, utterly fascinating and fishing is to me as good an expression of human ingenuity as anything else we’ve done as a species. Everything from how the urban poor turned competitive coarse (match) fishing on northern canals into an art form – I’m serious – to fly tying and fishing which is another world in itself. I will definitely read this book for old times sake.

    1. Thank you, Les – I appreciate your views, which are of course based on wide experience. And I agree in substance, of course!

      As for reading the book – maybe I should, but I think it would depress me – and I don’t need more of that.

  3. ”If all fishermen (and they mostly are men) were like Kevin Parr then there would be more chance for fisherfolk and birding folk to work together to address the problems of the aquatic environment (and yes, it would take more of ‘us’ to be like Kevin Parr too).”

    It’s a great thought.

    The chances are this can happen quite soon. It just needs the idea of rewilding watersheds, floodplains and rivers to capture the public’s imagination.
    And then an alliance of anglers and birders campaigning to make polluters pay and rivers rewild: unstoppable.

  4. Most anglers are pretty good, but too many angling societies still have policies on cutting back trees and bankside vegetation, shallowing burns, and speeding up channels. And go to any meet and you’ll hear the repeated desire to cull all sorts of fowl (including, but not limited to, ducks of all kinds, herons, mergansers, gooseanders, cormorants, and I even heard at one meet a determined speech about the evils of the return of the osprey and a desire to be allowed to blow them out of the sky), and if you really want to hear an angling group in full on bloodsport mode just mention you saw an otter with kits. You’d think otters were mammalian piranha swarms, and you’ll hear all sorts of plans for traps, snares, and our old friend the poison baits.

    Anglers individually can be great, but angling groups can be dreadful for wildlife preservation. And that is without mentioning the occasional idiot who still thinks beavers eat fish (how they can still exist…).

  5. Firstly, a big thank you to Mark for the review. It is always a relief and a reassurance to hear nice things said about your work, but it means even more when it comes from someone I have such respect for. And the fact that you are a non-angler is all the better – the hope was that this book would appeal to people outside of the fishing fraternity, though there may be a few anglers who will give it a miss as a result.

    Some really good points made in the comments above. When I was about 18 I did a talk on fishing as part of an A-Level course, and having painted a romantic image, the questions afterwards were all focused on the cruelty of the sport.
    I couldn’t defend it – and still can’t. There is plenty of arguments pointing to fish not feeling pain as we perceive it, and when handled with care and respect a fish shows little or no ill-effects. A friend of mine caught the same brown trout three times in the course of one afternoon this winter (while fishing for other species), and ending up moving after the third capture because he knew he would only inevitably hook it again.

    It does seem incredibly contradictory to care so much about a creature that you have just removed, forcibly, from its natural environment, and yet the majority if anglers really do care.

    So why do it? Why not just sit beside water for the sake of it – as Marian suggests above.

    Ultimately, I believe angling is about connection. A fishing rod gives me purpose, and the line joins me to a world where I would not survive. The actual catching of fish, aside from being driven by a hunting instinct, is making real their very existence. We might catch glimpses of fish beneath the surface, but they only become truly tangible when we can touch and marvel at them in our own world.

    Sadly, as in every walk of life, there are plenty of anglers who care little for the environment, or have a peculiar understanding of it. Litter is a problem, but so to are some attitudes to otters, cormorants and fish (such as pike) at the top end of the food chain. One of the most infuriating attitudes I find in the world of Field Sports is the arrogance that is masked behind ‘tradition’ and the ‘way of the countryside’. More people have an understanding of the natural world than ever before, and unless anglers, shooters, and hunters learn to look objectively at their own impact upon the natural world then they will become increasingly marginalised.

    1. Kevin – thanks you for responding here. And I still think The Twitch would appeal to many readers of this blog too!

    2. The hook problem; it snags dendrites late into the night.
      Better to relax and make a cuppa.
      Do you take milk — from the cow on concrete?
      No? That’s OK then.
      But those tea plantation pickers….

      Sometimes, the only escape is to be still.
      And observe.

      1. An argument we in the AW/AR groups hear frequently, but not made as elegantly as you have, Murray Marr!

        True, there will be inconsistencies, but some cruelty is easy to avoid – dairy milk is one.

        Our impact on the lives of tea pickers et al might be mitigated by buying Fair Trade, which many of us do.

        Your last two lines – I wholly agree.

  6. As noted in the various responses anglers (like any group of people) vary in their attitudes and behaviour. Some are very responsible and genuine nature lovers – others less so…
    One complaint against the anglers not mentioned above but which I believe is a serious issue is the release of fish species (including exotic species) into waters where they were not previously present. This is ecologically extremely risky and has had serious consequences in water bodies in various parts of the world.

    1. Spot on. I remember in 1996 a fisherman sent a letter into Anglers Mail with a solution to curb the invasive signal crayfish..introduce the small mouth bass! That rather ironic suggestion became the ‘Star Letter of the Week’ and the sender won a Ryobi reel.

    2. Spot on. I remember in 1996 a fisherman sent a letter into Anglers Mail with a solution to curb the invasive signal crayfish..introduce the small mouth bass! That rather ironic suggestion became the ‘Star Letter of the Week’ and the sender won a Ryobi reel.

      1. I have a slightly whimsical dream that the otters in resurgence will find such an easy meal in the form of the signal crayfish that generations may come that eat little else….

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