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Blind Fishing - 06/03/12


Blind Fishing



Whilst most anglers have nightmares about taking the wrong fly of leader with them on a days outing, usually using this as an excuse for our dismal returns, I was heartened when listening an old LP (That is a 33.33rpm vinyl record to the younger readers) Gone Fishing made by the BBC, which included a track on a man fishing the River Torridge who was totally blind.


Having aroused my interest as to how he managed it, I was fortunate enough to find a copy of his biography “Soldier On” which gave a fascinating insight into his life and how he coped with adversity.


Colonel Sir Mike Ansell was born into a military family. His father was a fine polo player, a terrific worker, and commanded his regiment at 39 (very young in 1911) and instilled an urge to succeed and excel.


He followed in his father’s footsteps joining the Inniskillen Fusiliers.  During his time with them, he played polo in the USA and for Kashmir in India before taking command of the Lothians, the youngest commanding officer in the British Army. He was sent to France at the start of World War II and his group were left in France after Dunkirk having covered the retreat as the Germans surged through. As his force split to escape, he led his men into a hayloft for sleep, only to be awoken by the sound of a tommy gun below. A group of British and French soldiers had mistaken them for Germans.  In the melee, he lost his sight and subsequently, three fingers from one hand and the index finger off the other.  Although he did have some slight vision initially, this soon failed completely after the war.


Ansell decided to move away from the hubbub of everyday life and with his wife, two sons and a daughter, moved to Bideford in North Devon. His first goal was to create a beautiful garden at his home, Pillhead. He found he could do many of the tasks even though he was now totally blind.  He was also elected Chairman of the British Show Jumping Association. He realised that his garden would have to pay for itself, initially selling snowdrops locally or shipping them to Covent Garden. 


He also realised that polo would lose status as a sport due to the reduction of cavalry officers, and the cost of running a private stable, but that show jumping could benefit as a sport, but this too would have to be self funding to have a long term future, and this would require spectators as well as competitors who enjoyed the sport.


He changed the style of fencing and the rules to make them easier to understand, and in September 1945 had 10,000 spectators to his first championship at the White City.  He went on to develop the Horse of the Year Show, regularly watched on television.  He was awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List of 1952.


In 1956, after conversations with a friend, Ian Fraser, who told him of his joy when fishing, he decided to take up his ‘ultimate’ sport; fishing, even though he was now totally blind.


Although spinning was frowned upon by elite fisherman, he decided to learn to fish by both fly fishing and spinning. He wrote “if you cannot see, fly fishing is easier because once you have the distance and angle right your safe from landing on the far bank”.


With spinning, this wasn’t the case and the only way to overcome this is with practice and more practice.  This was done by aiming at a tin tray on the lawn and a small lead on the line so you could hear if you hit your target.  He practiced until he could hit the tray five times out of seven. Lord Fraser was a fly fisherman, and they used to have a sovereign bet on who could catch the most salmon in a year. By the time his sovereign had become annual income for Ansell, he was persuaded to take notice of spinning.


Lord Fraser decided to practice with a drum and amplifier. However, Ansell was told in confidence that one of his grandchildren had to remove the line from around his chimney!


However, when blind you cannot fish without a gillie who encourages, and is thrilled when you catch. Ansell believed that a blind person can have an edge over a sighted person provided he can cast accurately as he doesn’t see the line stop of fish flash, he waits until he feels the take. His guidance was based on his military training using the angles of a clock. 12 o’clock is straight out, one o’clock is slightly downstream and across, and this couple with the range gave a target that Ansell could hit.


He commented once that he caught five fish from the Tweed at Cornhill, and couldn’t understand why the fishermen the previous day had caught nothing. The gille replied “Oh Mr Blank knew it all, so I let him get on with it knowing you would be here today!”


On the Torridge at Beam Weir, the premier stretch of the river, Ansell was allowed to fish by Philip Martin using Charlie Edworthy as a gillie who used to tie his hat on with a scarf on windy days.  Ansell caught his first fish there on 11 March 1956 and Edworthy remarked “Well done sir, that’s the first fish in all my years I’ve landed for a blind man!”


In April 1965, having returned from London, Ansell met an old friend for an agreed days fishing hoping it would be cancelled as he had back pains from the travelling.


Ansell fished the Sunken Tree swim with a yellow-belly when he thought he had hooked the bottom, until it started to move. The reel dropped off which was quickly replaced although he didn’t realise the line was twisted around the butt making winding even harder, and after 30 minutes he landed a 19lbs fish.  However, that wasn’t the end of it as Martin, his host insisted he fished the Weir Pool and after a forty minute fight landed an 18lb salmon.


By 1972 Ansell had gone on to catch 300 salmon from three waters, the Torridge, Cornhill and Laxford. All from a man who had never cast a line when sighted


Ansell went on to become High Sheriff of Devon and was later knighted, an extraordinary man indeed.