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The Men Who Spend Their Nights Urban-Fishing in London's Canals

We talked to two urban fishermen who camp alongside the Thames to catch and release everything from carp to eels.

by Marcus Thompson
Feb 25 2015, 10:25pm

All photos courtesy of Jake Selby and Buster Britton

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Throughout the waterways of inner-city London, a small group of urban fishermen cast their lines into the hazy waters of the Thames. Jake Selby and Buster Britton are the pioneers of Urban Fishing London Docks and have been pulling all kinds of monsters up from the river's brown water for the last five years. Their motivation? Quiet fishing spots offering big catches, without having to leave Zone 2.

The two set up at spots throughout Canada Water and Shadwell Basin and camp overnight, enduring the cold and fending off visits from boozy strangers. The fishing is primarily catch and release—done for sport. And although catching to eat isn't uncommon, it's not encouraged.

"It's not something we do, and it's generally frowned upon. There's a pub in Bermondsey that will cook your catch," says Britton. For $8 an eel, the all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ pub will clean, cook, and serve your eels and "whatever else you can pull from the water," says Selby.

There was a period in London's not-too-distant history when catching and eating was common practice. It's believed there are more than 50 species in the Thames alone, among them some prized table fish: "Brim, perch, pike, trench, eels, rainbow trout, and crayfish," I'm told. However, it's the giant English carp—though largely inedible—that makes fishing in the cold London landscape worth enduring.

There's a certain etiquette to urban fishing. For instance, it's unpopular to showcase where the fish are being caught on Facebook. "People don't like you saying where you caught the fish," says Selby. "They will message you and ask, 'Why are you putting up pictures of where you're catching the fish?'"

The popularity of the sport is expected to boom, and those engaged in it want their secret spots to stay that way.

Fish and eels are just a few of the prizes the two Bermondsey locals have pulled from the water. "Ah, all sorts," says Buster when I ask what he's caught. "Mainly homemade weapons that people have obviously chucked when the Old Bill have spotted them. Bits of wood with barbed wire attached to them. Batons with lead wrapped around them and nails punched through them." Every now and again, what was thought to be big carp would turn out to be a large roll of carpet. "It actually happens a lot more often than you'd expect," says Buster. "We'd usually just cut the lines. I don't need to know what's wrapped up in there. But I can guess."

In London and across Europe, the carp scene is massive. Its growing popularity is one that's seen the emergence of a black market, with the owners of private lakes looking to capitalize on the lucrative trade of weekend anglers.

"Moving carp from the waterways to private lakes is big money," says Britton. "A legitimate carp at 30 pounds can be sold for $9,000. Stolen, it's $15 a pound."

I'm told most of the movement runs from France, where the fish are bigger. They're caught over there, then moved into private fishing lakes scattered throughout England.

Poachers will fish for a few days and store their catch in refrigerated transit vans, head across the channel, and make up to $30,000 for a few days' work. "It's definitely something we are not into or encouraging, and if it continues it could have a really disastrous effect on urban fishing," says Britton.

Apart from the cold, night fishing on London's canals has its own indigenous hazards. It can be madness out here at night, and usually involves curious drunks stumbling back from the pub wondering why people are camping next to a canal in below-zero temperatures. Which is perfectly fair enough, I suppose.

"When we first first started there was a quiet cut around the corner, and we thought we'd plug ourselves up right next to each other, face our tents towards each other," says Buster. "There were these bollards behind us, so we fenced ourselves in with fishing line. Run the line all the way around the post.

"We were lying in our tents and we could hear someone outside, so we got up to see what was going on, and there was a drunk Eastern European guy. 'You catch fish in there?' he said, and he's trying to come forward. He's walked into the line, and boing! He bounced back off the line straight to the floor.

"He flared up: 'You got fishing line everywhere!'

"We were a bit weary, still half asleep. We didn't know what he was up to, so we were like, 'Yeah, mate! Go and do one!'

"He's like, 'I'll come back for you later.'"

Buster laughs. "We were up for the rest of the night waiting for this bloke to come back."

Not all approaches have been unfriendly. "We were fishing near East London—near Shadwell—and we'd been there for about three hours," says Selby. "These women rocked up and instantly took a liking to us, jumping into our tents, into our bed. They were proper fucked. Then one of their boyfriends rocked up. He wasn't happy we had these two girls lying in our beds."

The strangest of the stories Selby and Buster tell me is one about the local early swimmer: a 75-year-old who's been taking a dip in the canals every morning for years.

"So we're sitting there, it was about 6:30 AM, and this old geezer—he must have been about 75—comes strolling along in a wetsuit. We were like, 'What's he up to?' Jumps straight in the water. We were just watching the bloke doing laps and were scratching our heads, thinking, 'What's this guy doing? It's freezing.' He does five lengths of the whole canal, gets out and jogs off."

"The next time he did it we approached him when he got out and asked, 'What's your game, mate?' He tells us he's been swimming the canals since he was 12, and you got to think, that's before wetsuits even existed. He goes on a five-mile jog and jumps in here. It's just madness."

The future for urban fishing looks bright; the collective conscience of sustainable fishing lends itself perfectly to urban fishing's catch-and-release policy. "It's a great thing," says Buster. "As long it doesn't get too crowded and people are putting the fish back, it's great for London."

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