“Why I keep returning to The Game Fair – for over 30 years”

Antique tackle dealer Victor Bonutto is one of the longest-running ‘fixtures’ of The Game Fair, having exhibited at the event for more than 30 consecutive years. We caught up with him to discuss his passion and what keeps him coming back.

You have exhibited at The Game Fair for more than 30 years in a row – what’s the appeal of the event?

It’s the number one event for me. I have exhibited all over the UK and nothing, absolutely nothing, has the buzz of The Game Fair. Past customers and friends know I will be there, the event is just like a holiday for me, chatting about everything I am passionate about. I just never know what’s going to be brought in for valuation or occasionally for sale – all such great fun.

How did you first get involved in collecting antique tackle?

I caught my first fish in the Regents Canal, North London, in 1966, the same week as England won the World Cup at Wembley just a few miles away. My tackle was old even in the Sixties – an old cane rod and a brass reel. I guess this old stuff must have left its mark. I occasionally used to skip school to go fishing but, when confined to the classroom, history and a fascination with anything old was my thing. I was intrigued by the old coins in my small collection, wondering who had handled them hundreds of years ago. So, quite swiftly, the two enjoyments of fishing and history just merged. Then it became a collecting obsession. The joy of setting up a fine old salmon reel and imagining its past users, what rivers it had visited perhaps 100 years ago. All this keeps me thinking when I’m waiting for the elusive salmon to give it a tug.

What has been the most memorable item you have handled?

Without doubt it has to be the collection of John Henry Hirst including the Spider Web rod – it’s certainly the most unusual item and a piece of angling history. It was described on The Antiques Roadshow as the world’s most unique fishing rod. I particularly like the inventor, John Hirst, who was a First World War hero, self-made successful newspaper owner and, most importantly, a really great British eccentric. He patented the rod with its most unusual design in 1928 and used it to win numerous contests becoming one of Britain’s most successful anglers.

Also from the family is a case of stuffed carp caught by John Hirst whilst fishing on the Western Front during hostilities at Ypres in 1915. He was excused duties to catch food for his men but so admired these two little fish he somehow got them back to the London taxidermist before they decayed.

Had I not met his daughter at The Game Fair many years ago this fascinating story would have never come to light.

You must have worked with some key players in the trade? Any which stand out?

Part of Britain’s wonderful engineering legacy is the superbly engineered tackle of the 20th century. Few of the old tackle firms have survived but I have had the pleasure of working closely with Hardy’s of Alnwick, who are always innovative and, in my opinion, one of the leading big names. Their attention to detail in design is impressive as are the finished products. But you don’t have to be big to be good, anybody who has visited the Mill Tackle Company at Redditch to view its fine centrepin reels cannot fail to be impressed by the owner’s dedication to his products. Perhaps it’s an individual’s skill and commitment to the company and angling in general that produces the finest tackle. Dare I say desire not spreadsheets!

Does antique tackle still sell in this day and age?

There is a growing enthusiasm for fine old fishing tackle. Little cane rods up to 7ft 6 ins are in demand by fishers on our wonderful chalkstreams with a tiny 3in 1930s reel to match – a pairing so light you can fish with them all day. The old silk lines pre 1960s had such a poor press when the modern plastic replacements arrived. A newly manufactured modern silk fly line is a delight, even if you have to stop a few times to rub it down and regrease, it all adds to a warm, sunny day’s fishing enjoyment.

Even a 12ft double-handed Sharpes cane rod is by no means too heavy, spliced jointed examples have an enthusiastic following. Now, if there’s a more rewarding way to cast a salmon lure other than with a 1960s Abu 5000 multiplying reel I have not found it yet. Many others agree, so there is a market, albeit a small one, for good, usable old tackle.

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