The mysteries of Captain America

November 2018 saw the passing of undisputedly the greatest European style match fisherman to have so far represented the United States of America in the world angling championships – Micky Thill.

Essex county with Mick Thill Essex county with Mick Thill, courtesy of Bill Knott

In a national with more than 60 million anglers, it remains a conundrum as to why the USA has never challenged more strongly for honours. Perhaps that will change sometime soon?

World championship 1998 recollections

I was privileged to be invited to manage the American team in the 1998 World championships in Zagreb. It was something of a step up in class from the Grindley Brook juniors and Wyche Anglers 10th place finish in the 1990 junior national where Let’s Fish coach Simon Mottram took part in his first big match. Trying to manage Micky and bring some structure to the team turned out to be like knitting fog. The Arlington lake trials were televised with competitors from numerous states turning out. The team representing Florida memorably turned up with five foot rods, reminding me of the Russian team that lined up at Holme Pierrepont in the 1994 world championships.

Team selection

It turned out Mick had picked the squad anyway, and aside from Mick, none took part in the trials. In the same sort of way, he had appointed himself team captain. To have unseated him would have created ructions. Fishing wise, the world championship match itself was memorable for two reasons, Alan Scottthorne taking his third successive individual crown and Will Raison marking his debut with a stunning next peg defeat of the great French angler, Jean Desque. Witnessing Dick Clegg and Mark Downes’ work as a partnership on the management side of things, I knew America were a serious way behind the leading nations.

Essex County reunion, you can just about recognise Micky in the framed photo Essex County reunion, you can just about recognise Micky in the framed photo

World championship success

It is claimed that Mick claimed he was a five times world champion. It may well be true that he did really claim this, it might be an exaggeration? You never quite knew with Micky. 

Micky Thill, Word championship runner up 1982

Without doubt, he was part of the 1982 Essex county world club championship winning team, was individual runner-up in the world championships in 1982 famously won by the great Kevin Ashurst on the Newry Canal and later took bronze in Northern Ireland in 1992 in a match won by Dave Wesson, the only non-European to take the crown to date. Micky also won a team medal for the USA in the word ice fishing championship. If there was fifth medal, and I would love there to be, it’s just possible it came as the manager of the US world junior championship ice fishing team.

Great angler and hall of famer

What cannot be denied is that at his peak, Micky was an extremely good if not genuinely one of the all-time great anglers. America certainly thinks so. Micky holds a place in the Freshwater Hall of Fame based in Hayward Wisconsin. It was just my luck that when trying to check out the finer details, their website was down. That’s yet another Micky Thill mystery to resolve, but I assume that he appears there along with the likes of Izaak Walton and Dame Juliana Berners as one of the 78 legendary anglers that have received the honour. Doug Strange Editor in Chief of In-Fisherman states ‘Micky was the single greatest angler I’ve ever fished with’.

Did the world angling championships nearly come to the USA?

I recall a conversation late one evening at around the time of the millenium. Mick had steadily acquired the taste for Ethiopian cuisine and the uniqueness of the coffee ceremony and London is well blessed with several such establishments.

It was on one such occasion that Micky claimed Coca Cola had offered him $500,000 towards the hosting of the world coarse fishing championships in the States. Enquiring as to why he never bit their hand off, he responded that he didn’t think it was sufficient sum for such a prestigious event and that he had broken off negotiations. Looking back, it’s so unbelievably preposterous that it’s probably true.

Olympic sport

Mick also claimed he was in early discussions with the Chinese about having angling as a demonstration sport at the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics. That too would have helped match angling on the world stage, but alas it eventually came to nought. Perhaps we can bring angling to the Commonwealth Games in 2022, for Birmingham has more miles of waterway that cities like Amsterdam and Venice.

Coaching career

Micky spent a lot of time in the States in the 1990s demonstrating bank fishing and how to float fish in the English style. He was superb at it and was named best all-round angler and teacher in the American fisherman magazine back in 2005. He talked of wanting to get involved in coaching back in London and it’s understood that he did some work with Westminster Council along those lines.

Sadly, the Trust’s, Lets Fish campaign came into being a little too late for Micky to get involved.

Thill floats

Thill float Thill float

Born in the windy city of Chicago, birthplace of Harrison Ford and home to the likes of Alfonso Capone, Mick set up his own float company which he later sold out. Although he never directly said so, I sense he regretted that decision. The brand is still going strong as you can see at www.thill.com.

Clearly designed to perfection for the massive American market, I don’t imagine seeing that many of these floats being used on a heat of the Dynamite Baits canal pairs qualifier any time soon.

Handsome man and winter league confidence

In an Angling Time readers poll from the 1970s, Micky was voted the nation’s most handsome angler, taking over 90% of the vote. I wonder who would win such a vote these days? I confess I am not hopeful for my personal prospects. Jimmy Randell’s widow Barbara recalls ‘My late husband was also on the voting list for this competition so naturally I voted for him, but I also cast a secret vote for Micky, for he was undoubtedly the deserved winner. Even more remarkably, he was voted the most handsome European angler in a French womans magazine in the early 1980s, not bad for an American!

In that era, the young Micky was said to be a most confident young fellow. He would not even carry cash for after match food and liquid refreshment, predicting he could use his section wining monies, which very often he was able to do. Physical fitness was no issue either. Jimmy Randell once asked Micky to bring him half hundredweight of groundbait when he was next in the area. Micky took the train and proceeded to run the two miles from the station to Jimmy’s home with the hefty groundbait sack on his back.

Failed spy

A young John Weeden

No, best we know, Micky was not a secret MI5 agent or employed by the FBI or CIA. Match anglers of a certain era will recall the Captain Morgan Cup. One once occasion, Mick’s Essex County team had drawn away to the mighty Defiant Mobile who chose the Paddington Arm as their home venue for the latest knockout round. During a pre-match practice session, John Weedon, future England disabled team manager, recalled seeing an uncomfortable looking individual attired in a grey wig and outlandish spectacles cycling up and down, quizzing the various defiant anglers as to how it was going. After a short while, John twigged it was Micky in disguise and greeted him by asking how the spying mission was going. Identity exposed and face glowing as red as a beetroot, Micky sped off along the towpath at full speed. Mick’s top secret mission didn’t pay off as Defiant triumphed over Essex a few days later.

Deeply caring

Almost certainly dyslexic, Micky had probably struggled with some aspects of academia despite clearly being an intelligent and articulate man. It may have been part of the reason why he was cruelly referred to as Mental Micky in one UK angling publication. Mick was close to his family. He nursed his frail and aging mum back in London with genuine love and care. On one occasion, I drove Mick, with his mum cradled tightly in his arms to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington With London volumes of traffic on that journey of perhaps a couple of miles, it took a good 20 minutes. Although I lost touch with him in recent years, I would imagine that he would have dome all he could to have taken good care of his sister Betty too.

Appreciation of angling history and heritage

Social conversations with Mick would often focus in the history and heritage of the sport and fisheries more generally. It was Micky who first informed me of the history of the Thames Angling Preservation Society, founded back in 1838. He rated Jim Bazley as the greatest all- round angler. Although not quite in the John Essex league, Mick knew an awful lot about British and, I assume, American fishing history.

I regret not quizzing him about the latter. He was an avid collector of antique tackle and fishing books. But even his funeral arrangements and final resting place are currently a mystery I neither I nor colleagues in the industry were able to attend, for it proved impossible to get hold of the details.

Last date edited: 23 September 2019

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The fisheries & angling team

The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

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