Chris Santella’s story in today’s NY Times on salmon fishing in northern Russia begins “My fly skittered across the current in front of our jet boat on the Lower Tomba beat of Russia’s Ponoi River, darting erratically as the tension on my line increased.” I know nothing about fishing, but it was obvious from context that “beat” meant a stretch of river; no dictionary I have access to, however, has such a definition. Of course there’s the general sense “area of activity,” like a policeman’s beat, but the closest I can get to this specific usage is “A tract over which a sportsman ranges in pursuit of game” (OED, sample citation 1884 Weekly Times 29 Aug. 14/4 “On the first day’s beat he saw one brace of barren birds”), “a tract with more or less definite bounds over which sportsmen customarily range for game” (Webster’s New International). Does anybody know whether this is a commonly used term in angling, with rivers divided into named “beats,” or just an occasional extension of the general sense? If the former, lexicographers should take notice of it.


  1. It most certainly is. Here on the River Test (famous for its trout fishing), “beats” are generally privately-owned, and precisely defined. Fish on a private beat at your peril.
    OED often seems to have such gaps: I was surprised to find the stone-mason’s’ usage of “batting” or “batted” (stone faced with decorative parallel grooves) and “dragged” (finished with a metal comb) absent, for example.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Perhaps the “policeman’s beat” is an extension of meaning from the angler’s beat?

  3. marie-lucie says

    The angler’s, sportsman’s, etc.

  4. Jonathan Wright says

    Quick Google search turns up plentiful examples:
    the Newtyle Beat of the River Tay
    the Laggan & Carron Beat of the River Spey
    the Pol Dornie beat of the River Garry
    the Altyre Beat of the River Findhorn
    At first sight it seems to be a very Scottish usage, but maybe that’s just because Scotland has plenty of rivers with fish in them.
    It should clearly be in dictionaries.

  5. Good Lord, it would never have occurred to me that the word wasn’t part of everyone’s English vocab. Did you ever, etc etc?

  6. And amongst the more civilised of our southern cousins

  7. P.S. In Brenglish “My fly skittered” is capable of bearing the interpretation “My fly evacuated diarrhoea”.

  8. It most certainly is.
    Good Lord, it would never have occurred to me that the word wasn’t part of everyone’s English vocab.
    Further proof that the worlds we live in are more different than we realize! Thanks very much for the quick response, all, and I hope the OED and Merriam-Webster’s people are taking notes.

  9. “On the first day’s beat he saw one brace of barren birds”
    That sounds to me like beating by beaters. Beaters are villagers who are employed to walk in a line towards the guns and beat the birds from the grass and bushes into the air so they (the birds) can be shot at.

  10. The Shorter OED has a couple of definitions – ‘ The round of a watchman, etc. on duty (1825)’ and ‘a track ranged over in pursuit of game (1875)’.
    There are several examples, for deer forests as well as rivers, in John MacNab, John Buchan’s 1925 novel about British conservative politicians poaching game:
    ‘Look here, you fellows– Glenraden is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. There’s the home beat– all the low ground of the Raden glen and the little hills behind the house. Then there’s the Carnbeg beat to the east, which is the best I fancy– very easy going, not very high and with peat roads and tracks where you could shift a beast. Last there’s Carnmore, miles from anywhere, with all the highest tops and as steep as Torridon. It would be the devil of a business, if I got a stag there, to move it. Wattie and I went round the whole marches, mostly on our bellies. No, we weren’t seen– Wattie took care of that. What a noble Shikari the old chap is!’

  11. Journalists are sometimes said to have beats. I suppose I have imagined that this is said by analogy with policeman, but now I see that it could just as well be by analogy with hunters.

  12. @dearieme
    ‘skittered’ has a scatological meaning {‘to void thin excrement’) only in Scots: in England the word is “squitter”.

  13. dearieme says

    I’ve never heard “squitter”, neither in Yorkshire nor E Anglia.
    Still, maybe they talk of little else in Lincolnshire.

  14. Jonathan says

    The analogies are many and various. Google the phrase “the shady side of Jermyn Street” (now a highly respectable street full of tailoring shops). But which use is an analogy of which?

  15. Of course, despite involving a river in its name, the Merseybeat is something completely other. It’s possible, I suppose, that the newspaper after which the musical movement was named was a pun on tbe fishing beat idea, but it seems unlikely. Though the name of the most famous Merseybeat band was a bad pun on “beat”…

  16. Zyth, both of your links say that the founder of that newspaper was thinking of a policeman’s beat when he named it.

  17. “Definition of squit
    1British informal a small or insignificant person:
    a little squit like Thorpe”

  18. Empty: clearly I need to read before I link …

  19. My coach always told us Jesuas hates a squitter.

  20. tuffer17 says

    I wonder whether there’s a strong connection to phrases like “beaten path,” “stomping ground,” “beat a hasty retreat,” etc.?

  21. Jonathan: “They bought a most secluded beat // The shady side of Jermyn street.” It’s the most metrically regular version out of a dozen I’ve Googled up. So “beat” must also mean a flat or house? And which side is the shady one? I used to work for a company with an office there, on the Piccadilly side.

  22. as Mike says: privately owned and precisely defined sections of a river. This is commonly understood in the Commonwealth but not usual in USA, where there isn’t much private ownership of fishing. Anglophile fly-fishers in the US certainly know the meaning, though. It’s oed that the OED doesn’t know about it..

  23. In addition to policeman’s beat and reporter’s beat, there is an old gay slang term (possibly Australian) referring to public pickup places as ‘the beat’.

  24. not like the children who have to beat the bounds of the parishes of Oxford (if I remember)?…NOW they beat the bounds (so they will remember them) but I think in the past they were taken around the bounds and THEY were beaten at each marker…
    Does anyone know about this. Sorry. I should’ve googled, I suppose.

  25. In the Shire (of the Hobbits), the police-force-cum-watch was known naturally enough as the Shirriffs. Tolkien tells us that traditionally there were only twelve of them (three in each Farthing) for Inside Work, and a rather larger group, varied at need, to “beat the bounds”; these were known punningly as Bounders. The Dutch translator, though mostly very good, missed the point, and rendered this last as Poenen ‘cads’.

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