I Mind One Time
Hugh McDowell - by Fifi Colston
I Mind One Time Memories of fishing in Ireland, America and New Zealand
by Hugh McDowell
Published by Michael Stevens, Stevens Publishing Pty Ltd 17 Oxford Street, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia 7250 www.tasfish.com All rights reserved Text © Hugh McDowell Illustrations by Fifi Colston © Hugh McDowell First published 2010 ISBN 0 9775417 5 4 Limited to 125 copies This copy is number ____
Portions of this book originally appeared in: Fish & Game NZ magazine (The Great Pike of Sullivan’s Lough) Destinations Magazine (Fisherman’s Luck) NZ One-Fly magazine (The Fifth Stage) Waterlog Magazine (The Homecoming)
Contents Preface................................................................ vii Chapter 1 — My Amazon ........................................ 1 Chapter 2 — The Great Pike of Sullivan’s Lough ���������� 23 Chapter 3 — A Far-sighted Opportunist ...................... 31 Chapter 4 — Harris’s Dam ..................................... 49 Chapter 5 — To Catch a Pike ................................... 57 Chapter 6 — Learning Curve ................................... 65 Chapter 7 — The Best Day’s Fishing Ever .................... 75 Chapter 8 — The Homecoming................................. 83 Chapter 9 — The Secret Possie.................................. 91 Chapter 10 —You Only Live Once............................. 99 Chapter 11 — The Crocodile Pool ............................ 105 Chapter 12 — The Forgotten Art .............................. 115 Chapter 13 — Fish the Margins .............................. 123 Chapter 14 — Fisherman’s Luck .............................. 127 Chapter 15 — The Fifth Stage ................................ 135 Chapter 16 — The Legend of Hughie McD.................. 141 v
emory is a strange thing, isn’t it? And the older you grow the more incomprehensible it becomes, as you find yourself clearly recalling long forgotten events from your childhood yet unable to remember what you had for supper three nights ago. Lately I’ve been re-reading some of my old schoolboy books, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and have been astounded by the number of words and expressions that take me back to my colloquial Ulster version of English. But when I saw again the opening line of John Buchan’s Prester John, ‘I mind as if it were yesterday my first sight of the man’, I did a double-take. When I hear that phrase I am immediately back in a scene from my youth. Old men sitting around an open fireplace with their pints of Guinness, smoking their pipes and gazing reflectively into the glowing turf, the only sound the slow, rhythmic ticktock of an ancient clock on the wall. Then one of them says “Ah mind wan time…” and goes on to some reminiscence like “there was an oul’ fella they called Burke that lived in yon wee house at the back o’ Murphy’s moss…”. And so another tale from a forgotten era begins to unfold. Now that I too am the age of those storytellers, I offer this collection of fishing memories, some dating back to when I was a wee boy back in the 1940s. They’re all true and I began writing them down some years ago, though to be honest I’m not sure why, for I certainly never intended to ever make them into a book. Perhaps it was an attempt to preserve some of the thoughts and emotions and problems and experiences of an angler from an earlier generation for the sake of a future one, but whatever the reason, once started the list got bigger and bigger in the telling, just as all good fishermen’s stories do. But as the collection grew it became obvious that a disturbing, recurring theme was emerging, namely that of the destruction and disappearance of favourite fishing waters. I certainly didn’t set out to do this, either. Sadly, urban and rural pollution, the ever-increasing demand for water, an unprecedented increase in fishing pressure and decisions made by ‘Authorities’ have combined to achieve that all by themselves. I guess it’s really an indictment on what society chooses to call ‘progress’. However the
reader should remember that unless he or she is constantly on the alert, our precious streams will continue to be eroded. And once gone, they’re gone forever. Less than three per cent of the world’s water is fresh water, and 75 per cent of that is permanently frozen in icecaps and glaciers. Almost all of the remaining fresh water is underground, and only one per cent of it flows in rivers at any one time. But here’s the really scary bit. The cold, clean water that constitutes a trout stream represents something like 1/1,000,000 of one per cent of the earth’s remaining flowing water – yes, that’s one millionth of one per cent – and rest assured God’s not making any more these days. Remember that, when you next hear of a plan to steal water from a trout stream, whether it be for irrigation, hydro-power, another sub-division or whatever, and then try to do something about it before it’s too late. However, as time passes and we grow older, it is all too easy to look back through rose-tinted glasses and talk wistfully about the ‘good old days’, remembering only the successes and totally forgetting about past disappointments and disasters. Believe me, New Zealand still has some of the finest trout fishing you could ever wish for. What’s more, I’ve just returned from a trip to California where I had a wonderful week’s sport with former boss Ed Volpe, an old friend mentioned in some of these stories. Likewise I recently enjoyed a splendid fortnight’s fishing in Scotland plus a couple of spectacular weeks in Northern Ireland, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I sometimes wonder if maybe fishing undergoes a metamorphosis similar to that of language. Just as old words disappear from our vocabulary and are replaced by new ones, so do fishing opportunities change, with the loss of one good place often being tempered by the emergence of a new one. I can think of one case where a little fishery was drained and destroyed by some ‘think big’ project, but the access road constructed for maintenance of its power lines opened the way to get into another little lake nearby that had been all but inaccessible. The mindless and unnecessary destruction of the Wheao River back in the 1980s is another example. While the loss of what was assuredly a world-class fishery can never be replaced, at least it resulted in the creation of two new lakes and a mile or so of easily accessible and eminently fishable canal. All three have produced a number of fish well in excess of ten pounds, and indeed two were deemed good enough to be included as venues for the World Fly Fishing Championships in 1991, so it wasn’t all a total disaster.
Looking back objectively over 60 years of fishing experiences I think I can honestly say that in many ways, the fishing opportunities today are often as good and in some cases even better than they ever were. There have been some tragic losses but they haven’t all been due to greedy developers, dirty dairying or the stupidity of planners. How does one balance the advent of the motor car with the decline of remote fishing venues, for example? It’s a major contributor to deaths and injuries through road accidents, a major polluter and the main reason behind the massive increase in angler numbers on hitherto relatively unfished water. Yet if put to the vote, I think you’ll agree the car would win by a substantial margin! I also believe that the much-misaligned put-and-take fisheries of Europe and America have provided a practical remedy for the massive increase in the numbers of anglers. While the techniques for fishing them may sometimes differ a little from those used on a wild-trout fishery, put-and-takes certainly provide a satisfactory alternative, and I can assure you the fish they hold are on average very much bigger and more numerous than used to be the case in most of the over-fished public waters. The point I’m trying to make is that while nothing remains static, all change isn’t necessarily bad. The same goes for the tackle we use today. When I first began fishing, nylon monofilament hadn’t been invented and instead we used silkworm gut. Hollow glass didn’t exist then either, and for all the rhetoric that’s been printed about split cane rods, they were relatively heavy and very pricey alternatives. Plastic-coated lines weren’t available either, so we used silk ones which were also relatively expensive and required greasing before use to make them float and thorough drying afterwards to help prevent rot. If you wanted your line to sink, the best you could do was to de-grease it so it became a sort of intermediate density slow-sinker, but there was no Hi-D or other fast-sinking equivalent. So despite the sad end of some of the waters that still run in my memory, the future outlook is for the most part good. I hope you enjoy reading these recollections of my adventures as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. Reliving each experience after all these years has been almost like watching an old movie! HMcD
was born with a desire to go fishing. Why this should be so remains a mystery, for nobody else in our family ever fished, nor did anyone in our circle of friends or acquaintances. There were no books on the subject to be read nor fishing conversations to be listened to, nobody to encourage, instruct or emulate and nothing to inspire, yet from the very beginning I was drawn to water as a pin to a magnet. I still am. At first it was a sheugh â€” an Ulster colloquialism for a drainage-ditch â€” that marked the boundary between our field and a neighbourâ€™s. I would spend hours there, pottering about, exploring, watching and learning, despite scoldings for coming home late and wet and dirty, prophecies of death from drowning or pneumonia and threats of dire consequences should I ever go back. But of course I went back. The water was like a drug and I simply had to have another fix, regardless of the consequences.
To anyone else a sheugh was just a sheugh: a place where cattle could drink, which choked with mud and weeds and had to be cleared out once or twice a year, but to me it was Paradise. You could lie in the shade of an ash tree atop a grassy knoll, the air heavy with the scents of honeysuckle and primroses and wild violets, listening to the lazy drone of bumblebees, the songs of chaffinch, linnet, yellowhammer and willowwarbler in the hedgerows, a skylark high above and perhaps the clear, cool call of a distant cuckoo. Out over the water the dragonflies hawked for gnats, and damselflies sunbathed on the stems of waterside plants. If you gazed down through the grass between the purple foxgloves and into the watery depths, you found yourself looking into another world, populated by strange and alien creatures which lived out their lives and died there, among the stems of rushes and clumps of pale green starwort swaying gently in the slight current. There were the water-striders that ran dimpling over the surface to seize a hapless midge or gnat trapped in the film, backswimmers and water-boatmen with their long, oarlike legs and miniature boat-shaped bodies, and whirligig beetles that scurried like dodgem cars over the water. Great water-beetles hunted tirelessly among the debris on the bottom, rising occasionally for fresh supplies of air before submerging again, silver air-bubbles glistening on their sterns, to resume the hunt. Snails were always abundant and they too would occasionally rise slowly to the surface where they floated upside down for a while, apparently also taking in air, then sink slowly down to disappear into the weed beds. I used to wonder how they managed to float to the top when they were short of air and yet sink when they were full of it, but I never did figure it out. There were tadpoles of course, and black and green leeches, and threadworms like animated horsehairs that you could tie in knots just to watch them undo themselves, and bloodworms that jerked convulsively through the water by coiling and uncoiling their bodies. When I came into the possession of a butterfly net and started exploring the deep, hidden places among the waterweeds I became aware of a miscellany of totally new creatures, from mayfly, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs to hellgrammites and caddis larvae and those of the great water-beetles. I didnâ€™t then know what they were, but by catching them and trying to keep them in jam jars I quickly learned all kinds of things about them, including the fact that many of them ate each other. Once I spent nearly a whole day watching a dragonfly nymph which, having climbed out of its watery
prison, sat drying in the sun until its skin split and an adult dragonfly miraculously emerged from within. Amazing as this metamorphosis was, its effect on me was nothing compared to the capture of my very first stickleback. I recall my awe and delight as I gazed spellbound into my jam-jar at the very first live fish I’d ever seen up close, enchanted with his turquoise eyes and orange breast, his symmetry of construction, his rippling fins and graceful movements. I bore him home in triumph and made a place for him in a bowl on the dresser with pebbles and a few strands of weed, but when my mother saw what I’d done with her best cut-glass salad bowl, she unforgivably tipped him and the rest of the bowl’s contents down the toilet. Shortly after this tragedy, something else occurred which enlarged and enriched my young life immeasurably. My father had the gift of water divining, a power almost as rare as it is unexplainable. It involved the use of ‘divining-rods’: well-seasoned forked hazel twigs, with equalsized branches about the thickness of pencils and maybe eighteen to twenty inches long. Grasping an end in each hand and holding them, palms upward, with his elbows at his sides and the apex pointing ahead, he’d walk slowly over the area where it was hoped water could be found. When he came to an underground spring, the apex would mysteriously twitch and begin to rise, slowly and sluggishly if the spring was small or very deep but quite briskly if it was strong or shallow. Although there is no logical explanation for this phenomenon, it was totally reliable and never failed him. There were always cynics and non-believers, until a hole was dug and a spring of water materialised. Upon seeing the stick leap suddenly upwards, one man accused my father of moving it with his hands. Laughingly, Dad invited him to grasp his hands in his own to prevent this, and somewhat reluctantly the farmer accepted. It was, as it turned out, a particularly strong spring located only ten feet beneath the surface. The stick positively struggled and writhed within their combined grasp until, unable to revolve freely, it cracked and began winding itself by the bark around the man’s hands. With a hoarse cry he shook himself free from the twisting stick, and muttering something about “black arts”, fled in terror. My father marked the spot with the broken rod. Later, when he’d recovered from his fright and regained his composure, the farmer dug a well there. As far as I am aware, it still produces water to this day.
Because these divining rods often broke, my father liked to have a dozen or so seasoning in reserve at any given time. It was while accompanying him in search of new stock that I first discovered my Amazon. The day had been wet — it was about November I think — and I suppose the river would have been in flood. A thicket of hazel bushes grew on a bank high above it, and I vaguely remember my father searching for his elusive forked and uniformlybranched twigs while my mother gathered clusters of hazelnuts in her apron. But my clearest recollections are the thundering roar of the river, and of how I gazed down with a heart beating wildly from fear and delight, enchanted and mesmerised by the rushing torrents of foaming, leaping, swirling, plunging, brown water. Someone once said that for everyone there exists a place which, when eventually encountered, the soul will instantly recognise as home. This I fervently believe, for the instant I beheld that river, I knew a river was where I wanted to be for the remainder of my life. Then came a second revelation. It took place, appropriately enough, one wet Sunday afternoon some time in the early 1940s. After church my brother and I accompanied our parents on a walk to visit a childless old couple we knew as Uncle Bob and Aunt Aggie — my mother’s uncle and aunt — who owned a little farmlet a mile or so from ours. In those days it was still generally believed that children should be seen but not heard, but it was not easy for small boys restricted by stiff collars and tight Sunday suits to sit up straight and be quiet while the grown-ups talked endlessly about Hitler and the war. To make matters worse, Aunt Aggie was as deaf as a post and everything had to be repeated by shouting down a cardboard tube into her ear, hearing aids not being available at the time.
My mother must have sensed our frustration, because when the rain stopped and the sun miraculously appeared, she suggested we two might like to go for a walk. So after buttoning up our raincoats and securing our scarves with safety pins, we were allowed to escape, our ears ringing with warnings to keep out of puddles and to stay away from the river. Being the elder and having already had experience of the river from my earlier encounter, I wasted no time in seeking it out, for up until then I had not realised that my Amazon was the same river that ran through Uncle Bob’s property. The threats of dire consequences resulting from my disobedience were quickly cast aside, because nothing short of shackles could have kept me away
from it. My little brother couldn’t have cared less. He sensed that, being younger, he automatically came under my care and therefore I would be the one to suffer any punishment for disobedience. Even at this distance, if you listened carefully you could hear the roar of the flooded river. After making sure we weren’t being watched, we headed in the direction of the sound. The path led downhill beside a tall hedge, but once at the bottom further progress was impossible because of a huge puddle in a sea of mud. Fortunately there was a gate in the hedge about here so we climbed it, and dropping into the grassy field I was surprised to find we had reached the river. I was even more surprised to find there was someone fishing. I’d never actually seen anyone fishing before so this in itself was something of a treat, but that they were fishing on Sunday made the experience doubly exciting and deliciously wicked. For Sunday was the Lord’s Day, a day in which your behaviour was controlled by enough Thou Shalt Nots to last clean through to Monday. Although I could not remember ever having heard anything specifically regarding the pros and cons of fishing on the Sabbath, I instinctively felt sure anything so exciting was bound to be wicked and therefore prohibited. I waited, half expecting to see the Almighty appear in a burning bush or descend angrily from the sky in a fiery chariot, hurling brimstone and thunderbolts to carry the miserable sinner off to his doom. But nothing of this nature happened, and I plucked up enough courage to approach the man and ask if he’d caught anything. When he replied with an affirmative grunt, I asked if I could please have a look at his catch, a request which surely no angler ever born could resist. Propping his rod against the nearby hedge he opened his khaki shoulder-bag and withdrew a small, faded, well-washed cotton sack which had once contained oatmeal and on which the outline of a kilted piper could still be seen. Opening it he tipped out onto the wet grass two of the most beautiful fish I’d ever beheld. True, at this point in my young life I’d only ever set eyes on three other kinds of fish: sticklebacks that I’d caught in my butterfly net, herrings that my mother sometimes bought from a wee man who materialised from time to time with a horse and flat cart shouting “Herrin’ alive, herrin’ alive, herrin’ alive-oh!”, and a great split-and-salted ling that hung in our larder and glowed in the dark. But these fish were different, with their pale brown backs and creamy bellies and their old-gold sides peppered with
spots and crosses, black mostly, but orange and red too, some even with pale blue haloes round them. They were exquisitely beautiful, and as I turned them over in my hands I noticed they had a distinctive odour that remained on my fingers after I’d laid them down again. “What kind of fish are they?” I asked. The man looked hard at me and then by way of reply said: “Have yez never seen a trout before?” When I answered no, I hadn’t, he stared hard at me again for a long time and then replied “Aye, well them’s trout,” adding with a laugh “an’ bloody good wans too!” Smiling, he replaced them in his bag, picked up his rod and climbing over the gate, disappeared off downstream. That was how I first met old Willie. And from that moment on, I wanted nothing more from life than a flame-mottled cane rod with a black handle, brass ferrules and red wraps, a box of worms and a bag to carry my trout, so I could go fishing just like him. Over the next decade or so I spent countless hours in a love-affair with my river, clambering up and down her banks, tunnelling through her thickets, wading her shallows, fishing her pools, learning and exploring all her secret places until every stick, stone, bush and bank, every riffle, stretch, glide, rapids, waterfall, pool and backwater was committed to memory, indelibly photographed and filed permanently in my mind, available for instant recall. I started with a whole ash sapling, then graduated to a bamboo rod made by joining two garden canes together with a nail up their centres and lots of Elastoplast bound with string. But my closest memories are of a three-piece, ten-foot rod my mother bought for me from R.C. Moore’s tackle shop at 131 Royal Avenue, Belfast, for the princely sum of thirty-two shillings and sixpence. The butt and mid sections were of flame-mottled natural bamboo like Willie’s, and the tip was of yellow lancewood. The ferrules and the sliding rings on the black-painted wooden handle were brass, and the guides were all bound with crimson silk. When I first saw it, resplendent in black and yellow and red with its brass fittings and glittering varnish, it quite took my breath away and I thought it the most handsome rod in the whole world. I’m still not sure that it wasn’t.
My first reel was an Elo, a little black plastic centrepin about three inches in diameter which I purchased from Woolworths for two shillings and eleven pence on the same day, my mother having refused point-blank to spend any more money on “toys”. It boasted a clicking ratchet and held thirty yards of green cuttyhunk with a somewhat optimistic breaking strain of thirty pounds. Today my rod is graphite, my reel a Hardy and the box of worms in the bag has been replaced by a multi-pocketed fishing vest full of fly-packed Wheatleys, yet the same magic sparked by that chance meeting with Willie is still present. It has taken me halfway around the world and created more memories, helped make more friends and provided more happiness and contentment than anything else I’ve encountered. I have trodden the banks of many of the world’s great waters — prettier, bigger, wider and deeper and boasting fish a lot larger and more glamorous than the little black- and orange-spotted trout of my childhood. But none have ever quite compared with my river, my Amazon. To this day I have only to look at a stream in brown flood or smell again the unforgettable wet-day country smells of fresh wet earth and damp, rotting leaves, and memories of my childhood come rushing back: strong and unstoppable as the river itself, as though they were events that occurred just down the road only yesterday instead of half a world away and half a century ago.
The fishing was best in a flood, everybody knew that, so when it rained you rushed through your chores, hoping against hope that the old man wouldn’t think of any new ones for little boys to do: like clearing clogged drains or spouting, or sorting and boxing seed potatoes, or sewing torn meal bags, or any number of other tasks usually reserved for doing on wet days on a farm, which is what we thought our twenty-five acres was back then. But if your luck held out you could take a flattined garden fork or graip, and wearing an old raincoat taken from the barn and a mealbag with one corner tucked into the other over your head as a combination hood and cape, go and dig the worms. There were three different kinds, and although all of them could be found almost anywhere if you dug long enough, there were areas where each species tended to predominate. The biggest, and
by far the most common, were lobworms, the big maroon-headed ones with little bristles that thrived in the rich soil of the kitchen garden where the potatoes grew. It was fortunate that they were plentiful, because once on the hook they didn’t live too long and you were forever changing baits. Novices always went for the biggest ones, but once you’d become an experienced eight-year-old you looked for the mediumsized ones which the trout could easily get into their mouths, instead of just biting off the tails and escaping the hook. Even more fragile were brandlings, the little red-and-cream banded worms you got in the manure heap and which wriggled so much they often twisted themselves right off the hook. They were best in summer, for when the water was low and clear their frantic gyrations would often tempt a hungry trout up from the deep, dark, shadowy depths when nothing else would. But best of all were blackheads, worms with steel-grey heads and firm, pinkish bodies you usually found in clay. You had to dig really deep for them — sometimes two feet or more — and there was often a power of digging involved before you found one, gleaming like a pale pink nugget in a prospector’s pan. Yet it was worth the effort, because of all the baits you could impale on your hook, blackheads were the toughest and longest-lived and everyone knew that the biggest trout were usually caught on them. If there were lots of dockens around, it was also worth digging up a few of them to see if you could find any of the fat, creamy, orange-headed grubs that sometimes lived in the roots, for these were held in high esteem by many as an excellent troutbait, possibly superior even to the blackheads. Digging up dockens also scored extra points with the old man, who waged a never-ending war with thistles, nettles, ragwort and other common Irish weeds as well as dockens, but digging them out took even more time than searching for blackheads, and the longer you spent the greater the risk of being spotted and commandeered for extra duties. So as soon as you’d filled your moss-packed tin box with whatever worms and grubs you could muster in the shortest possible time, you’d stuff it in your tackle-bag along with a couple of cheese sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, grab your rod and take off on the mile-long walk over the sodden fields to the river. How clear the details of that journey still are! I don’t know how many times I walked it in reality, but in my mind I have walked it again a thousand times.
Down the road maybe a quarter of a mile, then left over a gate into the six-acre and follow the tall hawthorn hedge, past the place where once the cow had lain down and couldn’t get up again. We’d lit a bonfire nearby and Dad had sat up tending it all night in an effort to try and keep her warm, but as the sun came up and mist rose over the dew-drenched fields, she stretched out her neck and with a long, low moan she gave a convulsive shudder and relaxed slowly into death. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen something die and though I can still remember my father swearing softly and bitterly, I was too young to understand his frustration as he watched helplessly while what amounted to five per cent of his entire herd slipped away. A little further along and you came to a great bundle of sticks well up a tall hawthorn, where generations of magpies had reared their successive broods. Just after this there was another gate to climb into Frame’s Hill, overlooked by the earthen ramparts on an ancient Irish forth where aeons earlier my ancestors lit their signal fires to warn of approaching invaders, perhaps Danes or Vikings. There was always a big rain-puddle along this stretch and you would often put up snipe and occasionally ducks, teal mostly but sometimes mallards too, attracted there by the food-rich flooded ground among the rushes. Here you paused to soak and soften your gut-snooded hooks while you put your rod and reel together. Why here and not at the riverside I know not: this was where it was done, and that was that. Hooks in those days were size 4 round-bend and came whipped to looped eight-inch lengths of silkworm gut, which could be inter-looped with an eighteen-inch length of the same material attached to the line. We all called it “catgut” back then because we didn’t know any better, and even when nylon monofilament made its appearance years later it was still referred to as “nylon gut”. Despite gut having to be soaked in the puddle before use and sometimes not for long enough either, I cannot remember it often breaking. Perhaps it did and I’ve forgotten, or maybe it was the fact that it was usually kept pretty wet by the rain for the remainder of the journey.
The walk terminated at an old ivy-covered stone road bridge which marked the uppermost limit of my Amazon. Anything upstream was disregarded. The land became flat and uninteresting and the river slow-moving and shallow, with dense, unkempt bankside vegetation that required too much effort for too little return. You came up through a little gate onto the road, turned right and crossed the bridge and then, turning right again, you climbed another gate to gain access to the left bank looking downstream — on which you would stay for the remainder of your fishing expedition.
The beat began with a shallow and usually not very productive stretch but, like every other part of the river, it held its own special little memories. Sheltering under the bridge from a summer thunderstorm one afternoon I saw a huge eel writhing its way into a deep crack between two stones. Wielding a ten-foot rod in the limited space available was too awkward so I held the baited line in my hand, dangling the worm temptingly outside the opening until a head poked out, snaffled it and retreated back into the lair. After waiting a moment I dragged out my thrashing prize, a three-footer, which was a monster for this river and the biggest eel I was ever to take from it. Fifty yards downstream the river made a sharp left turn, cutting a deep hole in the right bank, a place where you could always almost bet on catching a fish. Some years later, in a riffle just above this hole, I saw a trout inexplicably rising during a flood. Casting my little wet spiders over it, in one act I took both the first rising fish to which I’d ever cast and the second I’d ever taken on a fly. But my progression to fly fishing didn’t come along until it was almost time to bid my river farewell. I served my angling apprenticeship with worms, and the fishing was deliciously simple and uncomplicated. You threaded a worm onto your hook and swung it upstream. Then you followed its progress back towards you with the rod tip, on as short a line as you could get away with, without interfering with the natural drift rate — just as a good fly fisher today would fish a weighted nymph cast upstream with a floating line. I no longer wish to catch trout using worms, but when I hear someone today sneeringly deride the humble worm-fisherman I sometimes smile quietly to myself. I
know that an angler who has learned to fish the upstream worm properly will always make a considerably better nymph fisher than one who has not, because having served his worm-fishing apprenticeship he will have developed a feel for it that the other lacks. Since the tackle we used in those far-off days was fairly stout and the trout we caught rarely more than twelve inches, the concept of ‘playing’ a fish was unheard of and a landing net unnecessary. When you felt the gentle tug-tug as a trout mouthed the worm, you simply took a firm grip of the rod and, holding your right index finger on the reel to prevent it overrunning, you swung the rod smartly through 180 degrees downstream and over your left shoulder. This sent the trout sailing from the water and through the air to fall flopping and stunned in the wet grass behind you — hooked, played and landed in one smooth, easy motion. As the river was small and mostly accessible from the bank, you could fish in gumboots and there was no need for clumsy and expensive waders. Nor was there any need for a fancy fishing-vest, even if such a thing had existed. Your entire equipment consisted of a box of worms, your meagre lunch, a packet of spare hooks-to-gut, and a sharp pocket-knife with which to clean your trout or sever the heads from any eels you might encounter, and only a small shoulder-bag was required. The day’s catch would be carried on a wreath of rushes until lunchtime, after which it could be wrapped in the newspaper remaining from your lunch and safely stowed in the bag. Seasons, licences and limits were unknown then too, and I’m afraid that the only fish that weren’t kept were those too young to have lost their purple parr-marks and which hadn’t been hooked too deeply to be released alive. Beyond this deep bend was a short run, its far bank fringed with blackberry and nightshade, where the river caught its breath before plunging headlong down a steep, rocky waterfall. Despite its glamour it was a relatively non-productive fishing spot, downright dangerous in a flood, and because of the spray it produced, an exceedingly wet place at the best of times. Unlike regular waterfalls it lacked a defined pool at the bottom. Instead the water rushed away down a rocky-walled rapid as quickly as possible, almost as though glad to escape. Rather than waste time there I used to bypass it and hurry to the next access point, a narrow space between two old hawthorn trees. Here you could lower your worm down into a swirling eddy some ten or twelve feet below, but if you hooked a fish you had to haul your prize, kicking and
struggling, all the way back up again, hoping against hope that the gut wouldn’t break or that it wouldn’t manage to flop off. From here the track dropped down almost to river level to run by the ivy-clad ruins of a mill. Beside a gap in the crumbling wall where the empty socket of a window stared unseeing over the river, you could stand on the narrow path and fish a small run overhung with alder and hazel bushes that lay opposite. Once more, landing your trout presented something of a problem, with the bushes and the great old wall behind you and the overhanging bunches of ivy.
The old mill was a spooky place. It stood in a dismal hollow at the foot of a steep bank enshrouded by blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, alder and mountain ash, which combined to shut out much of the available light. The tall, funereally dark ash trees nearby did nothing to improve the atmosphere. The roof had long ago fallen in and the four walls, having begun to come apart at the corners, leaned drunkenly and Pisa-like away from each other, seemingly indifferent to gravity, supported and held together by the very ivy that had forced them apart in the first place. Inside, grass and nettles grew thickly around the huge old millstones, rusting machinery and general debris on the floor, while at the back the remains of an ancient waterwheel lay rotting quietly in its slot. It was rumoured that the ghost of a miller, who’d hanged himself from a beam after his wife had run away and left him, haunted the place. Some old-timers said this was rubbish, that he’d been a bachelor who lived alone and had died in his sleep, while others thought that he’d gone mad and ended his days in a lunatic asylum. Another rumour claimed he’d joined up and been killed in “The War”, though nobody seemed to know whether it had been the Crimean or the Boer War, nor could anyone even remember his name. The only certainty was that whatever had happened took place a long, long time ago. Despite the air of damp and decay that hung over the place, I sometimes used to take a little break from my fishing to fossick around the ruins. While so engaged, I found something that really set me thinking.
It was a small, pink china hand, complete and perfect in every detail right down to the very nails on the chubby, dimpled little fingers, that had obviously once belonged to a child’s doll and certainly not at all the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a bachelor’s dwelling. So maybe there had been a wife and maybe she’d taken their child and fled from this place, and maybe the miller had hanged himself there after all. From then on the mill took on a sinister aura. Although I was a big boy and didn’t believe in ghosts or bogeymen, I confess that I never lingered any longer than I had to. I gave up fishing the run beside the window altogether after a huge stone suddenly dropped from the wall, bounced on the path where I’d been standing a moment earlier, and fell with a mighty splash into the river, almost as though the building resented my presence and was warning me to stay away. Beyond the mill lay a dense bed of stinging nettles and prickly thistles. What with these, the close proximity of the foreboding ruins and a general tangle of bankside shrubbery, it was an easy decision to bypass this area and enter instead a blackthorn thicket. This was achieved via a tunnel created by generations of cattle, which had smashed and trampled their way in to escape from heat and flies in summer, or perhaps to shelter from winter snow or sleet. Dumb animals or not, I noticed that they never hung around the old mill either, despite its obvious potential as a place to get out of the weather. Had some primitive instinct warned them of the inherent danger? Whatever the reason, they had provided me with access to an otherwise inaccessible piece of water. Here the river foamed and swirled around craggy rocks that lay under a canopy of foliage so dense that sometimes you had to resort to a bow-and-arrow cast to get your worm out into the water at all. Landing a fish in here was something of a miracle, and any success was probably as much to good luck as to angling skill. After fifty yards of creeping and crawling you suddenly emerged on a flat grassy bank alongside the river, a secret place hidden from the outside world by the tangle of hazel and blackthorn that enclosed it. This was a region full of promise, for a little further downstream lay a weir and as a result the water in here ran slow and deep, the deepest place in the whole river, and obviously the home of monster trout. Curiously, however, although I took many fish there I can only remember ever catching one of outstanding proportions. It was a big sea-run brownie, maybe eighteen inches long,
fat as butter, silver as a newly-minted shilling and certainly one of the biggest fish I had ever taken at the time or, as it happened, that I would ever catch in the river. The unusually small number of black spots on this fish, coupled with a total lack of red spots with their familiar blue haloes, bothered me and I feared it might be diseased. But being proud of the size of my catch I took it home anyway, and was astonished when my mother pronounced it the tastiest trout she’d ever eaten. I realised that somehow it was a different kind of trout, a fact later confirmed by a local expert some years later who told me it was “likely a white trout that came in from the sea” which it almost certainly was, although I’m sure I didn’t believe him at the time. You usually ate your lunch here, reclining in the cool leafy shade among the spring primroses or sheltered from the cold autumn winds or icy rains of winter, although finding a dry place to sit then was difficult if not impossible. This problem led to an unfortunate incident involving old Willie Smith, who by then had become a friend and fishing mentor. One drizzly day we left our worms to soak and wriggle deep beneath an undercut bank as we searched for something dry on which to sit and eat our lunches. I remember feeling a twinge of envy when Willie uncovered the only dry rock in the area, hidden beneath some sheltering foxglove leaves. Grunting with satisfaction, he lowered himself onto it, only to have it roll over and deposit him smack in the middle of a spread of bullock-dung. Rising slowly to his knees, he explored his bruised and sodden backside with his hand. Then, looking at the green porridge-like mess on his fingers, exclaimed “God! What a plaster!” We were both convulsed with laughter, and from then on if either of us ever slipped and fell down in the mud or got our wellies stuck in a muddy gap, one had only to look at the other and repeat “God! What a plaster!” and we’d be laughing again. In the autumn there were hazel nuts and fat, juicy blackberries for the taking, and wild raspberries too, if you knew where to look. Often there were mushrooms aplenty to be picked and left hidden among the wet grasses to be retrieved later on the way home. Plump black sloes hung temptingly from the blackthorns, but you had only to bite into one once before you learned to leave them severely alone forever in future, the acrid juice drying up your saliva in a trice and causing you to screw up your eyes and pucker your lips “like a hen’s ass after layin’ an egg”, as Willie once observed.
The pool below the weir was always good for a fish or two, but after this the river hurried swiftly down a narrow channel fringed by sedges and blackberry for a hundred yards or so, never a productive stretch. Here I once found a ewe hopelessly entangled in a briar patch, and spent some considerable time cutting through tendril after prickly tendril of the stuff in an effort to free her. But with the job almost completed she suddenly began struggling and kicking, causing me to cut myself badly, and then plunged back into the thicket to become even more tangled than before. From that day onwards I have considered sheep to be among the stupidest creatures alive. At the end of this run the river emerged into the open, forming a nice little pool that swirled beneath a solitary mountain ash on the opposite bank. On the bank where you stood it was low, grassy and uncluttered, save for the odd clump of rushes, and it was always worthwhile pausing here for a time to give your worm a chance to drift around deep in the eddies and backwaters beneath the rowan-roots opposite, where it might be found by a hungry trout. There was a short stretch of rocky rapids below, and on the opposite bank a concrete box with a wooden lid concealed a hydraulic ram whose regular, heavy thumps shook the ground and could be heard above the roar of even the greatest flood. Nearby lay two huge boulders, behind which you could always expect to find a fish or two. I often wondered why the noise of the ram never seemed to bother the trout that lived there, but I suppose having grown up with the thumping vibrations they must have simply accepted them as a perfectly natural phenomenon.
You didn’t often encounter anyone else on the river back then, but I once met a stranger here who was using the lightest, thinnest rod imaginable. It was midsummer and the river was low and clear and he was drifting small worms impaled on tiny size 14 hooks with horsehair leaders slightly weighted with split-shot, none of which I’d ever known to exist. He caught several trout too and, much to my continuing astonishment, released them unharmed. Since he appeared to be enjoying much more success with his unusual tackle than I was with mine that day, I strung along with him to see what I could learn. He let me hold his ‘fly rod’ (so-called because it was so light, I fancied) and eventually let me fish
a pool with it. Unlike me he fished upstream, so the pool was one I’d fished earlier without success. This time it yielded a fish, and I immediately saw this was a system that held great potential. To begin with, in these low clear conditions the trout seemed much more attracted to the small worms than the bigger ones I normally used. As small worms were considerably more plentiful, they’d be easier to collect. Besides, from what my friend told me, it appeared the little eyed hooks were cheaper than my big ones with the gut snoods. All that remained was to obtain a rod as thin and light as his, so I asked him where he’d got it. He told me he made his own rods, usually from cane or something called greenheart, but that this one was rosewood, since being wartime, both the other materials had become impossible to obtain. When I asked how much it would cost, he said he could make me one for five pounds. My heart sank. Five pounds was then two weeks’ wages for a grown man, and he might as well have said five thousand for all the chance I had of getting that much money. By way of consolation, I suppose, he gave me a few of the horsehair leaders and some of the tiny hooks, although sadly neither item ever proved of any value to me. The thick gut leader I used was too thick to fit through the eyes of the hooks and the horsehair seemed to have no strength at all, unquestionably due to the unyielding tip of my heavy rod and my unsophisticated method of landing fish. Below the two big boulders were some more rapids, terminating in a deep pool about thirty yards long and lined on the far side with sedges. It was here, under my tuition, that my brother Brian caught his very first trout. As it was a mere six inches, I think the achievement made considerably more of an impression on me as tutor than on him as captor. This was a very productive reach nevertheless: fishing side by side we once took fifteen trout from it, which works out at about a fish for every six feet of stream.
Downstream the river narrowed again before plunging into the next pool, deep under the roots of a big old alder growing on the bank where you stood. The trout all seemed to lie back in here, and to get your worm down to them you had to drop it well upstream and then stand facing the tree with your rod held in your right hand, willing the line into just the right position. It was a terrible place for getting hooked up in the gnarled roots and losing your tackle, but the temptation to give it a go as very strong, because any trout you might catch here were likely to be of a good size.
From here the river ran fairly shallow for about fifty twisting yards before disappearing behind a dense thicket of blackthorn, but if you lay down and crawled under the prickly branches you came out on a narrow, grassy ledge from which you could access ten yards or so or deep and relatively slow-moving water, another likely place for a decent fish. Because of my diminutive size I suspect I was probably the only person who ever fished there: indeed, thinking about it now, I was probably the only person who even knew of its existence. After returning the way you’d gone in you came to a huge rock about the size of a small car. There was always a good fish on the downstream side, and here a particularly exciting episode occurred one warm summer’s day. I’d wound the line around the tip of my rod, and poking it slowly over the top of this boulder, I began revolving it in the opposite direction to allow the worm to descend quietly and unobtrusively to the water on the other side. Suddenly it was taken with a bang by an unseen fish, apparently of some substance, which whacked the rod-tip severely on the top of the rock before breaking free and scaring me half to death with its violence and ferocity. Fortunately, being made of sterner stuff, the tip survived unscathed from the encounter. A pile of rocks smothered in all manner of ivy, gorse and gardeners’ plague formed an impenetrable barrier at this point, forcing you to leave the river and negotiate a sea of mud we christened The Guttery Gap if you wished to continue downstream. In wet weather this was a formidable obstacle where one could easily become mired, and Wellingtons might even come off entirely in the grasp of the glutinous mud. When this happened it resulted in many calls of “What a plaster!” before the unfortunate victim could get re-shod and gain the safety of firm ground again. The only alternative to facing the perils of the gap was to take a lengthy detour round the hillside to the left, but getting there involved a steep climb up a bank and clawing your way through a jungle of blackthorn, blackberry and gorse and negotiating the rusty remains of a substantial barbed-wire fence. Having at last gained access to the paddock above, you could easily walk past the Guttery Gap region, but you then discovered that to get back to the river again you had to make a return journey down another part of the same prickly, obstacle-strewn bank you’d just negotiated. Unfortunately now the bank was even steeper and twice as high as before. Having made the journey once, I vowed that in future I’d take my chances in the mud.
The first few pools below the Gap carry few memories of fish, but in later years my brother and I had some great rat-hunts there with a border collie and an old, singlebarrelled Webley 12-bore shotgun. The dog would pick up the scent, go barking and snuffling into the undergrowth and presently, if our luck held, we’d spot the rat sneaking out and swimming downstream, whereupon we’d shoot it. Sometimes the range was only a few feet and in these cases the ragged remains of the carcass would somehow be flung high in the air, despite the fact we were shooting down on it. No doubt ballistics experts understand the reason for this apparent phenomenon, but it’s always remained a mystery to me. On one occasion Brian shot a rat swimming down a chute between a steep, rocky cliff and some hazel bushes. There was a bang and a simultaneous terrific splash, then nothing: no blood, no body. “I must have hit it,” he declared, handing the smoking gun to me and poking around with a stick, “but I can’t see sight nor sign of it anywhere!” At that very moment the remains of the rat, which had been blown skywards and evidently lodged temporarily in the overhead canopy, broke free and dropped — all legs, tail and entrails and jammy side down — smack on top of his head. I have never heard anyone shriek louder. When the river emerged from this place it levelled out over some shallows before forming a deepish channel where it ran beneath an old ash tree. This was to acquire very special significance to me, for years later it was here that I would take my very first trout on a fly. There was one more pool below. Then the water flowed over some golden, pebbly shallows again beside a summer bank of yellow kingcups, wild pink roses and white convolvulus, before disappearing under another stone road bridge very similar to the first. I once caught a biggish eel here too, and after cutting off its head I set about recovering my hook. To my horror, the jaws of the severed head clamped down on my right forefinger in a vice-like grip which I simply could not free, and I had to seek help from two onlookers before it could be removed. I still bear a little scar on my finger to this day, a permanent reminder to beware of eels’ heads, decapitated or otherwise.
The river was still fairly shallow when it emerged on the other side of the road, but after flowing under the branches of a huge chestnut tree it narrowed, gathered speed and rushed under the roots of a small ash to form a delightful pool below. I caught a great many trout there, but I remember most the place where the water exited, for it was here that I caught my very first. I had been fishing for what seemed like a lifetime without ever having caught anything, and I was beginning to wonder if I ever would. I could scarcely believe my luck when, about eleven o’clock one Saturday morning, I felt the gentle tug of a trout mouthing the bait. With my heart pounding like a trip-hammer, I forced my sweating hands to take a firm grip of the rod. Taking a deep breath, I swung the rod smartly downstream, propelling my prize swiftly out of the river — but in my excitement I’d forgotten to lock the reel with my finger to prevent an over-run. The fish sailed some thirty yards up the paddock. Thus I landed my first ever trout and simultaneously gave myself my first lesson in distance-casting with a centrepin reel! I doubt if there was a happier little boy in Ireland at that moment and, as they used to say back then, I wouldn’t have called the King my cousin. After leaving that magic, never-to-be-forgotten spot, the river tumbled down a short rocky staircase before plunging over a little waterfall between two bankside trees. Here it formed a long pool, shallow on the near side but running deep under the opposite bank beneath the roots of an ash and a sycamore that shaded it. It was a good place to catch fish during a flood, certainly, but a spot that for some reason really came into its own when the water was clearing afterwards. Although there was nowhere on the river that could even remotely be called ugly, the next hundred yards were exceptionally beautiful in a peaceful, rural sort of way. You walked along a flat, daisy-starred paddock whose close-cropped green sward ran right to the water’s edge, with no fences to climb or other obstacles to negotiate. The opposite bank was higher and smothered in vegetation which produced a riot of colour at eye-level, regardless of the season. In spring and early summer the rich pinks of dog-roses and the lighter pinks of brier and hawthorn, mingled with pale golden honeysuckle and elderflowers, creamy yarrow and hemlock, and frothy wild-cherry blossom, made a perfect foil for the rich purple spikes of foxgloves and loosestrife, yellow Aaron’s rod and deep blue morningglories. Autumn exhibited its own display of dark sepia and grey branches with dying
leaves in tones of buff, tan, yellow and orange, showing off to best advantage the brilliant red fruit of mountain ash and nightshade, rose-hips and hawthorn berries. Between these kaleidoscopic banks the river flowed in a leisurely, sedentary fashion with the dignity of an aristocratic old lady viewing an art exhibition. Having finished her inspection and reached the exit, she hurriedly made her way down a sparkling, stony staircase, pausing briefly at the bottom to make a grand, sweeping entrance into the ballroom-like pool below. It was here, on the fateful Sunday of Sundays that changed my young life forever, that my brother and I had first encountered Willie. This was a beautiful stretch, particularly in summer when the margins were ablaze with golden kingcups and succulent green watercress. Sometimes you’d see a mallard with her fluffy brown-and-yellow ducklings feeding in the foam-flecked backwater, or hear a red-beaked black moorhen clucking anxiously as she flirted her white tail and hustled her tiny black chicks to safety among the stems of bankside plants. I once caught a nice trout in this pool, but as I propelled it in time-honoured fashion from the river, the gut leader broke and it flew over the hedge and disappeared deep into a field of barley. I can’t remember if it was the size of the fish or the fact that I had not caught many fish at all at the time that made its retrieval so crucial, but I do remember the process took an exceedingly long time, as you will find out for yourself if you ever have to search for a trout in a barley-field. But recover it I finally did, and hopefully without too much damage to the crop. A hedge, a mighty ash at the water’s edge and several strands of barbed wire across the river meant that if you wanted to progress further downstream, as Willie had done on that first day, you had to climb the nearby gate. Like all the others along the stream it was used once or twice a year, at haymaking or potato-gathering time perhaps, and so opening and moving them involved considerably more effort than small boys or old anglers could provide. Climbing was far and away the easiest means of gaining access to whatever lay ahead. In this case it wasn’t really very much, for a lot of the left bank was high above the river and clad in a tangled mantle of blackberry. I forced my way through it just once. Wading across the river to fish from the opposite and lower bank when the river was low, I spotted my first real trout ‘on the fin’. Four of them there were, swaying gently in the current like shadows at the edge of a sun-dappled drop-off, but although I tried
to catch them I lacked the degree of skill and finesse required. At the conclusion of the encounter the score was trout four, Hughie nil. Due to the virtually impenetrable tangle of brambles there remained but two places from which to gain access before the river disappeared into wild and forbidden territory. One was from a rickety footbridge that spanned the steep banks between two huge willows, but it was really an impossible spot to fish. When the water was clear the trout invariably saw you and bolted, while in flood conditions your worm would be swept away before it had a chance to even get below the surface. The other access was to the last pool I’d fish. It was a brooding place on a bend under a sycamore tree. When you’d struggled down through the bankside foliage you’d find yourself, surprisingly, on a little shingle beach hidden under the canopy with a deep dark swirling pool in front of you. Any trout you caught here were usually good, but as the years went by it became more and more difficult to penetrate the jungle which hid it, until the game ceased to be worth the candle and eventually I ceased trying altogether.
That, then, was my river. Maybe it was only a stream or a creek to some, but to one small boy it was a veritable Amazon: a place fraught with danger, for you could fall in and be swept away and drowned in some places, but also one of rare beauty and excitement and tranquillity. For perhaps ten or twelve years I spent more time in and around it than anywhere else. Then in my late teens the necessity of earning a living, and in time the acquisition of a second-hand motorbike, opened the gateway to wider vistas. I discovered pike-spinning, and since these fish were considerably bigger than trout and there were a great many more places available to fish for them, I spent an increasing amount of my decreasing free time in their pursuit. A job necessitating a move to Scotland steered me back into trout fishing, but exclusively with fly this time. Then circumstances took me overseas. I fished in many parts of America, Canada and other exotic places before eventually settling in New Zealand, where the trout grew bigger than anything I’d ever dreamed existed. But I never forgot my Amazon.
When at last I returned to Ulster on business, the first time I’d been back for more than twenty years, I couldn’t wait to visit my old haunts again. I thought it would be a great idea to make a fishing pilgrimage there, planning to relive history by catching a fish with the same fly in the same pool where I’d taken my very first one almost thirty years earlier. My brother said he’d drive me to the river, and I was excited and expectant when he parked at the old familiar bridge. I got out and walked to the parapet — and then stared in disbelief. There, where my Amazon used to flow dancing and sparkling under the alders, lay a sluggish trickle of water oozing over a bed of slimy orange rocks, stinking and lifeless. “What happened?” I gasped. “The river? Oh, it’s been like that for ages now”, he said, and then added “I think they drained off a lot of the swampy land upstream and I suppose they’ve been dosing it with lime and superphosphate ever since.” I slumped back in the car, saying only “Let’s go home.” “Don’t you want to take a walk down the river then?” “I did, but can’t you see? It’s not there any more!” I replied sadly. “It was a mistake to come back. Let’s go home: I’d rather remember it the way it used to be.” So ends the story of my river, but though she’s dead and gone now, in my memory she still lives on. When the airport voice announces another delay and advises that my flight has been postponed for another two hours, instead of fuming I have only to lie back and close my eyes to see again the dancing riffles and swirling eddies that used to be. I can fish again the tawny, foam-flecked pools and watch the grey heron wade the flooded margins while the ducks and moorhens feed in the backwater below the watercress beds. A kingfisher streaks downstream in a flash of electric-blue fire and the swifts fly low, hawking flies from above the surface between showers. I still hear the roar of the water as it thunders down the falls by the old mill, pours ponderously over the weir or chuckles down the rapids. Pool by pool, stretch by stretch she beckons, calling me back again: my river, my Amazon.
The Great Pike of Sullivan’s Lough
here were three of us back then: Big A.B., Murphy and me, a sort of mid-20th century edition of the Three Musketeers, all in our late teens or early twenties and mad-keen on fishing and bird-hunting. Murphy was the oldest and the undisputed guru on sporting matters. He worked at Braddell and Son, a very upmarket sportinggoods establishment in Belfast patronized by the aristocracy, and we reckoned he knew everything there was to know about fishing and shooting. He could also borrow shotguns from the selection in the shop’s second-hand rack, sometimes pretty classy stuff at that, with names like Jefferies, Boss, Holland and Holland, Greener or Churchill, and once even a Purdey. Since he had the equipment but nowhere to use it, and I had no gun but access to some swampland inhabited by duck, woodcock, snipe and pigeons, we naturally complemented each other. Big A.B. had no gun either, but he did have a boat. He used to buy wrecked cars from insurance company write-offs, fix them up — he was a wizard with engines
— and sell them, so he could occasionally provide some sort of transportation by land as well as by water. So there we were, each of us dependent on one or other members of the trio. I guess it all began when we decided to go sea-trout fishing at Ballyshannon. That’s over-simplifying it a bit because a trip to distant Donegal wasn’t all that easy back in those days, particularly since none of us had a car or very much money. But Murphy had reckoned that this time of year the fishing should be ‘on’ and A.B. had somehow got hold of an old Austin Somerset and between us we reckoned we could just about manage the trip if we pooled our slender resources. And go we did. The journey involved the usual breakdowns and subsequent delays, but thanks to A.B.’s skill with engines and all things mechanical, we finally got there. After a compulsory stop in Ballyshannon at Rogans, the legendary flytier’s place, for a supply of the newly-invented Gadget flies that we could ill-afford but which, Murphy assured us, were absolutely indispensable, we found ourselves on the kelpy shores of the estuary where the mighty River Erne joined forces with the even mightier Atlantic Ocean. It was a lovely bright, sunny afternoon with a rising tide and a little breeze to put a healthy ripple on it, and we were supremely confident of success. The fish would come in on the tide, feeding hungrily on the myriad small creatures flushed from hiding by the rising water, and would never see our outlines through the windruffled surface. But as Rabbie Burns observed, “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”, and he might well have added “especially if the men happen to be fly fishers”. Despite our best efforts with the allegedly indispensable Gadgets, we had not had so much as a single offer between us after four hours’ futile casting. Enthusiasm was, to put it mildly, beginning to wane — until I spotted the salmon. It lay there, a fat bar of silver supported by the long fronds of brownish olive kelp, gills scarcely moving and life all but gone. What had happened to it I have no idea. Maybe it had been struck by a boat’s propeller or maybe it had leapt from the sea as fresh-run fish often do and fallen on the rocks, but when I slid the body into the landing net for closer examination there were no visible signs of damage. Seeing me wade ashore with a bulky shape in my net, the lads hurried over. I told them how I’d found it just floating there among the seaweed and together we looked
the great fish over carefully for clues, but could find none. The eyes were bright and clear, the gills bright and red and there were several sea-lice still clinging to the anal fin, all signs of a really fresh fish. It was a mystery. Murphy suggested we call it a day and repair to the hotel for a Guinness or two before setting up the tent, and being all fished out, Big A.B. and I quickly agreed. We’d reached the car and were putting the gear away when a wee man riding an ancient bicycle came by. On seeing the salmon, he came to a standstill and dismounted. “Evenin’ lads!” he began, “And isn’t that the grand fish yez have!” We agreed it was indeed a grand fish. “An’ did yez catch it in the river there?” he went on. “Hughie got it right down there at the point,” replied Murphy truthfully, indicating the spot. “An’ did yez only get the wan?” he queried. “Aye, just the one,” I said, stowing the last of the gear in the boot. “Well, yez should take it to the hotel,” said the wee man. “I’m helpin’ out in the kitchen an’ I’ll tell yez, there’s not been much in the way of a fresh fish come in lately; they’d likely buy it.” With that, he remounted his ramshackle steed and wobbled slowly away. Big A.B. and Murphy both looked at me expectantly. “Okay,” I said, “let’s find out!” So that’s how we came to be standing at the bar with a pocketful of money, drinking draught Guinness and getting to know the locals instead of getting our tent set up in a sheltered site among the grassy dunes on the shoreline. The talk was mostly about fish. Not just salmon or sea trout but all kinds of fish, from stories about a giant conger that lived under the pier to the big basking sharks they get off Aran Island. And pike. Pike always seem to pop up in Irish fish stories. “Do yez have pike in the North, then?” somebody asked. I smiled. Over the years people have got into the habit of referring to Northern Ireland simply as ‘The North’ and the Republic as ‘The South’. Even though County Donegal in the Republic is geographically north and west of the political North, it
remains in the political South. So only in Ireland can you go to the South by heading north-west, or drive south-east to get to the North! But I knew what he meant. “Oh, we do indeed!” I replied, adding proudly “I landed a fish last year that was nearly 20 pounds.” “Pat here caught a helluva pike wan time,” said someone else, “didn’t ya, Pat?” “Oh yes, ’twas a powerful baste altogether!” replied Pat. “Near twelve fut long it was!” “I thought it was ten fut eleven,” interjected old Danny from the corner. “No,” insisted Pat, “t’was eleven fut ten. That’s what it said in the paper. Weren’t yez all there when we measured it?” “An’ two hundert,” chimed in Mick. “Mind, we weighed him with the bags of flour.” “Pig male it was,” corrected old Danny. “Two bags of pig male… I mind it well.” “Oh, Divil the odds it makes what it was!” exclaimed Pat, irritably. “Sure isn’t the weight the same no matter what was in the bags? It’s still two hundert.” I choked back a strong desire to interject with “Pull the other one!”. It’s not generally a great idea to publicly express strong disbelief of something a stranger tells you in a pub, especially an Irish pub. So although I knew that the biggest pike ever recorded in Ireland weighed 53 pounds and had only measured 50-something inches, I held my tongue. So did the boys: they’d grown up in Ireland too. But we must have looked skeptical, because after a moment somebody said: “I believe ’twas in the paper wasn’t it Pat?” “Oh aye, ’twas that!” he answered. “Wait a minit, I think I have the cuttin’ in me pocket.” He began digging about in the tattered remnants of what, back somewhere around the turn of the century, had once been a half-decent Donegal tweed coat. My mind was in a whirl, and it wasn’t just the Guinness. Sure, everybody knew about John Garvin’s big pike from Lough Conn in the 1920s, but then again Donegal wasn’t exactly the centre of the universe. Hundreds of black lakes lay hidden among the peat bogs and the lonely Bluestacks and the wild mountains of Derryveagh and Glendowan, many of which rarely if ever saw an angler from one year to the next.
Who knew for sure what might lurk among the reeds and water lilies that fringed their deep, peat-stained waters? But a twelve-foot, two-hundredweight pike? For readers who’ve grown up in the age of Mickey-Mouse metrics, a hundredweight is 112 Imperial pounds, so two of them would be 224 pounds or 101.6 kilos. And that’s one helluva big fish. Pat had finished his search. “Ach, it’s not in this coat at all,” he declared, “’tis in me Mass suit, that’s where ’tis. I’ll show it to yez the morrah!” “His Ma’s suit?” muttered Big A.B. “What the hell’s it doing in his Ma’s suit?” “That’s Mass, ya ijit!” hissed Murphy under his breath, and then said aloud “So tell us where you caught this great fish then, Pat, and how you managed to land it.” Pat looked long and reflectively into the bottom of his empty glass so we ordered another round for everybody. He took a long deep draught, produced a pipe and lit it and when it was drawing well, began to talk, his eyes misty and with the faraway look of someone reliving an event from a day long since gone. “Well, ’twas round about Christmas time,” he began, “an’ I was out for a shot in the bog at the back of Sullivan’s Lough. That’s over that way.” He pointed the stem of his pipe vaguely in the direction of nowhere in particular. “Oul’ Sullivan came by on the Ferguson an’ stopped for a minute or two to pass the time o’ day an’ see how me wee springer was workin’ — she was wan of his bitch’s litter y’know. Anyway, down among the rushes there she puts up a cock pheasant an’ I ups wit’ me gun an’ drops him in the lake, an’ away she goes to retrieve him. Well, she had the holt of him an’ was comin’ back when up comes this head like a bloody crocodile an’ grabs her an’ away it goes under the water again wit a splash.” “A.. pike.. ate.. your.. dog?” gasped Big A.B. incredulously, his brow furrowed, each word uttered slowly and separately. “That it did, Sor,” sighed Pat sadly. “That it did.” “My God!” said Murphy. “That’s bloody incredible!” “What happened then?” I asked. “Well, I come back home an’ stopped at the hotel here for a drink or two: sure me nerves was playin’ up somethin’ terrible. An’ I thought of me poor wee dog, an’ the
more I thought the more I vowed revenge on the black-hearted baste that had ate her. An’ then I had this idea: I’d catch the villain an’ put an end to his murtherin’ ways.” He paused to re-light his pipe before continuing. “So I went to Brannigan the butcher’s an’ borrowed wan o’ them big hooks ye hang a side o’ beef on, an’ I took it round to Breen’s — he’s the blacksmith, y’know — an’ I got him to put a real sharp point on it entirely. An’ then I went home to see if I could borra the loan of oul’ Bridie next door’s clothesline, an’ when I got it an’ was headin’ back out to Sullivan’s, here comes Padraig Riley’s wee Jack Russell terrier.” “Sure I mind that wee dog well!” interrupted old Danny. “Twas brown an’ white an’ always scratchin’ it was. It had the bloody mange or something.” “Aye, that’s the boy!” said Pat. “Well, I coaxed him into the car and off we go to Sullivan’s. When we got there an’ I toul’ Sullivan about me plan, oul’ Cormac says: ‘Bejazus Pat, houl’ on a minit an’ I’ll come wit ya, for I’m thinkin’ it’s a bit of help ye’ll be needin’. So he gets the oul’ Fergie started an’ away we went down to the Lough.” He paused again, puffing steadily at his pipe and staring pointedly into his empty glass. “Here! Give the lads another drink!” said Big A.B. to the barman, “And have one yourself!” he added, generously. Generously with my money, that is. “So what happened then?” queried Murphy. “Well, we tied wan end of the clothesline to the tractor an’ the other to the steel hook an’ I tied the hook to the wee dog’s neck wit’ binder-twine an’ then we threw him out into the water. He started to swim back to shore again but he was makin’ heavy weather of it for sure he was only a wee bit of a thing an’ the weight o’ the big hook was slowin’ him down. But he wouldn’ta swum more ’n a few yards when the big fella spied him and come at him wit a rush, grabs him an’ tuk off. So oul’ Cormac runs to the tractor but by the time he gets her goin’, sure the clothesline was stretched as hard as a poker an’ there’s all kinds of fierce thrashin’ and splashin’ goin’ on entirely.” “Tis a wonder it didn’t pull him in!” said a fellow called Brendan. “Yon oul’ tractor of Sullivan’s couldn’ta pulled the skin off a rice puddin’!” Everybody laughed.
“Maybe not.” replied Pat indignantly, “but she pulled yon oul’ pike right out of the Lough and half-way up the field all right, an’ I bate it wit’ an oul’ fence-post till it died, so I did. So we histed it up on the Fergie and took it to Brannigan’s and weighed it on his weighin’ machine roun’ the back. Two hundert, t’was.” Somebody said “Bejazus, if that was Brannigan’s weight, likely it was only wan hundert an’ not two!”, and the bar roared with laughter again. “Aye, well, word soon got round and everybody come to see it an’ the Gardi phoned the paper an’ they sent two fellas over to very-fye it they said, an’ they tuk a photo of its likeness an’ it was in the paper the next week, so it was. That’s what I’ll show yez the morrah.” This is incredible, I thought. It must be a world record for pike — not for one caught by sporting methods, but just for the sheer size. I spent the remainder of my salmon-money to buy one last round. But then a thought occurred to me and I asked: “So what happened to the pike then?” Pat was apparently out of tobacco so he borrowed a fill from Mick, and we waited patiently while he loaded the bowl and fired it up. “Well,” he said slowly, “After everybody went home I got t’ thinkin’ I should recover the poor wee dog an’ give her a dacent burial, so I borrowed a big sharp knife off Brannigan and slit the pike open. And d’ye know what? Out run me dog an’ seven pups!”
A Far-sighted Opportunist
t had been a very long drive and it was late in the afternoon when we finally found the lane, sandwiched between mossy stone walls and almost hidden by gorse, which led to the lough. Big A.B. cautiously nudged our overheating old Austin down the rough and narrow track until we emerged on a flat, stony shore and came to a standstill. He switched off the engine and we climbed stiffly out and headed, bladders bursting, to the nearest bushes. Not that there was any need for privacy, for apart from a couple of raggedlooking hooded grey crows and a somewhat startled goat, the place seemed to be deserted. Mission accomplished, we turned and surveyed the scene. There, dotted by bushy islands and stretching as far as the eye could see, was the grey expanse of Corrib, its placid surface rippled by a gentle spring evening breeze. On the shore to our left a rowing boat, half-filled with water, lay beached on its side.
On the right the remains of an ancient fence, its rusty wire festooned by dried weed and supported by rotting posts, lurched drunkenly out into the lake. From the gorse a yellow-hammer begged plaintively for his “little-bit-o-bread-and-no-cheeeeese,” accompanied by the bouncing song of a chaffinch and the mournful call of a distant curlew. Backed by the rhythmic murmur of the tiny wavelets breaking on the shore, this all created exactly the right musical background for the scene. It was, as Pop Larkin of The Darling Buds of May would have said, “Just perfick!” And indeed for Pop Larkin it would have been, but for us there were two things missing: terns and swallows. You may wonder why the absence of these two birds was so important until you learn that both are drawn in great numbers to feast on the big hatches of green drakes, the colloquial name for the huge Ephemera danica mayflies, which take place sometime between mid-May and mid-June on the great limestone lakes of western Ireland. No birds meant no mayflies. It was a bit disappointing, to say the least. The trip had come about when some friend of a friend of Big A.B.’s family who owned a few acres down here had announced that “the fly was up on the Corrib” and suggested that it would be well worth making a trip without delay. “Yez can camp at the bottom of the field an’ I’ll lave a boat for yez,” he’d promised, writing vague instructions how to get there on the back of an envelope and like all Irish directions, finishing with a verbal “Sure yez can’t miss it!” So we’d taken time off work, loaded up the Austin that A.B. had somehow managed to borrow, and early the next morning had headed south from Belfast. Progress had been painfully slow, what with the old car having a top speed that barely exceeded 60 miles an hour, and then with our unplanned time-consuming detour of rural wreckers’ yards in search of a second-hand fuel-pump. In the early 1950s, just after the War, there weren’t many new cars around: most owners tried to keep their old, clapped-out models running for as long as possible. As a result, when we finally located a suitable replacement, the surly wrecker wanted a lot of money. Then after we’d removed it he suddenly doubled his original asking price and wasn’t prepared to haggle, adopting a distinctly aggressive “Take it or bloody lave it!” attitude. This unexpected blow to our budget wasn’t helped by the discovery that the Austin had an alarming thirst. I began to have serious concerns about being able to afford
the petrol for our return journey, for as teenagers we weren’t exactly overburdened with money. When a tyre blew out an hour or so further down the road and we found out the price of the second-hand replacement we’d located, I was rapidly approaching a state of panic. Big A.B., however, remained calm. To my astonishment, he produced a dynamo from nowhere and proceeded to trade it for more than the cost of the tyre. When I later asked him where he’d got it, he grinned and admitted that he’d taken it from the same engine where he’d got the fuel-pump at the first wreckers. “I just knew that bastard would pull something like that,” he said, “so I took a wee bit of insurance”. A.B. is not really dishonest, but someone once described him as a “far-sighted opportunist”, which about hits the nail right on the head. Anyway, regardless of rights or wrongs we were here at last. Birds or no birds, no doubt the mayflies would be hatching like mad next morning, and besides, there might be a good rise this evening. Meantime we had a tent to put up, so we set about finding a suitable site. We swiftly discovered that the ground in this part of the world consists of stones of assorted sizes, separated by only enough grass to hide them. After spending ages clearing a tent-sized area of all manner of uncomfortable, backjabbing pebbles, we found that underneath lay more of the same only without the grass. In the end we gathered armfuls of bracken and dumped them in the depression we’d made, spread an old blanket on top and erected our flimsy tent over it all. Neither of us owned sleeping bags. We each had an old blanket with the edges held together by safety pins, and we shared a big old moth-eaten patchwork coverlet. Driving the tent pegs into the rocky terrain proved almost impossible. We tied two of the guy-ropes at one end to the dubious security of the old fence, and fastened the two opposite ones to a stunted alder and a convenient gorse bush, securing the base of the tent walls with big rocks and a long, heavy piece of driftwood. Our accommodation complete, we then took a look at the boat. It needed bailing out, and one of the oars was fractured just above the blade. While I took care of the bailing, A.B. scouted around for something to use as a splint and found the remains of an old shovel. Using the metal part that had once held the shaft, together with insulating tape, wire and some screws from his toolkit, he effected a surprisingly satisfactory repair.
By then we were getting a bit hungry, so we fired up the Primus and heated a couple of cans of soup, which we ate with bread and butter. After rinsing the saucepan and the dishes we’d used, we assembled our fly rods, pushed the boat into the water and went in search of an evening rise. To our relief the boat didn’t leak much and the oar held up wonderfully, and soon we reached one of the nearby islands. Here we spent almost an hour doing a number of drifts down the shore but didn’t interest any fish or, for that matter, see a single rise. Eventually Big A.B. said “Screw this! Tell you what Hughie, I’ve got heaps of spare hooks and a big hank of cuttyhunk. Let’s go back and make up a long-line and set it. In the mornin’ there’ll be heaps of big trout on it.” “Er…isn’t that illegal?” I asked nervously. “Agh, sure who’s to know?” he replied, reeling in his line, turning the boat round and heading back to the camp. I reeled mine in too, fastening the tail fly in the keeper and laying my rod down on the transom. Having been brought up in a strict Presbyterian environment I felt a bit uneasy about the way things were developing, first with the purloined dynamo and now the prospect of poaching, which after all was really another form of theft. However, I didn’t suppose we would be doing very much harm and there wasn’t much chance of being caught anyway. Besides there was no doubt a few fat trout would help stretch our meager rations. Then, remembering the stony ground, I asked: “But where will we get any worms?” “I dug a tinful yesterday!” he replied. “An’ I brought them with me, just in case the oul’ fly wasn’t doin’ all that well.” As the man had said, A.B. was indeed a far-sighted opportunist. When we reached the shore he beached the boat, hurried over to the car and rummaged about in the back, returning with green cuttyhunk line wound on a wooden frame, a box of hooks and a syrup-tin full of worms in damp moss. We set to work cutting and re-tying the line every ten feet or so, leaving one long tag-end on each knot to which we attached a hook. Then we secured one end to a long, flat stone and rewound the line back onto its frame, sticking the hooks into the wood as we went, to help prevent tangling.
We carried the rock, the line and the worms back to the boat, launched it, clambered aboard and A.B. rowed out for about a hundred yards. Here I lowered the rock and he slowly headed back towards the shore while I paid out line, unfastening and baiting each hook as we went, praying I wouldn’t impale myself in the process. We’d judged it well, because we just about ran out of line as we reached the shore. “Wait here a minute!” called A.B., rushing back to the car and returning with a big old Penn sea reel with the remains of some sort of line wound on it. He quickly connected this to the frame I was holding and walked back to the tent unwinding as he went, the ratchet of the old reel protesting in a startlingly loud basso profundo. “We should hear that if we get a big one” he joked, dropping the reel inside the tent. By now dusk had fallen. Save for the lonely call of a distant curlew the birds were silent, bats had appeared and the day was beginning to catch up with me. “Fancy a wee cuppa tea before we turn in?” I did, so I fired up the old Primus and boiled some water, shovelled two or three spoonfuls of tea in the billy and let it sit for a minute or two. Then I poured some, stirred in sugar, added milk and handed him a steaming mug. “Here, put a drop of this into it!” he urged, passing me a medicine bottle. I uncorked it and cautiously sniffed the contents. Potheen! “Where on earth…?” I began. “Agh, the oul fella that owns the land an’ lent us the boat!” replied A.B. “Give it here!” I added a glug or two to my tea before handing the bottle back to him, and gingerly took a sip. At this stage I should admit that up until then I’d never tasted potheen, the illicit spirit they brew in that remote part of the country, so I was unprepared for the sudden blazing sensation that flared up in my throat, or for the almost immediate total collapse of my breathing system. “Wow!” I croaked, choking and gasping for breath. “That’ll cure what ails ye!” laughed A.B., coughing at the same time. “Coughs, colds, sore holes or pimples on the dick!”
By the time I’d finished my tea my cheeks felt flushed almost like they’d been sunburned. Overcome with fatigue, I crawled into my blankets and immediately fell into a deep, profound slumber. I awoke with a start, thinking maybe a rat had got into the tent, though it might have been the old sea reel being dragged over my ankle: I became conscious of the deep, rasping click-click-click of the ratchet. Fish! We were in business! Big A.B. was awake now too, and together we struggled outside. The moon was up and although a thick mist hung over everything we could see the boat easily enough. He cut the wooden line-frame free from the reel and I began winding line back onto it as we hurried over to the boat. We pushed her into the water, scrambled aboard and A.B. began rowing while I continued winding furiously. I could feel the tugging as I recovered line excitedly. This would be a good trout for sure I thought, no doubt about it. Then suddenly up came the prize, not a trout but an eel about two feet long, writhing and twisting in the moonlight. “Don’t bring that bloody thing on board: it’ll slime everything up” hissed A.B., pausing from his rowing and handing me the knife. “Here! Cut the bastard off.” A flick of the blade and it fell back into the water with a plop and disappeared. He began rowing again and I began winding and then up came another eel, twisting and thrashing just like its predecessor. “Shit!” we exclaimed in unison. I cut it off too and wound in some more line, only to find yet another firmly attached. In the end we discovered that of the twenty-five hooks I’d originally baited, twentyone had eels, all of which had to be cut free. The eels on the remaining four hooks hadn’t swallowed the worms deeply enough and fell off on the way in. What a disaster! Silently I wound what remained of the knotted long-line back onto its wooden frame as we made our way back to shore. “Well that was a bloody waste of time!” muttered A.B. “Oh well, nobody hurt,” I replied. “You learn something every day.” “Ah, yer right,” he said. “An’ we’ll get some fish the morra for sure.”
It had grown darker, and looking up I saw that ominous clouds had formed, cutting off the moonlight. Exhausted and cold, we crawled back into the tent and the comfort of our blankets and abandoned ourselves to the arms of Morpheus. As I’d anticipated, it rained heavily during the night. When I awoke, all bleary-eyed and hung-over, I discovered the bottom end of the tent had leaked badly and my blankets and a lot of the old coverlet were quite wet. I crawled out into the misty west Ireland morning, made my way to the gorse, took a leak and gazed hopefully over the still, grey expanse of Corrib, motionless under a leaden sky. No birds, no mayfly, no rising fish. Maybe it’d clear up later, I thought, and then we’d be in business. I found the old Primus — now dripping wet from all the rain — where we’d left it the previous night, but it took a lot more searching before I located the methylated spirits container on its side, hidden under the tent-flap. To my dismay I saw the cap hadn’t been properly secured and most of the contents had leaked out. Damn! I wiped the surplus water from the stove, pumped it up and setting down it as level as I could, carefully poured the meagre remains of the methylated spirits into the semicircular cup at the base of the vapouriser. Then I used up half a boxful of damp matches trying to ignite the spirits. “Any chance of a cuppa tea?” asked A.B., emerging from the tent like an ancient mud-turtle coming out of hibernation. “I’ve a mouth on me like a Japanese wrestler’s jock-strap!” He stood up, scratched his groin, yawned and headed for the gorse, tripping over the Primus and spilling the remains of the precious methylated spirits in the process. “Oh bloody hell!” I yelled, righting the stove, “That was the last of the meths!” I explained to his back about the leaking bottle. Ablutions completed, he turned round, zipping up and scowling. “Didn’t we bring some spare?” “That was the spare! We used the rest of it yesterday.” “Shit!” It looked like the day was not starting well. Suddenly A.B. announced “Hey, wait on, I’ve got an idea,” and after rummaging about in the tent he produced the remains of the potheen, declaring “This’ll burn.”
Of course! Potheen is only crude alcohol, just like methylated spirits: brilliant! We poured some into the little cup and lit it with his lighter. It spluttered a bit but burned quite well, certainly well enough to get the Primus going and a brew organized. A.B. cremated some sausages for breakfast and we ate them with bread and butter while we anxiously scanned the lake in vain for signs of movement. I put some eggs on to boil and made cheese sandwiches for our lunch, pinching off bits of blue mould that had begun to appear on the bread. We left the eggs out to cool, boiled more water and filled the Thermos, then heated some more and did the washing up. The mist had lifted and a gentle breeze sprang up, sending little wavelets chuckling along the shore. I got the tackle organized while A.B. searched for a suitable rock to make some sort of anchor. We loaded the boat and were about to push off when he suggested that since the sky seemed to be clearing and there was a bit of a breeze, maybe we should hang out our wet bedding to dry, so we went back and did just that. After returning to the boat and pushing off, I suddenly realized we’d left the lunch and the flask behind. A.B. rushed back and collected them and we were away at last. To say the fishing was poor would be the understatement of understatements. We drifted down the shallow, rocky shores of numerous islands and across the deeper channels between them with nary a rise between us. We tried changing flies, or rather ‘casts’, as our double-dropper, three-fly leaders were called back then. We tried fast retrieves and we tried slow ones, but to no avail, and by mid-day we were beginning to run out of patience. Eventually we fetched up on the lee side of an island and decided to take a break, eat our lunch and try to think up a new strategy. We tied up to the overhanging branch of a convenient alder, I poured us a cup of tea and we wolfed down our sandwiches. A.B. cracked an egg on his knee and then swore violently as yolk cascaded down his trousers. Seemingly, when he’d gone back to fetch the lunch and flask, he’d picked up the remaining raw eggs instead of the hard-boiled ones. And that’s when the rain started, just a few spits at first but gradually increasing to quite a substantial downpour. The wind got up too, whipping up whitecaps in the driving rain, and in the end we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. But what with the wind in our face and the rain obscuring the visibility, we soon lost our sense of direction. It was well into the afternoon before the rain stopped and we finally got our bearings and found the car and the tent.
Everything was soaking wet of course: the tent, the blankets, the quilt, our pillows, everything. Big A.B. and I exchanged worried glances. It was obvious we weren’t going to be able to use them tonight, and evening wasn’t all that far away. Things didn’t look good — but then I had an idea. “What about the old boy who owns the land? Wouldn’t he be able to put us up?” I asked. “Nah!” replied A.B. “He doesn’t live near here at all, he just rents the grazing.” “Grazing?” I wondered, looking at the bleak, stony land, but decided to say nothing. Then I had an inspiration. “Hey, how about this then,” I contributed. “Remember we came through that little village a while before we ended up here? Why don’t we pack up and go back, try and find it and maybe we can get somebody there to dry our gear?” “I suppose it’s worth a try,” he conceded. “We sure as hell won’t get much sleep in the car, I’ll tell you that!” So we packed up the wet gear in the old Austin, but what with the damp and the battery being a bit low, she steadfastly refused to start. “Damn it all to hell!” exploded A.B. “There’s nothin’ for it but get out: you’ll have to give her a push!” I was just about to suggest we should probably both get out and push, for it didn’t look like I’d be pushing the great overloaded lump of scrap very far over the stony shore on my own, when to our amazement the ancient engine caught, spluttered, backfired once or twice and miraculously was running. We were off!
We had a bit of a job finding the village. You’d think something the size of a village would be simple enough to find, but signposts were thin on the ground in these parts, and we saw no houses where we might ask for directions. We negotiated a maze of roads, most of which had grass growing up the middle and none of which looked remotely like anything either of us remembered having seen the day before. Then,
turning a corner, we found ourselves on the outskirts of a little hamlet. A sign on the whitewashed wall of a thatched house announced that the proprietor sold Lyons Tea. Suddenly remembering we were hungry, we decided we’d stop and buy some fresh bread and a bit of cheese and see if we could get our wet gear dried somewhere. I descended some worn steps down from the street and entered the shop, while A.B. stayed in the car and kept the motor running. A bell clanged as I opened the door. It was dark as the pit, but as my eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom I thought I saw a movement, and the figure of an old woman materialized behind what turned out to be a rude counter. “An’ wadja be wantin’, Sor?” Her voice sounded hostile and unfriendly and for some reason I felt decidedly uneasy. “Oh, er, do you — ah — have any cheese at all?” I stammered. She stared at me and didn’t reply. “You know, like, to make sandwiches with?” She continued to stare at me like I was a simpleton and then, reaching down, she picked up a big old carving knife. I recoiled involuntarily, and was again subjected to a long, drawn-out stare that froze me like a rabbit under the hypnotic gaze of a stoat. Then to my astonishment and horror she drew the blade under her armpit a couple of times, possibly to clean it or maybe just to scratch herself, before using it to brush away a hitherto unseen cat that lay sleeping on what appeared to be a big block of cheese. I thawed out real fast, and fled. A little further along we rounded a bend and found ourselves in what appeared to serve as the Main Street of Ballybackobeyond, or wherever it was. Ahead lay a big, well-lit grocery shop with a sign reading ‘MacCormac & Son’ painted in gold on a green background above the door. This looked a whole lot more encouraging. A jolly-looking little man in a white apron was standing on a stepladder struggling with a piece of fence-wire to secure a canvas awning that had apparently come adrift. It was obvious that it was a job requiring more than one pair of hands.
“Looks like yer havin’ a bit of a problem there,” commented A.B., pulling up and leaning out of the car window. “Has she pulled out of the frame?” The wee man looked down and smiled. “That she has, Sor, that she has, an’ if ya had another stepladder wit ya sure t’would be aisy enough to fix her.” A.B. eyed the problem and assessed the situation in a glance. He backed the Austin up onto the footpath and opening the boot he dug out his tool kit, finding a bolt, nut and washer and a crescent. Then he sprang up on the rear bumper, which brought him up nearly level with the wee man, and together they fitted the bolt and tightened the nut. “There y’are, just like a bought one!” he exclaimed, springing down to the ground again. The grocer descended the steps and folded them. “Well, you’re a handy pair o’ fellas to be sure!” he laughed, and then — looking at the registration plate — added: “An’ from the North too! Yez are a long way from home!” His eye fell on the fishing rods. “Are yez here for the fishin’ then?” So we told him about some of our adventures to date, explaining about the wet gear. “Sure there’s no problem there at all!” he said. “Bring it in an’ we’ll have it all dried in no time! Here, give me some of it.” He propped the steps against the shop window and grabbed the tent. We followed him through the shop with our blankets and quilt and into a great kitchen where a plump woman, her face rosy from the heat, was baking bread on a griddle on top of an Aga range. “Here Bridie!” he announced. “These fellas has a lot o’ wet stuff needs dryin’or it’s the pneumonia they’ll be gettin’ tonight instead o’ the sleep!” Bridie wiped her floury hands on her apron and produced a couple of clothes-horses with the ease of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. We draped our gear over them, and by the time they had begun to steam she had equally magically conjured up
mugs of steaming hot tea, sugar, milk and buttered farls of soda bread straight from the griddle. As we gulped the tea and hungrily devoured the delicious freshly baked bread, she told us about the family. She and her husband Michael had inherited the shop from his father when he died twenty years earlier and they ran it with the parttime help of their son Liam, who worked for a local builder, and daughter Maeve, a secretary for a local lawyer. “We’ve only the two of them,” she said sadly. “There was two others but sure they both died at birth: somethin’ to do wit’ me plumbin’. The Doctor said that’s the end of it: no more childer.” Then she added “Oh, here’s Maeve now.” The door opened and a vision of loveliness breezed into the room, seeming to shed coat, headscarf and handbag in one movement. I gasped and looked over at A.B., whose jaw dropped and stayed dropped. She was unquestionably the most beautiful girl either of us had ever seen: years later, memories of her still come flooding back every time I see a photograph of the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. I couldn’t help thinking it was a hell of a pity Bridie couldn’t have had another daughter like her, for there was certain to be a dance somewhere. In the Ireland of those days there almost always was, and surely A.B. and I were going to fall out over who would end up escorting this one. Introductions were made but we had precious little time to chat her up: the tinkle of the shop bell sounded and she darted out to help, running backwards and forwards between the shop and the kitchen every few minutes. Then Liam arrived, a solid red-haired lad about our age, and with him a policeman carrying a bag containing a dozen Guinness. The Gardi surveyed us suspiciously and said: “I don’t suppose any of you fellas knows anything about the car parked across the footpath outside?” We started, because we’d both forgotten all about the Austin. Apologizing profusely, we leaped up to rectify the sloppy parking. “Oh shut yer face Dominic!” objected Bridie. “Sure aren’t these lads after givin’ the oul fella a powerful help wit the awnin’ a minit ago?” “Ah well now, sure that’s different!” he laughed. “I mighta known the Northern droivers wouldn’t know how to park!”
After introductions they sat down, opened four bottles and handed one to each of us. We accepted with alacrity, but there’s only three rounds of four in a dozen, and in no time at all the Guinness was gone. We offered to go get some more but our offer was politely refused, and Liam disappeared to take care of the problem himself. Dominic chatted to us, in between shamelessly flirting with Maeve. I felt myself becoming a little bit annoyed — no, make that jealous. Eventually I asked somewhat hopefully: “I suppose you’ll be going on duty anytime now?” “Oh no!” he replied happily. “I’ll be gettin’ off duty in an hour or two,” adding “Sure I’m takin’ Maeve to the dance — am I not, me darlin’?” and patting her bottom as she went past. He must have taken my look of dismay to be misunderstanding, because he grinningly explained “Agh, there’s nothin’ ever happens here and if it did, sure wouldn’t everybody know where to find me?” Liam returned with another dozen and by the time they were emptied, Mick came in from the shop for a rest. “How’s the dryin’ gettin’ on?” he asked. We checked the gear and finding it now as dry as toast, we began carrying it out and loading it into the car. “Why don’t ya take the lads down to MacCarthy’s for a drink?” he suggested. “T’would save ya a power o’ walkin’!” Five minutes later we found ourselves sitting at the bar of MacCarthys, a pub about twenty-five yards down the street, with Liam introducing us to some of the locals and with pints lining up in front of us like soldiers on parade. “For the strangers!” explained the rotund barman. “That one’s from Sean: he plays the penny whistle and that one’s from Padraig over there, a dab hand on the spoons he is, and this one here’s from Brendan. His father’s the grand fiddler you know: he’ll be in later.” I had a premonition that this was going to be a long night and that we weren’t going to make it back to the camping place, and I mentioned our problem to the barman. “I tell yez what to do now,” he said. “Bring yer motor round into the yard at the back. There’s an oul’ goathouse just over the wall and divil the baste has been in it since last year. Sure yez could sleep in it as warm an’ snug as a bug in a rug!” Big A.B. was deep in a conversation so I slipped outside, collected the car and drove it down the street and round the back of the pub into what once had apparently been a haystack yard. Sure enough the dim distant shape of a little stone hut could be seen
in a field beyond the wall, so I parked confidently and returned to the bar where things were just beginning to liven up. In my absence two old men had arrived and were sitting in the corner tuning their fiddles to a long white flute, blown by another old man aided by a younger fellow with a tin whistle, while nearby Padraig rattled his spoons impatiently. More pints of Guinness had appeared like magic, and the atmosphere was by now composed of equal parts anticipation, excitement, and clouds of Wild Woodbine and pipe-smoke. The fiddlers tucked their instruments under their chins, looked at each other and nodded. Then it was as though floodgates had opened: out poured a wild torrent of de-dai-de-dai-de-diddly-ais. The other musicians were into it immediately, matching the fiddlers note for intricate note, with rhythm provided by Padraig’s spoons and the thumping boots of the drinkers on the wooden floor. They played jigs and reels and hornpipes in a seemingly endless succession. It was an awesome display of mental and manual dexterity, made all the more amazing by the absence of written music. Each performer seemed to know instinctively every coming change of tune, and every complicated passage. I sat mesmerized by the pulsing rhythms, my foot tapping in time with all the others, noting the contrast between the faraway look in the musicians’ eyes and the glint of excitement in the listeners’ flushed and happy faces. The barman darted back and forth delivering black, creamy-headed pints to thirsty drinkers, under the watchful eye of a somewhat scantily-clad Rubenesque lady. She reclined on a couch etched in an ancient mirror running the length of the bar, its surface starred and spotted with age and bearing the gold-lettered words ‘John Powers Irish Whiskey’. I speculated that it might be a warning not to get drunk before you got dressed. Then in an instant the musicians stopped playing and conversations slowed drastically. My eye caught the reflection of some men wearing peaked caps and black uniforms. Gardi!
What would the police be doing here at this time of night? I looked round to see one of them headed my way, and my heart skipped a beat. To my intense relief he stopped by the man next to me. Raising himself to his full height, he lifted his hand, whereupon a hush fell on the premises. “Gentlemen!” he declared. “It is well after midnight and long past the legal hour for selling strong drink. I have no option but to put an end to these proceedings, insist on the closing of these premises and take your names and addresses.” He looked sternly at the wee man beside me and added: “Now you sir, would you be after givin’ me your name and address?” “No, I would not!” replied the wee man, drawing heavily on his pint. “And why not?” asked the officer. “Well now Sergeant, isn’t it a fact that if I give you me name an’ address, sure you’d only summons me?” “Ah, that I would!” “Well Sor, I have no desire to be summonsed!” A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd. “This is a serious business!” exclaimed the Sergeant, seriously. “Ah sure, drinkin’s always a serious business,” responded the man, draining his pint. “An’ why are you drinkin’ then Padraig? Sure you were never serious about anythin’ in your whole life!” “Well, I’ve two reasons for drinkin,” replied the wee man, with a twinkle in his eye. “One’s to cure me thirst and the other’s to prevent it – an’ sure everybody knows that prevention’s better nor cure! Will ye have a pint?” “I will,” grinned the Sergeant, and nodding at his companion added: “An’ I expect the lad here would take one too!” Pints were distributed, the atmosphere relaxed, the musicians resumed playing and soon everything was in full swing again. I can’t remember much of what happened after that, but some time much later I found myself stumbling out into the misty dawn and making my unsteady way across
the yard with the fiddle music still ringing in my mind. Big A.B. was nowhere in sight. I figured he’d be making a ‘comfort stop’ somewhere and would find our domicile easily enough, so pausing only to drag my blankets, pillow and a flashlight out of the car, I clumsily negotiated a stile over a stone wall into the paddock and headed for the shelter. To my delight I found it was carpeted with nice dry hay, and stepping into my blankets I collapsed on it and was asleep in a trice. Morning came with a clatter of pans. I opened my eyes slowly and then quickly closed them again: dazzling sunlight sent a stab of pain through my forehead. I had the mother of all hangovers, and a throbbing headache that wouldn’t quit told me to go back to sleep, but Big A.B. was cursing: “I near broke me neck just then! Where the Divil did we put the tea?” Pride made me decide that hangover or not, I’d pretend I was in as good shape as he appeared to be. I crawled slowly out of my blankets, vaguely conscious of a series of bumps and bruises around my back and rib-cage, and knelt to help him search among the mess of equipment he’d apparently brought over from the car earlier. As I did, something rolled painfully under my knee. Swearing angrily, I reached down to remove the offending item and then did a double-take: it was a little glass bottle of Smirnoff vodka! What’s more, when I felt around where I’d been lying I found several more, making a total of five in all. No wonder I’d got sore ribs after sleeping on that little lot. But where had they come from? Think about it: here we were in a stone goat-shelter somewhere in the wilds of County Mayo picking up little miniature bottles of Vodka, the sort you get served on aeroplanes or find in hotel barfridges today. I have often since puzzled over this mystery, but without satisfactory solution. I said nothing about my find but helped A.B. locate the tea, explaining that it would have to be black because we’d run out of milk but that we did have sugar. Then I wondered aloud where we’d get the water to make it. He handed me a brimming billy. “I brought some up from a wee lake that’s just over the hill there. I seen it when I was gathering mushrooms early on,” he explained, indicating a bulging hatful nearby. “An’ there was trout risin’ in it too. We’ll go and give it a throw after we get a cuppa tea!”
With the aid of a dribble of potheen still remaining in the bottle he managed to get the old Primus hissing and soon produced a billy of scalding hot tea. We spooned damp sugar into our mugs. Then, producing the Smirnoff, I said nonchalantly: “Pity about the milk, but here’s something that might do instead.” AB’s eyes came out like organ-stops. “Where the hell did you get that?” he gasped. When I told him, he sat shaking his head and muttering “Well, bugger me! Here we are dyin’ for a cure an’ it’s growin’ wild outa the ground!” By the time we finished our tea and all five of the wee bottles, somehow my hangover had miraculously receded. We strung our rods and wandered over the nearby hill where lay a pretty little lake, its tranquil morning surface dimpled by rising trout. After we’d fished for an hour or two and landed four little brownies between us, A.B. urged “C’mon an’ we’ll fry these up with those mushrooms — I’m bloody starvin’!” So we went back to the stone shelter and did just that, using up the last of the butter and the potheen. Then we carried everything back to the car and stowed it in as best we could. Somewhere the melancholy tolling of a chapel bell sounded, but there wasn’t a sign of a living soul around and the whole place looked deserted. To our surprise the old Austin fired up at the very first try, and A.B. eased her out of the yard, down the street and hopefully back towards home. We had a long drive ahead and I hoped we’d have enough money left for petrol and that nothing would break down. As the miles passed, memories of the expedition began flooding back: finding the place on Corrib, the abysmal fishing and the episode with the long-line, and the miserable rain, and drying our stuff at MacCormac’s store. And meeting Maeve… In a sudden flashback to the night before, I remembered A.B.’s disappearance. Pondering on his decidedly untypical early-morning ‘mushroom-hunting’ expedition, I inquired: “So did you have any bother finding the hut in the dark last night? I had a look around for you after they closed but couldn’t find you.” A.B.’s face took on a dreamy look. “Oh, when I got back I couldn’t find a torch so I just slept in the car,” he replied.
I reflected on this for a moment. Then I asked: “When you got back? Got back from where?” “Oh, from seein’ Maeve home from the dance,” he answered casually. “From the dance? What dance?” My own voice sounded strange to me. “Well,” he explained, “the boys in the bar told me there was a dance down the street a bit an’ when the Gardi came in that time I slipped out the back and went down there an’ sure enough, there she was.” “But what about her boyfriend?” I queried. “Ah yes, poor oul’ Dominic. The drink got the better of him an’ he threw up an’ passed out so I looked after the poor girl and saw her home after,” he laughed. “Twas the potheen I expect. I slipped some in his Guinness when he was away at the Men’s Room!” “You evil bastard!” I gasped, then thinking about it, asked: “But I thought we’d used up the whole bottle?” “Oh we did, we did!” he grinned. “But sure I had another one. Didn’t I mention it?” Yes, there was no doubt about it. A.B. was definitely a far-sighted opportunist.
hen I was about four my little brother got quite badly scalded, and I was sent to stay with my maternal grandparents until he recovered. They lived in a little farmlet with my aunt and uncle, whom I never saw much because he was in the Army and World War II had just begun. At this age neither the War nor the possible invasion by Adolf Hitler held any terrors for me. I was much more concerned about being attacked by a ferocious old Rhode Island Red rooster which presided over the hen-run, and would spring with beating wings and raking claws on any unsuspecting little boy who might venture in there to help gather eggs. He wouldnâ€™t dare if my grandmother was with me, of course. She had a way with birds, and used to astound and delight me by her ability to stand in the garden and have wild birds come and land on her head. I was not to know that for years she had
gone out there with bread two or three times a day, placing it on her head and then standing still, so that gradually they’d become accustomed to feeding there. Gran was a remarkable woman. I can still see her, a stocky little body with her hair in a bun and a brown beauty-spot on the skin of her brow which she told me was “the Devil’s thumbprint”, taking me for walks along the hedgerows and teaching me the names of the different plants and wildflowers, from the tiny scarlet pimpernel to the great white-blossomed hemlock. She showed me how crane’s-bill got its name from its resemblance to a cranny (the colloquial Ulster name for the great blue heron), and where to look for primroses in the spring, and where the sweet wild summer strawberries grew. She taught me the names of all the different birds: wrens and robins, goldfinches and greenfinches, swifts and swallows, what they ate, how they built their nests and where they hid them. From her I learned how to tell the difference between a blackbird’s egg and that of a thrush, and I well recall her once using her old brown straw-hat to scoop frog-spawn from a drainage ditch and carry it home to put in a jam-jar, so I could watch the miracle of the metamorphosis of little black dots into tadpoles and subsequently, frogs. Perhaps it was because of her understanding of a little boy’s psyche, and her ability and willingness to patiently explain things at a child’s level, that in many ways I grew to see and love her more than I did my real mother. When I learned years after her death that many had considered her something of a nagging tyrant, I was astounded. To me she’d never been anything other than kindness itself. I remember my grandfather as a jolly old man who had a moustache and smoked a pipe. He had a ready laugh and was well-liked and respected by everyone, whether they were relatives, friends or simply neighbours. Although I didn’t know about it until much later in life, he had a liking for ‘a drop of the craythur’, as whiskey was called back then, and this combined with the Great Depression had contributed to the family’s serious decline in circumstances. Perhaps my grandmother’s reputation as a nag had developed as a result of his addiction. It might also explain why he never drove the family car, leaving that to my aunt on the rare occasion when there was both an urgent need and available petrol. But looking back today, it certainly explains why he was always ready to take his little
grandson for walks. These were usually punctuated by a visit to his friend Dick’s place, a mile or so down the road. I’d be left to play outside while he and Dick went indoors, after which I’d be told several times to “Mind an’ say nothin’ tae yer Gran if she asks ye where ye were!” as we headed back home again. It was on one of these walks that I first heard about Harris’s Dam. The road led down a hill flanked by enormous hawthorn hedges, and at the bottom stood an old brick building with a waterwheel which I was told was a scutch mill, a place where Irish flax was turned into linen thread or something along those lines, if you’ll forgive the pun. The mill was owned by someone called Harris, but surprisingly — considering my grandfather knew everybody — I don’t recall ever meeting him. One evening as we approached the place we met a young man holding a long rod over his shoulder with one hand, and a carrying a string of fish in the other. His name was Raymond, I think, and it must have been in the middle of May because the hawthorn was in full bloom: for some reason both these details are a strong part of my recollection of the event. We stopped to chat for a moment and when my grandfather admired the fish, Raymond said he’d caught them at Harris’s Dam. Such are the inexplicable facts and facets of memory: a great many things you forget, but some you remember for no apparent reason, and this little non-event was one of them. That’s all there was to it. The name went into my developing memory and remained there, inert and unused, for the next twelve or thirteen years. Over those years three important events occurred in my life: my grandfather died, I’d become a fly-fisherman and I’d acquired a reliable bicycle. This last disclosure may not seem all that important, but although the War was officially over, many items were still extremely difficult to come by. Few people could afford a car, and even if you had a motorcycle, petrol was often a problem; being in short supply, it was still rationed, expensive and required coupons to purchase. If you wanted to go anywhere that was outside an established bus route, the only alternative to walking was by bicycle, and since about the only models you ever came across were ancient bone-shakers from the thirties or even earlier, the acquisition of a decent one was a big event. One Saturday I went to visit Gran on the new second-hand bike. When I happened to mention that I was looking for new places to fish, my aunt, baking soda-bread on
the griddle nearby, asked me if I’d ever been to Harris’s Dam just down the road. “I’m sure your grand-da told me one time that Raymond what’s-his-name up the hill used to fish there”, she said, and at the mention of the name the recollection of that early encounter came rushing back. Harris’s Dam! Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I decided to waste no time in checking the place out, and the following weekend I found myself dismounting at the entrance of the now-unused old mill and knocking at the door of a nearby cottage to see if I could gain permission to access the water. An old lady answered the door, but when I explained my mission, she scowled and regarded me with hostile eyes. “An’ who might you be?” she asked, suspiciously. I told her, and then on impulse mentioned my grandfather’s name. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Och, why didn’t ye say? Sure I knew him well — he was a dacent man, so he was!” Pointing down an overgrown track, she added: “Away ye go — and watch yez don’t fall in!” It was obvious from the tangle of bracken, prickly gorse and briars that the track hadn’t been used for awhile. I had to fight and claw my way for maybe fifty or sixty yards before emerging on a grassy piece of bank that marked the boundary of a beautiful little dam. My appearance startled a flock of mallards, sending them quacking loudly into the air, and a pair of moorhens hurried away with white tails flashing in alarm. A great blue heron rose quickly from the margin and flapped purposefully off as I paused for a moment to catch my breath. I absorbed the beauty of the place and analysed its potential from a fishing point of view. To the left lay the dam wall whose ancient wooden sluice-gate, now all but closed, allowed only a modest flow of water to go chuckling down the run leading to the mill-wheel. On the right, beyond a little outcrop of hazel and alder, a sea of reeds and bulrushes indicated a swamp from which the lake obviously originated. In the centre of the dam sat a small bushy island, its alder-clad bulk concealing much of the dense shoreline shrubbery beyond. Swallows hawked for flies over the placid unruffled water, and from the nearby bushes came the bouncing song of a chaffinch.
Somewhere in the distance sheep bleated mournfully, an unseen cock pheasant crowed, and high above a spiralling skylark’s never-ending song was punctuated by the call of a distant cuckoo. It was a real country picture-postcard scene, complete with added sound-effects. I mistook the first rise for the mark of a dipping swallow’s wing, but watching the area closely I saw it again. This time the body of a trout showed clearly as it snatched something from the surface. My hands shook as I tugged the sections of my fly rod from their bag and feverishly began putting them together, trying to keep everything in line. I attached the reel, then removed it and this time put on it the right way round. I’d greased the old silk Kingfisher line before I’d left home, but as I hastily threaded it through the guides I missed one out and had to re-thread, then repeat the process when in my haste I took line around the rod between two of the guides. The trout rose again, closer this time, right by some golden king-cups blooming at the margin of the island fifty feet or so from where I stood. I found myself shaking almost uncontrollably with my first case of buck fever. “Steady! Keep calm!” I told myself, struggling to attach the gut cast of three wee wets I’d prepared earlier and put between two pieces of damp flannel to keep supple. “He’s not going anywhere.” At last I was ready — but now what? For some reason the question of how I was going to get my flies out to this feeding fish had never occurred to me until this moment. At this stage of my fly-fishing career, casting had never involved anything more than flicking half a rod-length of line on a ripply stretch of a river and letting the current take it and its team of flies to where I hoped a trout might lie. But here there was no friendly current. A nine-foot rod and five feet of line — even when you added nine feet of gut cast — wouldn’t even reach half way to my target, and lacking waders I couldn’t get any closer. So I pulled off what I thought would be enough line and began flailing the rod wildly backwards and forwards, trying in vain to get distance by using power instead of technique and timing, skills I not only didn’t have but didn’t even know existed. For the next hour or so I went through a period of frustration and despair unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Eventually, after thrashing the water in front of me to
a froth and hooking up in the bushes and assorted herbage behind, I ended up firmly attached to the lower branches of an alder. Since the cast and the three flies represented half my total collection, I was forced to climb the tree and try to recover what I could. Somehow I managed to break off the offending twigs, and bringing it all back down, I began trying to undo the tangled macramé of gut, flies and leaves. It soon became painfully obvious that there was no way I was ever going to salvage anything from the mess other than the flies. The gut was so snarled and knotted that even when I cut sections apart, I found the remaining pieces had taken on curly pigtails or bore a strong resemblance to clock springs. I felt stinging tears of frustration as I fished out my one and only spare gut cast, which were then extremely difficult to find. If you did locate one it was liable to be very expensive, despite being possibly twenty years old. The trout had wisely quit rising by now, so after carefully removing the stiff, wiry new cast from its fragile little envelope, I set it to soak in the lake margin until it would become pliable enough to knot. While I waited I poured a cup of tea from my old Thermos, undid the newspaper page wrapping my cheese sandwiches and ate my lunch, watching frustrated as other fish rose even further out than the one I’d put down. The food and the rest helped calm my nerves. When I’d finished I carefully rinsed out my cup and replaced it on the flask, folded the lunch wrapper and stowed it all back in the ex-army gas-mask bag that served as my creel. I secured the now-supple new cast to my line and attached my three wee wets. Why three, you may wonder? Because that’s what people fished in those days and it never occurred to me to try any other number, although a reduction to one would probably have made a big difference to the potential for tangles. Picking up my rod I looked for another fish to try for and, as if on cue, my trout began rising again, slowly at first but gradually gaining momentum until it was became a regular feeding-frenzy. I began swishing the rod backwards and forwards, desperately trying to feed out some of the loose line in the process. But this time I looked behind me to try and make sure I wouldn’t get hooked up on something again, just as everyone learning to cast a fly ought to do.
And then it happened! As I forcefully flipped the rod forward in an effort to avoid snagging a particularly dangerous-looking briar patch behind, the line accidentally slipped from my fingers and sped away out over the water, miraculously depositing my flies right in the path of the feeding fish! There was a swirl, a savage tug and suddenly I was confronted with the sight of a substantial trout leaping high in the air with my line trailing behind — and then it was gone. As I observed in the opening lines of this book, memory is a curious thing. I have no recollection whatsoever of feeling disappointed, although surely I must have been. Instead, I remember riding home glowing with excitement and elation at having cast a long line for the first time and hooking my first decent-sized rising trout. Although I didn’t land a fish at Harris’s Dam that day, and strangely I don’t remember the first time I actually did, I do know that over the next few years I caught lots of them. I kept going back time and time again, and as my casting improved, so did my catch-rate. Over the next few years tackle improved too, possibly the most important development being the demise of expensive, hard-to find silkworm gut and its replacement by relatively inexpensive, readily-available nylon monofilament, and doubtless this featured heavily in my increased success as well. One of my strongest fishing memories is of going to the dam one warm, wet drizzly Ulster summer evening on an old clapped-out, two-stroke motorbike. I’d acquired a pair of hip-waders by then, and wading out from the swampy end of the dam I took trout after trout from what, thinking back on it, probably amounted to essentially virgin water. As time passes, so do circumstances change. In my case this meant desperately searching all over for work and, after finding it, travelling even further afield, first to England and Scotland and then eventually to America, and so for a couple of decades Harris’s Dam remained undisturbed. But it remained firmly imprinted in my memory, so when I finally returned to Ireland I was excited at the prospect of fishing my favourite old haunt once again. It was while visiting an old friend who, since I’d been away, had married and raised a family that the idea came to me. His son — by then in his late teens — was as madkeen on fishing as I’d been at his age and just as desperate for fly fishing instruction, so I decided I’d take him to the dam with me and let him share some of the enjoyment
I’d had there in the past. Following some elementary lessons on casting over the next few evenings, that weekend we collected our gear set off in a borrowed car, after making him swear he’d never take anyone else there or disclose the location to anybody, no matter what. The road there was a lot narrower and the distance much less than I remembered and I almost drove past the place before I realised it. Braking hard, I turned into the entrance by the old mill, now falling apart and almost hidden by ivy, and parked the car on the long unkempt grass nearby. The house where the old woman had once lived now lay derelict too, the windows blind and boarded up and a tangle of foxgloves and dockens marking where the garden used to be. We collected our tackle and I led the way, although the track I remembered was no longer there and I had to follow another which headed in the general direction of the dam but had apparently been created some time later by a tractor going somewhere else. After struggling through the thicket of gorse and blackberry suddenly we emerged on the dam wall and I gasped in dismay. There, where the lake should have been, stood a bushy island amid a sea of bullrushes with only a slight trickle of water seeping through them. An empty gap where the sluice-gates had once been told the story at a glance: rotting away with age while the pressure of the water behind remained constant, the old boards must have eventually collapsed under the strain, allowing the lake to drain away. Nature had taken over and things had simply reverted to the original. Colin looked at me quizzically. “I’m sorry!” I stammered. “I don’t know what to say: there used to be a great dam here, honest!” He laughed. “Ach, sure don’t worry about it — it’s easy to see what’s happened! Didn’t somebody once say ‘You can’t go back’?” He was right, whoever he was, and that just about summed it all up perfectly.
To Catch A Pike
onsidering how much of my life has been spent pursuing fish with a fly, it may come as a surprise to learn that once I was a spin fisherman. Spinning can be every bit as sporting as fly-fishing, but unfortunately the skill required to flip a lure far out into the water using a fixed-spool reel is minimal, and can be learned in fifteen minutes by anyone who has learned to tie their own shoe-laces. As a result, many spin fishers fail to acquire many of the manners and much of the etiquette of sportsmanship that they might otherwise have absorbed if theyâ€™d served a more extended apprenticeship under the wing of an experienced fly-fisherman. My introduction to spin fishing began on an expedition in search of pike in Ulster, when I was maybe twelve years old. In those days most people who fished for pike simply used a dead herring or a strip of bacon impaled on treble hooks, and suspended from an empty beer-bottle, slung out into the lakes with a heavy hand-line.
After drifting around for a while the bottle would eventually fetch up somewhere in the reedy margins where hopefully it would plunge suddenly underwater, indicating the bait had been seized and swallowed by a hungry pike. Sadly, the unfortunate fish would inevitably be gut hooked, unceremoniously dragged ashore and killed. It wasn’t what you’d call a terribly sporting method but that was the way most people did it, and it never occurred to me back then that there was any other way; pike were big strong fish and so big strong tackle was what you used. Anyway, it was after an unproductive session with such equipment that I had my first encounter with someone using real spinning gear. Jack, a not-very-interestedin-fishing school friend, had told me of a couple of little lakes he knew where there were supposed to be pike and, after much questioning and pestering, he eventually agreed to take me there. Accordingly, I’d made up three sets of tackle, each consisting of maybe 50 feet of green flax cuttyhunk wound on a stick and attached to a salted herring impaled on a treble hook, but due to a lack of suitably sized bottles I decided to dispense with the bottle-floats. Why fifty feet? Simply because Irish linen cuttyhunk line came in 50-yard coils and that, divided by three sets, meant 50 feet each. Why three sets? Because there was one for Jack and one for me, and I also felt obliged to make one for his young sister, who had to accompany us because their parents were away that day and he was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. After leaving my bike at their house, we all set off on a long walk over the fields to one of the two lakes. It turned out to be a boggy sort of place mostly surrounded by reeds and bulrushes, but fortunately at one point a section of pasture came down to the water’s edge making access easy. I wasted no time in getting my herring slung out into the water and since neither Jack nor Betty showed much interest in proceedings, I slung each of their lines out for them, by proxy so to speak, and we sat down quietly to wait for a bite. When I say we sat quietly, I mean I did, but Betty couldn’t be still. She was forever wandering off to try and catch a dragonfly or gather yellow king-cups in the swampy margin, and then Jack would have to go after her. Hours passed. I re-cast and repositioned the baits from time to time but nothing happened, and eventually sometime in the early afternoon Jack declared it was time to go home.
Thinking back, I don’t know why I didn’t stay and let them go on home by themselves. Perhaps I wasn’t exactly sure that I could find the way back on my own, but I do
remember feeling frustrated and a little angry at the time. “What was the rush?” I thought, as slowly I began winding each of the lines back onto its stick. “Why couldn’t he wait a bit longer for goodness sake?” But then, as the last bait came wobbling over a weed-bed, there was a flash of olive and gold and a pike grabbed it, sending water flying in all directions! I yanked on the line but the fish, apparently unhooked, lost its grip on the bait and fell off and it was all over almost as quickly as it had begun. Tears of disappointment stung my eyes and I hurriedly wiped them away. British boys don’t cry, they taught us at school, and it would never do to let my companions see me in this state. I needn’t have worried though, because on looking round I saw the pair had already started on the way back, and when I caught them up I discovered they hadn’t even seen the fish strike. Maybe Jack felt my disappointment at losing the pike or perhaps sensed my annoyance at his decision to leave early and it nagged at his conscience, but whatever the reason, he decided we should go home another way so I could see the second lough. As it turned out, this was a decision that was to have a great impact on my angling career. The journey took us across a grassy field and over a little brook with a tricky barbedwire fence to scramble under, then up a steep hill and over a rocky outcrop into a grove of Scots pine. A good track ran a winding course through it, emerging suddenly on a plateau. There below, glistening in the afternoon sun, lay an absolute little jewel of a lake. At one end stood a wood, and at the other an earth dam with a sluice gate. The far bank was steep and wooded too, but the side beneath us was almost all open pasture, save for a little alder bush smack in the middle. Beside it I saw the figures of what looked like two fishermen. We followed the steep track down hill and made our way across a stretch of meadow to see how they were faring. On arrival we found they were a father and son combination, with the father fishing while the young man watched. He was using a real fishing rod and a weird contraption I recognised as a fixed spool reel from picture I’d once seen in a book. “How’s the fishing?” I asked. The man started, glanced at us briefly, grunted something and resumed gazing intently at the water as he slowly wound in line. The boy scowled at us, held his finger to his lips and said “Shhhhh!” We looked hard but could see nothing, but then, as
the man drew a glittering spinner out of the water, there was a distinct swirl on the surface and I saw a flash of gold as a fish turned away. “Dammit!” exclaimed the man. “Did yez see that? He wouldn’t take it — but I’ll get him yet!” He unfastened a curious looking affair of chrome and red enamel from his line and reaching in his bag, produced a tin box that rattled. “Here, hould this a minute” he said, handing me the spinner and fiddling with the catch. “What’s it called?” I asked. “That? That’s a kidney spoon son. Have ye never seen wan before?” I had to admit I hadn’t, adding that I’d never seen a fixed-spool reel before either — or indeed anyone spinning, for that matter. “I’ll be damned!” he laughed. “Well, if you’re lucky you’ll see a fish caught on wan in a minute — if I can ever get the lid off this bloody box, that is!” The boy looked at me in a patronising sort of way, as if he was wondering what planet I was from, but I didn’t care. I was too busy taking it all in. The rod was a war-surplus tank-aerial painted black, and the reel was a dove-grey colour with a little embossed picture of a kingfisher on one side and the word ALCEDO underneath. Apart from having seen it reeling in line, I had no idea how it worked. The man must have understood what I was thinking. “It’s an Alcedo” he said, as the stubborn lid of his lure box finally surrendered. “They’re made in Italy. Damn good reels too an’ real aisy to use.” Extracting a silver and blue lure from a tangled mess in the box, he attached it to the end of a short piece of fine wire, which I noticed was in turn linked to the end of the line. “That stops the bastards bitin’ through the nylon” he explained, and then indicating the lure, added: “Don’t want to lose this Vibro — they’re too bloody dear.” He handed the outfit to his son. “Here ye are Willie! Show the fellas how it’s done!”
Willie was obviously familiar with the procedure and before I could see what he was doing, with one single flick of the rod he’d sent the spinner sailing an unbelievable distance out over the water. It fell with a plop, he cranked on the reel handle, there was a mechanical ‘clunk’, and suddenly somehow the reel was retrieving line as before. We
all watched the end of the line where it emerged from the surface and presently the lure appeared, flashing merrily underwater. Then behind it I saw a shadow following cautiously. “Look! Look! Look!” I began. “Oh aye, he’s interested all right!” exclaimed the man, adding “Try it again son” as the shadow veered off. Willie slipped the line expertly over his forefinger, flipped a wire thing over with his other hand and then with a flick of the rod, sent the lure sailing out on another voyage before resuming his winding. This time it was only about halfway in when there was a sudden commotion in the water and the rod bent alarmingly and began bucking. “Ye’ve got him! Ye’ve got him!” cried the father. “Hould the rod up like I’m always tellin’ ye — aye, aye, that’s it!” The reel clicked furiously in bursts, but every time it stopped the boy wound in some more line until eventually he was able to drag the unfortunate pike, kicking and struggling, into the shallows and out onto the grass. The father quickly despatched it with a series of heavy blows on the head from a nearby piece of stick, and I looked at the very first pike I’d ever seen close up. I marvelled at the duckbill jaws bristling with teeth and gazed at the olive green body with creamy-yellow stripes, so unlike the red and black spotted trout with which I was familiar. Later I was to learn the stripes indicated it was only a juvenile, but that mattered not to me. I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to catch one myself and I just had to have one of those outfits. Then Jack brought me back to reality by saying that we would have to hurry on home now, so I reluctantly bade my new friends goodbye and followed him. The track home ran through the little wood and surprisingly emerged on the road close to his house. It wasn’t hard for me to remember how to get back to that wee lough again, for surely back again I would have to go one day, and the sooner the better. As soon as possible I checked out the price of a tank aerial, but quickly learned that by the time I’d added the cost of corks, glue, sandpaper, guides and all the other hardware necessary to make it into a fishing rod, the total was way beyond my financial capabilities. Worse still, an Alcedo reel cost more than a week’s wages for a grown man, so that was right out of the question too.
I could, however, just about afford a kidney spoon. Eventually I bought one and spent many hours gloating over it, spinning the blade around the red-painted lead central bar, and testing the points of the treble hook protruding through its red-wool overcoat. The desire to catch a pike grew and grew until it completely overwhelmed me and I could think of nothing else. Surely there must be some way I could make do with what equipment I had and return to that wee lough and catch one — but how? Then one day I had an idea. I assembled the ten-foot mottled bamboo-cane rod and Nottingham centrepin reel that I used when worming for trout and attached the big kidney-spoon to the end of the line. Maybe if I pulled off a lot of line from the reel and let it lie in coils on the ground I could use the power of the rod to sling the spoon out, dragging the loose line behind it and then retrieve it by winding it all back in again. I tried and sure enough it worked, but unfortunately, more often than not the loose coils tangled or got caught up in the grass or picked up twigs and other debris. There had to be a better way. When I found that the weight of the lure hanging from the rod tip was enough to make the spool of the reel revolve, another idea formed in my juvenile brain. If I were to swing the rod tip briskly through the air, the force it transmitted to the lure would get the reel spinning backwards and so feed out line! So I gave it a go. The first attempt ended in a bird’s nest of frightening proportions and I spent about half an hour disentangling the resultant mess. This might have discouraged me totally, but by a stroke of luck on the second attempt everything went according to plan and the reel spun merrily backwards, feeding out line as the spoon sailed out a respectable distance away from me just as I’d hoped it would. I tried again, though this time with considerably less than perfect results. However, encouraged by the knowledge that it could be done, I kept on trying and meeting with enough success to keep me from giving up. Weeks passed and I practised and practised at every opportunity. Progress was painfully slow but eventually I learned that if I turned my back to the target and then swung the rod smartly through 180 degrees in a powerful, smooth, horizontal-and-up motion, gradually increasing the power as it progressed, everything would usually go as planned. I also figured out that many of the tangles could be prevented by applying a little finger-pressure on the rim of the rapidly revolving spool towards the end of the lure’s flight out over the water.
Thus, by trial and error, I inadvertently taught myself how to cast direct from a centrepin reel. I don’t know how many readers have ever tried this but I can assure you it is a skill not easily mastered and so was definitely something of which I had every reason to be proud! Now I was almost ready to go fishing. But before I could go, there were two things still missing. The flax cuttyhunk line on the reel was far too thick and heavy to enable me to attain much distance, so I’d need to get some of the then-new much thinner and lighter nylon monofilament line like the man had been using and, remembering those fishy teeth, some of that fine wire too. Unfortunately for me, the nearest place to obtain supplies was R.C. Moore’s tackle shop in Belfast, and since I lived quite a long way from the city, the bus fare necessary to get there and back would eat seriously into my spending money. However, by scrimping and saving somehow or other I managed. One Saturday, probably for the first time in my young life, I went to do some serious shopping. I was dismayed to find that that the smallest quantity of nylon I could buy was a 50 yard spool. This seemed about twice as much as I wanted but it was either that or nothing, so I bought it. I can also recall old man Moore patiently explaining that the wire I needed was called a ‘trace’, which had a swivel at one end and a thing called a snap-swivel at the other. In addition he suggested I should also use a device called an anti-kink vane, a half-disc made of celluloid which, together with the swivels, would help prevent the spinner from imparting a serious twist in the line. He showed me how to assemble it all and how to fasten and unfasten the lure and the anti-kink with the snap-swivels, all of which at that point had been a total mystery to me. I bought everything he said I’d need, excited by all my new-found knowledge, even though my purchases had completely cleaned me out of funds. Now I was ready. In due course I made my way back to the wee lough, but this time without my two-companion handicap. Hiding my bike behind a hedge, I retraced my previous footsteps through the little wood and soon emerged at the water’s edge where I’d last seen the man and his son fishing. With trembling hands the rod was quickly assembled, line threaded, anti-kink and trace attached and the shiny new kidneyspoon secured to the end. I then turned my back on the water and using my newlydeveloped skill, I swung the rod briskly through 180 degrees and sent the lure sailing well out into the lake. I began to wind the line back, watching the bent rod tip pulse
to the rhythm of the flashing lure, when something tugged savagely at the end and I realised I had hooked a pike! Yet instead of it putting up a struggle or dashing away as I anticipated, much to my consternation it began swimming straight towards me faster than I could retrieve line. Instinctively, I grabbed the reel-handle tightly, ran back up the slope behind, and dragged the fish out of the water and several yards up the pasture where it lay flapping in the grass. I pounced on it and tried to break its neck like I would a trout’s, learning quickly in the process that pike had bigger, longer and very much sharper teeth! I can’t remember much of what happened after that. I must have fished on for the remainder of my Saturday, but all I have now is a hazy memory of riding home triumphantly in a golden glow of satisfaction and pride with my prize, enclosed in a piece of newspaper wrapping from my sandwiches and stuffed down the front of my war-surplus battle-jacket. Sadly, I also remember the dismay at my parents’ lack of enthusiasm over my success when I got back. It was “Where have you been to this time?” and “Why didn’t you stay at home and learn your lessons?” and “Take that smelly thing out of the house!” This was my first realisation that nobody but another angler really gives a hoot about the fisherman’s catch. But the fact that after fifty years I still remember my disappointment indicates the intense emotion in a wee boy’s mind when he’s achieved something really important to him. Gradually the years slipped by. I left school, got a job and with a regular if somewhat modest income I was able to acquire more tackle, including a tank-aerial, and I made my first spinning rod. I also bought a Mitchell CAP threadline reel, a cheap little job whose relatively flimsy construction, coupled with my lack of knowledge, resulted in frequent visits to Moore’s to have the spindle straightened or even replaced. Later a hollowglass rod I built from a blank replaced the tank aerial, and eventually I found a second-hand Alcedo at a price I could afford. With this combination I caught many, many pike. But although some were a great deal bigger and fought a great deal harder, unless my memory’s playing tricks I can’t remember them producing more excitement and satisfaction than that very first striped monster.
n late afternoon the rain, which had threatened since morning, finally came slanting down the valley in a grey blanket of drizzle. It enveloped the autumn countryside in a damp embrace, until the hills and the very tops of the trees themselves were hidden and the rest of the world shut out. Down in the glen the only sounds were the ever-present murmur of the river and the pattering raindrops, falling from the sodden alder and hazel bushes onto the mat of dead and rotting leaves beneath. Moisture outlined each blade of grass in silver and strung every cobweb with glistening diamond-droplets, the air heavy with the rich smells of wet earth and damp and decay. Under the dripping thicket canopy the boy worked feverishly, overturning fallen branches and wet, moss-covered stones, his darting eyes searching anxiously for
worms. Of all the times to forget the bait! The Saturday chores back on the farm had taken far longer than usual and it was well into the afternoon before he was able to escape, grab his rod and set off on the half-hour walk through the sodden fields to the river, only to find on arrival that he’d left the moss-filled tin of worms behind. Bitter tears of disappointment welled up and stung his eyes at the realisation of what this meant: a return trip would take up yet another hour of his precious fishing time and besides, there was always the very real possibility he’d be spotted and commandeered for more time-consuming chores. No, the best plan was to dry the eyes and start looking for whatever baits the undersides of stones and logs might have to offer. Suddenly he crouched instinctively down in the wet undergrowth and froze, motionless. The river was on private property and he was trespassing, though because hardly anybody else ever went there he had grown to regard both it and its red and black spotted trout as his own. But just now he heard a sound, a strange, unfamiliar mechanical sound. It came again: a staccato, ticking sort of noise, something like the free-wheel on his father’s bicycle when you back-pedalled. He strained his ears and heard it once more. Then his nostrils caught the whiff of cigarette smoke in the damp air. He crouched even lower as the figure of a man appeared, coming down the riverbank, vague and blurry in the drizzle but a man nevertheless. His first impulse was to flee while he still had the time. He could be out of the thicket and over the hill before the man even knew he’d been there, but with a sinking feeling he remembered he’d left his bamboo rod with its Bakelite reel, thirty yards of new cuttyhunk line and a hook-to-gut, standing propped up against a whin bush between him and the approaching stranger. Its recovery would almost certainly entail his discovery, and it would be too great a handicap if he tried to run. He decided to stay put. The man was watching the river and might easily fail to spot both the telltale rod and its owner, so with wildly beating heart and scarcely daring to breathe, he huddled even deeper in the damp vegetation, his eyes riveted on the approaching figure. As it drew nearer, however, the boy heaved a sigh of relief: the man was merely a local villager who had no more right than him to be there. In his hand he carried a real fishing rod, the thinnest the boy had ever seen. Pausing at the head of each riffle, he flicked his line on the water, letting it rest for only a few seconds before repeating the performance.
The boy stared, baffled. What on earth was the man doing? He knew that wasn’t the way to fish: you threaded a worm on the hook, swung it up into the head of the pool and let it come tumbling back to you over the river bed and if a trout didn’t grab it, you let it settle on the bottom until one did. He thought maybe the visitor would be glad of some help and reward him with some worms, so rising stiffly from his hiding place he approached quietly and announced: “Hello Mister!” The man jumped as though he’d been shot. “God Almighty! I thought ye were the bailiff! Where the hell did you spring from?” “I was in the bushes there, lookin’ for worms. I — I left mine at home. I don’t suppose you could lend us a few?” “Sorry son, I’m not usin’ them. I’m on the fly.” He lifted line from the water, hooking up a floating alder-leaf in the process. “Damn it!” Swinging the line inwards, the angler caught it expertly and removed the offending fragment. The boy stared in disbelief at the tiny flies dangling from their flimsy gut droppers. There was a muddy brownish one and a dirty greenish-olive one, but it was the dark blue-winged one with the blood-red tail and hackle and flashy silver body that caught and held his fascinated gaze. “Do the trout eat them things?” he asked. “Aye, they do that!” replied the man. “Have ye never seen a body fishin’ the fly before?” “No. I never did.” “Well, stand back an’ I’ll show ye. There ought to be a bugger down there at the end o’ yon run.” The shrill rasp of the ratchet startled the boy as the man pulled off a length of line from the reel and flexed the rod back and forth. So that’s what the ticking noise had been! The line rolled out over the water to settle softly in the tawny ripples and the man raised and lowered the rod tip gently, making the flies twitch as the current bore
them downstream. Suddenly there was a flash of gold and a splash, and the rod bent violently into an alarming curve. “Aha! Gotcha, me boyo!” grunted the man, applying side pressure and sliding the trout flopping into the shallows. The boy scrambled down the bank and in a twinkling flung the fish back onto the wet grass. Climbing out, he watched the man quickly break its neck before removing the fly from its jaw. “The oul’ Bloody Butcher! Now there’s a grand fly when there’s a bit of colour in the water.” The boy saw and remembered. In northern California thirty years later, a man launched his dinghy in a slow-moving stretch of river and rowed quietly upstream, away from the camping ground where hordes of visitors slung their hardware and soaked salmon-eggs or cheese in the murky water. He anchored near a fallen tree where the passing current left a trail of creamy bubbles. It was grey and overcast, and strong gusts of wind brought showers of cold raindrops spattering down from the bankside willows. Besides discomfort they brought memories of another, long-distant, wet day. Thoughtfully the man knotted three flies to the droppers on his leader: one a kind of muddy brown, one greenish-olive, and one silver-bodied with a dark blue wing and blood-red hackle. Soaking flies and leader with spittle to ensure they wouldn’t float, he cast them softly across the head of the foam-flecked ripple and let them drift downstream, gently raising and lowering the rod-tip to activate the hackles, making the flies kick and struggle like live creatures just under the surface. There was a huge boil, a savage tug and in a flurry of spray a great silvery rainbow hurled itself into the air. It was the biggest fish he’d ever seen in that river, and as he looked at the serious bend in his old split-cane and the rapidly emptying reel, he agonised over whether he should try to up-anchor and follow the fish downstream, or subdue it from where he was. He chose the latter course, and twenty anxious minutes later he triumphantly slid a fat five-pound hen fish over the rim of his waiting net. As he removed the drab little brown fly from her jaw he breathed a silent prayer of gratitude to the wee man who, six thousand miles away and all those years ago, had first introduced him to fly-fishing.
Both that boy and that man, of course, were me. Ever since I’d taken to the fly rod in my early teens I’d practiced no other method of fly-fishing than with wee wets. When eventually I emigrated to America, I took the system with me and since it worked well there, I continued using it exclusively. But that was soon to change, although I didn’t know it. Catch-and-release wasn’t something widely practised by many anglers back then, least of all me, and when I mostly returned from my fishing expeditions with a limit, word soon got around. Soon my local tackle shop asked me if I’d tie some of my favourite patterns for them, and — always anxious to earn a little bit of extra money — I agreed. To our dismay, sales in general were pathetic. Thinking back now I suppose this was hardly surprising. Nobody else fished wee wets or indeed knew how to fish them, and so my treasures probably looked more like crushed and poorly-tied dry flies. However one pattern, a scruffy little March Brown which by now I tied as a spider because its wing of oak turkey tail had become expensive and difficult to obtain, sold in surprisingly large numbers. Even more curiously, investigation disclosed that almost all these were being bought by the same person. So one day when I happened to be in the store and he came in, looking for more of “them bugs of Hughie’s” I lost no time in striking up a conversation with him. He was a solitary angler who didn’t tie his own flies, but he said that my pattern was absolutely deadly when he added split shot to the tippet and fished it “real deep”. Intrigued, I talked him into taking me with him on his next expedition, but before the weekend came I tied a few experimental spiders with lead underbodies. The outcome was that while I amazed him by taking some rising fish with my standard pattern fished across and down just under the surface as usual, he astounded me by taking as many more again by adding split shot, casting upstream and drifting the flies back over the bottom. I tried this with my weighted versions and, using basically the same technique as I’d once used to fish my worms, soon I too was catching fish in deep runs and rapids where I’d have otherwise have drawn a blank by fishing just under the surface. And so I inadvertently added nymphing to my repertoire, although I don’t think either of us knew that was what we were doing back then!
That fall an event took place which was to add yet another weapon to my arsenal of techniques. I was working on a survey crew at the time, and as winter approached the available work decreased, so we often found ourselves finishing our week by Wednesday or Thursday. On one of these occasions my boss Ed invited me to join him and his fishing buddy Bill for a few days’ steelhead fishing on the Klamath River, several hours drive from where we lived. I’d never even seen a steelhead at the time and indeed I’m not certain if I even knew what they were, but on the way Ed explained that they were sea-run rainbows, hard fighters and that I’d need big flies and a sinking line to catch them. My heart sank, for at the time I owned only an ivory AirCel Supreme, but fortunately Bill had a spare WetCel and they had enough big wets between them to start a small store. We arrived near the river well after dark and parked in what appeared to be a wasteland of sand and rocks, adjacent to a yet unseen but loudly roaring river. The lads intended sleeping in the back of Ed’s pickup, so after we’d lit a Coleman lantern and they fired up their portable barbecue and got coffee perking, I erected a flimsy shelter beside the truck, removed whatever rocks were in the way and scooped a shallow depression in the sand for my backside before laying out my sleeping bag. We ate steaks with onions, home-fried potatoes and bread and butter washed down with hot, sweet coffee, and after washing up we collapsed into our respective accommodations and fell asleep immediately. I woke sometime before dawn and emerged, shivering, from my frost-coated sleeping bag into the icy, inky-black pre-dawn air. After taking care of an urgent bladder-job, I managed to figure out the intricacies of the lantern, get the stove lit and the coffee brewing by the time the two others emerged, bleary-eyed and tousle-headed, from the back of the pickup. We had a quick breakfast and following a quick tidy-up we strung our rods, donned waders and headed out for some place with the unlikely title of ‘Urban Riffle’ where apparently the boys had enjoyed a modicum of success on previous trips. Ed gave me a couple of flies, a Silver Hilton and a Brindle Bug as I recall. Pointing to a noisy stretch of rapids barely visible in the pale pre-dawn light, he told me to fish across and down, retrieve slowly and be careful not to fall or I’d probably drown. Then he and Bill disappeared further downstream.
It was bitterly cold as gingerly I eased my way into the river. The current was strong, the bottom slippery and as I began casting I remember being very conscious of the dangers and probable stupidity surrounding my wading in an unfamiliar stretch of water in such poor light. However the siren call of possibly catching my first steelhead spurred me on, and so I cautiously eased my way downstream, casting and retrieving as directed. By the time I reached the end of the rapid it was daylight, and ahead I saw Bill with a well-bent rod and Ed standing by with a net. Wading ashore, I hurried down the beach to share in the excitement but before I got there Bill’s rod had straightened. Over the noise of the water some colourful language floated through the air. Apparently Ed had also dropped a fish earlier, and I can remember feeling a faint twinge of both jealousy and dismay that they’d both had fish on while I hadn’t yet had so much as a strike. There was worse to come. As the day progressed I fished run after run they’d selected for me, but without success, and by the time evening arrived my initial enthusiasm was waning rapidly. The boys hadn’t fared any better, but when they decided we should move further upstream to yet another other “sure fire” riffle involving a long hike, I felt I’d had enough. I’d broken the hook on one of Ed’s flies and lost the other, I was tired, disillusioned and disappointed and I suggested I’d go back to camp and start preparing dinner instead. Ed shrugged and said “Well if you’re sure: see ya later then”. Shouldering their daypacks, they headed off upstream while I began the long trek back. I had walked for maybe fifteen minutes when I came across a campervan newlyparked on a sandbar. Beside it squatted two anglers, cleaning what looked like the biggest rainbows I’d ever seen. “Had a bit of luck, have you?” I commented, pausing to admire the fish. “Yeah! We got a limit right off!” replied one. “Ain’t never done no steelhead fishin’ before but they’s real easy to catch, ain’t they?” I mumbled something and asked what flies they had been using. “Oh we don’t use no flies!” laughed one. “Ah use a Flatfish plug, an’ ol Bubba here likes them red an’ white Dardevle spoons.”
I said they’d done well, then muttering about having to get back to camp and get supper started before it became too late, I bade them a hasty farewell and hurried on my way, my mind in a seething turmoil. Bloody hell! Here I was, Mister Bloody Expert Flyfisher, fishless, while these two rednecks and their spinning gear had a limit they said was “real easy to catch”. Just what had I been doing wrong? By the time I reached our campsite I had worked myself into a right state. There had to be an answer and by God I’d find it! I dug out my old Wheatley and searched through it for what Irish sea-trout flies I might still have from the old days back home. There weren’t many, but a pattern that caught my attention was a fly I’d once tied when I was trying to learn how to make rolled bronze mallard wings. It was dressed on an elegant black, up-eyed, low-water salmon-hook, and featured a tail of golden pheasant tippets, a yellow and orange dubbed seal’s fur body with a spiral of gold tinsel running up it, and ginger hackle. Acting purely on impulse, I tied it on and hurried down to the nearest riffle. About the third or fourth cast I thought I saw the flash of a fish turning underwater. When it happened again I began to realise that what I was seeing were fish attracted to the fly and coming up for it, but finding the current too strong and returning to whatever shelter was available deep down. Despite my sinking line, my fly apparently wasn’t getting down far enough and I’d have to get deeper — but how? In a flash it came to me: hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of my trusty old fishing bag there should still be a little tin of split shot, a carry-over from my boyhood wormfishing days. I tipped the bag’s contents out onto the sand and yes, there it was, rusty but intact. Hastily I extracted a few shot and attached them to my leader. Then, flinging the mess back into the bag, I tried casting my weighted leader and flies. If you’ve ever attempted to cast a fly weighed down with three split shot, you’ll know it is an absolute pig of an affair to sling. My first attempts fell well short of the mark, and trying to lift the whole thing out of the water each time was next to impossible without shortening the line until only the leader protruded from the rodtip, but then the forward cast wouldn’t shoot very far. In a rising temper fuelled by frustration, I yanked at the shotted leader in an effort to get it up and out of the water, hauling hard down on the line with my left hand as I did
so. To my amazement the fly and shot leapt free and flew towards me with frightening velocity, I ducked to avoid being smacked on the face and they disappeared over my head, pulling line from my grasp as they went. Instinctively I grabbed for the line, jerking it back down as I cast forward, and was again amazed to watch the lot shoot out over the river at speed and drop right on the area I was targeting. Weighed down with the lead my fly sank quickly, the current whisked it away and almost immediately I felt a savage thump. It was a fish, and a heavy one at that. Rearing back, I set the already-set hook and gasped as a huge rainbow leaped clear of the water, almost wrenching the rod from my grasp. I won’t bore you with details of the battle. You’ve probably read such accounts a hundred times in a hundred outdoor magazines, and I can’t remember much anyway. But it was long and exciting and I was supercharged with adrenalin when, with wildlybeating heart, I finally drew my very first steelhead flopping and exhausted onto the gravelly beach. Not having then reached the catch-and-release stage, I smacked it on the head with a suitable stone, hung it on some nearby buck-brush and hurried back to the riffle. Now what was it I’d done before? As far as I could recall I’d pulled down hard on the line when I was trying to flip the fly and shotted leader behind me, and then I’d tugged down hard on it again as I struggled to get it all to shoot forward. I tried that once more and, miraculously, it worked! Out sailed the fly, the shot dragged it under, the current rushed it downstream and whack! I was into another fish almost immediately. It proved to be a carbon copy of the first, and after administering the coup de grace and hanging the body beside its predecessor, I decided there was just enough light left to have one final cast. Believe it or not, I found myself attached to a third fish right away. Those rednecks had been right: these steelhead were easy! This one was slightly bigger than the others, and by the time I’d subdued and landed it, darkness had well and truly fallen. Gathering up my prizes, I headed towards the campsite. On arrival I lit the Coleman, cleaned the fish, stowed them in the ice-chest and buried the entrails. Then I set about getting a fire going and just as the coffee began to perk, the boys showed up, cold and despondent. Their long walk had been a total waste of time and they hadn’t had a touch between them.
I waited, secretly gloating, until they asked how I’d done. Then I opened the cooler and slowly, one at a time, withdrew my trout. “Well I’ll be a sonovabitch!” exclaimed Ed, his eyes bulging. “Where in hell you get those?” “Oh, just downstream a bit,” I replied nonchalantly. “Whatya get ‘em on?” demanded Bill. “One of my own patterns actually,” I smirked, handing over my rod with the fly still attached. “Wouldya believe it?” he replied. “Talk about goddamn beginner’s luck!” We slept like dead men that night, and by the time we regained consciousness and crawled from the warmth of our sleeping bags, a cold and mist-shrouded dawn had arrived. We’d had the presence of mind to fill a Thermos with coffee before retiring the previous night, so after drinking it we grabbed our rods and hurried back to the river. This was our last day, it was a long drive home and we didn’t want to waste any precious fishing time. Naturally I was eager to return to the scene of my recent success, but to my surprise, despite yesterday’s failure both Ed and Bill headed back to their ‘Urban Riffle’. They reckoned that I’d hit on a school of steelhead moving upstream which, they assured me, would have reached their favourite spot overnight and it would fishing up a storm by now. I didn’t share their enthusiasm and my decision turned out to be a sound one, because once again I latched into a fish right away. The action wasn’t quite as fast as it had been the previous evening, but nevertheless I was in the process of despatching my third steelhead when the boys returned. Neither had touched a fish and they were flabbergasted to see I had scored once again. On the way back to camp Ed remarked: “Six steelies, huh? You lucky sonovabitch! Good job there’s three of us.” I looked at him quizzically. “Why’s that?” “Because that’s two each. Limit’s only two. Didn’t ya know?”
So that’s how I caught my first steelhead, inadvertently broke the law, learned the importance of fishing at the right depth and discovered how to double-haul. Not a bad learning curve for one weekend, was it?
The Best Day’s Fishing Ever
n fishing, as in every aspect of life, there are bad days and there are good days and there are extremes of each. But while some are really terrible, our recollection of them tends to be erased by those magic few good days that are truly exceptional. It’s a phenomenon familiarly called ‘rose-tinted spectacles’, and it’s lucky for us it that doesn’t happen the other way round. If it did, we’d lose the confidence and optimism we need to inspire us to ever go fishing again. Indeed we might not even want to go on living at all. The best day’s fly fishing I ever had didn’t happen in New Zealand or Alaska or Russia or Outer Mongolia, but on a dull, overcast, wet and windy afternoon on Northern California’s Hat Creek over thirty years ago. If you’re expecting a tale involving a multiple catch of big double-figure, wrist-cramping bruisers you’re going to be disappointed, because I think the biggest fish was a 20-inch, three-pound brown
and much of the catch would have been rainbows in the 15-inch bracket. What made the day so memorable was something else again. Hat Creek originates on the eastern slopes of Mount Lassen, and is fed from springs rising from aquifers primed by melted snow. It’s a fast-flowing little freestone stream that drops rapidly north from Lassen National Park into the fertile Hat Creek valley, where much of its water is used for pasture irrigation. Fortunately, in this type of volcanic environment it is common for many rivers to have part of their flow running underground parallel to the river above, and Hat Creek is no exception. Part of an underground fork wells up into a lake whose outlet is called Rising River, which flows for a couple of miles before it rejoins its parent Hat Creek again further downstream. Shortly downstream, the power of the river is harnessed to drive an electricity generating station. For a mile or so below this the waterway is known as Lake Baum, despite the presence of a decided current. At this point its volume is substantially increased by the overflow from nearby Crystal Springs Lake. It then drives a second power station, after which it miraculously becomes Hat Creek again. In the mid 1960s, from here until its eventual demise in Lake Britton, this stretch was poisoned to remove ‘trash fish’ such as carp, suckers and squawfish and a barrier installed at the Lake Britton end to prevent their return. Then wild trout from the Marble Mountains and Yollabolly Wilderness areas were introduced and left to do their thing. The trout bred and successfully established themselves in the chalk-stream-like environment, and thanks to the installation of a two-fish limit by the Fish and Game people, anglers with a freezer-filler mentality tended not to waste much time there. As a result, by the time I arrived in the district the fishing was already excellent and getting better every season. It was a grey, blustery September day punctuated by occasional showers when Ed and I pulled up in the car-park, thoughtfully provided by PG&E, the owners of the land through which Hat Creek flowed, and we were glad of the protection offered by the surrounding tall pines as we put our gear together. We were both then involved in land surveying, and work often dropped off with the approach of fall, providing us with spare time to fish during the week.
From the collection of pickups and campers already there, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones with time on our hands. Some of the occupants sat huddled on the bank bait fishing and drinking beer, while a few spin fishers resolutely slung their Rooster Tails or red-and-white Dardevle spoons. Despite the fact that the duck hunting season didn’t open for a week or two, someone had apparently already limited out, plucked their kill and dumped the feathers on the car-park; the swirling wind was blowing them all over the place, along with empty beer cans, styrene cups and paper. It wasn’t a pretty scene, and Ed and I exchanged disgusted glances. “Let’s get the hell outa here!” he grunted, and we lost no time climbing back on the road, crossing the bridge and heading off upstream. By lunchtime I hadn’t had anything more than one dwarf brown and a half-hearted offer on my wee wets, nor had Ed fared any better with his dry flies. We were glad to take a break in a relatively sheltered spot, have some hot coffee and wolf down a sandwich. It was trying to rain and the wind gusting downstream sent cold stinging raindrops into my face. Bloody hell, this was no fun at all! I was tempted to suggest we call it a day, but by now Ed had made some tackle changes and was already headed back to try again. I by-passed him and after moving up a decent distance, began casting where a trailing frond from a huge bankside blackberry patch left a little trail of foam in the current. A few minutes later I heard the scream of a ratchet behind me, and turning round I saw Ed was into a fish. Good man! Looking back at where my fly should be, I saw the tell-tale swirl indicating I’d just missed a fish. Damn! I cast and cast and cast again but without any success and eventually decided to move on, but just as I began winding in my line, from behind again there came the sound of a ratchet followed by a splash. Looking back, I saw Ed was in business once more. I hurried back in time to help him land a nice fat rainbow. “Well done, you lucky bugger!” I exclaimed. “Whatcha usin’?” “Actually it’s a little thing you gave me one time,” he laughed, unhooking and releasing the fish. “I think you said it was called Greenwell Glory or sump’n like that.” “Nah! I don’t have any Greenwell’s Glory dries,” I protested. “But it’s not a dry!” he replied.
I looked at him in disbelief. Despite numerous suggestions that he try wet flies I’d never known Ed to use anything other than dries, while I hardly ever fished anything but wee wets. “Show me!” I demanded. He held out the bedraggled little fly and I saw immediately it was indeed a Greenwell’s Glory wet, about size 16. “I couldn’t raise anything on any of my dries,” he explained “so at lunchtime when I was looking through my box for inspiration, I came across a couple of wet flies you’d given me earlier in the season and decided to give one a try. Sure works good too!” he added. I dived into my battered old Wheatley, found a Greenwell’s and replaced my point fly with it. Then, returning to the spot where I’d missed the rise earlier, I spat on it for luck and to expedite quick sinking, cast it into the foamy trail and twitched the rod tip to impart a little life. There was a swirl and a flash of gold and I tightened into my first fish of the day. Great stuff! As I netted it I looked to see if Ed had noticed and saw he was busy with yet another fish, but out of the corner of my eye I also spotted a rise, just above and to the right of the foam. After netting and releasing my butter-fat little brownie, I quickly cast my Greenwell in that general direction. A contrary gust of wind blew the fly way off course, but before I could even swear, a fish appeared from nowhere, pounced on it and once again I was fast to another fat battler. By the time I had that under control it was obvious that a rise was underway and I marked several more trout “on the fin”, as the British say, all rising to take something on or about the surface on a regular basis. So after landing, unhooking and releasing my fish, checking the knot and the hook-point, I offered the Greenwell to the closest one. Bingo! It was seized immediately and once again I was in business. As I played my prize I glanced down at Ed and saw he too was getting among them, as Americans like to put it. This was more like the thing! The next fish also hammered my little offering first cast, as did each of his two neighbours on the following two consecutive casts. But there was much more to come. Having taken every rising fish in the vicinity of this one stretch, I decided to check and see how Ed was faring before pressing on. He was playing a fish of course, and
when he’d released it he looked up at me with a grin that would easily have allowed him to eat a whole banana sideways. “Ain’t this sump’n else?” he asked. “Wouldya believe I’ve had nine here without even movin’, an’ every time I looked up you was playin’ one too! How many ya get anyway?” I said I thought it was six, which made an incredible total of fifteen fish landed on about the same number of casts made from one bank of a stretch of water less than 150 feet long. I asked Ed what he thought they were taking and he looked at me askance. “Greenwells!” he shot back. “C’mon, let’s take a look upstream on other side of this blackberry.” We squelched our way through the muddy gap leading around the giant briar-patch and then gasped, for the sight that greeted us almost defied belief. As far as the eye could see, fish all over the river were rising steadily and purposefully, splashing and swirling in the wind-ruffled surface. Ed wasted no time in presenting his fly to the nearest one and was connected right away. I went about a rod-length away to cover the next riser, my offering was promptly seized with enthusiasm, and from then on I don’t think either of us had to cover a rising fish more than twice. Trying to cast into a gusting, swirling wind that blew both downstream and upstream — and sometimes seemingly in both directions at the same time — wasn’t easy either, but it didn’t seem to matter much where our flies landed. If the fish saw them they came after them and usually nailed their target. And so we fished, side by side, up to a point beyond which access became difficult. Then, having looked back downstream over the water we’d just covered and saw fish beginning to rise again, we did a 180-degree turn and began fishing our way back. By the time we reached the road-bridge Ed said that his wrist was aching and he’d had enough, but I just couldn’t stop: it was all too impossibly glorious. So while he crossed the bridge and returned to the car, I carried on downstream on the opposite side, taking fish after fish until I reached a pool where a steep bank made further progress impossible. Here an ancient pine had once fallen a quarter of the way across the river. I clambered down the massive trunk in order to cover the rising fish further out in the stream, watched by some residual and obviously fishless spin-fishermen in the car-park opposite. Every time I hooked up there was a chorus of “God Almighty!
Lookee there: that sonovabitch got another one!” followed by a deluge of assorted glittering hardware and trailing nylon. I should have quit, but the experience was simply too wonderful to abandon. So I fished well into the dusk, right up until the regulation ‘one hour after sunset’ that marked the legal end of Northern California’s fishing day. By the time I’d got safely back to land from my precarious perch, scrambled through the bankside bush and joined Ed at the car it was quite dark. Driving back home in a daze of delight we tried to recount all the fish we’d caught that day. Ed reckoned he’d landed 40-something, and although I’d lost count at 50, we both agreed my tally must have been somewhere about 80. Most were probably somewhere around a pound and a half but there were quite a few of two pounds or better, and I think we both had at least one or two over three. And the damndest thing was, neither of us could remember having seen a single mayfly dun or spinner! Ed suggested that maybe the colour or silhouette of our little Greenwell’s suggested egg-laying caddis, which swim underwater to oviposit, but neither of us could recall having seen many naturals at all. And judging by the activity of the trout, if this was the case surely caddis should have been out in blizzards. Nothing like it has ever happened again of course. Shortly afterwards, circumstances took me away from the region, and over fifteen years elapsed before I had an opportunity to visit Hat Creek once more. As time passes, things have a habit of changing, and in this case they were changes for the worse. Oh, the river still flowed as clearly and as serenely as ever, but it had become considerably shallower and its once-gravelly bed was now smothered in mud, for reasons I never really quite understood. Worse still, in the interim it had acquired the official designation of ‘Blue Ribbon Trout Stream’. Everywhere I looked, designer-label yuppies stood in pairs, poring over fly-boxes and muttering in Latin, indicating very heavy fishing pressure, while trampled, muddy tracks all along both banks confirmed it. I spent a couple of hours on a hillside, quietly paralleling the old route that Ed and I had taken upstream all those years before, but failed to see a single rise anywhere on the entire stretch of river below. Mind you, with all the kaleidoscopic cream, teal and purple bankside activity, that was hardly surprising.
I never returned. Some things are best just remembered — although sometimes that’s easier said than done. Almost a decade later, after I had moved to New Zealand, a friend sent me a copy of the ‘Fly Fisherman Forum’ section of the American magazine Fly Fisherman. In it, columnist Grant Petersen of California expressed scepticism of certain trends in modern fly-tying. To support the effectiveness of old-fashioned flies tied with oldfashioned materials he’d observed: And by the way — just as a piece of piscatorial trivia — one day back in 1971 on a day that was typically frustrating for other anglers (in other words, this was no Act of God) a fishing acquaintance of mine — his name was Huey — caught and released (thank God) 61 trout averaging greater than 16 inches from Hat Creek’s trophy trout section. His secret? A three-fly cast with a Greenwells Glory, Wickhams Fancy and Coachman. Underneath, someone had handwritten: THIS HAS GOT TO BE HUGHIE McDOWELL. It was flattering to know that after 24 years people still remembered the event, even if my best day’s fishing ever was categorised as mere ‘piscatorial trivia’! I have no idea who the writer of the handwritten capitals might have been, but I do recall Grant Petersen was a very young fisherman I’d known back in the 1970s. Although he wasn’t present on the day itself, word had obviously got around and had begun to change some of the details — as word usually does — only in this case the total catch had shrunk instead of expanding!
t was raining when we awoke that first morning in Rotorua, and it was still raining when we left the motel and headed in the little hire car towards Lake Okataina, but we were elated at actually being there. How far away the California freeways seemed as we twisted and turned through the dense dark bush! Giant ferns and enormous trees thrust to the sky, carrying a train of vines and crowns of parasitic orchids. A bedraggled cock pheasant scuttled for cover, and a hawk narrowly escaped the car when the remains of a dead possum became tangled in his talons. Then the road started to drop, and we found ourselves driving through a tunnel of bush where the canopy had spread together and formed a roof so dense that the road underneath was quite dry: an ethereal atmosphere of misty translucent green, quite eerie, as though weâ€™d plunged off the road and were driving underwater.
Out into the open again, a few more bends and then suddenly we were there, the grey road merging into a grey lake under a grey sky. We parked the car and walked through the drizzle to the little store near the jetty to buy licences and flies and try to glean some local knowledge. Two men at the counter were wrapping a clumsy parcel with newspaper. Glancing idly at them, I gasped as I realised it contained half a dozen frozen trout averaging about two feet long. As I gazed dumbfounded, the proprietor appeared, carrying a plastic bag in each hand with another batch of huge rainbows. “Fishing been good then?” My voice sounded strange and strained. “Corker, mate! We been here a week an’ got near a limit every day.” “Fly fishing?” “Nah, trollin’.” “Oh. Is there anywhere we could catch some like these with our fly rods?” “They’ve been getting a few anchored off the point lately.” The proprietor indicated a long, rocky reef, barely visible through the rain. “You’ll get awful wet, though.” My heart sank as the drizzle increased to a steady downpour, and I thought of all our rain gear packed in luggage that the airlines had mislaid, and of what it would be like sitting in an open boat all day. All the way from California to fish New Zealand, and here we were right on the edge of a lake loaded with two-foot trout, in the pouring wet with no rain gear and nowhere to buy any. Some ‘subtropical paradise’! Some fishing holiday! The whistle of a kettle brought me back to reality. “You jokers like a cup of tea? Where ya’ from anyway?” “California.” “ Yanks, eh?” “Well, my wife’s American, I’m Irish.” “Long way from home.” “Yes. Long way to go fishing in the rain with no rain gear!” I explained about the lost luggage.
“Ah, that’s a bit rude, my oath.” He scratched his head and squinted out through the rain. “She might let up a bit later on. See, there’s a clear patch over there.” He pointed
a calloused finger and I looked but couldn’t see anything except that the rain did seem to be easing a little. “Really keen on the old fishing then?” he asked. “We love it — fly fishing, that is. You, too?” “Don’t get much time with the camp and that. Do a bit of trolling sometimes.” “Any ideas on what flies work best?” He dug up a boot box and dumped packets of flies all over the counter, huge things on sizes 4 and 2. I picked one up, essentially a strip of skin with hair on it, bound along the red wool body with silver tinsel. “What on earth’s this?” “Rabbit fly. Rabbits is good. So’s Parsons.” He handed me three inches of mottled ginger hackles laid back to back and bound lengthwise with the tinsel spiraling through the fibres and holding the stems firmly atop the yellow wool body, bearing the name Parsons’ Glory. “Aren’t they a bit big?” He opened the freezer and lugged out another frozen rainbow. “Big? Look at the gob on that one. He could swallow a bloody fantail.” I looked at the massive jaws, the teeth and the hooked kype as big as my fingertip and suddenly my collection of carefully tied nymphs and dry flies seemed pitifully inadequate. “Whaddya think then? Wanta come back on a dry day?” I returned to earth with a jolt. The rain wasn’t much more than a heavy mist now, and we had come an awfully long way, and I just couldn’t wait to feel one of those mighty rainbows on my rod. “No! We’ll take some flies and we’ll fish, rain or no rain.” I looked at my wife and she nodded. She, too, must have been thinking as I did. Good girl! “You jokers must be crazy to wanna fish in this weather, but I tell you what, I’ve got an idea!” He dug up a bundle of plastic sacks and went to work with his pocket knife, slit the bottom of one, step into it, tie it around the waist with string, and look, a plastic skirt!
Slip another over your head with slits cut for arms and head, and presto, a plastic shirt! A third bag with one corner pushed into the other made a plastic hood and cape. More string for a belt and we were waterproofed. I looked at Sharon again, and she grinned back. Maybe we looked weird, but at least we’d be dry, and there wasn’t anyone to see us except the trout. By the time they did, they’d have other things on their minds anyway! “Now you get your gear, and I’ll get yez a boat.” He stomped off towards the jetty and we rushed awkwardly to the car. Feverishly we strung sinking lines through the rod guides, I cut back the points of our 12-foot leaders from 2-pound breaking-strain thickness to 4 pound to 6-pound and then, looking at the enormous flies, to 8-pound. We rustled down to the jetty where our host was bailing out a 10-foot dinghy with a rusty can. “No motor?” “Nah, you won’t need it. It’s not all that far to the reef, and you’ll be anchored all the time. No point paying for a motor you won’t be using, eh?” We clambered clumsily aboard, I took the oars and he pushed us off. I rowed slowly with the rain hissing on the water all around, rattling on our plastic covers, trickling down our arms and soaking into our shoes. The reef was a lot further than it had looked, and by the time we’d arrived, I was sweating rivers under all the plastic, while my exposed feet were nearly frozen in the rainwater sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. We anchored on the drop-off where you could see the bottom from one side of the boat but not the other, just as we’d been told. The rain had miraculously stopped and a slight breeze came up, ruffling the water and sending little wavelets chuckling along the length of the boat. Behind us, steep cliffs of dark dripping bush loomed ominously beneath leaden skies. Ahead lay a grey expanse of water. “What fly are you going to try?” I asked Sharon. “I think he said it was called a Mrs Simpson.” She held out a funny-looking thing, tied with greenish cock pheasant rump feathers overlapping each other along each side of the hook, forming a sort of oval shape terminating in a black hairy tail.
“What’s it represent?” “Oh, I don’t know. He said it was named Mrs. Simpson after the lady King Edward abdicated to marry, and if she could tempt a king from his kingdom once, maybe she can do it again. Besides, I like the look of it.” ‘Just the sort of logic a woman would use,’ I thought, and then aloud: “I’m going to try this Parsons’ Glory. It looks just like a little fish.” I stood up and cast, the big fly demanding an emphatic double haul. Then it was Sharon’s turn, her line dropping progressively lower on each back cast until the fly was hitting the water behind her. “You’re bringing the rod too far back, and you’re not hauling hard enough.” “Oh, don’t criticise. It’s hard to balance in a boat and cast with all this gear on and the heavy fly and the wind and everything.” “You’re not supposed to stand up in a boat anyway.” “I notice you did.” I couldn’t argue. I’d been brought up in and out of boats, and tended to forget that others hadn’t developed the knack of balancing in a rocking dinghy. It’s safe enough if you don’t do anything suddenly. I started to retrieve my line. What was the best way to do it? Fast or slow? In erratic little spurts or a steady retrieve? How far should you let it sink anyway? I wish I’d asked at the store before we left. It wouldn’t matter, I thought. The trout would be everywhere, hungry, searching for food. They’d soon spot my offering. I finished my retrieve and cast again. Too much to expect a strike first cast. We fished on and on, but nothing happened. We tried fast retrieves and progressively slower retrieves, until we started hooking weeds on the bottom. Nothing. It started to rain again. I changed to a gold-bodied Bishop’s Blessing and eventually a Grey Ghost. “It’s not bloody fair! Here we are soaking and frozen in the middle of a lake crawling with trophy-sized trout. I’ve tried a Parson and a Bishop and even the Holy Ghost! You
must have damn near drowned poor Mrs Simpson by now and not a thing between us.! What’s wrong?” “You’re getting tired, that’s what’s wrong. Look, the rain’s stopped. Let’s go ashore and have lunch.” I rowed ashore, beaching the boat on the sand. She was right. I was tired and hungry and cold and wet and miserable and disappointed into the bargain. Maybe trolling was the answer, but I knew in my heart I really didn’t want to catch my trout that way. We sat on a log to eat our frugal lunch, and glory be, the sun came out. The beach steamed, the bush steamed and we steamed, and slowly we revived. We were still in the right place with the right flies, with half a day to go. The water changed from grey to blue, and the bush to various glistening shades of green. Deep in the forest a bird whistled peep-peep-pap-e-pa, peep pooo………..., echoing like a phantom flute in a cathedral. It was all so beautiful. Life was good. As I rowed out to the reef again I felt warm and hopeful. The sun, the rest and the food had made all the difference. The anchor held and the boat swung gently in the breeze. I tied on the Rabbit Fly, asking Sharon if she too was going to change. “Why?” she replied. “You haven’t done any better with yours.” Behind us the bush had come alive with sound, borne on a warm and earthy-smelling breeze, and I fell into a reverie, drugged with the sights and smells and sounds and sun. Then it happened! A big fish splashed noisily not 30 feet away in the direction I was about to cast. With wildly beating heart I shot line, dropping the fly just beyond the spreading ripples and waiting for it to sink. It didn’t. The big, stupid, fluffy airfilled strip of rabbit just sat there and floated like a duck, bobbing up and down in the wavelets until I jerked the line impatiently to drag it under, only to have it bob up and float again. “Quick Sharon. Get your fly out there — this bloody thing won’t sink.” She flexed her rod and propelled Mrs Simpson out into the general area of the disturbance, and I hurriedly stripped in my line as she began a slow retrieve. Nothing happened. “It’s no good. He’s just ignoring ……Oh! He’s on! I’ve got him!”
The reel screamed, line sliced through the water in a rooster-tail of spray, and the rod bucked and jumped like a live thing. “God, he’s so strong! I can’t hold him!” “Don’t try — hold your rod up and let him run.” “He’s taken all my line — I’m into the backing!” Way out in the lake in a shower of spray, a big silver ingot twisted and turned before falling heavily back, scattering diamonds of water in all directions. I tugged the anchor rope, the Danforth came free and I hauled it to the surface. We drifted out into the lake, with Sharon reeling feverishly and recovering line by the yard. The fish swam fast in a tight semi-circle. Then, as we approached, the line went slack. “He’s gone, I’ve lost him.” “Tighten up the line — never mind the reel. Strip it in fast by hand. I think he’s swum toward us.” She reefed in line, flinging great coils at her feet in her haste. “Yes! Yes! — he’s still there!” Once again the Hardy Princess went zee-zee-zee as the trout zipped off just under the surface, clearing the water three times before heading for the safety of the depths. “He’s shaking his head!” gasped Sharon. “I can feel the leader rasping on his teeth, what’ll I do?” “Keep a firm pressure but don’t hold him too hard — and pray a lot!” Gradually the struggles lessened, and I stood by with the net as we peered down into the deep green water. He came into view at last, then saw the boat and was off again. It seemed to take forever, but eventually he lay side-up on the surface, I held the net and Sharon drew him over its rim. We release most of the fish we catch, but there was no way we were going to let this one go. We marveled at the big jaws, the depth of the shoulders and expanse of the powerful tail. He weighed 4¾ pounds, which may be commonplace to the locals but was over half as big again as Sharon’s previous best. We rowed back to the reef and anchored up again. “Borrow your fly?”
“No way! That’s going into my little collection of retired warriors.” As I hunted for another one like it, I heard a fluttering sound and looked up to see a little grey and white bird hovering and dancing around my head, his tail spread out like a fan, as he darted about in pursuit of insects. “Look, that must be a fantail — the one the man said that trout could swallow! He wasn’t far wrong.” As I started to cast, a warm breeze drifted out from the shore, bringing sensuous smells of wet vegetation and earth and the haunting strains of bird song. All at once, I felt as if I’d come home again after a very long journey.