Failed fishermen can still dream
I was thigh deep in the river when the phone rang. It was one of the Lumbering Lovelies, my fishing companions. Both are bigger men than I and better fishermen.
"We're waiting for you at the car," he said. It was drizzling, and it was cold. I'd caught no fish. I'd seen no fish.
"I'll be with you in 20 minutes," I said.
I shouldered my rod, reflecting that even a bad day's fishing beats a good day's work, then I froze. I thought I'd glimpsed a fish. It rose, I thought I sensed in that obscure yet popular spot, the corner of my eye. I stood and stared into a little alcove in the bank, a good spot for a fish.
I resolved to give it a cigarette. The five minutes it takes are sometimes enough to smoke a fish out.
And up it came again. A swirl of water, a flash of white jaw as it sucked an insect from the surface. It was not a big fish. But it was a fish. And now I could see it, a ghost of a shadow tucked under the bank. It swayed in the water, like weed.
I crept a few paces downstream, moving my feet with infinite caution. The fish, facing upstream, noticed nothing. Again it swung into the stream, as lazy as a summer's day, and as it turned I saw the honey of its flank, the stipples, the flashing white of its belly.
I stripped line from the reel. My nymph plopped into the water a yard beyond the fish and drifted back past its nose. Nothing. I cast again and again. Nothing.
I waded to the bank.
Good fishermen change their fly midstream but I have learned that I need to sit down for the task.
I put on a dry fly, a Dad's Favourite, just a wisp of black body and a pair of brown wings. As I knotted the nylon my hands trembled, and I kept glancing to see if the fish was still there. It was still there.
Dry fly fishing is the simplest of all forms. You can't go wrong. The fish comes to the surface and takes the fly. You count to three, then you tighten the line and bingo. But between the theory and the practice stands the fisherman.
My first cast drew no reaction from the trout. Nor did the second. But as the third drifted over him he rose in the water with a shimmy of fins, and floated with the fly, studying it. I was quivering with anticipation. As the fly bounced in a ripple the fish opened its jaws and I counted to none. I flicked the fly out of its mouth. The fish never got to touch it.
Retrieving a dry fly from an overhanging willow tree is a simple matter of hauling on the line until it snaps.
I had no more Dad's Favourites.
I put on a Royal Wulff, a tufted beast that's never caught me a fish. But I've seen it catch dozens for the Lumbering Lovelies. I re-entered the river like a stalking cat. The fish was still there, lilting in the water, a grey torpedo.
I stood and watched it a while, watched it idle to the surface, once, twice, three times. I felt alive and excited. In my mind I rehearsed counting to three, then I cast. A chaffinch flitted out of a bush, plucked my fly off the water, flew a few yards and dropped it. The fish was unperturbed.
I cast again. The fish rose to look. I was frantic with tension. He turned it down.
I cast again. Again the fish rose towards the bobbing fly, hanging beneath it in the water, all sinuous ease. He studied it with an intense interest, turned to follow it, caught a glimpse of me and as swift as a thought he was gone.
He left only a swirl in the water. He wouldn't be back.
I lit another cigarette. My hands were still trembling. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had become two hours.
"Where you been?" said the Lumbering Lovelies as I emerged from the riverbank.
"Sorry," I said.
"No," I said, and the Lovelies laughed. I normally get nothing.
But my no was a lie. I'd got something. I'd got images seared in my head, images that I'll take to bed on the long winter nights ahead. They'll lull me to sleep, smiling.