Happy as a dog with a jandal

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 10:03 11/12/2013

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Joe Bennett

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OPINION: Heat in the first week of summer. The dog spent the day in the shade, laid out on his side as if shot. I, too, slept in the afternoon, naked on the sheet, spread like a starfish.

But then, about seven, the air came from a different quarter and the heat went elsewhere and I said, "Let's go" to the dog. He rose and stretched and shook himself and was ready.

When I changed my jandals for something more sturdy the plump and middle- aged dog was seized with a puppyish urge. He pounced on a jandal, ran to the lawn with it, tossed it high, pounced again as it landed and shook it to death like a rat. Then he looked at me with both ears cocked and the jandal pinned and I had to smile at his joy. Don't let anyone tell you that beasts don't feel.

Indeed, as I tied my shoe I asked myself when I was last as happy as the dog was now. And the answer was Wednesday.

I was fishing, of course, down south on a favourite river. Hot there too. The stones of the river bank thrummed with heat, the rim of my hat was black with sweat and the fish had gone deep for the cooler water.

No one on the river but me and the birds, terns, oystercatchers, a scuttling dotterel, and a pair of pied stilts, less celebrated than their rare black cousins but far more graceful, the slim keels of their bodies parked on tall pink legs. When they fly the legs trail like streamers.

And in a bend beneath a willow, fish. Four shapes in the swirl of deep green water, distorted by currents and depth, but unmistakably fish, trout, swinging in and out of the main flow, feeding.

They hadn't seen me, but I still withdrew a yard or two to study them. I didn't expect to catch them because I rarely do, but I delight in the challenge as the dog delights in a jandal kill.

I cast upstream, over a drop-off, and let the current sweep my nymph to the feeding fish. On my third cast I got it right and the nymph, an imitation larval insect, tumbled through the realm of water where the fishes lay. But nothing. The fish didn't even seem to see the bait I offered.

I cast and cast again to no effect, then sat on the hot stones to change the nymph, sweat biting my eyes as I tied the knot and trimmed it. But the new nymph, too, was disdained by the kings of the river. I didn't much mind. They are beautiful creatures.

Still I sat once more on the heated stones and replaced the nymph with a floating fly, a royal wulff. The wulff looks like no insect that ever hatched but I believe in it, and if you believe in a fly you will catch fish with it. I can't tell you why but it is so.

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The wulff bobbled downstream toward the deep-sunk fish, the four brown shimmering shapes, and it passed over them and they did not react. It's always hard to lure fish to the surface. Our air is alien to them. Their air is the water.

But I cast again, because hope's slow to die, and as the fly approached I saw a shape detach itself and swing up through the water and I watched it change from a blur to a fish, to a fish with fins, to a fish with speckles on its flanks. And as it rose I was more intent, immersed and alive than I'd been in months. My eyes were as wide as plates and my hand on the rod was quivering.

With the leisurely ease of a beast at one with its world, the fish opened its jaws and let the current sweep the fat fake fly into its mouth, and the jaws closed and the fish turned down and I raised my rod and tightened the line and we met.

At the moment I felt him he felt me and from being a beast at languorous ease he became a sudden force, a force that dived for the depths, that bent the rod and stripped the reel and then suddenly he was gone. He'd got off.

And though you'll no more believe me than my fishing friends did that evening, I didn't much mind. I'd felt a thrill as old as our species, a playtime version of the hunt, and I'd been little different from the dog on the lawn. We'd both snaffled the jandal of joy.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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