The Supermodel suggested that we pack it in and head back to Notties for lunch. It was an idea that I had been idly knocking about like an after-school football for a while and, although it was clearly the pragmatic choice, I wasn’t much in the mood for pragmatism.
Pragmatism, you see, is pure evil disguised as modest virtue. When you’re always choosing the lesser of two evils all that you’ll ever have is evil. That’s what pragmatism is to me – the shortcut, the half-hearted capitulation, politicking, the settlement on the courtroom stairs; the insidious lesser of two evils that dulls your ability to recognize true evil when you are confronted with it.
We’d fished a long stretch of the river during the course of an iron-grey morning with only fly patches looking like the sleeping arrangements on a particularly overpopulated slave ship hanging from the fronts of our vests to show for our efforts. You can tell a lot about a flyfisher by the state of his fly patch. I am an avid fly patch personality profiler and can let you into a bit of what I’ve learned.
The key to successful fly patch personality profiling is to look at the material of which the patch is made. Right out on the lunatic fringe is the guy who uses one of those new hinged, tubular, magnetic, silicone lined things. You know who he’ll be even before he’s assembled his rod in the car park. His is the tuck with the entire catalog of aftermarket chromed bull bars, tow bars, roll bars, hitches, winches, roof racks, high lift jacks, spot lights, light bars and flared panels on it. His tailgate displays the names of every workshop that has raised his suspension, chipped his motor, installed a snorkel, etc. By day he’s an actuary (he was once an accountant but he couldn’t take the frenetic excitement), but what he wants to be is an outdoorsman – and that’s cool by me, it’s a pretty universal desire as far as I can tell. Although he’ll embarrass the party by working out the split of the evening meal bill to the closest cent and never tipping a penny more than 10%, he’s useful to profile because he’ll also frequently sell tackle that you couldn’t otherwise afford for a fraction of its cost when the new model arrives on the shelf. Just don’t rely on him having your back in a bar brawl (or him knowing how to operating that winch).
I like guys who have a dirty old sheepskin patch sort of barely hanging off his vest. Not for him is the titanium retractable clip, poly-something-or-other foam fly patch. The patch that he’s been using for a few decades was probably once the ankle roll on his wife’s worn out winter sheepskin slippers, and chances are he’s glued it to the name badge that he received at a long distant business conference. He’s an affable sort, not given to loud outbursts or petty squabbling. Most of the flies on his patch will be traditional wets, nothing smaller than an eight and all with treacherous, well sharpened barbs on them. You could refer to the hooks that he uses by the now rather archaic term ‘irons’ and not have anyone argue with you. He’s been around and tells stories dating back to when the river you fished was in its prime and when he regularly caught limit-bags of trophy fish. You suspect that he’s mostly honest, but that he’s not entirely fanatical about it either.
Last is the subject of our study who doesn’t have a fly patch and simply pins his flies into his hat band. His vest (on the rare occasion that he wears one) is practically free of zingers, those stupid things that hold floatant bottles (right until you need them and realize that they’re floating high and dry in the general direction of the coast), flaps with exotic fly drying bacteria on them, leader straighteners, knot tools, thermometers, split shot dispensers, 16 rolls of tippet material on a spike that makes his every move sound like the approach of a Salvation Army band during the tambourine solo and various other devices and dispensers that you couldn’t even guess at. This is the guy you want to fish with. He’s uncomplicated, a better than average (borderline phenomenol, some say) angler, friendly, quick to smile, slow to arms and is described by most as being ‘a damn fine bloke’. Notable examples of this ‘fly in the hatband’ personality profile include me.
I try not to be the guy who ‘calls it’ first but I was running out of reasons to be standing thigh deep in a mercilessly cold river on a miserable day essentially just practicing my casting. If I was the sort that habitually maintained a diary and meticulously recorded events for future reflection I would have documented the day being “not quite as exciting as gonorrhea” without any overt sense or intention of melodrama.
We hadn’t seen, spooked or raised a fish in a four hour session and I was getting concerned. The river was in far better condition than I’d seen it for a long time and the weather was of the shitty variety that typically sees browns on the forage. Not today. Today they were being the petulant little bastards that we know them to be.
If there is a fish that is more anthropomorphised than a brown trout then I have yet to hear of it. If you’re ever feeling out your depth in a discussion on wild brown trout it’s not very hard to assimilate yourself back into the conversation. Simply describe them using terms that you would use to describe your teenage daughter and you’ll come across as a true brown trout aficionado. Words like precocious, beautiful, petulant, moody, bitchy, manipulative, stubborn, difficult, ornery, etc. will elevate your position in the group. But, and this important, you have to stress how clever they are. You need to talk about them in terms that make the theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, seem like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E Neuman. Fly fishers hold this to be among the highest truths of the sport – for cerebral ability, easiness on the eye and being right moody little motherfuckers nothing on earth trumps a brown trout.
Swallows had been feeding sporadically on what I suspected were mayflies through most of the morning. Once or twice on their strafing runs they had even centred my Adams in their crosshairs. Now I don’t profess to know the tolerance levels of swallows in matters relating to drag, leader shine or the matching of hatches but I took their attention to mean that I was on the right track. Still, other than for the invisible mayflies, the feathered Messerschmidts and two grumbling and perplexed anglers the river was absolutely devoid of life.
“Right, we out of here?” called the Supermodel.
Now, look, I’m as amiable as the next guy and I don’t take an intentional contrary position on things, but when it comes to the last cast I’m a staunch traditionalist. While I disconsolately flicked an elk hair caddis into the bubble line of the pool on the bend my partner read the situation perfectly, reacted elegantly and walked on a bit to take a parting look at the long run above it.
To be honest I was at that point feeling pretty flat. The decision to fish where we had been fishing (Zippermouth Creek) was an almost last minute change in my original plan for the day and I felt a strong sense of responsibility for our failure. It’s a hard feeling to explain, but I suppose it’s like when you take a short-cut after a long day at work and find yourself behind a jack-knifed truck for several hours. Not entirely what you intended.
I had a certain stretch of river in mind for some time but some ping-pong texting between the Club Guy and myself earlier in the week had left me uncertain. Slow, deep pools with “low fish numbers” sounded more or less precisely what I wasn’t looking for. The photos of some pretty good fish caught in the area this season weren’t convincing me either. Staring into pools for twenty minutes, as I’m told he did the week before, without seeing a fish move didn’t exactly set adrenaline coursing through my veins.
A call to The Pro didn’t go quite as well as I hoped it would. Between leaning over his tackle shop counter talking to customers and his own time on the water earlier in the week he would, I surmised, provide me with some direction. I wanted the where, how and what. All I got was some crazed existential rambling that did my cause no measurable good.
“Well between work and guiding I don’t get much time to fish, so it was fantastic”, said The Pro.
“Yes”, I sighed, trying to think of a way to get my point across, “but when last did you have a great day on a river? The sort of day when you catch enough or good enough fish? I haven’t had that for a long time now. I’m getting kinda desperate.”
“I’m over that way of thinking now. I think I understand now what the older guys say when they tell you that just being out on a stream is enough.”
That sort of talk is normally grist to my mill but, I admit without shame, I was growing tired of it. Between drought and heat and a mix of poor planning and lack of practice (substitute ‘ability’ if you prefer) I hadn’t had a day in far too many months where I’d caught either the number or quality of fish that I desired. I don’t care how you philosophize it, I go fishing to catch fish. The scenery doesn’t come second to it but if I wanted to hike the high ground I’d hike it.
I’m not sure how to explain what I’m trying to say. Let me put it another way. I once bought a postcard of St Peters Basilica. It was a very pretty postcard too. But that’s not what made it special. What made it special was that I bought it from a nun in the foyer of the Vatican. Do I make my point?
The Supermodel was calling to me again. I ignored the first and the second calls. By God, I was having my last cast and I wasn’t going to be rushed. I looked upstream in the direction of the voice and noticed that suddenly the skies were blue. I thought nothing of it.
“Savs! Come here.”
He seemed pretty insistent so I looked up.
“Nice fish rising here.”
Like my daughter’s cat making retching sounds on my 2AM duvet he had my full and immediate attention.
“So? Catch him.”
“No, I still have a nymph on, you try.”
My grandmother used to, in her rather severe way, remind me that manners maketh man and I make a great effort to be polite and generous – but when there’s a single fish rising on ten miles of river and you’re offered first cast at it you don’t want to be stupid about it. Ripping my gaze away from the mouth of this gift horse at a near whiplash speed I shuffled my way upstream.
The fish was feeding hard and was weaving in the vee between two submerged rocks with that almost liquid, serpentine grace that a trout shares only with an otter. I set myself up below the fish and slightly outside of its line, said a silent prayer, focussed hard, reminded myself that the first cast has to count and loosed off a cast.
Perhaps it was the swirling wind. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the very short bamboo rod that I cobbled together myself and was battling to adjust to or perhaps it was the anxiety of casting to a good fish after so bleak a day but I missed the mark that I was aiming at. In fact, I missed it by a long country mile. Redoubling my concentration I cast again. And again. And once or twice more. The fish kept feeding, rhythmically snaking itself between two rocks, entirely oblivious to the circus unfolding a bit behind and outside of its line.
The only thing worse than my casting was the steady torrent of gasps, cries of astonishment and abuse coming from The Supermodel. Such ugly language coming from so pretty a face is an affront to nature.
“Cast a foot above it.”
“Yes, thank you, I know that. I’m normally a very accurate caster.”
“Then what the hell are you doing?”
I shuffled closer. “Thwing” said the line. “<insert profanities here>” said the angler. “Oh <insert more profanities directed at the angler here>” said his accomplice.
Finally (think several long minutes later) the fly landed more or less on target and was neatly sipped by the fish and, the key here is consistency, I duffed the set. After a brief pause punctuated only by words like ‘bother’, ‘blast’ and ‘oopsie daisy’ the fish unbelievably went back to feeding.
I did it all over again – the bad casting and the missed set – and the fish continued feeding.
Brown trout. They are an enigma. They are all at once the most intelligent, stupid, moody, good-natured, uncompromising and forgiving of the salmanoids.
This one had an IQ of around 13.
When I finally got a cast in line I over-lined it by a long, long way. The fish literally had to dip under and to the side of my leader and when the fly came past he again dodged the leader and sipped it in that beautiful way that only a trout sips a fly. I set the hook and it was game on as he bent my homemade rod deep into the corks.
I don’t measure fish, but I’d put his length at about 13″- so let’s call it 12″ for safety. I’d prefer it to be 13″, if it’s all the same to you, as I quite like the symmetry of one IQ point per inch of his length.
From then on for the next hour or so we caught some good fish in a lovely stretch of pocket water. It’s the sort of pockets that I like and consider to be perfect – deep potholes, short glides and intesting structure close to undercut banks. My casting returned to laser accuracy (ok, more or less laser accuracy). We both got a few and each dropped a nice fish, the best one hammering upstream and then dragging the Supermodel downstream a’ways before breaking him off neatly. All were taken in potholes that had rocks casting shadows across them, but that’s to be expected.
When we left we left feeling contented.
We never did get back in time for lunch, as it happened, and we stopped by the Pro for coffee on the way out.
“So, how’d it go?”, he enquired.
“Ah, you know, it’s just nice to get out sometimes.”