Zen and the Art of Angling

Chapter 3

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

Cartoon of Alistair

How does it feel to catch your first fish? It is awesome, no matter how big or small your first fish is it is memorable and will live with you for the rest of your life. Some people catch their first fish on the first attempt, some people try to no avail for years. For me each watershed came all too slowly.

My first trout had a profound influence on me which remains fresh today captured as if on film in my mind.

One summers day I awoke at first light filled with the childish enthusiasm reserved for birthdays and Christmas. My sense of achievement had not faded one bit, my mountain was climbed my chasm was bridged. I could savour success, I could not sleep.

After what seemed like eternity of ardent endeavour I had consummated my greatest desire, no more the need to hide my shameful failure from my peers and elders. I could stand to my full height, chest out and tell my tale of success. At 9 years of age I had caught my first trout, a shining, speckled brown trout, six inches long, four ounces in weight, magnificent and a wonder to behold. As far back as I could remember,four possibly five years, I'd dreamt about the moment that the first fish would fall to me. I smiled and lied and told my mum I loved her when she borrowed my fishing rod and immediately caught her first trout. On chance encounters with other older anglers I'd ask 'Caught any fish mister' then admire with envy the contents of their fishing baskets. I tried to hide my longing, I confess my covetousness, but longing was always there lurking, asking when it will be my turn?.

Every Easter my family would go to Keils Den in Fife to roll our tea stained and paint daubed eggs then I would ventured of to the burn to fish with a piece of desiccated wood bay willow herb and a length of twine with no hope other than childish optimism. I caught nothing of course but I well remember the angler I met, a knight girded in his battle gear of waders, hat bedecked with hooks and flies, rod in hand, net by his side and a cane basket on his back.

"You caught anything mister?" I piped.

"No not yet laddie' replied the man, 'nor will you 'til you get a hook and some wurums on that line"'.

Life is a learning experience and you learn something every day when you fish. This revelation was off course scary, sharp pointy hooks and dirty, smelly, icky worms. Could I, should I, would my mum let me? It was just so much to take in at four years of age, having a fishing rod would help too!.

Two years later my Uncle Jimmy, bless him for he bears much of the blame for my fixation, changed my life for ever. He had indulged me at every opportunity with tales of wild places and monster fish lost and landed. On visits to his house Uncle Jimmy would lay out his basket of tackle, rods and lines, hooks and flies and show me the fish scaled, blooded bask he used to carry his catch in. He talked of trout and Tweed, Tay and Teviot, Highland lochs and leaping salmon. There was magic in his words and I dreamed that some day I would become a man like him striding the moor lands in search of trout and salmon.

Not long after my sixth birthday, while on a visit to my uncle, he showed me some tackle I had never seen before. A little hand made lancewood wand, an old brass reel with a cord line, a tobacco tin with some hooks and some ready made bait casts, flies and a memorable looped cane landing net. It looked so good I was mesmerised and bit slow on the uptake. I didn't understand the importance of having to promise to bring him a fish when I caught one. He laughed, my parents smiled from ear to ear and I laughed for joy as I understood it was his gift to me.

So it was, three years later, on a sunny day in the Sma Glen in Perthshire my family pitched our tent for a weekend break in a grassy lay-by overlooking a stream. Impatiently I did my chores, aching to be set free to roam the stream in search of the elusive trout.

At last the leash was undone and I dashed off along the road threading line through rod rings, attaching hook and sinker and bait never stopping to catch a breath as I dashed over the dry stone dyke, through the cattle trod bog to a deep meandering stretch of stream festooned with flowing beds of water weed.

I cast into the peat stained water and trundled the worm down between the banks of weed, retrieving, stepping and casting the way my uncle showed me, BANG!

A lightening strike, 1000 volts to the heart disconnect my brain from what little good sense I had. My arm jerked upwards and something resisted. I heaved harder, upwards over my head and behind me. As I looked up a fish flew by sketching an arc through the air, a pendulum at the end of my rod and line until the line went light and fell limp to earth. The fish kept going though, onwards into the waist deep heather and bracken ten yards behind me. Lost, I'd lost my first fish - on dry land! I threw aside my precious rod and ran to where I marked the fall of the fish.

My heart was hammering, I cried, I wailed, I shut up. There was somewhere nearby a rattle in the underbrush. I listened hard and heard a rythmic rustle. Was it a snake or a lizard, courage (or was it desperation) took hold of me and I resolved that my first fish would be found, nobody would believe me otherwiseagain and I zeroed in on the sound. Sod the snakes I'll bite their heads off! There burrowed into the damp moss,was a flapping tail, a fish, my first fish. Found and bagged!.

Awake in bed that morning, reliving the ecstasy of it all, I recalled the panic of nearly losing my fish a second time to hungry gulls swooping on the fish as it lay on display at the camp site and of my mother protecting the fish from the marauding birds with a pot lid.

I also recalled teatime when my trout was ceremonially served to me, golden fried in oatmeal. As I tucked into the morsel my older brother, with sibling malice, asked me if I was enjoying eating that poor-little-fish-that-I-had-killed-and-it-hadn't-done-anyone-any-harm. I wept uncontrollably at the magnitude of it all knowing I had killed a living creature for my pleasure.

I learned a lesson that day that remains with me now. My brother inadvertently focused my young mind on the reality that catching fish is a privilege not a right. The quarry we anglers seek is a thing of beauty and worthy of our consideration and respect, but we are mostly carnivores, and man must eat. To this day I do not take the life of a fish lightly, I eat what I catch and prefer to stop fishing when I have taken what I need.

I had achieved my first angling goal and other conquests soon followed; trout, perch, eels, flounders and sea fish. Fly fishing was something of a mystery to me, I tried but had little skill until that same uncle took charge and gave me my first lessons. Soon trout started to fall to the fly and the bug became embedded. What was next?.

Salmon of course.

In my final term at primary school aged 11 years old I sat next to a lad called Derry who shared an interest in fishing with me. One day Derry whispered in a conspiratorial way, you know, he looked right then left to be sure no was listening, and said;.

"A saw salmon at the dam yesterday, dinae tell anyone, its oor secret".

"I looked at him admiring the sincerity of his bull, salmon at the dam indeed."

"Aye and their giving away free toffee apples too." I whispered back.

"Gen up, there are lots o them, big yins. I had one on and lost it, cross ma heart and hope to dee!" he said, crossing his chest judiciously just to the left of his heart.

The river in question was the Leven in Fife which had its source in the world famous Loch Leven in Kinross. While Loch Leven had become legendary its outflow had become a notorious cancerous sewer from the 1920s onward. As the river flowed from Kinross to Fife the wash from dozens of coal mines, the effluent from the paper mills and distilleries and the indescribable sewage of the surrounding towns and villages spewed into the river scouring the river clear of life. Once a prolific salmon river, the Leven was dead water, fouling all it touched on its viscous way to the Forth estuary.

The dam Derry referred to was little more than a few hundred yards above the tidal reach of the river. Two things would strike you as you approached 'the dam', the black submarine like pipe line running nearby and the smell of the spume from the falls. In the early fifties government woke up to the idea that it was bad to use a river as an open sewer and an effluent bypass pipe was installed from Glenrothes, down stream to the sea at Leven. The river level fell by a foot once the effluent was diverted from the river to the pipe and the Methilhaven Angling Club took on the role of managing the river.

By the early sixties some fish had come back to the river. First there were stories of flounders and eels being caught, and then some perch. Then a few tough fighting but unpalatable trout appeared. Finnock came with the summer tides and everyone agreed that the river was on the up and up, but it still flowed cloudy and stank and clogged your line with 'tilth' from the paper mills.

With this history in mind I was sceptical as Derry tried to convince me that he had seen a salmon. Optimism comes with youth and ultimately you will believe anything at the age of 11 if it is said with conviction. We swore each other to secrecy with promises and oaths and arranged to meet next day, to fish for salmon.

We met in accordance with our pact and filled with anticipation and excitement we made our way down through the woods, over the metal bridge at the steel works and down the pipeline to the dam, clowning as we went, reeling in imaginary whales. At the dam sitting dangling our legs over the edge of a pothole we dropped our heavily weighted, baited hooks into the turgid water and convinced each that every tug or bump on the line in the swirling cauldron was a bite.

Derry's claims grew more and more outrageous until at last he stood up shouting;

"I've got yin!"

Having cried wolf to often I laughed at Derry disbelieving his outrageous claim. In anger Derry thrust his rod at me and urged me to see for myself. Believing he was snagged on a rock I heaved on the rod and the rock heaved back! It was a fish!

I offered to return the rod but Derry begged me to reel it in because he did not know what to do. In truth, I was too was clueless. I pulled and reeled and pumped the fish out of the depths of the pot and in a heart stopping confirmation a wide tail broke the surface and we both saw the fish. Under the rod pressure and the rush of the stream the fish wallowed over the apron of the pool, onto a shallow spillway.

"Get down and net the fish" I cried.

Derry didn't know how to net a fish. In truth, I was too was clueless. Sensing indecision the fish dashed for the safety of the turbulent pothole. I pumped it back up and on to the spillway, Derry took the rod from me and urged me to net the fish. I leapt down into the shallow water and began a Keystone Cop chase. Derry shouted encouragement and advice at me as I chased the fish around the pool. I slashed at the fish with the net until at last, in frustration and desperation I pounced on the fish and physically stuffed it into the bag of the net. With one titanic effort I heaved the net and flapping fish up the high bank and clambered after it.

We carried the fish well back from the water in case it escaped, and there marvelled at its very existence. Four and a half pounds of fresh run silver fish. In the days that followed many fish were taken from the pool below the falls. That winter a spate smashed through the dam removing it as an obstacle to running fish. Each year the river cleared a little more, each year the fishing improved and since that day I have marvelled at the resilience of nature. Given time the ravages of bygone years can be put to rights and fish and wildlife will return to waters that were once lost.

Today the Leven flows deep and clean and who knows that some day salmon may return to Loch Leven. Derry's fish was the first migratory to come from the river in half a century and therein, without sounding too churlish, rested my problem - it was Derry's fish for which I could claim an assist.

At twelve I had half a fish to my name, when I landed Derry's fish for him. By the age of fourteen I had not improved on that score. It was the summer of 1965 and I was on holiday with my parents in Lairg in Sutherland, camping on the banks of the river Shin.

The Shin is a "real" salmon river with peaty brown water tumbling from pool to pool through a heathery glen. There are falls where coach loads of tourists cheered the valiant efforts of fish striving to mount the raging barrier, moaning in despair at every failure, clapping outrageously at every success. As I stood at The Falls of Shin I cheered with the crowd, and wished.

By now I was the proud owner of a little 8 foot bamboo rod brought from the far east by my brother, one of those combination rods that could convert from fly to spinning rod. I was fishing the head of the pool by our camp site with my magic rod set up for spinning, wading through the cold streaming water in plimsols and shorts.

I flicked a little Devon minnow into the head of the stream and saw a fish roll gently in the current. My line stopped, never expecting that I was into a fish, I heaved on the rod and found the line first dash down stream then up stream, the rod juddering in my hand, a salmon! I hollered loud and soon had a gallery of folk giving advice. My dad waded fully dressed into the stream with my little bent cane net intending to ghillie for me.

The fish showed as I eventually eased it to the shore exhausted after a long struggle. I will never forget dad looking at the fish then the net and saying with his eyes, it will never fit in that son. In a final rush the salmon made off down stream again but I brought it back, surely for landing this time. As the fish lay on the surface, exhausted, ready to be scooped up the line came free. We all stood aghast and watched as the fish first sank and then turned and slowly swam away into the peaty murk.

I confess I cried and wanted time to stand still. A little pig tail twirl on the end of the line said it all, at the last minute the knot had slipped. A sympathetic angler taught me later how to tie a locked blood knot, would that I he had told me a day earlier.

Next day my misery was compounded. As I cast a new Devon upon the water my little bamboo wand snapped through the butt section, irreparably damaged by the mammoth task of the previous day. 26 years later I was still to catch a salmon.

Fishing for finnock on the Spey, I cast a small silver stoat through falling spate water. The water was dark with peaty stain but fish were moving all over the pool. Finnock were on the take and rods on both banks were having good sport with these tenacious little fighters.

I worked my way down stream picking up my share of fish. A sudden gentle pluck on the line and I stuck into another fish. No fire works, just a steady strain on the line and after 2 or 3 minutes I had seen nothing of the fish and concluded from its behaviour that I had tail hooked a good finnock.

Foul hooked fish must go back and whether netted or lost the outcome would be the same, so I heaved hard to bring the fish to the surface for netting. With only the length of the fly cast left outside the top ring of the rod I still could see nothing of the fish in the peaty water.

Then a tail appeared splashing the water at my feet, and my heart stopped. A salmon for heavens sake! Flipping heck, back off, play canny, help ma Bob! Would the knot hold? Would that advice from so many years ago hold me in good stead?.

Oh Jesus, please not again!.

Ten more minutes and the fish was wallowing on the surface, sliding towards my net. Expecting a repeat of the disappointment of yester years I am sure I did not breath until the fish slipped over the edge of my net and I heaved it out of the river and far up the bank.

6lbs 4ozs of sea fresh salmon, in the bag at last, a lifetime ambition achieved. Until this day I could only count on two half fish; one landed for a friend but not hooked by me, one hooked by me but not landed. Today I had a whole fish all to myself. I give thanks to the memory of that old angler who gave me such good advice on knots and acknowledge that it is often in with the sharing of little gems of information and advice that members of the angling fraternity help each other.