As dusk fell the stars came out above us, the fire roared in front of us and the horses gathered around the blaze because the smoke kept the few insects that roamed the dusk at bay. Less tail swishing needed. Marcelo, my guide, stretched out in front of it all on a log with a beer, said: “Welcome to my office.”
I hadn’t fished for more than 200 days before arriving in Patagonia. So at first I was like a long-term prisoner being freed and dropped off in London with a bulging wallet. I cast wildly and too hard, struck at every fish as if it were a world record and was generally in such a rush that my guide, Marcelo, had to carry out a playground roster check on my tackle before we headed out every day. “Rod, reel, line, flies, sunglasses, glasses, sunshield, hat, waterproof jacket……” Continue reading “SWAN’S WAY – IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME”→
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But there was no mistaking that electric tingle of recognition when our eyes first met on the deck of the Estancia de los Rios lodge. Not unlike the charge I had received from an electrified sheep fence while fishing a river Cisnes tributary the day before. It was not enough to cause pain but just sufficient to shock me into a more elevated altitude of awareness. So we exchanged looks again. And the looks became stares. And in that exchange we communicated, wordlessly. My eyes signalled attraction. Her eyes said transaction. In that moment we had situated ourselves quite clearly on both sides of an emotional divide. I now knew my place. My feelings of needing to care on one side, hard-headed material needs on the other. Attraction versus transaction. I had been here before in recent years, painfully so.
So I offered her corn flakes on the patio, a warm gesture I thought, perhaps an opening. She walked over, examined my offering, and swept them out into the breeze with something like contempt. Birds of prey don’t eat breakfast cereals. They prefer things with blood.
And this young Southern Caracara knew what she wanted and how to get it. By turning up regularly on the deck, she had been fed by Victoria, and now she expected it daily. She strutted up and down the railing going round the deck almost every morning and evening, awaiting room service from the Manager’s wife. Breakfast time was a good moment to admire her good looks her sledgehammer beak, grappling iron talons and slightly ridiculous pantaloon leg feathers. I have history with these big, predatory birds. On an island in the Falklands (Malvinas) chain, one took a shine to me and followed me everywhere I went by foot or by land rover. I was touched and amused, until it swooped down one day and made off with my shiny new cigarette lighter. The bird guides say they are “very social creatures” but should add that they are also light-fingered. Or should that be light-taloned?
By day three I had settled into the lodge’s easy rhythms of eat, fish, sleep. It can be cold and gusty in the mornings so the lodge doesn’t advise going out to fish until 10.00 a.m. No crunching the hoar frost or shivering bankside to catch the “early rise,” a myth that persists in fly fishing in the northern hemisphere. At the Estancia de los Rios, breakfast is taken at a leisurely 0830 – fruit, cereal, yoghurt , scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh orange juice. This is the moment to decide what sort of fishing the weather will allow – the fish are more active on sunny days but will still come up when it’s Scottish-style dreek, but the wind dictates whether you fish a lake., float the river or try an enclosed spring creek.
Enter Marcelo the guide at 0945, a Don Quixote tee shirt showing under his Simms waders. He is tilting windmills of time with an Orvis Superfine rod. The wind is picking up and we are going to try some spring creeks and backwaters. They tend to hold the biggest fish outside of the lake systems and I am keen to see them. My guide and I have settled easily into the rhythms of companionship; there is an equipment check before we set out – rod, reels, rain jacket, hat, sunglasses. I have bought a box of flies from Marcelo the host. It contains garish beetle imitations, big enough for hungry fish and ageing anglers to see. They are made out of foam and strips of rubber for legs. The black and pink one is so My Little Pony unreal that I have secretly dubbed it the Black Barbie. Marcelo fires up a 70s playlist on his in-car phone audio system, and we head off into the hills for a day’s reflective, soothing and healing fly fishing singing along to Abba’s Dancing queen and Blondie’s Heart of Glass. You couldn’t make it up.
The first spring creek is the size of an irrigation ditch and I cannot land a fly anywhere except in the grass beside it or trees over it. Fish rise in this water nonetheless. They do everywhere, in little drainage runoffs and puddles cut off from the main river. Each morning we drive across the river on our journeying. The water is hardly as high as the hub caps, but you can see trout rising, even in this. We head off to another set of pools which I think Marcelo has dubbed the “Strange beat” because the pools seem unconnected, but they are by an invisible underground source. We tread carefully up to the tree-lined bank to avoid disturbing the fish and crouch like dogs winding up to ambush a cat. The creek is deep and weedy and about as wide as one lane of European country road. I can see a fish the size of my forearm cruising around like a lurking U-boat in a World War Two film.
We back out carefully to inspect my tackle. The wind is so strong in Patagonia that it is advisable to rig rods with a line that is one weight heavier than the rod is meant to cast. It’s the equivalent of putting on really big car tyres to deal with hostile terrain. The heavier line gives you more control in anything but the tearaway gusts that materialise out of a steady wind with such force that you become, for one tantalising moment, weightless as you lean forward to reaffirm your centre of gravity. We check my line and the Black Barbie and move back, marine-style to the water’s edge. The fish is no longer where we saw it, which is a relief to me because I am not sure I can land the fly close to it in the wind now blowing. So I cast the fly close to the opposite bank and wait for the trout to cruise by. I cannot see it, even with my polarised prescription glasses, but Marcelo has a Caracara’s vision. When he sees it in the general area of my fly, he hisses out: “Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.” And I jerk the fly a little to create water surface disturbance and get the fish’s attention. The next moment the fish twists upwards and hurls itself at my fly; I have no need of Marcelo’s “Set, Set, Set, ” because I have instinctively struck the rod to set the hook in the fish’s jaw, and we are now locked together in a struggle for supremacy. Three or four minutes later Marcelo’s net slipping under the fish declares me the winner. He carefully extracts a somewhat battered Black Barbie from the fish. It is a big, big fish, far bigger than anything I have encountered on the previous two days, perhaps 18 inches long and built like a cannon shell – a golden brassy hue on its flanks, a sharply pointed mouth where black spots glisten, and a broad and powerful tail. I am breathless with wonder, utterly anchored to this moment and the birdsong, the rush of wind and Marcelo’s urging that we take a picture and put it back in the water it came from. I look at Marcelo’s face and see quite clearly that the Guide is just as happy as the disciple in this shared journey of enlightenment.
Many more fish follow from that same little stretch of water between scraggy groves of greenery . They all have a magical hue of brass or gold, an appropriate burnish for the precious things that they are. To me and to my guide. We take one more brutishly resistant specimen at the final pool and it is well beyond time to sit down and reconnect with the rest of the world with lunchtime conversation in the grass and to let the adrenalin work itself out of the system.
There is a break in the routine of the past two days. No extravagant wholemeal sandwich in greaseproof paper today. Marcelo goes to the truck and pulls pieces of metal out of an old Washington state apple box bearing the farm’s name. Trout, it says in big letters. The metal work is a barbecue grill which he screws to two legs and then places over a fire started with twigs, olive oil and dried leaves. It is soon blazing determinedly with sticks and branches collected under the trees. When the flames die down, Marcelo throws three steaks on the grill, seasoning each with salt. Would someone kindly tell Burger King that they haven’t the faintest idea of what “flame-grilled” smells or tastes like? We eat the steaks, a quinoa salad and, as if that were not enough, snack on mixed nuts, olive, salami and tiny hot rolls and butter.
.Marcelo has also pulled two folding chairs out of the truck, so we sit there under the sun and the wind, eating like kings, feeling like princes of Patagonia, revelling in our kingdom. To round it off Marcelo brews fresh coffee in a travelling French press. There is silence, apart for some birdsong and the wind, as we drink from tin cups and consume chocolate chip cookies made by the lodge’s amiable chef, Christian. There is no need to talk. On the wind I can smell the wild chamomile , wild mint and wood smoke.
I know of few experiences in which the moment is all you live in, and fishing is my number one. The unwanted guests of painful memory or anxieties about the future just don’t intrude. All there is, is now. And now, on the Patagonian plains, is where we are.
Christian has dinner ready for guests around eight thirty, allowing plenty of time to fish into the evening, come back, shower and still have a fireside drink before more good food. There is no pressure to come back at any specific time. This is an experience conceived by people who fish for people who fish. It renders the lunch break even more relaxing.
We do fish some more that afternoon in another creek but the water has been churned up by thirsty cattle. We see a couple of big fish but Barbie holds no magic for them. I am, anyway, happy to call it a day by five in the afternoon. We head home in the truck. The Spotify selection has switched to the 1950s and Neil Sedaka, Marcelo and I are singing “Oh Carol, I am but a fool, darling I love you, thought you treat me cru-el.” I was born in the 1950s so how Marcelo knows the lyrics requires explanation. “I heard it, and it was the first song I ever learned in English,” he explains. He is 21 years younger than me but bouncing back home in the truck, unhooking complicated gaucho gates made out of a stick and two pieces of wire, the age difference doesn’t seem to matter. We are both living in the moment. Happily.
I begin to detect a routine in the way we get back to the lodge. When we are close and at any kind of neight, Marcelo radios ahead. “Casa verde, casa verde, ola.” A reply comes back which I cannot understand; but then all the Spanish I know I learned from Clint Eastwood in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly film series. Marcelo then says, “Un café y un cervesa po fav,” and the lodge acknowledges the message. As we cross the shallow river at the entrance to the lodge, Marcelo radios through again. “Casa Verde, Casa Verde, Rio, Rio.” And then we come to the little wooden bridge over the Winchester creek that flows down from the mountains, where I will fish later in the week. “Casa verde, Casa verde, Puente Puente,” Marcelo s radios to the lodge.
When we get back to the mud room to haul off our boots, waders and several layers of clothing, there is, magically, Christian standing over a tiny cafetiere of coffee, a cold can of beer and humus made from broad beans served on home-made wholewheat crackers. I realise in a flash that it has all been rehearsed to perfection. Rio means river, Puente means bridge. Cervesa is Marcelo’s beer. This is how the welcome back hospitality is timed. Daily. . Shorn of my fishing gear, I walk out onto the veranda and see that there is some sort of commotion on the deck, where Victoria is standing in front of the young Caracara and gesticulating towards the roof or the sky. I carefully get closer to establish what this is all about. Surely not a lesson on the forthcoming full moon for a predatory bird?
And then I get it. The mother of the young Caracara is on the roof with a tiny trout in its beak. It’s the length of my index finger. I’ve seen dozens of them scudding around the shallows of most waters I have come across here. You don’t have to speak Caracara to understand what is going on. Mother bird is telling adolescent bird “you don’t have to eat the rubbish these two-legged things give you. There’s masses of tasty trout in the water.”And the young Caracara is looking first at Victoria, then at its mother, and staying put. It’s hard to explain to any adolescent that the easy way out is often the worst but, hey, I survived my adolescence and so did my parents, just. The mother gives up in disgust and swoops off in the general direction of Argentina. So Victoria reappears with a piece of fish or meat in her hands and drapes it over the railings. The youngster grabs the offering and leaps backwards onto the grass to eat safely under a tree. At least its fear radar is working.
It’s a lovely moment. The generation gap as demonstrated by birdlife. A memory comes skittering out of a recess somewhere and makes me smile. It is a magnet my sister has affixed to her Dubai fridge after raising two boys through their complicated teens. It says, quite simply. “Because I’m your mother. That’s why.” The problem here is will the youngster follow her mum, or her sugar-mummy? Will it be love or a transaction?
I’d flown about 8,000 miles and was half asleep, half looking at the Andes out of my hotel window, when an old-fashioned telephone rang. It took a while to work out what the noise was because I hadn’t heard a landline ring for months, maybe years. But I had given the hotel number to my bank with my itinerary. And I had used my credit card in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or was it the Chilean capital, Santiago, along the way. Or maybe Coyhaique, my hotel pit stop before two weeks fishing in Patagonia. I grabbed the hotel’s bedside handset.
It was one of those crossroads moments: my past and all accumulated knowledge lay behind me; to right and left were the roads of argument, theory, history. And ahead lay a brave new world, if only I could avoid right, left and the past, and walk straight ahead.
“Give me your rod, I’m going to set you up with a bobber,” said Mark, the first American guide I had ever met, hired or fished with.
“A what?” I replied, looking at some pink bubble he was threading onto my leader.
“A bobber, a float. With a bit of lead, it’ll git you down where the fish is feedin’, and that’s pretty deep on this river.”
It wasn’t my idea. Let the records show that “let’s go fishing” was not uttered by me when my Son-in-law Pete and grandson Joe popped over to Ireland for a few days. It was my five-year-old relative who said it, and he was looking at me, not at his Dad. Fish in the family household back in Kenya was a four-letter word for my wife, although both daughter Delia and son Lewis did reel in Bass during picnics on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. Their mother acquiesced because the lake’s Crescent Island was a pretty game reserve, and it was a break from socialising in Nairobi. But it was an add-on to cold pies from the La Belle Inn and sandwiches made in our Loresho home. And a belly full of cold Tusker Premium for me.
It was Joe’s idea. He said it. Looking at me. His father commented that “he seemed quite keen” so fishing we went. As suitable tackle, venues and times were decided, Joe talked enthusiastically about landing a shark, about monster fish, about HUUUUUUGE fish that he would take. And I wondered, if as a five-year-old I had thought the same. Joe is an accomplished artist for a five-year-old and paints sharks, fish, dragons, monsters and the like. He had done a load for me, and brought them to adorn my cottage, which they now do.
First stop – to feed his immediate appetite – was Murphy’s pool on the Argideen, which often holds Sea Trout biding time before their ascent upstream. I put up a small rod and helped him swing a small fly from the top to the bottom of the pool. He enjoyed watching the line, but the fact that nothing came with the fly when he reeled in was clearly a disappointment so we went off for food, which rarely is.
Someone – it may have been Peter Wolstenholme or my neighbour Nick – suggested we fish in the ornamental pond in the estate opposite my cottage. I know the owner and also knew that the pond was stocked with Brown Trout a while back. And the neighbour was away…..We gained access to this beautiful estate and marched, the three of us, down to the pond, armed with a fly rod and deep-sinking lures. Accompanying us was Lady, the peripatetic farmer’s dog which regards all of the nearby 20 acres as her personal fiefdom. We set up and fished. Joe pulled in diligently. Lady began barking in a state near to apoplexy every time Joe reeled in through the muddy water. It really was quite murky so I put on outrageously bright flies, including the infamous Dungeon Sex I had acquired in Montana.To absolutely no result at all.
What do you do when a kid wants to catch fish, not just go fishing. It’s an important question because the latter only happens when the former has occurred, and secretly I have always wanted Joe to become a fly fisherman. Hell, I gave him a tailor-made fisherman’s jacket when he was three years old. Which his mother folded and put away. So, I hit on a plan. We would go to West Cork’s ShepPerton Lakes ( http://www.fishinginireland.info › Trout fly fishing » South West) on the road to Skibbereen and points West. It’s a collection of lakes that holds Trout, Pike and Rudd, so I guessed it might be our best chance, although I had never been.
That morning we got ready, Joe marching around the garden again in a chilly wind with a landing net. Snacks were put together. We drove, found the lakes, got a day ticket and found a spot where fish could be seen rising in the margins. First up, I cast a long line with a Black Pennell. Pike chasing trout caused swirls in the water but nowhere near my fly. Secretly, with my family’s Hong Kong assignment in the back of my mind, I put bread paste on a large weighted Coachman. Again, nothing happened. Then I put on a tiny Black Pennell, one of my all-time favourite flies, and tried retrieving it slowly while Joe sloshed in the margins in his wellies.And I got a take. It felt very small but it wiggled suitably and was certainly a fish. I called Joe over to watch and handed him the rod to reel it in. When he lifted the rod, out of the water popped a three-inch Rudd, a sort of Goldfish gone native. It wiggled on the hook and jumped out of Joe’s hand onto the bank. “Can I keep it” was the next, inevitable, question, and it must happen to everyone who tries to teach a youngster to fish. “We’ll let it go so you can catch it another time,” said his father, uttering, unconsciously, the mantra of the catch-and-release club of which I am a proud member. So, we let it go.
Joe caught several more and lost a couple. His young face beamed with every tug, every take, every swirl at his feet. And I wondered who had really been caught, Joe or the fish. Ironic that it should have taken place at waters that bear the name of my father’s birthplace and first fishing spot. It was my father who taught me how to fish when we returned from his teaching job in Hong Kong and went in search of Pike and coarse fish in the rivers and lakes of Sussex. I have a picture of the two of us in Skye, Scotland, not long before I caught my first Brown Trout on a dangled worm in a brisk burn near the family holiday home.
I don’t ascribe genetic disposition to the fact that my grandfather (a gamekeeper) father and mother (teachers) brother (lawyer) and son (Creative genius) all loved and love to fish. I think it has more to do with a curious eye on the mysteries of the natural world and an upbringing that puts the outdoors above television. Or something like that. There are some things you can ponder that are plain imponderable. Jim Flannery, one of the finest and wisest men and journalists I ever knew, was fond of saying something along the lines of “you don’t have to know why the planets go around each other, you just need to know that they do.”
“I caught six fish” was the first thing Joe told his mother that evening. It pleased me greatly and I know my daughter, Delia, is happy too when her two boys are happy. They are both curious about nature, both fascinated by water, and know too that they are loved by all the people they encounter. I wondered too if Tearaway Tom, now three, would become like my younger brother Simon did, the most elegant and thoughtful of fishermen. I so much regretted, before he died, that we had never fished together in Kenya, where his patient feel for waters and the right fly would have served him platefuls of fish and joy, as it did me before the Tuskers robbed me of the full returns of my fishing endeavours.
A few months later I was struck again the enthusiasm of two teenagers for all manner of fishing. Storm and Sejr arrived from Jutland, Denmark, with their potter-artist mother, Meta Maya (http://www.mettemayagregersen.com/wordpress/).
Peter Wolstenholme, our local ceramic artist, met her at a pottery workshop somewhere, mentioned the “wonderful” fishing in West Cork and invited them over for a week. Peter found himself in charge of two young men for whom the phrase “fishing mad” was something of an understatement. They talked about fishing in Jutland constantly, had vocabularies in English that seemed taken from Trout and Salmon magazine and quizzed Peter and me constantly about the waters around West Cork. They were and are huge fun and live in the countryside next door to a rainbow trout lake. Sejr, the youngest, said he was a “Rainbow Warrior.” I wanted to ask him if Greenpeace, who lost a boat of that name when it was bombed by the French Secret Service in Auckland, New Zealand, on a 1985 trip to protest about France’s nuclear tests in a pretty Pacific atoll. But I didn’t. He wanted to talk about the fluorescent flies the Danish Sea Trout fishermen use to catch specimens off the Danish coast, and that interested me far, far more. Peter’s newly-built conservatory became the Operations Room for a daily assault on West Cork waters. The boys had not been able to bring their own tackle because of insufficient time between planes in London to get their baggage transferred. So, Peter and I and some other friends happily chipped in with rods, reels and general wherewithal.
I wasn’t there on a bank of the river Bandon when Storm lost a salmon as he put down his rod to collect his polarised sunglasses while aforesaid salmon nosed away with a prawn at the end of his hook. I wasn’t there when Peter first noticed: “These two boys cast beautifully. Naturally, It’s quite amazing.” But was there when high winds blew fly fishing out of the window and Peter took Storm and I to a sheltered cove to spin for Bass. “What beautiful countryside,” said Storm as we put together our tackle on a craggy cliff. “Everywhere in Ireland you see such beautiful nature.”
Score one for fishing-as-an-entry-to-nature. We fished that cove, but it was windy, then tried another, which was far less so, as darkness began to fall. Storm had only been fishing a few minutes when he shouted to me: “I’ve caught something. What is it.” I looked across and could see nothing at the end of his rod. “Look, it’s just here, he said, “what sort of fish do you think it is.” It was smaller than Joe’s Rudd. Probably whitebait or something, but it had boxed way out of its weight and ended up on one prong of Storm’s floating Rappala. “I caught our first fish, didn’t I?” beamed Storm. It was hard to argue with. Score One for Fishing as Catching.
A couple of days later we had a “family day” on Balinlough, another small West Cork water that Peter and I had fished only once, but with great success. The four males split into two boats while the two women – Mette and Fran, Peter’s wife – went walking and discovering for the day. The wind had dropped a little but the lake had been so churned up by the weather that a red-letter day seemed an unlikely prospect. And so it was. We tried everything in the box and just about every corner of the lake but barely had a handful of takes between us.
It was uplifting to see the young boys cast so beautifully, the younger in particular. He reminded me, again of my brother but also of my friend Bob Triggs (/www.searuns.com/), a Washington guide who can land a fly on a floating potato chip 50 feet away.
All of us, men and women, had an enjoyable lunch together bankside, the women laughing at the men’s inability to prove piscatorial prowess, the men discussing what tactics and flies to use in the post-lunch session, and where might be the spot to try. It made me think so much of similar lunches with my brother and family, of our own Hong Kong picnics with mum and dad, and of dozens of other occasions when fishing becomes a shared joy, a thing to remember.
At one point that afternoon Storm and I heard shouting from the other boat and looked over to see Sejr in contest with a pretty large fish, most likely a rainbow. They fight hard in this water and it took some time for him to land it. We watched the drama unfold then heard the thumping of the priest that announced its end. Rainbow Warrior 1. Rest 0.
“Can I tell you something?” asked Storm, from his perch at the front of the boat. “I think I am feeling just a little bit jealous now. But I am also happy for my brother.” I knew what he meant. There are times when Peter’s fishing mastery leaves you like a novice buddhist wondering if there really is such a thing as Zen.
I couldn’t help but smile. Fishing IS about catching up to a point, but measured against a lifespan it’s also about the fishing, and the improving, and the knowing that whatever happens, you are never too old to learn.
On their last night we took the boys to fish the Big Flats of the Argideen at night. Peter organised a rotating system so that all four of us could cast from the newly-strimmed bank, moving up a meter after every few casts to allow the next person to fish. Peter taught the boys how to cast, where, and how to retrieve, and what to do if they hooked a fish. He’d even brought along a little three-legged camping stool from which to monitor our progress.
I fished first and after a few casts had a huge wrench from what I thought was a Sea Trout. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the bank to walk slowly back past the other three, that I saw that it had taken my size eight longshank Teal Blue and Silver. The others fished as per orders and touched nothing. Mullet from the sea started swimming around, and I realised my “take” had probably been the escape of a Mullet foul hooked in the back by my fly.
“You’re out after midnight boys. You should be in bed but here you are on a wonderful night fishing for Sea Trout on the Argideen,” said our Sergeant-Major. Ten minutes later and I realised I was the only one still fishing. Storm was fast asleep on the bank under a dim moon; Sejr was talking to Peter, and it was time go to home. Fishless but happy.
The thing driving the rental car down dark Irish country roads at midnight wasn’t the diesel engine. Not entirely. It was my expectation that in the warm perfumed hours after midnight, Sea Trout would be entering the river Argideen through the estuary my home looks over. And that I would land one to make my homecoming float the realm of the perfect dream. I hadn’t fished the river since April, and with sparse result then.But the thought of the whole month of June in which to fish, a prime month in the life cycle of both fish and fisherman, acted like an autopilot. I had a quick look at the river – it was high and the tide was pushing the river up – went home and unpacked and was back at the water’s edge at 0330 a.m., about an hour before sunrise.
Everything felt script-perfect; the air was warm; the river was pushing its way to the ocean; an otter family peeped and splashed on the opposite bank. I cast my fly into the darkness and waited for that tug that turns the angler into a human electricity conductor. It didn’t come. As the sun made its warmth felt and light leeched into the darkness, I tried a few spinning lures, with the same result. Nothing. Back home at the cottage, intending to cull my inbox, I fell asleep on the couch, and was woken by a call from Peter Wolstenholme, my fishing companion and guru. “There’s no fish in the river,” said Peter, a little disconsolately. “They are either very late this year or have run straight through on a couple of brief floods we’ve had. It’s all very strange and disappointing.”
Disappointment doesn’t trump expectation, especially when you’ve travelled thousands of miles to your “home” river. It does take the keen edge off hope, but it doesn’t blunt it completely. Not even if you believe only 50% that “it’s not about the catching, it’s about the fishing.” So, on that very same morning, a pattern took shape that was repeated for almost the whole of June, a pattern that revolved mostly around my confidence in a river system I’ve known for 25 years. Every morning and evening I checked the weather forecast to see if it might rain, as it normally does in most Irish summers. But the digital weather soothsayers were far from encouraging. Usually a downpour raises the river level and encourages Sea Trout and Salmon to start their journey upstream. But no downpours were expected for a while. Suddenly the expression “not a cloud on the horizon” seemed ominous. Every morning and evening, and sometimes around midday too, depending on tides, I went to the river and walked the lower pools to see if the fish had decided to come and await a flood before heading upriver; and every day I reported on our network of mobile phone contacts and social media that “there are no fish in the river.” Even when the rain crashed out of the skies for a day, the river rose very little and was still so clear you could count the stones on the bottom. But not the fish, because there were none to be seen.
One day it poured down, not quite when the weather gurus said it would, but who cared? And the river rose and turned muddy and fast while hopes rose at the same pace as the river. But the next day the river was just a little higher, as clear Ballygowan mineral water and utterly devoid of fish. Except – in my case – for one small Brown Trout that I swear I caught last year in the same place.
The falling flood caused rising hope.
Eric Long, another fishing friend and guru, wondered if the fish had been hoovered out of the ocean by industrial fishing ships. Others asked if they had somehow been netted by poachers. There were others, too, who thought and talked about climate change and the warming of the oceans as a possible culprit. The truth is that nobody knew except the fish, and they weren’t saying. There was one inescapable fact. Ireland (and much of Europe) was having a proper let’s-go-for-a-swim summer. The press was full of records and projections. Shops ran out of Ice cream. The sun beamed down as my visiting sister Joanna and I toiled on the patio garden. Looking out from my kitchen window you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the Mediterranean.
It was a bona fide heat wave. Always green, even in a drought, West Cork looked lush, fecund and positively spoilt for sunlight and water in equal measures. The hedgerows became hedgegrows. There were people in shorts in Clonakilty’s main street and the garden centres were overgrown with customers and carts awash with colour.
But the belief the fish would come, that I would make contact with at least one mysterious bolt of silver from the deep, kept my sense of expectation high. Joanna and i , worked on my cottage, visited garden centres, and gave ourselves a day off from weeding and furniture varnishing and went whale-watching with West Cork Whale Watch .(www.whalewatchwestcork.com).
Whale watching is a relatively new thing for West Cork but the incredible number of specimens you can see was listed on a poster on the board of Colin Barnes’ comfortable catamaran as we headed out under cloudless skies.
Colin briefs his passengers
The stars of the show, the Humpback whales which breach and crash and show their massive tails, were somewhere further down the coast and many of the other specimens are not so ostentatious in their stage show.But Joanna and I were treated to lots of Minke whales and a circus of performing dolphins and seals. An unforgettable day. But not exactly what I needed out of the ocean.
The fish still failed to be seen. The river association held a clearing party to clear overgrown paths and banks for its small band of anglers. It was a jolly and industrious afternoon and left our riverbank looking positively Capability Brown, rather than photographer Mike Brown, who blazed a barber’s trail through the grass of the famous Bridge pool.
During that exercise under a bright sun, people reported seeing a few fish, some of them young Salmon or Peel.
The network buzzed with facts, fancy and speculation. Suddenly anglers started turning up for the draw for pools, a time-honoured gathering at Inchy bridge about half an hour before dark. I couldn’t work out whether it was excessive hope over experience or better fish-spotting, because I had only counted one Peel and three fish in weeks of Polaroid perusing. I fished a couple of nights, without a touch. And told myself that the fish would be there before I no longer was, towards the first week of July.
One night I was supposed to meet Peter at the bridge to fish and chat but was too tired from an afternoon of shunting stones and earth around my tiny plot. So, I didn’t go at the allotted hour, which found me asleep instead.
The next morning, I got a message from him saying “Where were you last night. Haven’t you seen my picture on Facebook mssenger? ” The question turned my imagination into a froth of excitement. If anyone is going to take a fish on the Argideen, even in a fallow year, it’s the Yorkshireman with the Heron hair-do and the off-white car coat and green rubber boots. The answer came after a few nervous minutes in the shape of a photograph of three beautiful young sea trout arranged on a kitchen counter for a trophy photograph. Not big, but “schoolies” or “juniors” making their first foray back to their place of birth.
I was too impatient and excited to continue the conversation over WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, and rang Peter straight away.
“Where did you get those fish.” I asked.
“About halfway up the Big Flats pool between midnight and one a.m.” he replied.
“What did they take?” said I.
“One of me’ golden ball flies with a bit of silver in it,” he said.
“Terrific,” I replied. “Will you be going up the river tonight.”
“Probably not,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked with surprise. Few fish with Peter’s boundless appetite.
“I’ve really got you going now, haven’t I? ” said Peter. “Those fish in the photo are ones I caught last year. ”
“You BASTARD,” said I.
And made arrangements for an alternative fishing expedition. For one brief moment there, all my hope and expectation had run amok, only to be crushed by the truth.
April Fool jokes are supposed to do that too. Is this why, in French, they are called a Poisson D’avril?
There isn’t any. Misleading title. Sorry. It’s called a hook and is supposed to grab your attention. Think of it as an attractor. There are no trout in Somaliland or its southern neighbour, Somalia, but watch this space later this year when I go to fish trout of Bale mountains in neighbouring Ethiopia .(http://www.balemountainlodge.com/index.html). Southern Africa’s trout wealth is fairly well documented, but East Africa’s much less so.
Aidan Hartley, the author of the excellent Zanzibar Chest and former colleague at Reuters, once said I seemed to specialist in postings to countries with low-key conflict and good trout fishing. He made this remark in Kenya, which hosts some wonderful river fishing, high-altitude lakes and a lineage of introduced trout dating back to the start of the last century. There are, or perhaps were, trout in Kenya’s neighbour, Uganda as well as in Tanzania, the legacy of colonial sporting appetites. Not so well known is that a certain fishing enthusiast put trout in rivers in southern Sudan, although I wouldn’t recommend going there at the moment. It may constitute good East African trout fishing but its conflict is hardly low-key. The nearest I get to fishing in Hargeisa is the fish shop I pass on my daily bumpy drive to and from town.
It’s work, not fish, that bring me to Somaliland. I teach communications to the government and try to help the media too.
It’s uplifting to witness this unrecognised state thrive in complete contrast to Somalia, from which it declared independence in 1991.
Somaliland has been spared the chaos, anarchy and power-hungry clan feuds that have wrecked Somalia over the past 25 years. I’ve spent time in both and consider myself lucky to be working to help Somaliland consolidate growth that has brought it democratic elections, a currency, a flag, a noisy free press, admirable judicial system and a national identity founded on dialogue between clans and peoples, not ruinous rivalry. The capital grows apace and traffic jams are commonplace. It’s a friendly, knockabout town to walk around.
Central to daily life is the mild narcotic leaf Khat, which is flown in fresh daily from the upland hillsides of Ethiopia. It’s chewed, usually in the afternoons, and gives you a mild buzz. Men in the 3.5 million population spend in excess of $800 million a year “chewing.” An astonishing amount of money in a country suffering acute drought that has impoverished hundreds of thousands of its estimated 600,000 nomads and killed their all-important livestock. Khat is sold in licenced green kiosks all over the place and consumed in the shade of a tree, at home, or in one of the hundreds of street cafes offering not just coffee but the Somali staple of warm, sweet tea. The economy runs on camels. And goats. Livestock exports to the Gulf are the backbone of the economy and the two beasts form the major part of the daily diet, with rice. Both can be lovely if well cooked, but take getting used to.
Camel’s milk, “Somali Viagra” in the words of my driver, is dense and slightly bitter. Camels and goat roam everywhere, some camels displaying the cell phone numbers of their owners. I shared counter space at my local kiosk this week with two goats chewing discarded crisp packets. Like all development workers here I travel in a 4X4 with a bodyguard and under strict security rules, not that I’ve ever had a problem.
I spend about 160 days a year in Hargeisa and feel privileged to see progress happen. It’s not perfect and Somalilanders know it, but that elusive quality, hope, is written large on the faces of the boys and girls I see going to school every day, or in the warm welcome I get from ordinary people, many of whom have lived or have relatives who have lived, in Britain, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, America and the Middle East. Somalis have always been mobile world citizens. They view themselves as part of the bigger world because of that.
Much of the economy is oiled by remittances from the diaspora through electronic banking and mobile phone transfer. The shared language and culture is a thing that binds, rather than divides. So too is a love of song and poetry. One of its most famous singers is Sarah Halgan, who runs and performs at the Hido Dawr cultural village, a collection of thatched tukuls where we also train. There are trendy cafes in town too, displaying the taste of Western style the diaspora has imported.
The world may not yet recognise Somaliland’s independence, but Somalilanders recognise their place in the world at large. They are proud of their passports, but need second ones for international travel because nobody accepts them. When I stand in line to fly to and from Hargeisa, I am always struck by the variety of passports Somalilanders use to visit relatives overseas and in Somaliland. I was queuing behind two young women in traditional dress brandishing Canadian passports at the airport and overheard the following:
Question: “How did you enjoy coming back to see the relatives?”
Answer. “It was lovely to see everyone and Hargeisa’s really coming up. I had some nice camel and goat but can’t wait to get home and have a cheeseburger.”
But there is no freshwater fishing. Most fishermen get antsy about the end or the start of a fishing season, but here there is none. So, I live in a perpetual state of antsy-ness. I’ve yet to cast a line in Somaliland’s s vast offshore waters but will someday. I whet my appetite for fly fishing while I am here through the most important fishing gadget invented in my lifetime – the Internet. What’s the use of the latest breathable waders, gravity-defying rod, aerodynamic lines or power block reels if you can’t irrigate your field of dreams with stories and pictures of the places you want to go? And the Internet is where I find it all.
The quality of online fishing video these days is extraordinary, and I’d far rather spend a lazy afternoon watching Venturing Angler or Catch Magazine than turn on the TV and consume stale news or recycled movies. The Net has replaced the catalogues and brochures I used to send off for in the days of snail mail. Instant gratification may not be good for the soul – there is virtue in patience, as all fishermen know – but it’s hard to travel the world, as I do, with kilos of glossy brochures or even paperback books to keep me nourished with the stuff of dreams. Thank heavens for Kindle too. In the past few months I’ve read many books, some of them for a second time, whilst plotting my next adventures – Ireland, Ethiopia, Chile, Kenya and Denmark are in my sights for the next 12 months. The Internet also keeps me close to the many fishing personalities I have encountered, especially in the United States, and the way the USA uses the web on fishing information is outstanding: last night I was checking real-time water temperatures on half a dozen Montana rivers and wondering whether Wade Fellin at Big Hole lodge (www.flyfishinglodge.com) was crunching snow beneath his wading boots and casting #22 midges through icy guides.
And there are the blogs too, which carry the authentic voice that speaks within every angler about the things he or she loves. Those voices are, to me, like the sound of running water, a link to a deeper life and the endless possibility of surprise.
Below are some of things I’ve struck at wading the Internet from the hot and dusty capital of this Horn of Africa state. This is a very short list. You can do your own wading.
We were seven and five and fishing a Hong Kong reservoir with our parents. Dad had parked our Ford Esquire station wagon at the top of a short slope leading down to the water where Simon, alone in his shorts and tee shirt, was trying to coax one more minnow onto his junior fishing outfit. I’d already done the older brother bit and had heeded our parents’ summons to come to the car and eat our sandwiches; but Simon, doing the younger brother bit, pretended not to hear, intent on the bobbing of his red and white float, and the silver fish that its movements betrayed beneath it.
It’s that crossroads moment where past, present, future and right now compete. The last day. The last change of fly. The last walk down the meadow. The last cast. It’s that moment when the fisherman juggles finality and future, hoping to keep both in the air; to treasure what has been without sadness, and to look forward to more of it in the uncertain time to come.I guess it’s the same with all holidays, those weeks we ring fence for real living, as opposed to the robotic daily quest for the money to finance the real thing. One cannot exist without the other. I suspect, but do not know, that we can only elevate and value the richness of life if we also know some of its drudgery and pain, its hamster wheel repetitions and frequent, flatline rhythms. Continue reading “LAST CASTS TO THE WIND”→