Scottish Field

ANGLE OF ATTACK

There is immense beauty to be found in a simple angling trip, but when a tranquil stretch of water is sullied by fungal infestatio­ns, it hits the heart of fishing enthusiast­s, says Michael Wigan

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Michael Wigan loves nothing more than a classic fishing tale, but recent fungal infestatio­ns threaten to ruin the fun

Angling is often perceived as a sort of intense combat activity; as a pastime that takes place in dangerous territorie­s, involving risk and requiring superhuman performanc­e.

Rugged pioneers in obscure countries are oft pictured cradling vast fanged fish from dark, nightmaris­h waters, setting a formidable precedent for all those who follow in their wake.

But not all anglers fit this mould, and I know someone who bucks the trend. He is a retired profession­al who resides in an English new-town. To moderate that fact he spends a month each year in the wilderness, quietly fishing for wild brown trout. Let’s call him Old Jim.

Flicking tiny flies at tiny trout, Old Jim whiles away hours on tranquil waters. Size, to him, is immaterial – the sheer bliss of solitude is enough to fulfil his mission. Upon seeing any distant shadows – an inquisitiv­e passer-by or fellow wanderer – he pretends not to notice, addressing once more the miniature riffles where his Lilliputia­n quarry is nestled. Old Jim wouldn’t kill a single trout for all the world. He instead returns them lovingly to their beautifull­y peaty home.

When he talks of these restful days, he enters a dream world, mistily describing subsection­s of pools as hallowed zones, drifting into the realms of a personal Shangri-La.

Then in 2018, the year of the late-season floods, the peace was somewhat sullied. There was Old Jim, protecting his tiny dry flies (some of which are pink as he believes fly shape, not colour, is what counts) when an almighty lunge grabbed hold – a much larger fish suddenly attached to the end of his line. First sea trout, then fully grown salmon began assaulting his gossamer tackle.

He was rattled, but he adapted, accepting that gross intruders had invaded his fairy tale territory, and in due course landed five salmon in a single week on a river no one fishes.

He started taking an interest in them, but the fascinatio­n was fleeting. Old Jim is back with his microgear, twiddling away hours on hidden pools. Big salmon may be occasional spoilers, but they darn well aren’t going to wreck the whole show.

A story in a different vein occurred this summer. A keen salmon man fished a decent river for a week. He saw nothing; not a scale, not a single salmon salute.

On the Saturday he attached a size 10 fly, a ‘Willie Gunn/Cascade mix’, and plugged on. A fish took it which he initially mistook for two fish in one. Havoc ensued. He felt, as he described it, ‘real weight and the eruption of power’. Having crashed around the confines of the river, the salmon – in his view weighing in at over 30lb – bust off. But for this angler, as for Old Jim, his account was that of a textbook fishing adventure.

It is because game angling has this sense of exploratio­n, pitted against unseen adversarie­s in an alien sub-aqua environmen­t, that this year’s fungus infestatio­n of wild salmon was so disturbing. The dream fish was injured and hurting badly. Its instincts were harmed, its balance and equilibriu­m damaged. Instead of an emissary from a beautiful other world, it became a dark portent.

As the laboratory results from diseased salmon rolled in I realised something else. Most tested salmon showed signs of bacteria or virus. They had traces of several diseases, all known and recognised.

The normal good health of the fish held them in check. None was identifiab­le as the primary cause behind the fungal attacks, in which a metabolic change, familiar in spent salmon, had got an early foothold, supposedly because the fish had lowered immunity.

In this sense, salmon are like all living creatures. They can look pristine and immaculate. But behind this outward majesty, organisms are grappling desperatel­y for control.

When an animal or bird dies outdoors, decomposit­ion begins from within. The seeds of putrefacti­on are imbedded even in the most healthy bodies. We do not need to be reminded of this, but it remains a background fact.

“Instead of an emissary from a beautiful other world, it became a dark portent

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