Wine and song

Lau­rence Cat­low finds space to think and fish in Suther­land

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JAC­QUES POR­TAL

Lau­rence Cat­low en­joys Suther­land, with rod and glass in hand

THERE MAY AT times come to us more as­sertive, more ag­gres­sive and con­sum­ing plea­sures, the sort of plea­sures that pos­sess the whole be­ing, ad­mit­ting no thoughts or feel­ings be­yond them­selves, and you are per­haps re­lieved to read that I am not here con­cerned with plea­sures of this sort. I am think­ing of a soft, a very gen­tle but at the same time a very deep plea­sure, a plea­sure that leaves the mind free to roam wher­ever it fan­cies; I am think­ing of the plea­sure of sit­ting in the sun­shine on a grassy bank by the edge of run­ning wa­ter, sit­ting there with a beaker of red wine in my hand and tak­ing slow, grate­ful sips. For me – with or with­out the sun­shine – this has be­come one of the es­sen­tial plea­sures of a fish­ing day; it is a plea­sure that I en­joy very fre­quently, be­cause dur­ing the trout sea­son I can never keep away from run­ning wa­ter for more than a few days at a time. A day be­tween fish­ing trips is some­times a good idea, whet­ting the ap­petite for more sport; two days are bear­able, three days are too long and any more days are scarcely to be con­tem­plated. What, af­ter all, is the trout sea­son for if it is not for go­ing fish­ing and catch­ing trout? Any­way, on the oc­ca­sion of this ar­ti­cle, I was sit­ting by a river, a small river scarcely more than a beck or burn, which pleased me be­cause I am par­tic­u­larly fond of small wa­ters. I was sit­ting there alone and think­ing to my­self that on the whole, even when as now I was on hol­i­day with a group of old and pre­cious friends, I pre­ferred soli­tary to so­cia­ble fish­ing: not, I im­me­di­ately in­sisted, be­cause I was tired of these price­less friends, but be­cause it has al­ways seemed to me that we ab­sorb the beauty and the spirit of our fish­ing more deeply when we do it on our own. My friends would be there in the evening and their com­pany would be its chief plea­sure; now I was alone and happy that it was so, partly, it must be ad­mit­ted, for the en­tirely shame­ful rea­son that the ab­sence of any friends re­lieved me of the deeply un­pleas­ant duty of of­fer­ing them a share of the half bot­tle that I had just opened. Half a bot­tle is a glass – or beaker – more than the two beakers or glasses that I nor­mally al­low my­self at lunchtime on a fish­ing day. Half a bot­tle is a hol­i­day in­dul­gence and I rel­ish every sip. Sit­ting there in the sun­shine I was re­lieved and de­lighted that the whole of the half bot­tle was com­ing my way. I took my first sips and sat there con­tent­edly, think­ing some­thing like the thoughts that I have just de­scribed; I was also think­ing that fish­ers – at least if they are like this fisher – rarely hear the mu­sic of run­ning wa­ter when ac­tively fish­ing, be­cause they are too in­volved in the pur­suit of trout. It is when we sit down at lunchtime with half a bot­tle of wine that our ears are sud­denly opened to the sweet singing of wa­ter be­tween the banks. On the day in ques­tion, a day just af­ter the mid­dle of May, there were other sounds. There was a stonechat sit­ting on a fence post and chat­ting away; he was, I sup­pose, telling me that he would have pre­ferred the view with­out me in it and doubt­less the golden plover was send­ing me the same mes­sage in a much sad­der sort of way. The stonechat sounded in­dig­nant. The plover sounded re­signed. The chirp­ing and parachut­ing meadow pip­its were prob­a­bly more con­cerned with the calls of a nearby cuckoo than with my pres­ence among them, while the larks – and there were plenty of them – seemed in­fin­itely re­mote some­where high above me in the blue sky; I fan­cied that the shiver and trem­ble of their song was their trib­ute – the trib­ute of im­i­ta­tion – to the gen­tle plash and mur­mur of the stream flow­ing way, way be­neath them. You have prob­a­bly guessed al­ready that I was in Scot­land and so you will scarcely be sur­prised when I tell you that to­wards the end of the first beaker

“Our ears are sud­denly opened to the sweet singing of wa­ter”

I spot­ted an eagle float­ing through the sky, way, way above the larks, and that the hori­zon was ringed with the shapes of moun­tains still patched with snow even in the third week of May. I was fur­ther North than I had been for many years and I was de­lighted to be there. I was not in a place or on a wa­ter fa­mous for big trout but I was very happy to find my­self sit­ting by a hum­ble high­land river that, as far as I knew, had earned it­self lit­tle or no printed praise from any ear­lier fish­ers. I thought, as I sat there tak­ing a few more rev­er­en­tial sips from my beaker be­fore re­fill­ing it, that my lit­tle river de­served bet­ter than this, for the wine and the sun­shine and the drowsy mid­day peace were not the only rea­sons for my con­tent­ment. The river had, by the way, been a creep­ing trickle when we ar­rived on Satur­day. It had rained through­out Mon­day, which had been frus­trat­ing at the time. Fish­ers do not come to Scot­land to sit in­doors all day read­ing nov­els. But two days later I was grate­ful for Mon­day’s rain, be­cause the river was much cleaner and there was also much more of it. It was not big but the flow was healthy and the wa­ter was the colour of a glass of bit­ter beer with the light be­hind it. The river was in more or less per­fect trim and in the morn­ing it had been kind to me; in fact its kind­ness had sur­prised me, mean­ing, of course, that the fisher now pi­ously sip­ping his lunchtime wine was a serene and sat­is­fied fisher. When you have caught noth­ing lunchtime wine con­soles; when the morn­ing has ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions it helps you to cel­e­brate and, of course, tastes twice as sweet. For both sit­u­a­tions I rec­om­mend lunchtime wine by the river very warmly in­deed. On this oc­ca­sion the wine was wine of cel­e­bra­tion: a state­ment which may just en­cour­age you to form a false im­pres­sion. No! I had not caught any two­pounders, and I was glad that it was so. I had, as it hap­pens, caught a cou­ple of two-inch­ers, parr-marked tid­dlers that were not the cause of my sat­is­fac­tion. I had also caught seven or eight seven- or eight­inch­ers, fat lit­tle trout that had fought be­yond their size and pleased me no end. But the chief rea­son for my mood of quiet fes­ti­val, apart from the wine and the sun­shine and the birds and the sweet sounds of the lit­tle river, was the brace of in­dis­putable and very lively ten-inch­ers that had seized my dry-fly and bent my rod and been re­turned to the river. I had ex­pected the seven- and eight-inch­ers, just a few of them, but I had not re­ally thought to catch a brace of trout at least two inches longer. They had been a sur­prise and a de­light and an ad­di­tional sat­is­fac­tion had been that all these trout, the two-inch­ers, the seven- and eight­inch­ers and those two mon­sters not far short of a foot long, had all been caught on a mod­i­fied ver­sion of Dry Si­mon, which is a fly of my own cre­ation, ar­guably a rather vul­gar fancy fly but in­dis­putably a great catcher of trout. I have sung his praises of­ten enough in the pages of Trout and Salmon and you may well be fa­mil­iar with the dress­ing and in par­tic­u­lar with Dry Si­mon’s tail, formed from about a dozen strands of gold Krys­tal Flash half as long as the hook shank. The morn­ing, any­way, had found me fish­ing a fly tied with Dry Si­mon’s or­ange thread, with his bushy pea­cock herl body ribbed with sil­ver thread and with a red hackle wound through a white cock’s feather. All this was stan­dard and un­ex­cep­tional, but un­like the true Dry Si­mon, the all-im­por­tant tail of the morn­ing’s fly had been fash­ioned, not from Krys­tal Flash, but from some equally vul­gar shiny green strands with, as it hap­pens, an equally vul­gar name. Green Si­mon’s tail is made with strands of Shim­mer-and-shine. The trout had clearly ap­proved the change and, as I sat by the river sip­ping my sec­ond beaker­ful, I won­dered if I had per­haps im­proved on the orig­i­nal. I was also won­der­ing whether I should call the new cre­ation, not Green Si­mon but Si­mon Green in­stead: a more out­ra­geous (and taste­less) per­son­i­fi­ca­tion, which seemed some­how to suit the gaudy os­ten­ta­tion of my lat­est of­fer­ing to all fish­ers with a fond­ness for vul­gar flies. In the cou­ple of hours be­fore the half bot­tle started telling me that the time had now come for open­ing it there had been a more or less con­tin­u­ous pro­ces­sion of egg-lay­ing stone flies: nee­dle flies, some slightly larger species with faint mot­tling on the wings and two sizes of yel­low sally. Si­mon Green bore no re­sem­blance that I could see to any of these flies but the trout had not both­ered about this and nor had I. Sit­ting by the river, any­way, about half way through that sec­ond beaker­ful, I was think­ing of some­thing else; I was think­ing how de­light­ful it was to be fish­ing for small, wild trout, to be fish­ing in a river where a ten-incher was a big fish and a 12-incher would un­doubt­edly make my day. Ev­ery­thing seemed in pro­por­tion. Here was a river, a small river with gen­er­ally small but well con­di­tioned trout and a scat­ter­ing of slightly larger ones. Ev­ery­thing was as it should be; the river was breed­ing and sus­tain­ing the sort of trout that were de­signed to live and thrive there. This sense of ap­pro­pri­ate­ness pleased me, es­pe­cially be­cause there are so many rivers these days where you can ac­knowl­edge no such sense. But there was more than this; I re­alised that there was a spe­cial charm about fish­ing a wa­ter where there was al­most no prospect of the sort of en­counter that in­evitably brings rap­ture or de­spair. There was al­most no dan­ger of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the emo­tional ex­tremes that be­long to catch­ing or los­ing big fish. Two­pounders set my heart thumping. Ela­tion be­longs to their cap­ture; a sud­den plunge of mood comes with their loss. In the course of a long fish­ing life I have not hooked many three-pounders. I have landed half a dozen and they have all left me feel­ing drained. I have lost two or three fish that were al­most cer­tainly nearer four pounds than three. I re­mem­ber, high on the Eden some­thing like 20 years ago, los­ing what I am still con­vinced was a huge fish; I re­mem­ber very clearly the sense of numb des­o­la­tion that took hold of me

and how I stopped fish­ing im­me­di­ately and found no com­fort un­til, get­ting home, I had sat for half an hour in a dark­ened room with a large glass of Glen­morangie. Here on my lit­tle Scot­tish river, while pour­ing my­self the third and fi­nal beaker­ful, I ac­knowl­edged with re­lief that there was al­most no dan­ger of fall­ing vic­tim to such pow­er­ful emo­tions. If I caught a 12-incher I should, of course, be ab­so­lutely de­lighted. If I hooked and lost one I should be dis­ap­pointed, but the ex­pe­ri­ence would not darken the rest of the day. In ten min­utes, I should have more or less re­cov­ered and an eight-incher or two would com­plete the heal­ing. Fish­ing some­times up­sets our men­tal bal­ance and the dis­tur­bance can linger. This was an ex­pe­ri­ence un­likely to af­fect me here own my lit­tle river, where as it hap­pens the day’s most de­mor­al­is­ing mo­ment was be­gin­ning to loom: the mo­ment when I should have to ac­knowl­edge that my beaker was empty and that the half-bot­tle no longer had any­thing left to pour into it. Per­haps ten min­utes later the mo­ment came; I felt as nearly sad as it was pos­si­ble to feel on such a day af­ter such a morn­ing. I also felt sud­denly drowsy and then for the next half hour I felt noth­ing at all. Once con­scious­ness was re­stored I be­gan to fish my slow way back to the ho­tel. There were one or two six­inch­ers; there was an eight-incher that pleased me and a nine-incher brought me real de­light. And the sun was shin­ing and the moun­tains were shin­ing back at the sky and the larks were singing their hearts out. I came to a deep rock pool be­neath a lit­tle wa­ter­fall and told my­self that here if any­where the elu­sive 12-incher would be wait­ing for me. I put on my ver­sion of a hackle Coach­man, which bears no re­sem­blance to any recog­nised sort of Coach­man. Any­way, I put it on and cast it out and sec­onds later the rod was bend­ing to the pres­sure of what felt like a big fish. He was not a two-pounder; if he had fallen off it would not have poi­soned all my plea­sure, but he was an in­dis­putable 12-incher and was prob­a­bly a whole inch longer. In­dis­putably he made the day. You can fish my lit­tle high­land river if you stay at The Crask Inn about 20 miles north of Lairg. It is called the Tirry and your day’s sport will cost you all of five pounds. The Crask Inn, by the way, is al­most cer­tainly the finest inn in Scot­land, although ad­mit­tedly I make this claim with min­i­mal ex­pe­ri­ence of Scot­land’s other inns; I just can­not be­lieve that there could be a finer one. The Crask Inn is now owned by the Epis­co­pal Church and one of the de­lights of stay­ing there is that you can come off the river about five o’clock and join your host for evening prayer; and then, hav­ing given thanks for a day that has seemed in its own way not un­like heaven on earth, you can have a bath or a shower, af­ter which you may well find that it is time for a glass of red wine be­fore it is time for din­ner. How, I ask my­self, can it get any bet­ter?

“I also felt sud­denly drowsy and then for the next half hour I felt noth­ing at all”

LAU­RENCE CAT­LOW is a re­tired school­mas­ter, the au­thor of four books on fish­ing and shoot­ing and a life­long an­gler, mainly on the Wharfe and Eden

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