Hap­pi­ness is...

Lau­rence Cat­low asks why trout fish­ing brings him ful­fil­ment and joy

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Fish­ing is per­haps ther­apy for Lau­rence Cat­low, who de­scribes its im­por­tance in his life

NOT LONG AGO, leaf­ing through some is­sues of a now de­funct fish­ing mag­a­zine, I came across an ar­ti­cle by a well-known north­ern fisher and master fly-tyer in which he re­ferred to catch­ing trout as his “fix”, telling us how des­per­ate he be­came when de­nied it. I was not happy with this metaphor and al­most im­me­di­ately re­alised that I have my­self often de­scribed fish­ing as an ad­dic­tion or as a fever. I didn’t al­to­gether like this ei­ther. I knew why I had used such lan­guage, be­cause the urge to go fish­ing often seems al­most ir­re­sistible, but I didn’t re­ally like think­ing of fish­ing in terms of ill­ness and com­pul­sion, given that we de­rive from it such recre­ation, such com­fort and en­rich­ment. I didn’t re­ally ap­prove of ap­ply­ing to fish­ing, how­ever light-heart­edly, the vo­cab­u­lary of phys­i­cal and men­tal dis­or­der (it should surely be seen as ther­apy rather than sick­ness) and it seemed even worse to com­pare the deep ful­fil­ment to be found in catch­ing trout with a chem­i­cally in­duced state of mind, the crav­ing for which often de­stroys lives and fam­i­lies. Any­way, this set me think­ing – I have, of course, been think­ing about it for at least 30 years – this set me think­ing about why catch­ing trout means so much to me and why, af­ter 50 years spent catch­ing trout in fair num­bers, I find an even deeper sat­is­fac­tion in catch­ing them now than I did when I first started and caught many fewer of them. There are times, by the way, when I feel that it would have been bet­ter to spend less time think­ing and writ­ing about catch­ing trout and even more time just do­ing it. Shortly af­ter read­ing that ar­ti­cle I found my­self, in the mid­dle of a sav­age drought, down in deep­est Shrop­shire on the tiny Rea Brook, a stream that flows, or seems to flow through the mid­dle of nowhere, which is one of the rea­sons why I am so fond of it. An­other of the Rea’s many virtues is that it is un­ques­tion­ably the per­fect river for a heat­wave, be­cause there is de­li­cious shel­ter to be found in the shade of the tall wil­lows and alders that rise all along the tan­gled banks; and, if the banks and branches claim a fly or two, it is a price worth pay­ing for the bless­ing of the deep green shade be­neath those whis­per­ing green leaves and for the cool com­fort they bring to fish­ers of the Rea. Any­way, I was there be­neath the trees; I was also de­lighted to see just how much wa­ter was flow­ing be­tween the banks. It was the sec­ond half of July; there had been no worth­while rain since the end of April. I had aban­doned the Wharfe; I had found some sort of sub­sti­tute in the reservoir-fed Tees and I was now on my leisurely way to Wales, where I ex­pected rivers to have vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared (they had). I had also been ex­pect­ing, on reach­ing the Rea, to look over Dud­dlewick Bridge and im­me­di­ately de­cide that fish­ing would be use­less or merely sym­bolic or a nec­es­sary or­deal to be suf­fered un­til the ef­fects of two glasses of wine had worn off and I felt it fit and proper to drive over to my friends’ house in Lud­low. My first sight of the Rea con­founded these ex­pec­ta­tions. Yes, the wa­ter was low, but it was the sort of wa­ter that, back home in the North, I as­so­ciate with a week or per­haps even a fort­night with­out rain. It was low but it was un­doubt­edly a river where a fisher might hope to catch a trout or two, a river chal­leng­ing me to make sus­tained and se­ri­ous en­deav­ours to do just that. There must be huge re­serves of wa­ter stored deep un­der the Brown Clee Hill. I fished the Rea that af­ter­noon; I caught a trout or two and I missed or lost a trout or two and I fished the lit­tle river again the next day, when by lunchtime I had caught and kept a good trout of al­most a pound, re­turn­ing two or three smaller fish. It goes al­most with­out say­ing that my lunchtime pork pie – Grif­fiths of Lud­low, by the way, in­dis­putably makes the best pork pies in Eng­land – it goes al­most with­out say­ing,

“It is a price worth pay­ing for the bless­ing of the deep green shade be­neath those whis­per­ing green leaves”

any­way, that my lunchtime pork pies – yes, there was in fact a brace of them – were washed down with two glasses of red wine and that, given the heat and hu­mid­ity of the day, the pies and the wine were fol­lowed by half an hour’s si­esta in the green shade. It may in truth have been 40 min­utes, per­haps even an hour. How­ever long it was it came to an end and it was time for more fish­ing. I had soon spot­ted a ris­ing trout. The fly was cast a foot or so above him and a minute or two later I had caught a most beau­ti­ful trout weigh­ing an ounce over the pound, which is a big fish for the Rea. He was a big fish for the lit­tle river and he was also very beau­ti­ful; and it was while mar­vel­ling at his beauty that I sud­denly asked my­self whether he had just given me some­thing like the false eu­pho­ria of an ad­dict’s fix and whether the whole busi­ness of catch­ing the in­com­pa­ra­ble beauty be­fore my eyes had brought pass­ing re­lief to an ad­dic­tion or a fever. I knew, of course, at once and em­phat­i­cally, that the an­swer was no. I sat down for a few min­utes be­fore fish­ing on and while I sat there and while I fished on through the rest of the af­ter­noon, I tried to dis­cover why that beau­ti­ful trout had meant so much to me and how it had man­aged to make me such a happy man. One or two rea­sons were ob­vi­ous. His cap­ture had helped me to feel that I pos­sessed some­thing ap­proach­ing com­pe­tence in the sport that I re­gard as al­most my life’s vo­ca­tion. He was more­over a good fish for his river and he had also made the brace, which for me means con­tent­ment. If the rest of the day brought noth­ing but in­com­pe­tence and catas­tro­phe, I should at least be able to tell my­self that I had caught a brace of trout, that I had done what I had set out to do and de­served to be called a fisher. There were also cir­cum­stances pe­cu­liar to the cap­ture of this trout that brought par­tic­u­lar sat­is­fac­tion, the most im­por­tant of which was that I had hooked and lost him the day be­fore, when he had run un­der a fallen tree trunk and bro­ken me. This time I held him hard and he didn’t get a chance. I held him hard near the sur­face of the river, trusted my tackle and be­fore long he had sur­ren­dered to the net. It is good to catch a trout that de­feated you yes­ter­day; this one had also come to a change of fly, some­thing

which often per­suades me – for a time at least – that I am an as­tute and ob­ser­vant fisher. I had changed flies be­cause his ris­ing suggested that he was eat­ing some­thing just be­low the sur­face, per­haps some sort of bee­tle, and so my dry-fly had been re­placed by a pat­tern of my own de­vis­ing bear­ing re­sem­blance – not much – to a hackle Coach­man. These two facts, any­way, that my trout had es­caped me the day be­fore and that I seemed to have un­der­stood the mes­sage of his ris­ing, these two facts in­creased my sense of achieve­ment in catch­ing him, es­pe­cially as he was a trout that be­longed to a sum­mer with­out rain when trout had been more than usu­ally hard to come by. These were spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tions; a uni­ver­sal of the fisher’s call­ing is his in­volve­ment with the world of na­ture, which of course im­me­di­ately brings me back to beauty, to the in­ci­den­tal beau­ties of moor and field and river­bank, of the flow­ers and trees that grow there and the life that lives there, to these in­ci­den­tal beau­ties and to the cen­tral and cap­ti­vat­ing beau­ties of wa­ter and trout. These beau­ties are an in­es­timable bless­ing but there is much more than the re­sponse to beauty in our in­volve­ment with na­ture be­cause, as hunters, we are drawn deep into its life; we be­come par­tic­i­pants in the end­less and nec­es­sary drama of pre­da­tion and through this es­tab­lish a vi­tal and sus­tain­ing con­nec­tion with the liv­ing world, a con­nec­tion that grips and fas­ci­nates and ful­fils. This con­nec­tion, more­over, is made through a rod that weighs a few ounces and a line that ends with a gos­samer length of ny­lon. The del­i­cacy and re­fine­ment of fly-fish­ing is a pow­er­ful el­e­ment of the spell it casts over us; it makes tam­ing the force and en­ergy of a good trout some­times seem al­most mirac­u­lous. Many fish­ers are now mer­ci­ful hunters – if in­deed they are hunters at all – re­leas­ing ev­ery trout that is drawn over their net. I am dif­fer­ent be­cause, al­though I now give back to my rivers many more trout than I kill, I still go fish­ing in search of food and my beau­ti­ful trout from the Rea was one of the un­lucky ones, be­cause I wanted to pro­vide to­mor­row’s break­fast for my­self and my friends; my brace of trout would do the job very nicely. If the af­ter­noon brought more trout – it did – they would be re­turned, but this one was des­tined for a plate. Now pro­vid­ing food for one­self and for oth­ers brings deep sat­is­fac­tion. Ask farm­ers and gar­den­ers and they will, I feel sure, con­firm my words. Fish­ers like me, any­way, fish­ers just prim­i­tive enough still to think of fish­ing as an ac­tiv­ity con­nected with food, ac­knowl­edge the need to ex­er­cise re­straint in wild wa­ters but at the same time be­lieve that the del­i­cate flavour of trout-flesh is an im­por­tant part of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and plea­sure we de­rive from catch­ing them. These, any­way, are some of the rea­sons why catch­ing trout means so much to me, but there is now some­thing deeper to my fish­ing, some­thing that has grown on me over the years and which I find dif­fi­cult to an­a­lyse or de­scribe. I think the rel­e­vant words are grat­i­tude and won­der, felt for the rivers that I fish be­cause they have given me so much com­fort and so much joy and be­cause, wounded though they are by hu­man in­ter­fer­ence, they are still very beau­ti­ful and still re­silient, still clean enough to turn eggs into trout. I love my rivers and I love the trout they give me, yes, even those that I kill, which I love with the true hunter’s deep rev­er­ence for his quarry. I am also con­scious that I have caught many more trout than those still wait­ing for my net in how­ever many years are left to me for fish­ing, which is an aware­ness that now makes ev­ery trout I catch seem dou­bly pre­cious. These feel­ings come to me on all rivers but it is on the Wharfe that they are felt most in­tensely; it is on the Wharfe, stored with the mem­o­ries of 50 years’ liv­ing and 50 years’ fish­ing, that past and present min­gle more po­tently than any­where else; for it is on the Wharfe that a fisher on the thresh­old of old age meets, in ev­ery pool and run and round ev­ery cor­ner of the river, the same fisher in the ex­u­ber­ance – and the ex­cesses – of his youth; it is on the Wharfe that mem­ory and rec­ol­lec­tion, with bright im­ages of trout wo­ven all through their fab­ric, bring pow­er­ful depth and res­o­nance to im­me­di­ate ex­pe­ri­ence; and it is on the Wharfe, es­pe­cially at the be­gin­ning and end of an­other sea­son, that catch­ing a trout often turns into a com­pli­cated and very mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: an ex­pe­ri­ence that some­times takes me over the edge of tears: tears of grat­i­tude and won­der and love.

“I love my rivers and I love the trout they give me, yes, even those that I kill”

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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