Laurence Catlow asks why trout fishing brings him fulfilment and joy
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