My track record on New Year’s resolutions is generally very poor. Being a thorough-going Scotsman, I take Hogmanay extremely seriously, but while promises made in December are always sincerely meant, they are rarely followed through. Not only does my nationality mean that I vigorously celebrate the turn of the year, but I subsequently suffer from a uniquely Presbyterian ability to ladle on guilt and self-loathing to accompany any perceived degree of failure or weakness. So in order to ring the changes, I decided this year to exchange the stick for the carrot and set myself challenges which were more fun than morally grandiose. I determined to shoot a good six point roe buck and catch a sea trout.
Having been toying around with stalking over the past seven or eight years, the magical six point roebuck had always been elusive. Not being interested in medals, sizes or scores, I just wanted a classic head from a species that I have really come to love over the past year. My moment came on Midsummer’s night when, walking alone through the hills above the Solway, I finally got the beast I always dreamed of, then carried him swinging on my back through the drifts of cotton down and the massed candelabra of glossy asphodel heads. I have written the precise account of this glorious happening, but it stretches to eight thousand words and would need to be heavily pruned before it ever appeared on this blog, but suffice to say that the moment will be treasured for as long as I’m upright.
The sea trout was rather more of a conundrum. Being altogether more drawn to birds than I ever was to fish, I had dim notions of night fishing with strange flies. I was only vaguely aware of the kind of techniques required to catch these mysterious fish, and the only thing I had on my side was the geographical proximity of viable fishing water. What starts as a moorland burn on the Chayne soon runs into others and still others before it earns the title of Water, and in the final twenty miles before it bleeds into the Solway, the Urr is frequented not only by salmon and sea trout but also by folk bent on catching them.
Trying to seize the initiative, a friend and I took to the water on the night of my birthday; the fifteenth of August. Following a quick pint to rinse off the heather pollen after an afternoon on the hill, we were ready to descend into the blue gloom with rods trailing behind us. The river had been low all summer, and although our prospects looked poor, the darkness was strangely alluring. Water bubbled and clicked around the stones. There was a distant groan of tractors mowing silage somewhere in the distance.
In amongst the huge, unfamiliar riverside vegetation, a figure was casting over the pool I had hoped to fish. We exchanged pleasantries, and I was thrilled to hear that he had already had a finnock that evening; the strange word rolled around my mouth, and I recalled the gaelic origins of its meaning; “white” or “silver” – just a wee one, but wearing the livery of time at sea. We bustled off beneath a crinkled canopy of hazels and willows, leaving the strange word lurking in the stillness.
Bats buzzed everywhere, crackling their knuckles and scanning every space for signs of life. They flew between the line and the water, then coursed between knees and around elbows. Now and again I could make them out, skimming like stones over the river, smashing craneflies and midges and then chewing them into mush with an almost audible smacking of lips. At one point, a rabbit squealed crazily in pain, but help was not forthcoming in the darkness. A tawny owl’s weight made a rotten bough bob against the stars. It was hot and stuffy, and I felt sweat on my forehead past eleven o’clock, standing still in this extraordinary mirk, where water lapped and now and then a heron belched.
My friend caught a tiny brown trout, but the legendary silver shapes had been strangely elusive. I tried again a week later once I had had a chance to look over the river by daylight, but still there was no luck. There was such a modest gurgle of water passing down the empty channel that it seemed like my chances were close to nil, so I felt justified in postponing my attempt. Having succeeded so gloriously with the roe, I felt that I had tried my best. I was not disheartened and was keen to return to this semi-solid twilight when conditions were ripe, but assumed that it would be another year before I would have any luck.
So it was with considerable surprise that I found my New Year’s resolution gloriously realised in the most unlikely of circumstances on Tuesday morning. Invited to shoot grouse in Cowal, I was staying with a friend at his croft overlooking Loch Riddon, a mile or two North of the top of Bute. The old building is squeezed into the shore, and from the bedroom window it is possible to hear porpoises puffing deeply on a still night. I got up early on Tuesday and spent ten minutes casting out a heavy spoon from the jetty, half-dressed and with a cup of coffee at my feet. The bright sun made me wince, and I curled my lip at the taste of last night’s gin still fuzzing my tongue. There are always mackerel in this spot, and I was keen to kickstart the day with a fish.
I had tossed the heavy metal shard a dozen times, then decided to get dressed and on the road to meet the other guns. The final fifteen feet of the last return was rudely interrupted by a hard take, and I was satisfied to think that things had got off to a nice start. I rudely hauled the line in and was confused to see a brown shape writhing on its tail down in the clear salt water. Closer still and the fish looked awfully like a trout.
By some amazing coincidence, I had managed to catch a finnock – precisely when I least expected it. Weighing in at fractionally less than a pound, the little fish was packed with fat, and I found three or four half-digested sprats in its throat when I gutted it later that night. Unfortunately there were several sea lice locked on to the shimmering scales, but ignoring these and a slightly glossy, silverish tone, this could have been a brown trout from any burn or loch in Scotland. Talking to the water bailiff later that day, I found that these trout only turn truly silver after an extended period in salt water, and it is likely that my fish had only descended to the sea this spring.
Having fulfilled both of my New Year’s resolutions, I should have been much happier. But the sea trout had almost been an accident, and it had been caught in circumstances which hardly did it justice. I had felt the take and, assuming it was a mackerel, just hauled in the line as if I was using a winch to pull a pickup out of a bog. True, I had not specified the precise nature of “catching” in the original terms and conditions of my Resolution, but my brush with night fishing had led me to believe that there is a great deal more to sea trout that spinning with a spoon. I’m satisfied that I fulfilled my resolutions for 2014, but I think that catching one on a fly in fresh water will feature on 2015’s list.