Having nursed the vague ambition to catch a salmon for several years and never really known where to begin, I bought a thirteen foot rod this summer and started to make some vague forays into the mysterious court of the King of Fish. I am keen to try every kind of fieldsport at least once, and the sheer breadth and variety presented by hunting, shooting and fishing has allowed me to participate in everything from beagling and fell hunting to ferreting, stalking, falconry and foreshore wildfowling.
With the exception of full-blown fox hunting, which is out of bounds to me on account of its dependency on pony horses (which I despise), the glaring omission in my sporting education has been salmon. As much as I have loved catching trout, the main appeal of that sport has been the wonderful reliability of the human vs fish gambit. He’s somewhere in that loch, and you’ve got to winkle him out.
With salmon, there are a million different variables; the river is a world away from the loch. The line keeps washing off downstream and you get tangled on things that weren’t there yesterday. One day there is too much water, the next there is not enough. And now it’s too dark, too peaty, flowing so swiftly that you need to use a spinner. And perhaps they’re not running, or maybe they’re not rising, and perhaps they’re doing both but still not taking. If indeed they’re there at all. It is a world of complexity to an outsider, aggravated beyond reason by that extra ingredient in the human/fish equation: other humans.
Everyone I asked for help had different theories, and everyone ventured a different list of indispensable kit. Within the offered support was a kind of arm’s-length pseudo-Masonic middle finger to me as an “outsider”, and this was something like a red rag to my jaded eye. The best piece of advice I was given was that fishermen talk more rubbish about salmon than any other sportsmen do about any other sport combined. Having fished all my life in shorts and t-shirt, I couldn’t believe that catching a salmon required the angler to looking like an olive green volcanologist, literally bristling with accoutrements. Wherefore the ubiquitous baseball caps and glossy fly-eye sunglasses?
Naturally reclusive and protective of my personal space (particularly in my own time), I found it hard to reconcile myself to a sport which can only be prosecuted around a few small pools on a few rivers – a factor which attracts concentrations of people like rats to a hen house. The draw of trout (particularly in a place like Galloway) is the luxury of knowing that if someone else appears where you are fishing, you can simply pack up and wander half a mile in any direction and find another loch to whip in pristine solitude.
Standing back from the Dee earlier in the summer, I saw fishermen clustered in groups like herons around the rumbling water, while several others lounged back in an effete little bothy with racks for their rods to rest against. It felt rather like an unpleasant suburban collision between golf and fishing, and snatches of their conversation revealed that having brands and labels on show was every bit as important as using the latest acronyms and jargonisms.
This all seemed at odds with the essential nature of the fish itself – the kind of beast that is steeped in a mythical and deeply primal world. Fascinated by the spectacle of jumping salmon, even as a child those monstrous bars of flesh seemed to stir in me some atavistic desire to catch and eat; to garner some kind of relationship with them so that I could possess something of that gut-twisting shape. I pictured them lurking in the alder roots in the shallow burns of the Chayne, carving their redds in the dark gravel below the heather. When the water roars under the cavernous brigs and the soil reeks of mould and swirling leaves – that is when I wanted to be in amongst them, panicking the dippers and slipping on the moss-packed stones – not on some wide, limpid river where the contours were subtle and the fish moved evenly through the lowland fields.
Unable to reconcile my guts with the sport as I saw it, my decision to buy a rod and concede to the rules of engagement was a compromise. On my first attempt, I was apprehended by police and water bailiffs on the River Nith for having failed to observe some minor small-print regulation. I had all of my preconceptions confirmed by a great deal of finger wagging and fumed at having to learn and recite screeds of bye-laws which seemed to vary at random in a world where every passer-by was a rule-book pounding fascist with the Sheriff Court on speed-dial.
Earlier in the summer, I bought two days on the River Ettrick at the Heather Trust charity auction and took one of them near Selkirk on Saturday. Within seconds of arriving on the riverside, I was thrown back into the politics of the game amongst a crowd of fellow anglers. They muttered between themselves as I endeavoured to show them the best of my much vaunted roll casts, and when one of them came over to talk to me, I tried to imagine the minute transgression that had prompted this new “telling off”. Perhaps I had trod on Auld Tam’s boulder (we never stand on Auld Tam’s boulder), or maybe the kind of fly I was using was not permitted on Saturdays. As it was, he wanted to drop in below me and passed by with a manly nod, which I returned with a square jaw and a slight frown as befitting an equally manly sort of chap.
While we had seen fish jumping the ladder at Philiphaugh that morning and there were certainly some salmon in this tributary of the Tweed, they were not for taking the fly. Fortunately, nobody else was catching anything either, otherwise my patience for this wind-blasted charade would have been very short indeed. One of my waders leaked, and the piece of string I was using to keep them up was digging into the back of my neck. The other fishermen came very close to me, and I could see myself reflected in their sunglasses, which twinkled like beetle wing cases. I decided that if I hanked one of them with my back cast, then they would only have themselves to blame. I focussed on my snap-D, which had been hurriedly thrust upon me by a fraught instructor during a 15 minute lesson at the Scottish Game Fair. Every second cast snagged a leaf from the rushing water which needed to be painstakingly removed at the expense of time and patience.
And then there was a salmon. Almost at my hip, a monstrous fish rose like a porpoise in the ripple. I could see his eye watching me, and the beginning of his broad brown back soared up as the water lapped over him. The piece I could see might have been eighteen inches long. For two full seconds, we looked right at one another, then the second, third and fourth ripple slipped over his back and the apparition melted away into the water. Numbed with excitement, the thought of casting to him never even occurred to me. I probably had a leaf on my fly anyway.
And so I came to the conclusion that while the posturing hustle and bustle of my fellow anglers was generally repellent to a very high degree, the fish which lies at the foundation of all this regulatory bumf and silliness is so phenomenally exciting and talismanic that I can’t just walk away from it. I know that salmon fishing inspires tremendous passion and stirs great emotions amongst its acolytes, several of whom are good friends of mine. Far be it from me to pick holes in another man’s game when my own often seems bizarre and inexplicable, but perhaps it will never be the “be all and end all” of my life.
However, I have redoubled my determination to catch a salmon, even if my first two attempts have taught me far more about human beings (in general and myself in particular) than the fish I had hoped to meet.