Super fly

Super fly

Kate Pierrepont tested the waters with some of Scotland's finest fishermen.

Travel | 16 Sep 2000 | Issue 11 | By Kate Pierrepont

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The romance of fly fishing captured me at a young age. I think it was the pictures I had seen of solitary figures, gracefully poised amid the gushing torrents that entranced my imagination. It was generally regarded as an odd dream for a girl to have, those I told put it down to the fact I was being raised with four brothers. The day came when one of them decided to indulge me and offered a day’s tuition (allegedly) on the art of the fly at a lake near Stoke-on-Trent - not the mythic, sparkling river of my reveries but, hey, one can never have it all I reasoned.On reflection I should have stayed with my dreams as the reality turned out to be three freezing hours cooped up in the bottom of a boat clutching my fishing rod and suffering the bored surveillance of my brother. OK, I should have known better of course. After all this was my elder brother who had tortured me through my childhood with Chinese burns and had always refused to let me bat. So I returned a novice, and nurtured my enthusiasm in secret.Hence it was with child-like glee that I accepted an invitation to spend a day fishing with members of Scotland’s Fly-Fishing Team. No lake in the Potteries this time, but instead the beautiful River Don on Speyside, one of the finest trout fishing rivers in Scotland and coincidentally in the heart of whisky country. Well, not so coincidentally as it happens, because the Scottish fly fishing team is sponsored by Glen Garioch Highland Single Malt Whisky which is made in the village of Old Meldrum on Speyside. This delicious dram, particularly the 15-year-old and the 21-year-old, was to fuel us throughout our stay.We congregated in a lovely country hotel on the evening before the great day to have dinner and be given a fly-tieing demonstration. I realise that this may sound as interesting as watching paint dry, but I was fascinated. Marc Petitjean, who had flown in from Geneva, gave the demonstration, to show us what he could create with a few feathers plucked from a duck’s bottom. There are only about 20 feathers on each bird suitable for these high quality flies and they are perfect for fly-tieing as they produce flies with a life-like, naturalistic quality. He thinks about the flight of each insect, how it would look to the fish and how it would behave above and on the water. I realised how good he was when I heard a sharp intake of awed breath from the Scottish team behind me.Marc is the envy of many a fisherman because he has seized his passion and turned it into his livelihood. He set up a company that sells flies and fishing equipment, all designed by himself, and now travels the world fishing, demonstrating and selling his wares.
I asked if Marc ever killed fish to eat and in his wonderful Gallic turn of phrase he replied, “There is no point in killing a fish unless you can make a nice funeral. You must eat the fish with good friends and good wine.” After dinner, with drams in hand, talk inevitably turned to fishing and the bar rang with fabulous anecdotes. They were worried that I would be bored but far from it, I have always found fishermen superb raconteurs. It is no myth that they talk about the ones that got away, the ones wily enough to cheat their hooks. On that evening I even heard confessions how they woke up at night in a sweat remembering a trout that had spurned their fly or a salmon that had out-manoeuvred them – they could see it and feel it as if it were yesterday. This is not a sport for the faint-hearted, these men are passionate.I spoke to John McCallum who captained the Glen Garioch Team Scotland at the Fly-Fishing Championships in Australia last year. He started to fish when he was two years old and is as obsessed now as he was then. As with most of the guys, he was introduced to fishing by his grandfather and father. “I used to fish every night and I still go out as often as I can.” In common with his team-mates he feels that the more he learns about fishing the more he realises there is to learn - it is an eternal lesson. He is known by his colleagues for being a very inventive fisherman who devises new tactics if faced with a particularly elusive fish or poor weather. “The real skill lies in catching the fish when the conditions are not good. I still get excited when I outwit a fish and to be honest, if you don’t, there must be something wrong.”Surprisingly, the thrill for these men is not in the catch itself. Their real interest lies in the combination of events that lead to the hooking of the fish - the tieing of the flies, the selection of fly for the specific conditions, the choice of water into which to cast, the presentation of the fly to the fish, all combine to make the fish take the hook. “Once that happens,” says John, “I am happy to hand my rod over to somebody who wants to actually bring the fish in, that’s not the exciting part. There is nothing more thrilling than catching a fish with a fly that you have made yourself.” As you can imagine, John hasn’t honed these skills without a few absentee days from the family butchers, which he runs in Auchterarder. In fact, his colleagues frequently joke that he is notoriously difficult to find at work,
particularly on a good fishing day – I smelled a hint of jealousy.In the midst of all this testosterone, I asked them how their wives coped with them spending more time standing in a river than sitting in the house. They admitted that their other halves were very patient but to make the process a little less painful they employed a certain level of deception to keep their womenfolk happy. “You never tell them you’ve bought a new rod. If they notice, then you just pretend you’ve had it for months” - and I thought that trick was the sole preserve of shopaholic women. Ronnie Glass, 39 years a fisherman and chosen tutor of mine the following day, admitted that he pretended to his wife that his expensive broken tooth stemmed from a poorly chewed chicken bone. The truth that he was biting his fishing line would only have solicited the question, “Why didn’t you use your scissors?”. He is also the man who started to paint a room only to abandon it half way through because the weather improved and the River Tweed called. I never did ask him if he or his wife completed that project.And so we talked on into the night about their fishing exploits. Advice was thrown at me, like “Never let go of your rod whatever happens”. For the uninitiated, rods cost a lot of money and it is considered a heinous crime to try and save yourself before your rod. I felt that I was amongst a group of knights who were caught in a never-ending battle with a respected adversary. With this thought, it appeared that I was not far from the truth. They told me that they were all searching for that one fly that would never fail them, a quest they knew would be never ending but which they couldn’t give up. It was definitely time for bed.The next day dawned very grey, very wet and very windy. Over breakfast I was told that these were some of the worst fishing conditions they had seen for a long time, so much for my
childhood dream.Not to be deterred by a small thing like the weather, we prepared ourselves for our forthcoming exploits. It was when we were getting dressed that I discovered a hitherto unknown fact. Fishermen are fashion victims. Franz was wearing a pair of Titanium Neoprene waders, which elicited a great amount of envy from the team. I noticed that they were particular in their dressing and very aware of their image on the river. They claimed that this enjoyment of the newest and trendiest pieces of clothing was due to the practical needs of the fly fisherman, but I have my doubts. Unfortunately, I was personally less than enamoured by my outfit. I was kindly lent a selection of gear to wear for the day including a pair of neoprene waders which although highly practical had a crotch that hung to my knees and was exactly like wearing a baggy wetsuit. My hopes of appearing stylish on the river were dashed and it was at this point that I regretted the inclusion of Peter our photographer in the party. However, although it is not a look that will catch on in the pubs and clubs of London, I was reliably informed by the general gathering that I looked lovely in rubber.When we saw the river, it was clear that fish were going to be very few and far between. The rain was torrential and the water was rising with debris starting to float down stream. The river was turning brown and in these conditions the fish hide in the quieter waters and to all intents and purposes, go to sleep. They don’t rise for food but instead wait for the waters to abate and fall, before they return to feeding. But it didn’t matter, I still had Ronnie next to me, a man capped ten times for Scotland who knows more about fishing than most and Ken Bruce on the bank with an available dram for those who needed a warming tipple during the morning.Ronnie started to give me some tips. “Look at all the different areas of water. Over there looks a likely spot. There is some still water and some bubbles. We are looking for any tell tale signs of a fish.” So he talked on and I listened. The river was moving quite quickly, the wind was blowing a gale and the rain was coming down in cats and dogs and Ronnie still cast into the exact spot that he had chosen. I was in awe. “You see where the fly is and how it is moving?” he asked. There was silence. The water was all colours of brown and grey, white horses were dancing down the river, sheets of rain were disrupting the surface of the water and debris was rushing past from up river, I would have had difficulty in spotting a bald headed eagle in those conditions. I scoured the river with my poorly trained eyes for all the movements that he had noticed and the bobbing of the fly. After a while I got better but I felt in desperate need of the ability to request a slow motion replay of the event. I felt very sorry for Ronnie who was doing his best to show me dry fly-fishing in the wettest conditions this year. The fly was supposed to gently land on the surface imitating a real fly and delicately sit there enticing the trout to rise. In actuality this was impossible, but it didn’t stop Ronnie from have a very good try. His determination was compounded by the fact that he had always wanted to fish the Don and here he was fulfilling his dream - with not a fish in sight. I felt for him - he might not get this chance again.Still, we kept trying and he showed me how to cast and present the fly to the fish. We tried flies of all sorts to try and find even a tiddler that I could raise out of the water and claim my own. And while we did this he told me about the river, how it flowed and moved, where the fish might be and how they would react in any given situation. We may not have caught anything, but I was happy, and according to Ronnie, I was wading well.There was a splash in the water by the far bank; I turned thinking that Peter our photographer had thrown something into the river to catch our attention. I turned back to find Ronnie quite excited, crying “A salmon, that was a salmon. I haven’t got the right flies on the line, but let’s see what happens.” He started to cast. In the next moment we were joined on the bank by some of the others. “Did you see the salmon?” “Yes, it was running ...” And for the next 15 minutes they discussed this salmon – its weight, its length, its habits, its background, parents, mother’s maiden name, career aims and philosophy of life - and I thought it was just a splash. When asked how they could possibly know so much from one splash, they said in sanguine tones, “Experience.” It was at this point that I realised that I could only lightly scratch the surface of this sport. Its depths, its nuances, its feel, its skill would all remain a mystery to me, because these guys had been at it since they were two and I had waded into this river in mid-life, to realise that an intimate know-ledge of the London underground system had no bearing on the subtleties of river life. Half way through the morning we stopped for a warming tipple and comparison of notes. Presented with a dram of 15-year-old Glen Garioch single malt on the riverbank made us both realise that everything really was all right with the world. We gave up at lunchtime and decided to retire to the snooker table. In his speech at dinner that night, John McCallum began with “Fellow Fishermen”. It was then that I made the decision that I would sell my flat in London and move to Scotland, where I will drink malt whisky and fly fish every day. It is said that one bad day’s fishing is better than a good day at the office, my feeling exactly.
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