May 2005 - A Priest's
The man in the fishing shop
gave me one of those knowing smiles. “You just couldn’t
leave them alone,” he said. “It’s like
a kid in a candy shop. You had to have some.”
I laughed with him but at
the same time felt quite sheepish. He was right. I had scattered
on the counter a handful of dry flies selected from the
trays of little boxes at the back of the shop. I had gone
in to the shop for some floatant – the water repellent
stuff you coat over flies to stop them sinking. But I couldn’t
pass by the flies without wondering whether I had enough.
The problem with flies is
that you fish with your favourites so these are the ones
that you lose in trees. Then you come to look in your box
and somehow not one fly seems adequate. So you have to replenish
frequently, or try not to lose them. In fact I take almost
as much satisfaction from retrieving a fly intact from the
upper branches of a tree as I do in catching a fish. Perhaps
this is the beginning of a new sport of tree casting, where
the angler’s skill is matched against the cunning
of a springy sapling. Man against twig.
Two weeks ago I had a memorable
expedition where I must have snagged my fly at least half
a dozen times and yet was able to put it back in the box,
battered but unbowed. It had accounted for a few fish too.
I probably won’t use that one again unless all else
Certain flies become endowed
with a sort of magical status. I still have the Waddington
pattern that hooked my first salmon on the fly. Its few
sparse remaining hairs have lost their colour and the shank
is missing its tinsel, but I have no doubt that it could
still do the job. About a year ago I used it one more time,
cosseting it with short casts in to easy water where it
would stay out of harm’s way with no risk of hooking
anything. Losing that fly would have been far worse than
losing a fish.
Dave Watson understands
these sentiments. I met Dave, a collector of antique knives
and fishing tackle, a week ago when he invited me to take
a look at his collection of priests. The priest is the club
that should remain a part of any game angler’s kit.
It is called a priest, I assume, because it delivers the
last rights rather swiftly. It usually consists of a turned
piece of wood hollowed out at one end and filled with a
lump of lead or other heavy metal.
Dave used to own a comprehensive
collection of antique fishing gear but sold most of it when
fake and replica material began to flood this specialist
market. But he kept his priests. He has specimens made of
wood, ivory, even narwhal tusk. One of them is marked with
a date, 1718, and the initials TN. Another carries the royal
crest with a V on one side and R on the other. Could this
have belonged to Queen Victoria’s gillie perhaps?
I have never read anywhere that Victoria was fond of fishing
but I know she was fond of her man servant, John Brown.
For now, at least, the priest’s origins must remain
Most fishermen will admit
in unguarded moments that they get the collector’s
urge now and again. It shares a common root with train-spotting
- a blokes’ thing that does not tend to inflict women
Anglers do not need a big
collection of rods of varying lengths. Neither do they need
more than one or two reels. But show them a brochure with
the latest carbon-fibre wonder rod and titanium reels with
go-faster bearings and the salivary glands go in to overdrive.
Nowhere does the urge to
build up a collection of gear seem stronger than in the
Carp Angler. Carp anglers are a breed apart to which I hope
to devote some serious study in future columns. Often they
have three or even four rods rigged up on a frame outside
their big green tent in which they lie on a collapsible
bed – all night long. You could live quite happily
in carp angling tents and some of their occupants do, having
discovered fishing heaven where there is no longer any need
or reason to leave the bank.
Next time you go to a newsagent’s,
look at the carp magazines on the bottom shelf. In the UK
there are at least six different titles, all including the
word, carp. On every cover there is a photograph of a man
straining to hold up a large, fleshy and bloated blob of
a fish. What these men need is the carp bra to keep their
trophies aloft. Every fisherman likes a trophy – a
symbol of manhood (or maybe a feminine side among those
carp boys). Mine is the fly that survived. What kind of
symbol is that?