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May 2005 - A Priest's tale

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 has failed.

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 a mystery.

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.

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?

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