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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland

 

April 2008 - Spring fishing on the Tay

The River Tay Scotland  

The River Tay is looking its shimmering best as I shape a double-Spey cast at the water’s edge. The flow is too strong and the water too cold and deep for wading; besides it does not need the longest of casts.

Time ceases to register. Where better than the river bank to sacrifice your cares to this competing dimension of sounds, colour and movement that flood the senses with a tingling sharpness?

My eye is drawn to the white bib of a busy dipper, hopping over wet stones. A group of oyster-catchers skim the stream, their cries, shrill and urgent, their orange beaks glowing against the dull browns of the trees. A couple of grey wagtails take turns, darting in and out of a clump of ivy to service their nest.

How long have I been standing here? Long enough to abandon my favourite Black Frances fly for a Temple Dog that, in the conditions, should work well as a salmon attractor with its glinting silver streamers catching the bright sunshine.

A phalanx of over-wintered trees clads the shaded, steep and uninviting far bank, a cold place to be on this frosty April morning. Upstream I can see another angler working his spinning rod close to the hut; meanwhile the ghillie on the beat below has launched his harling boat. The scene has barley changed in more than twenty years since I first came here.

My fly line, rigged with a fast-sinking tip, secured between line and leader, plays out mechanically as I edge slowly down the bank, matching each cast with a step. My mind is elsewhere, wandering in the river’s waking dream.

After each cast I trap the line with my index finger against the cork handle. So the pulse of a strong, snatching pull, registers instantly, replacing straying thoughts with the stark understanding that something wild and unseen has just attacked the fly.

Yes, of course, it’s a fish. You catch them sometimes when you are fishing. A salmon too, as rare on the Tay in spring as London buses on a Sunday afternoon in the City. In the same way, you can wait all morning when two might come along at once. So I retrace my steps and resume casting with a renewed sense of purpose and focus. Four or five casts later in more or less the same spot the line pulls again, only this time I feel the unmistakable resistance of a powerful fish bowing the rod.

It’s not very large, maybe nine or 10 lbs, stubbornly shaking but not taking line. A ghillie is advancing down the bank, net at the ready. I see the gleaming, silvery flank of the struggling springer, barely breaking the surface, then it’s gone. Fish off. It’s like that sometimes.

By the end of the second day we have lost three of the four fish hooked. The one that is landed is hooked loosely in the lower lip. These are fast moving fish, interrupting their rapid advance upstream in reflexive annoyance at the flies and lures invading their environment. Sometimes they hold, sometimes they don’t.

It can take hours, even days of persistent fishing to connect with a spring salmon. Yet every year I come north to Scotland, first to the Tay, then two weeks later, to the Dee for these few precious moments of breathless action.

The Tay here at Stanley, just north of Perth, is not my favourite stretch of salmon water. The river is too big and too barren after many years of neglect to promise anything more than the occasional fish. But such a prospect is better than nothing at all.

Fishing the Dee there is a healthier sense of anticipation. No surprises here when a salmon connects with the fly. You see more fish and there is always the feeling that the next cast might be “the one.”

I’m convinced that fishing is a manifestation of an irrepressibly optimistic nature. Every cast is a “just maybe,” and every cast neglected is a “what might have been.”

The lost fish is a disappointment but not a disaster. You have to be philosophical about fishing even if you, like me, do not subscribe to the argument that fishing itself is a philosophy.

On the contrary I believe that more bunkum has been written on fishing tactics than on any other past-time, supporting a burgeoning market of books and tackle that pray on human frailty, feeding hope.

Every year there are more new and exciting patterns, new rods, new lines and new tactics - magic potions for the gullible angler. But, just as there is no miracle cure for the common cold, neither is there an infallible approach to fishing. You can read countless descriptions of “the best way to play a fish” when all that is needed is a grasp of the fundamentals wedded to the knowledge that some fish will come to the bank and some will get away.

There are new venues too. Yet, no matter where in the world I go in search of exotic angling, I always prefer the rivers I know best. In that sense fishing is an extension of our personalities. The restless angler is condemned to eternal frustration, a kind of angling hell.

Contentment in fishing is to know yourself as well as the water, to have conquered impatience and to have learned to stop counting. Then, biggest is no longer best. Delight is embodied in experience and that includes every aspect of your environment. The lost fish is a lesson for the next that you catch. The perfect fish, from cast, through the take, to final capture can deliver more satisfaction than a string of lesser successes.

Sometimes, in what might be close to a Zen-like state, the fishing becomes secondary as you become at one with your surroundings. This is why I need to fish. It’s not about killing, more an exercise in possibilities. The purity of anticipation, the accommodation of loss and the not knowing, is a mirror to the bigger things in life, a rehearsal of significant themes. Or maybe I’m presenting some high-blown excuse for hanging around water. Not knowing but seeking to know. That’s fishing.

I must be away now. The river is falling and today there will be fish.

See also: What happened next

   
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