April 2008 - Spring fishing
on the Tay
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
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
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
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