It wasn’t my idea. Let the records show that “let’s go fishing” was not uttered by me when my Son-in-law Pete and grandson Joe popped over to Ireland for a few days. It was my five-year-old relative who said it, and he was looking at me, not at his Dad. Fish in the family household back in Kenya was a four-letter word for my wife, although both daughter Delia and son Lewis did reel in Bass during picnics on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. Their mother acquiesced because the lake’s Crescent Island was a pretty game reserve, and it was a break from socialising in Nairobi. But it was an add-on to cold pies from the La Belle Inn and sandwiches made in our Loresho home. And a belly full of cold Tusker Premium for me.
It was Joe’s idea. He said it. Looking at me. His father commented that “he seemed quite keen” so fishing we went. As suitable tackle, venues and times were decided, Joe talked enthusiastically about landing a shark, about monster fish, about HUUUUUUGE fish that he would take. And I wondered, if as a five-year-old I had thought the same. Joe is an accomplished artist for a five-year-old and paints sharks, fish, dragons, monsters and the like. He had done a load for me, and brought them to adorn my cottage, which they now do.
First stop – to feed his immediate appetite – was Murphy’s pool on the Argideen, which often holds Sea Trout biding time before their ascent upstream. I put up a small rod and helped him swing a small fly from the top to the bottom of the pool. He enjoyed watching the line, but the fact that nothing came with the fly when he reeled in was clearly a disappointment so we went off for food, which rarely is.
Someone – it may have been Peter Wolstenholme or my neighbour Nick – suggested we fish in the ornamental pond in the estate opposite my cottage. I know the owner and also knew that the pond was stocked with Brown Trout a while back. And the neighbour was away…..We gained access to this beautiful estate and marched, the three of us, down to the pond, armed with a fly rod and deep-sinking lures. Accompanying us was Lady, the peripatetic farmer’s dog which regards all of the nearby 20 acres as her personal fiefdom. We set up and fished. Joe pulled in diligently. Lady began barking in a state near to apoplexy every time Joe reeled in through the muddy water. It really was quite murky so I put on outrageously bright flies, including the infamous Dungeon Sex I had acquired in Montana.To absolutely no result at all.
What do you do when a kid wants to catch fish, not just go fishing. It’s an important question because the latter only happens when the former has occurred, and secretly I have always wanted Joe to become a fly fisherman. Hell, I gave him a tailor-made fisherman’s jacket when he was three years old. Which his mother folded and put away. So, I hit on a plan. We would go to West Cork’s ShepPerton Lakes ( http://www.fishinginireland.info › Trout fly fishing » South West) on the road to Skibbereen and points West. It’s a collection of lakes that holds Trout, Pike and Rudd, so I guessed it might be our best chance, although I had never been.
That morning we got ready, Joe marching around the garden again in a chilly wind with a landing net. Snacks were put together. We drove, found the lakes, got a day ticket and found a spot where fish could be seen rising in the margins. First up, I cast a long line with a Black Pennell. Pike chasing trout caused swirls in the water but nowhere near my fly. Secretly, with my family’s Hong Kong assignment in the back of my mind, I put bread paste on a large weighted Coachman. Again, nothing happened. Then I put on a tiny Black Pennell, one of my all-time favourite flies, and tried retrieving it slowly while Joe sloshed in the margins in his wellies.And I got a take. It felt very small but it wiggled suitably and was certainly a fish. I called Joe over to watch and handed him the rod to reel it in. When he lifted the rod, out of the water popped a three-inch Rudd, a sort of Goldfish gone native. It wiggled on the hook and jumped out of Joe’s hand onto the bank. “Can I keep it” was the next, inevitable, question, and it must happen to everyone who tries to teach a youngster to fish. “We’ll let it go so you can catch it another time,” said his father, uttering, unconsciously, the mantra of the catch-and-release club of which I am a proud member. So, we let it go.
Joe caught several more and lost a couple. His young face beamed with every tug, every take, every swirl at his feet. And I wondered who had really been caught, Joe or the fish. Ironic that it should have taken place at waters that bear the name of my father’s birthplace and first fishing spot. It was my father who taught me how to fish when we returned from his teaching job in Hong Kong and went in search of Pike and coarse fish in the rivers and lakes of Sussex. I have a picture of the two of us in Skye, Scotland, not long before I caught my first Brown Trout on a dangled worm in a brisk burn near the family holiday home.
I don’t ascribe genetic disposition to the fact that my grandfather (a gamekeeper) father and mother (teachers) brother (lawyer) and son (Creative genius) all loved and love to fish. I think it has more to do with a curious eye on the mysteries of the natural world and an upbringing that puts the outdoors above television. Or something like that. There are some things you can ponder that are plain imponderable. Jim Flannery, one of the finest and wisest men and journalists I ever knew, was fond of saying something along the lines of “you don’t have to know why the planets go around each other, you just need to know that they do.”
“I caught six fish” was the first thing Joe told his mother that evening. It pleased me greatly and I know my daughter, Delia, is happy too when her two boys are happy. They are both curious about nature, both fascinated by water, and know too that they are loved by all the people they encounter. I wondered too if Tearaway Tom, now three, would become like my younger brother Simon did, the most elegant and thoughtful of fishermen. I so much regretted, before he died, that we had never fished together in Kenya, where his patient feel for waters and the right fly would have served him platefuls of fish and joy, as it did me before the Tuskers robbed me of the full returns of my fishing endeavours.
A few months later I was struck again the enthusiasm of two teenagers for all manner of fishing. Storm and Sejr arrived from Jutland, Denmark, with their potter-artist mother, Meta Maya (http://www.mettemayagregersen.com/wordpress/).
Peter Wolstenholme, our local ceramic artist, met her at a pottery workshop somewhere, mentioned the “wonderful” fishing in West Cork and invited them over for a week. Peter found himself in charge of two young men for whom the phrase “fishing mad” was something of an understatement. They talked about fishing in Jutland constantly, had vocabularies in English that seemed taken from Trout and Salmon magazine and quizzed Peter and me constantly about the waters around West Cork. They were and are huge fun and live in the countryside next door to a rainbow trout lake. Sejr, the youngest, said he was a “Rainbow Warrior.” I wanted to ask him if Greenpeace, who lost a boat of that name when it was bombed by the French Secret Service in Auckland, New Zealand, on a 1985 trip to protest about France’s nuclear tests in a pretty Pacific atoll. But I didn’t. He wanted to talk about the fluorescent flies the Danish Sea Trout fishermen use to catch specimens off the Danish coast, and that interested me far, far more. Peter’s newly-built conservatory became the Operations Room for a daily assault on West Cork waters. The boys had not been able to bring their own tackle because of insufficient time between planes in London to get their baggage transferred. So, Peter and I and some other friends happily chipped in with rods, reels and general wherewithal.
I wasn’t there on a bank of the river Bandon when Storm lost a salmon as he put down his rod to collect his polarised sunglasses while aforesaid salmon nosed away with a prawn at the end of his hook. I wasn’t there when Peter first noticed: “These two boys cast beautifully. Naturally, It’s quite amazing.” But was there when high winds blew fly fishing out of the window and Peter took Storm and I to a sheltered cove to spin for Bass. “What beautiful countryside,” said Storm as we put together our tackle on a craggy cliff. “Everywhere in Ireland you see such beautiful nature.”
Score one for fishing-as-an-entry-to-nature. We fished that cove, but it was windy, then tried another, which was far less so, as darkness began to fall. Storm had only been fishing a few minutes when he shouted to me: “I’ve caught something. What is it.” I looked across and could see nothing at the end of his rod. “Look, it’s just here, he said, “what sort of fish do you think it is.” It was smaller than Joe’s Rudd. Probably whitebait or something, but it had boxed way out of its weight and ended up on one prong of Storm’s floating Rappala. “I caught our first fish, didn’t I?” beamed Storm. It was hard to argue with. Score One for Fishing as Catching.
A couple of days later we had a “family day” on Balinlough, another small West Cork water that Peter and I had fished only once, but with great success. The four males split into two boats while the two women – Mette and Fran, Peter’s wife – went walking and discovering for the day. The wind had dropped a little but the lake had been so churned up by the weather that a red-letter day seemed an unlikely prospect. And so it was. We tried everything in the box and just about every corner of the lake but barely had a handful of takes between us.
It was uplifting to see the young boys cast so beautifully, the younger in particular. He reminded me, again of my brother but also of my friend Bob Triggs (/www.searuns.com/), a Washington guide who can land a fly on a floating potato chip 50 feet away.
All of us, men and women, had an enjoyable lunch together bankside, the women laughing at the men’s inability to prove piscatorial prowess, the men discussing what tactics and flies to use in the post-lunch session, and where might be the spot to try. It made me think so much of similar lunches with my brother and family, of our own Hong Kong picnics with mum and dad, and of dozens of other occasions when fishing becomes a shared joy, a thing to remember.
At one point that afternoon Storm and I heard shouting from the other boat and looked over to see Sejr in contest with a pretty large fish, most likely a rainbow. They fight hard in this water and it took some time for him to land it. We watched the drama unfold then heard the thumping of the priest that announced its end. Rainbow Warrior 1. Rest 0.
“Can I tell you something?” asked Storm, from his perch at the front of the boat. “I think I am feeling just a little bit jealous now. But I am also happy for my brother.” I knew what he meant. There are times when Peter’s fishing mastery leaves you like a novice buddhist wondering if there really is such a thing as Zen.
I couldn’t help but smile. Fishing IS about catching up to a point, but measured against a lifespan it’s also about the fishing, and the improving, and the knowing that whatever happens, you are never too old to learn.
On their last night we took the boys to fish the Big Flats of the Argideen at night. Peter organised a rotating system so that all four of us could cast from the newly-strimmed bank, moving up a meter after every few casts to allow the next person to fish. Peter taught the boys how to cast, where, and how to retrieve, and what to do if they hooked a fish. He’d even brought along a little three-legged camping stool from which to monitor our progress.
I fished first and after a few casts had a huge wrench from what I thought was a Sea Trout. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the bank to walk slowly back past the other three, that I saw that it had taken my size eight longshank Teal Blue and Silver. The others fished as per orders and touched nothing. Mullet from the sea started swimming around, and I realised my “take” had probably been the escape of a Mullet foul hooked in the back by my fly.
“You’re out after midnight boys. You should be in bed but here you are on a wonderful night fishing for Sea Trout on the Argideen,” said our Sergeant-Major. Ten minutes later and I realised I was the only one still fishing. Storm was fast asleep on the bank under a dim moon; Sejr was talking to Peter, and it was time go to home. Fishless but happy.