They’ve become as much a part of fly fishing as rods and reels. They are the photos that we take and keep, usually of hunter and quarry. Guides call them “hero shots.”
It’s hard to take a photograph of a blank day, or a day when something in the universe has grit in its oil, and things just aren’t revolving as smoothly as they should; casts fail, the fish aren’t biting or you are just not in the mood and probably shouldn’t have gone out fishing in the first place. We don’t take pictures of days like that. They are not for public consumption, just off-days best forgotten unless we can learn something about why the experience didn’t click.
But when a fish comes to hand, bank or net, it’s no longer a noble beast prised by guile out of its element. It’s a photo opp. It’s a selfie with fins. Going through my back pages I realise that there are more photos of Andy with fish than anything else.
I was with my daughter and son, Delia and Lewis, to witness the Copenhagen leg of Paul Simon’s farewell world tour, when I heard him and his rocksteady band launch into Kodachrome, a 1973 hit from “There goes Rhymin’ Simon”. People were bopping in the aisles, the band was cooking on aviation fuel and all 16,000 of us were demonstrably having a good time.
Smartphone cameras flashed throughout. And it struck me then, and has haunted me since, that “Every picture tells a story” isn’t altogether right. Because they don’t really. The photos that I have of expeditions on three continents only ever capture one tiny moment of an experience that goes far beyond those seconds when you raise your fish, dripping, muscle-thick and alive, before the smartphone or camera lens. All the rest lives on in memory.
That “hero” shot is only part of what fishing is to me. There’s so much more. My sister and her Dubai family own a loveable chocolate Labrador called Finlay, with whom I share a fascination for water and wetness. From a very early age Finlay was in love with our swimming pool. Not just to swim in. But to stand at its edge, balance his feet and launch himself showily into the water with an epic splash to retrieve, in the same headlong dive, a floating ball in his snaplock jaws. Then, ball in mouth, he heads for the little ladder and climbs, not altogether elegantly, poolside, shakes off a goodly few cupfulls of water and strides around the pool, head held high, ball in his jaw, struttin’ his stuff. It takes a few laps before he is satisfied with the heroics to drop the ball at someone’s feet and then go and do it all again. Poise, dive, snatch, swim, clamber, shake and strut. It never changes.
I’m guessing here, but I think Finlay’s dive is that same exhilarating moment of weightless joy we feel when a fly line flies out smoothly to its intended destination; that the clamp of teeth around ball is our tug on the line and strike; and that the laps around the pool are his equivalent of the fisherman’s hero shots, a moment of triumph in which to bask in a little applause, a hats-off moment to his skill and strength.
But what these shots don’t tell you about Finlay is that his daily life consists largely of wandering solo around our small grounds, chasing the occasional bold Collared Dove or hoovering crumbs off any surface over which some human has eaten. It’s a dog’s life, and the arc of the diver (pace: Stevie Winwood) doesn’t tell us much about that, although it does tell us a few things about what constitutes joy for a young Labrador nearing three years of age. It’s a happy moment, that’s all and Finlay won’t see the pictures, I will.
In the same way the photographs that fishermen now save of their exploits only tell a tiny bit about what makes the fly fishing experience so addictive and rewarding (I cannot think of many other things that are addictive AND rewarding). The ones I share on this blog mostly tell you about a fish I caught, not about the fun I had catching it, or, perhaps, the misery I endured fishing through a hail storm in an open boat.
Those pictures don’t tell you much at all really, except that there were fish in the water, that I caught one or two and look pretty pleased with myself. They don’t for instance, tell the story of an unforgettable day in the company of a guide on a swollen river. The fishing was dour, the weather hostile, but the experience was an uplifting one in the company of a wise and funny man that blew all worldly cares away and made it feel, truly, good to be alive, weightless, carefree and just plain happy.
Flicking through my photos over the past years in a change of computer, I was struck by how little of what lives in me from fishing expeditions actually translates into photography. Catching fish takes less time in a day’s fishing than is generally spent driving, eating, moving spots, tackling up, resting or any number of other time-consuming necessities. They translate the experience into a two-dimensional snap. They are the hieroglyphs of the new fishing culture, the modern variant of an ancient pastime brought up to date by the immediacy and wide availability of digital communication. Have fone, will Facebook.
Those photos, mine at least, tell you little about the fishing experience as a whole, the package of landscape, escape and mindscape that has me plotting my next outing as I browse addictively through the Internet fishing porn sites in my reclusive life in Hargeisa. What did Isaac Walton’s Compleat Angler say? : “I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing.” Fishing, even with a companion or a guide, is an essentially solitary experience.
It’s about feeling for connections to the natural world and links between the water and the earth. It’s about the uplift you get when landscape trickles into your sensory channels, cleanses them of the dog’s life and anchors you in the vastness and mystery of nature. And I don’t know how you take photos that can convey that sense of awe and humility you get when you see a water catchment landscape for the first time. I can remember the thunder of a light blue river crashing through gorges in the Himalayas, framed by pine and snow-peaked mountains, but no picture I took did it justice. Or the first time I got out of the car in Chilean Patagonia and felt dwarfed into insignificance by the vastness of the plains and the millions of years of experience compressed into the Andes, which surrounded the land, the rivers, the fish and the fisherman like stern guardians.
And how do you convey in photographs the thrill of fishing at night for sea trout on a small Irish river? Not with pictures. A flash would scare the fish back into the sea. I always tell people that on a warm summer’s night there is nothing quite like it; there is the river, splashes indicating fish moving in the darkness and a cloak of natural perfume that smells like a woman asleep. But I suspect T.C. Kingsmill Moore, who wrote about Irish lough fishing in enlightened, spiritual prose, (try: A Man May Fish) said it better.
“As the night deepens the river takes command. Its voice mounts, filling the valley, rising to the rim of the hills, no longer one voice but a hundred. Time and place are dissolving; the centuries have lost their meaning; timelessness is all. One foot is crossing the invisible frontier which bounds the land of the old gods.”
And I wonder what photograph the writer Roderick Haig-Brown might have chosen to accompany the following lines.
“I still don’t know why I fish or why other men fish, except that we like it and it makes us think and feel. But I do know that if it were not for the strong, quick life of rivers, for their sparkle in the sunshine, for the cold greyness of them under rain and the feel of them about my legs as I set my feet hard down on rocks or sand or gravel, I should fish less often. A river is never quite silent; it can never, of its very nature, be quite still; it is never quite the same from one day to the next. It has its own life and its own beauty, and the creatures it nourishes are alive and beautiful also. Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers. If so, I’m glad I thought of it.”
Sure, there were photographs before the telephone mutated into a portable device with camera and a built-in hotline to universal distribution, and a lifestyle accessory. Look at those grainy old black and whites of Mrs Ballantyne with her record salmon or Ernest Hemingway doing the ultimate hero shot in which he contrives to make fishing a mixture of the Wild West, big game hunting and Hollywood. They’re both monochrome hero shots. And they suggest a few things but tell you little, except pride and size. But Mrs Ballantyne and Hemingway had to wait days before the camera plates were developed or the film sent to a laboratory for processing. Today our fish photo can be on the web before we’ve had time to make the next cast after catching it. Fishing mementos have gone fast food. And they will still only tell a fraction of the story. Perhaps only words really can, and even they cannot capture the whole essence of a day or a week that lives inside you long after the luggage comes around on the carrousel.
In flicking through my own albums I realised how similar my photographs are, how stylised and of the “selfie” genre of this age. More medium than message, perhaps. When I take them, or have some luckless guide take them, I am thinking of an audience of two basically, my children, or so I explain to the photographer. I don’t say, “please don’t mess this up because I want to send it to my friend Rupert Watson and make him really jealous and irritated” which is probably my unspoken ulterior motive.
Paul Simon’s concert in Copenhagen lasted nearly three hours and was sublime. The audience only let him off the stage ,after three encores, out of sympathy, because he must have been exhausted. Afterwards, elated, I bought the three of us Paul Simon tee shirts and mugs that said “Still crazy after all these years,” and joined the thousands heading for the train station, all of us buzzing with an experience way beyond the emotional depth of field of a smartphone snap.
Simon said it himself, in Kodachrome, the way our snapshots translate everything into a pastiche, a stylised caricature of things which are in essence, beyond capture.
They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
The crowded train carriages fell strangely silent after a while as its occupants sifted through their recall of the evening, many clutching the same plastic bags of Paul Simon merchandise that I had. Others browsed through the photographs of the concert, as I did too. We were all “Homeward Bound” And in that moment, from nowhere, a song that Simon wrote and sang but did not perform on that unforgettable evening came to me and put the real use of fish selfies into perspective. They are for looking back on much later, perhaps when we can or do no longer fish, when the horizons seem close and dark and Kodachrome can enlighten the gloom by triggering memory.
A time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.
Andy Hill. Hargeisa, August 2018