THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
The long and winding road that led to my door started in a chilly pre-dawn ride from my work base in Hargeisa. I spend about half my working life there. Pictured is my favourite Cafe la Afrah, where government and development people sit inside with good food and coffee while their bodyguards and drivers enjoy the same outside.
It ended with a warm two a.m. drive from Dublin to Cork. There was one diversion, although you might call it a devotion, and that was to stop briefly by my home river, a 25-year-old ritual at every homecoming and home-leaving too. I parked the car at the bridge and tumbled out into the warm early morning air. Many things make that spot remarkable, not just a quarter century of memories. There is a special smell to that little vale, of farmland, a heady scent of things growing half the year and a woody odour of nature either withstanding the weather or rotting under it in the other half.
A CHANGE IN THE WATER
It’s usually underpinned by the noise of the river too, as it tumbles on its last mile to the estuary and the ocean beyond. It’s not uncommon, when the wind is in the right direction, to smell the salt of the sea and the ooze of the mud flats, often tempered by the pungency of wild garlic and the perfume of freshly-cut grass to make animal feed for the winter. I’ve seen bass come up from the sea into a freshwater pool. A seal or two has done the same. And the grey mullet of the estuary hunt the sweet water in heaving packs, great slabs of grey slurping vegetable matter as they cruise.
It was different though on August 18. The smells were satisfyingly familiar, but the chatter of the river was so notably absent that it was as if nature had hit the mute button. Under a pinprick sky and moonlight, I looked down on the river and saw a subdued, sullen trickle. I had been warned by my pal Peter Wolstenholme and others that the European drought had struck. The British redtop newspapers were dusting off “Phew what a Scorcher” headlines; pubs were running out of cold lager; hosepipe bans were being waved at the public like crosses at evil spirits and pictures of bikini-toting gals in urban parks were mixed with dire warnings against skin cancer. I’ve been British all my life but never understood how a nation that endures so many different sorts of weather is never prepared for any of them.
I can never go straight to sleep on my first night back, even though I know I should. I had only carry-on luggage to unpack so that was no excuse for avoiding the sheets. I wandered around my house and my patio saluting the estuary shimmering under a summer moon; I paid my respects to the 120-year-old stone walls that form the nucleus of my home by addressing them with “it’s good to be home, thank you.” It’s a good job I am a singleton and nobody was around to see me running my hands over the “Baby’s Tears” plants that I put in last year to soften the garden walls. “It’ll take the whole bloody place over. Feck it out lad, feck it out,’ Peter had warned me. But I like the feel of it and the look of antiquity it lends to a structure already twice my age. The plant’s called “Mind your own business” in Ireland. Peter and his green-fingered wife Fran attack it yearly in their own pretty home across the estuary. To them it’s a pest. To me, an embellishment on my shield called Home.
The rhythm of home began to impose itself when I awoke from a couple of hours sleep and a night spent supping mint tea while watching the light show of moon and tide. Coffee, toast with bread from the freezer, the composition of a shopping list high on fresh vegetables and fruit after weeks of the tinned and vacuum packed of Somaliland. I gathered my disposable shopping bags and in two hours had driven to the Clonakilty supermarket and bought far more than I needed and put it away. Already I was impatient to fish. It’s a feeling akin to the one you get when you leave home and know you have forgotten something. I get the same feeling when I am at home and have not sorted out where I will fish that day.
THE PAINFULLY LOW RIVER AND HIGH TIDE FROM MY KITCHEN
In the sea was the obvious decision. Fourteen weeks with only a couple of modest showers had reduced the river to a garden centre trickle. Where there was a groin of stones on which sea trout would lie in the shade before heading upstream, there was now a picnic spot where two families could spread out and not disturb each other. Where there was a deep pool where salmon habitually lurk, there was now a small pool whose bottom was clogged with silt, branches, a decaying residue awaiting a flood to clean it all out. And there was weed,v strips and clumps hanging inert in the trickle, the bane of the fly fisherman.
ON THE BEACH
It was midday already. Still light-headed, I sandwiched and put up a fly rod and a spinning rod and headed down the lane to the great stretch of sand visible at low tide in front of my home.v I have long wished I could catch sea trout or even a salmon by fishing from the sand at low tide with flies I have used in America to take searun Cutthroat trout and Coho salmon in the North West Pacific. vMy friend Bob Triggs had spent many winter evenings in his Marrowstone WA home tying me up a selection of flies to try, the same that had been so successful on the many memorable occasions we fished in America.
Two hours before and two hours after low tide is the received wisdom for when to fish the estuary. It’s when sea trout, bass, flounder and other varieties can be found feeding the easier water when the tide is slack and the sand eel beds revealed. I was in the right time window and stomped off over the sand in wellington boots under a grey sky and began to walk down the channel casting a fly, much as I would a river beat. Nothing happened but it was good to feel the rust flaking off my casting technique. Then I tried a spinner. “Anything silvery can take a sea trout or bass at low tide,” was the advice my friend and neighbour Brendan Walsh had given me at the end of the previous season. Brendan, many people say, is a fisherman of such instinctive technique and feel that he can “catch a monster in a puddle.” His advice did little immediately for me but two, then three hours went by pleasantly. There was time to watch the pratfalls of the occasional windsurfer and the business-like chug of a small professional fishing vessel coming in on the tide with a confetti of expectant seagulls in its wake. There would be a gulls’ feeding time at the nearby dock. I was thinking about falling asleep in an armchair on the patio when my spinner abruptly stopped spinning and coming back to my reel. It was a small but beautiful bass, all spines and attitude, and I brought it to shore and released it. Day one. Fish: one. Outlook: Positive. It wasn’t fly fishing. There is something uniquely special about aerialising a light line with a tiny confection of someone’s at the end of it, about challenging the fish on their own terms with something that resembles what they eat or what they feel threatened by. Spinning has some of that, but little of the subtlety. The lures are fairly big and even though they try to resemble a sprat or an eel or a small fish, none of those come straight back to the bank on a straight line, which is what spinning largely means. But spinners do work, as I was beginning to rediscover.
As I released that small fish I remembered that quote of the British writer E.M. Forster. “Only connect,” I was happy to have connected, and trudged back over the sand to look up the full quote from his novel, Howard’s End.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
Not a bad maxim for life itself. Two unforgettable weeks ensued. A little rain brought hundreds of small sea trout (juniors) and a few salmon into the lower river pools, frisky with the expectation of more rain and a rising river. It did not come. But there was fun and laughter. The Wolstenholme family came for an Indian dinner. Peter is a renowned ceramic artist and he and his wife had a very successful business selling pottery until they decided to retire, work less and live more. He now paints – and fishes.
PETER WITH SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS, AND SOME OF HIS FISH
Peter took six juniors one night in the darkness, the preferred time of locals. I went out too one night and took three, all small and perfectly formed but too young to realise they were in the right place at the wrong time. I felt a little guilty for taking fish with the river so stressed, short on oxygen and long on weed. I stopped fishing the river and concentrated on the sea, inspired by the chatter on the gossip mill of large gilt-head bream, bass and sea trout being taken in the estuary. Peter and Fran returned from a wedding anniversary getaway and suggested we tackle this sea fishing business properly using lugworms, weights and beach casting rods. He brought a little three-legged stool too and we set up camp day after day on a stretch of estuary sand lobbing out weighted lines and hooks alive with lugworms. Peter took one mighty bass of more than five pounds that way, and lots of smaller fish while I was elsewhere, but kept the photos to inspire or goad me. A ritual took shape. We would meet on the sands as the tide went down. We would dig for worms. He would tease me mercilessly about my inability to follow his instructions to the letter. “You start by digging the outside of a trench two forks wide then you put the fork in vertically, it has to be vertically, 90 degrees, two inches from the trench and ease the sand up. Keep going like that and you will see the worms as you dig.“ I tried to follow his instructions but my trenches looked like bomb craters compared to his neat excavations and my bucket looked as though it was owned by a man about to give up fishing and go home. His always seemed dark red and alive with thick worms. I put the difference down to my desperate impatience.
IT’S THE FISHING, NOT THE CATCHING
We caught many fish, although not the monster gilthead bream Peter was hoping for. “They are great eating,” he kept saying. So are bass, but they are fully protected now by some EU legislation and anglers have to return all their bass (while fishing vessels can keep all theirs).
Not many were big. There was one tiny flounder no bigger than the envelope my electricity bill comes in. And plenty of small bass. Peter and I even caught small sea trout in the sea on the spinner but I couldn’t tempt anything on the fly. More experimentation is needed. But there was lots of shoreline banter. Some mornings I fished the fly and the spinner while the tide went out and then the worm when the water started coming back over the sand. The tide table became the timetable and the days revolved around it. I knew every day when I woke up what I would be doing and slotted in time for cleaning the house and preparing meals in between the pull and push of the moon. In the evenings I readily retreated to the armchair to read the backlog on my kindle, knowing that this will be how I spend many hours when I finally get to be at home more than I am away. Next year, Insh’allah. I was scheduled to get back to Hargeisa via Juba, the capital of South Sudan, one of the saddest places on earth, and realised halfway through my second week that departure was looming with every rising of the sun. And the sun kept rising .There was a final afternoon on the sands. Peter and I were joined by our friend Jeremy, a hugely funny man with a deep love of the area. I was given pole position, the first rod on our stretch and the first lure the incoming fish and tide might see. Peter and Jeremy took the next two spots. We all caught sea-bright bass and quite a few flounder but it was my rod tip that did the most jerking on the stand. Only connect! Peter and Jeremy teased me about catching on their worms and their backache. It was a lovely afternoon but I felt already wistful loading my clobber in the car to be hosed down before being put away.
It’s been a standing joke between myself and my fishing friends that the fishing weather and the catching always starts when I leave and ends when I arrive. That night, as rural Ireland slipped away in my headlights on the road to Dublin, the automatic wipers on my rental car jerked into action. By the time I got to the airport, it was raining hard. And rained again in Cork too. Peter made sure to tell me.
Brendan took the photographs as I arrived in Hargeisa from a week in Juba. All caught in the daytime fishing a small nymph upstream. Beautiful sea trout., They meant that many more had gone upstream to spawn and we might meet again next year.
The current season on our river ends on October 14. This is just to warn my friends that the fishing is likely to stop on October 1. When I next take that long and winding road and get home again.
Hargeisa, September 2018