Fly fishing in the time of Coronavirus

Part Two

March 8-14

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It was a great new bunch of anglers that unfurled their weapons of fish disruption at the Saturday night unsheathing ceremony. They included several of Sandy’s Scottish friends, a father and son from Minnesota, a travel guide from the UK company Farlows and his client, a diminutive Indian, Kamal, who told stories about catching big Mahseer. Like the first week’s guests, we were pretty much all of an age. When I later showed pictures of our two groups to a Kenyan friend, he referred to them as a “bunch of drizzly old men.” I think he meant “grisly,” but the original adjective had a certain wine glass ring about it. As well as their tackle they brought stories from the outside world of Coronavirus, masks, gloves, infections and deaths around the world. In America the Centre of Disease Control was moving towards nationwide testing. Trump was telling people it was all under control. Lockdown was being imposed everywhere. Thousands of people were dying daily from an invisible assassin. We felt strangely immune from it all and joked that we would happily spend lockdown in Kau Taupen. But already airlines were advertising their disinfectant measures. The big C was closing in.
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The river continued to yoyo but, overall, the conditions were slightly better and more encouraging. Sandy landed two 20-pound fish in one day, as well as others. I caught fish between 8 and 17 pounds. Confidence immunises you against despair. The day’s routines felt as comfortable as my oldest jeans. Up at six for coffee and to see and feel the weather outside. Breakfast with my fellow anglers. Like an old couple, Sandy and I made toast for each other, pulled on waders at the same time, and were usually the first outside to await the daily convoy of SUVs bristling like hedgehogs with expensive carbon rods. At nine thirty the convoy would move out, peeling off for the various beats each guide had been allocated for the day. Small foxes scattered in the brush beside us. Sheep bounded across the road to safety in front of us, except for the usual stragglers, who waited until they could smell the steel-braced radial tyres, and then belted across our path. There were always Guanacos, the Llama cousins, and Condors wheeling on crenelated wings on the lookout for things either dead, about to be dead, or alive. All sorts of predators swooped around the riverbanks. It was all too plain that we were guests, and they were the hosts. Even the beavers, crazily introduced some decades back and now a menace, showed furry-faced contempt for two-legged ones with the big polesIMG_0885

We returned at lunchtimes for a sit-down feast; lamb barbecued in the traditional way on a crucifix spit, chicken braised in vegetables with chunky sautéed potatoes; a local paella variant, prawns in a rich sauce……..Kau Taupen is no place to go to maintain your jean size.

Many of us slept in the afternoon for an hour or so. I tried not to but failed more often than not, waking up in time to pull on new mental skin for the old ceremony of waders and boots, hats and polaroid glasses, fingerless gloves tucked into a jacket pocket, my phone ready and dry in a waterproof bag inside my waders.

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                                             Sandy. The Fisher King

The numbers of fish matter less to me these days than the fishing, so I have no record of exactly what I caught the second week. I just know that there were many. I do know that one stormy afternoon I decided to stay back at the lodge because I felt either exhausted or going down with a cold or both. While I slumbered, Sandy caught seven fish that evening in the rain, all of them crackers. I read the upsetting Three Women  (Lisa Taddeo), a fairly damning tale of how men mistreat women. I felt okay the next day, if somewhat chastened both as a representative of my gender and by Sandy’s derring-do.

But the evenings were as rich and full as the food. The lodge serves a very late dinner to its guests but goes out of its way to prepare smaller dishes for those, like Sandy and myself, who did not want the full sit-down experience twice in one day. So we would order soup and a sandwich.  But often Luciana, Hernan’s pretty wife and the floor manager, would bring us tastings from the main table as well. And Guy, the Manager, would join Sandy and me to talk about the world. These were highlight moments. Guy had caught a disease early in life that prevented him growing, so he is trapped in the body of a 17-year-old, a few decades distant from his real age. He is a Franco-Argentine and, like all the staff, loves what he is doing until the day he opens his own lodge somewhere. He walked us through recent Argentine history and explained the Estancia system, enlightened us about ranching and sheep farming as well as fishing and hunting. That he had managed a potentially lethal disease and survived was remarkable. That he accepted it and the multiple medications that attended it and still do, every day, was and is heroic. I have a vision of him turning up at the riverbank one evening as the light fell, dressed in a pair of incredibly outsized camouflaged waders. These, he explained, were what he used for duck hunting. Baggy and loose so he could slither around the fens. They were so big another angler could have fitted inside them. Guy had come down to the riverside on a chilly evening to offer us mulled wine from a thermos.  That’s the sort of person he is.

On March 11, midway through our last week, the World Health Organisation declared Coronavirus a Pandemic. There were 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,293 deaths.  “Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom.  “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher. WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.” The virus seeped into our conversations, like spilt ink on a desk of papers. Guy thought Argentina would soon close its borders to prevent importing or exporting a bug that the Trump had labelled “Kung Flu.”

March 12 was my 70th birthday.  I bought a new Patagonia wading jacket at the Lodge to gift myself. As I pulled it on, I remembered what the man from Farlows In London told me when I brought my battered, torn and worn old Barbour jacket to be refurbished in the 1990s. “Refurbish? I don’t think so. But we could stuff it,” he said. My old Simms wading jacket looked like heading that way too. Or that’s how I justified the purchase.

It was a changeable day, weather-wise, but fishing-wise it was consistently difficult because of the wind and the height of the water. But I caught one good fish in the 12lb range while J.J. looked on at the improvements I had made in my casting since his tutorial. When we drove back for lunch, and for me to contact my kids and sister, I found Guy, Luciana and kitchen staff waiting for me at the door with birthday wishes on a blackboard and balloons bouncing in the wind. All over the lodge there were birthday banners, balloons and paper chains. And a wonderful lunch, at the end of which the cooks arrived (Soledad, the pastry chef, is an artist, not a cook) and a birthday cake with a Roman candle, while staff, including all the guides, sang Happy Birthday in Spanish and English. It was the kind of thing I had seen happen at restaurants, sharing the embarrassment of the birthday person as he or she blew out the candles. But in Kau Taupen I just felt privileged and  happy. My heart began to swell like a rain-lashed river when Guy told me how my daughter Delia (in Copenhagen), my son Lewis (in London) and sister Joanna (in Dubai) had plotted together to contact the lodge to make sure a cake marked the day.  That evening I caught one more, if I remember right, and floated to bed on a hover-board of contentment.

Why does time speed up like a ball downhill just when you want it to slow down?  I found myself packing my bag two days before our four-in-the morning departure on Saturday. It was an almost reflexive, defensive action. Into the bag went the clothes I would not need or wear the next two days. I took down two rods I had brought with me but not used, I saw people exchanging business cards and Whatsapp numbers around the bar. Guy fretted that guests scheduled for the following week from America and elsewhere would not be allowed entry. The guides started to worry about how they would get to far flung homes and destinations if the lodge had to close down early and the borders were closed.

I think the Celtic Fringe – Sandy and his pals – led the push to make the last day a full day of fishing rather than two sessions demarcated by lunch and a siesta at the lodge.  So instead of coming back to the lodge at midday, we packed a picnic and went out with Eugene, an Australian with more fishing stamps in his passport than I could dream of accumulating. We had found a common wavelength the week before; his easy-going style of dispensing advice and knowledge, plus his quiet enjoyment of everything to do with fishing, marked him out.  His still waters ran fathoms deep, as did his warmth, joy of fishing and sense of humour. And then, on that last morning drive out to the river, he put the Grateful Dead on the car sound system and we bonded like Superglue. He also told me about a special edition Grateful Dead reel. The river was a bit fretful and occasionally cloudy with silt. The fishing was not very rewarding, apart from one very feisty four-pound fresh-off-the-tide fish that, Eugene said, “appears to be quite vigorous.” An understatement.

Not long after that, before our picnic, I attempted to make a very long cast across the river through swirling mean-spirited wind. It was a badly timed and executed cast and clattered into the middle of the river downstream from me. I put my hands on my knees, yelled obscenities at myself, and started to pull the line back in to try again. At which point, one of the biggest fish I had taken in a fortnight announced itself at the end of my line and began to fight like a cornered bobcat. It pushed 18 pounds when we weighed it in the net. I felt a complete fraud. We talked about it, lying in the grass under a scant group of trees the guides jokingly call “our forest.” “It always happens,” said Sandy, who had taken two good fish at least with proper casts that landed where he wanted. “The bad cast always catches the biggest fish because the line sinks while you curse and gets the fly down to them.”

Bread, cheese, salami, good company and conversation. I think the fishing trip ended there for me.  There was still an afternoon of fishing scheduled but I don’t remember it. I think I spent most of the time talking to Eugene and absorbing, rather than angling. We finished early, that much I remember. That evening, in between packing, there was champagne and Tapas and another video put together by Luciana, to the music of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The links were emailed to us so that I enjoy them still, and often.

We left in convoy for Rio Grande airport in darkness and were seen off by the guides. Some passengers were wearing masks. Guy had told us that lockdown in Argentina was only a few days away and that many people blamed “foreigners” for bringing the curse south. In Departures I sat down in a row of plastic seats beside a young woman. Sandy followed and sat beside me. As soon as she heard us speak English, she got up and left.

March 15-17

The real world of Buenos Aires had changed little at first sight. But there was panic and concern. Our hotel would not accept guests who had arrived in Argentina that week. Sandy and I survived this sanction, having been in the country  for two weeks. Others in our group found accommodation at the airport but flights uncertain. It seemed fairly sure the country would shut down on the night of my return to Dubai.

Sandy left in the morning having plucked dates for a return to Kau Taupen in 2021 from a fairly full-looking fishing diary. My flight left the same night, but the airport was chaotic with people fleeing home. Flights were delayed. There was tangible anxiety. My own booking on Emirates was good but the clattering departures board signified a long delay. The queues at immigration were long long long. Foreigners were not allowed to shop at Duty Free. Children wailed. Couples clashed. Frustrations fomented. My room at Kau Taupen seemed a long way away but Guy told us that he was probably closing the lodge down weeks early because no new guests would be allowed into the country.

China was reporting a third consecutive day without Corona deaths. All 16 temporary hospitals in Wuhan were closed. In the United States, 4,000 cases had been reported. Across the globe, from South Sudan to Spain, borders were being closed down.

It felt a relief when the wheels of the aircraft lifted. There was still uncertainty 20 hours ahead because the United Arab Emirates was not issuing tourist visas, like the ones I have used over the past few years. None of the in-flight movies seemed interesting. Nor the music. I couldn’t read much. I found myself more often asleep than awake.

At Dubai the queues were just as long, but my anxiety was misplaced. I had left from Dubai and had an onward ticket to London the following week. So I was admitted and was soon at my sister’s home, being reassessed by our dog Finlay, and caffeinated by my sister, Joanna.  And soon in complete lockdown allowed out only once every three days with a police permit to buy food and supplies. Sandy is in lockdown in Scotland, but can at least ride his bike and walk, but not fish his many hallowed Salmon waters. I cannot reach my little home in Ireland because all flights from Dubai are indefinitely suspended and Ireland itself is in lockdown. Fishing is pretty much outlawed.

In the first 24 hours after my return the guides got in touch to tell us that the river had risen mightily and was un-fishable; that two guests had managed to arrive. And that in the end the lodge was closed for the season, mothballed like an artwork. But not before Guy caught an enormous fish and sent Sandy and me a picture.

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The guides eventually got out of Argentina through diverse routes to South Africa, Venezuela and Australia. We are in touch. We send each other best wishes that we will meet again beside the Rio Grande next year. I’ve paid the deposit and earmarked a flight. I’ve no doubt that Kau Taupen will be the same wonderful place it is in reality that it is already in my heart and mind.

I’m just not so sure what the rest of the world will look like.

AJH

DUBAI April 2020

Fishing in the time of Coronavirus

February 26-28

Part One

Buenos Aires shone like old gold in the late summer sun of February.  Once off the airport’s toll road motorway, the city rose around my taxi in mixtures of ancient and modern, but all of it gleaming. People walked the streets and parks and coddled their coffees at pavement cafes. The women were dressed in shorts, tee-shirts or summer dresses and skirts, as if the beach were nearby, instead of the sluggish river Plate, the nation’s border with Uruguay. “Argentina has the most beautiful women,” said Pedro, my meet-and-greet guy. “They are all pretty. And if we find an ugly one, we send her back.”

Buenos Aires at dusk

It was February 27, 47 days after China announced its first death from the Coronavirus; the disease was now in France, Italy and Iran too. Three days earlier Trump had asked Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funding to prepare for the epidemic. On February 26, the day I began my 19-hour flight to Argentina, Brazil reported the first case in Latin America. But it still appeared to be a problem of Asian origin, and not yet a global curse.  Quite a few people at Dubai airport sported the heraldic symbol of these times, the mask. But I saw only two the day I arrived in the Argentine capital.

I wasn’t too worried either. Coronavirus seemed a distant nightmarish speck at the edge of a lovely dream, and I was going fishing in what has become the favourite destination in my fly-fishing world, the Rio Grande river on the island of Tierra del Fuego, a barren windswept last stop on the way to the Antarctic.  When I closed my eyes on the flight, I could see silver speckled princes of the tide, Seatrout, flicking massive tails disdainfully as I released them to continue their migration from the ocean to their spawning grounds.

A Rio Grande Seatrout from my trip

It was past ten in the evening when I checked into the Loi Suites hotel, where some staff recognised me from the year before and knew my name. It was still fairly light. My watch delivered Dubai time, my phone Argentine time. To sleep in the Argentine night or to obey my watch, which said five in the morning? While I thought about it in my room, I fell asleep in my armchair fully clothed.

It was hot the next day, the eve of departure for Tierra del Fuego and the wonderful Kau Taupen lodge. It was the perfect day to sit outside with a drink and watch a seemingly untroubled world go by, an under-estimated pleasure and a special one in a Buenos Aires summer. I watched rapt as a man with an alto sax set up shop in the middle of a pedestrian precinct and played Gershwin’s “Summertime.”  I felt confident “fish are jumping” at Kau Taupen.  Men in shorts and women in shorter shorts meandered by.

And he was playin’ real good for free

I’d met Sandy Scott at Kau Taupen last year and we hit it off as fishing partners and friends and agreed that we would come back for two weeks in 2020. He duly arrived, slept and was ready for an evening out.  We visited the nearby Alvear Palace hotel, a monument to classical Belle Epoque French styling, Argentina’s heyday in the early 1900s, and sheer wealth. Guests over the years have included Fidel Castro, Sharon Stone, Al Pacino and Nelson Mandela. We were in good company as we toyed with our drinks and our olives. 

La Belle Epoque Buenos Aires style

Argentina has struggled ever since the 1920s through military and civilian rule and misrule and its tax base is still less than 10% of the working population. Foreign exchange controls had been clamped since our last visit to prevent money flowing overseas, at least visibly. Legally, Argentines have to declare their dollars and turn them in at the official rate. That was then around 60 pesos to the dollar but if you paid your bar or restaurant bill in dollars it was closer to 90. It made eating out well ridiculously cheap. All through my working life overseas black markets have sprung up where governments try to hoard the foreign currency they need to pay their debts. It’s a futile exercise that forces decent people to prioritise a subversive sense of survival over surrendering to the state for the common good. We ate at a favourite pavement café surrounded by working people enjoying a balmy evening over food and drinks. It all felt Mediterranean rather than Latin American. Sandy, a doctor and heart surgeon, and I talked fishing and disease. Italy had 800 cases, France 57, and cases were being reported in the Baltic states and Africa.

February 29-March 7

The Lodge at dusk

It was late afternoon, windy and cold, when our minibus of anglers bounced down a potholed track to Kau Taupen lodge after a flight to Ushuaia, 3,000 km south of Buenos Aires. The lodge is a single storey building made of galvanised sheeting with a red roof.  It sits alone on a small rise and its lights were on. It reminded me of Irish President Mary Robinson’s symbolic candle in the windows of her Dublin residence, Phoenix Park, to welcome returning migrants home.  The staff were all there to greet us after a jarring journey with welcome-home smiles and this-will-help cocktails. The routine on arrival day is well oiled (as were many of the anglers a couple of hours later); welcoming drinks and assembly of tackle by the guides, a tapas dinner and briefings by the amiable manager Guy, and Chief Guide Hernan. I felt a sense of homecoming with so many familiar faces among the guides – Hernan, Paolo, Nick. The three Fishketeers. These and others are the modern-day Trout Bums that writer John Gierach has identified as 21st century cowboys. They are usually young people who make their living guiding clients as the globe revolves and seasons change; this quarter Kau Taupen, the next Norway and Russia, or perhaps saltwater fishing in Venezuela, Cuba or the Seychelles. It’s not for the money. Salaries are small and have led to the growth of “gratuities” being included in the pre-fishing documents anglers receive. Usually it’s 10-15% of the price of each week, which can mean thousands of dollars on top of the original cost.  I feel a little uncomfortable about companies formalising an act that should be personal and voluntary. But I have always complied.

Ain’t it the truth?
Nick (l) and Paolo

The guides do what they do for the love of wild places, wild fish and an off-the-grid unconventional lifestyle. These are people who eat, live and drink fishing and could probably tie a woolly bugger in the dark. And they are energetically young and usually happy.

Envy is a wicked thing, especially in the old and the ageing. It distorts and disfigures while doing nothing to turn back the clock.

Part of the first-evening ritual is to assemble guests’ rods in the lunch room; for about half an hour this space is like a tackle shop on steroids as guides mingle with guests to see what they have brought for the week and to take the made-up rods out to the cars to await the next day. So there were 10 or more anglers, each with at least two 12-14 foot rods, screwing on reels and threading lines through rod rings. Similar scenes must have attended medieval jousting competitions, or the examination of weapons brought to insurgent commanders before a peasant rebellion against a tyrant.  The exercise is both practical and personal. It ensures the guides get to know their clients a lot better before their first day of fishing, and also what extra tackle or ancillaries they might need. “Should I put a 10-foot T-11 tip on this or would a 12-foot T-14 be a better match?”  asked one guest.  I needed a translator for that. Such questions marry enthusiasm, anxiety and the sort of trust in the guides that people normally reserve for doctors. If there was an expression to describe the best qualities of guides, it would be a good rodside manner.

The following day the United States announced its first coronavirus death and imposed travel restrictions.  The number of global infections was pushing 90,000. Sandy and I caught up on the news as we plundered the capsule coffee machine around 0600 every morning before breakfast. Every pair has a different guide every day and ours on the first day was Hernan, a bustling Argentine promoted to head guide since our previous year’s visit and a man of wicked humour and ready smile. We’d been warned that the conditions were capricious because the river was rising and falling due to rain and snow melt. Seatrout are like goal kickers in rugby. They like everything to be settled, calm and predictable.

The whimsical nature of the conditions made communication between the guides, each with two fishermen in their truck, critically important. “What’s the river doing?” Hernan asked Paolo over the radio that first morning. “Still flowing downstream,” replied Paolo. A German, based in Cologne, Paolo looks like a young university professor, runs in waders with his legs flapping like a goose taking off, and casts in a gale like a Jedi throwing lasers. He is very funny, whipcrack wit masking the unplumbable depth of a passion for fishing and a brain schooled in America and Europe.  Like many guides, he takes great photographs too. But not many others play the cello and trumpet. He does.

Off the mark. Sandy and Hernan with a marked beauty.
Day one.

My notebook for the first week makes quick reading because I caught very little. Other people had good, bad and indifferent weeks too. James, on his first visit, inspired us all by catching a 23lb fish and whether he fished above or below me, Sandy scored doggedly in both the morning and evening sessions. My casting had deserted me since the previous year, and it took the patient ministrations of Hernan and a new guide, J.J., to reassemble both my Spey casting and my confidence. It came back slowly but surely. I needed a different style of line too, a “Skagit” head capable of firing heavy flies long distances, and heavier tips to get the lures down where the fish were lurking. The expensive lines and the rod I had brought with me were not up to the conditions. Seatrout are the prick teasers of the water. They will roll in a flash of silver spray just where you are casting, but they will not “put out” and take the fly. I learned a great deal that week, especially from the casting tutorial I got from J.J. two feet behind my right ear.  “Lift slowly at first when you are making a Snap-T cast. Then faster. Then snap, and in one motion bring the rod back to where it started, raise it first at the side then become vertical and punch it forward, all in one motion. Don’t stop. I said don’t stop. No, that’s wrong. Do it again. And do not overthink it.”

Getting this wisdom out of my brain and into my subliminal cache was like transferring old fashioned cassettes to MP3 files. Tortuous. Painstaking. But, oh so worth it. In the end.

There were a lot of small fresh fish in the system but many of the bigger ones were dark and had been in the river for a while.

By the end of that first week I was catching decent fish. They ranged from 8 to 15 pounds.  Probably the best was one that Sandy came down to watch me land. It was big and dark, meaning it had been in the river a week or so and was waiting to spawn. “This is a nice fish,” said Luca, my guide for the day. Adding, unnecessarily but echoing my own anxiety, “Try not to lose it.” With three grown men around the waiting net, one with a rod in his hand, ground control and Major Tom lost contact in one memorable instant.  The fish was about three feet from the bank and had lost its early bruising resistance when suddenly there was no resistance at all, and we saw the fish sweep its tail with a splash and disappear. Sandy pulled my fly line out of the water. The fly, an EMB, had snapped at the bend of the hook. I felt a guilty surge of relief that it wasn’t my fault. And began to laugh. I’d nailed a really good specimen and brought it to my feet. All that was missing was a glimpse of its puzzled eyes, its tiger sides, and a photograph. All these seemed mere trifles at that moment, and even now, months later. I felt indescribably happy.

No words needed

The flies we used ranged hugely in size and weight; big and small black and purple leech flies seemed to do well, as did a chartreuse variant. Sandy seemed to start every day twitching a Sunray Shadow across likely lies; the EMB was widely trusted and a go-to. The Green Machine was rolled out most days in most pools. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful flies I had never seen elsewhere, like the Vitamin series. But the American Girdle bug variant I had used in Montana was a successful lure as well. We used small tube flies, like the Intruder, but in general only a dozen patterns accounted for fish and the guides happily gave them to those in need. I was. Practically none of the 100 or so expensive flies I had ordered and had tied for me in America the previous year ever got wet. Maybe I’ll try them in Ireland, or on the river E-Bay. How deep the flies sank and how slowly seemed more important. I took an apprenticeship in the technical world of Mow tips, Skandi shorts and Skagit Classics. There was no written exam. Only a bankside oral.

The flies Kau Taupen gifted every angler this year

It was heart-warming to be back with Nick again. He is a guide with a serious side, but will by boyish, even when he’s 90, and still fishing, if not guiding. He fishes internationally for his home country, South Africa, and he and Paolo together are the Laurel and Hardy, or Gin and Tonic, of the Kau Taupen setup. They make everything seem fun, even when it’s deadly serious. The constant radio communication between the six guides, Hernan, Paolo, Nick, J.J. , Luca and Eugene, made sure that we knew what technique was working and what wasn’t.

The Internet and mobile telephony have become as much part of fishing as flies and rods. The fishing world is joined together in a series of digital knots stretching around global websites and chat pages. The Kau Taupen Internet was a blessing and a curse. It allowed me to keep in touch with family and friends and share pictures. But it also allowed in the bleak Corona news.

My Irish fishing friend Peter Wolstenholme, cloistered back in County Cork and forbidden to fish, seemed unimpressed by the fish I was taking. “Andy’s traveled half way round the world to catch these stale old fish. Where’s the bright silver fish ones?” He wrote on our club Facebook page. I told Hernan this, and that night, I hooked a big, fairly fresh fish and made a video inviting him to go forth and multiply. A still from this is below.

Greetings, Peter.

On the Friday night of a fishing week at Kau Taupen there’s a video show culled from the guides’ best shots; champagne, a prize for the biggest fish(erman), Tapas with all the guides and a cheerful buzz masking the sad end to things. Sandy and I were staying another week and felt somewhat privileged. No four in the morning shuttle to Rio Grande airport for us, at least not for a week.  Saturday, changeover day, is when the guides get to fish and we were happy to be invited; it was a merry band. Except that the wind had turned from fierce to brutal, whipping waves and spray upstream. We tried but it was no fun, and if fishing isn’t fun then it’s not worth doing. Instead we obeyed inner commandments to declare the seventh a rest day, and after a pleasant lunch, I went to sleep. In the adjacent bedroom, BBC Radio 4 played on Sandy’s IPAD. It was pleasantly soothing, if incongruous, but I couldn’t make out much beside the words “Coronavirus, Covid, infections, deaths and China” through the walls. I was awake in time for the arrival of the new batch of guests from America and Europe. Sandy and I joked that we would have to rub elbows with them instead of shaking hands.

They had come from the so-called Real World. We had been living for a week in something pretty close to paradise.

TROUT FISHING IN MONGOLIA, WITH A COMB

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“You are fishing where?” asked an incredulous friend. “What on earth for?” It was a  typical remark. Even from some fishing friends. And there were, as always, two answers.

  • Wild fish don’t live in ugliness. They live in beautiful places. I want to see more beauty in my dwindling days.
  • Taimen, a landlocked salmon, are found in Mongolia and parts of Russia. It’s a fierce and aggressive creature and lives by eating other fish. There are also Pike, the Amur trout and the Lenok, a local fish, all of which will come (or not) to a fly.

The idea to fish Mongolia came from a friend and guide, Marcelo Poo, who I met in Chile at the Estancia de los Rios (https://www.estanciadelosrios.com/videos) in Chilean Patagonia a couple of years back. He guides in Mongolia for Mongolia River Outfitters (MRO) when he’s not working in Chile. He said it was even more wild than Patagonia. So I flew to Ulan Bator and landed at Chingis Khan airport. That’s how Mongolians pronounce the name of the great Mongol marauder, with a Ch where others use a G. I got there via Istanbul but South Korea is also a useful hub for flights in. What greeted me was a fairly typical post-Soviet city of featureless apartment blocks interspersed with advertisements for all the usual globalisation bling (BMW, Samsung, Rolex, Johnny Walker, etc) that have accompanied shucking off Chinese rule in 1921 with Soviet help and then walking away from Soviet influence in the 1990s.

Chingis Khan might have been horrified to see what his name has been attached to. Restaurants, souvenir shops, bars. But the Grand Khaan Irish pub does a nice line in Mongolian dumplings, soups and grills as well as the usual burgernchips. The people could have been in any European city, apart from a few wearing the traditional Mongolian calf-length tunic or Deel, the bright colours reminding you that China is to the South. Then there are the grid-like streets and imposing official buildings, reminding you that Russia is to the North. But the temples, especially the Bogd Khan palace, a vast old temple in the city centre – Ulan Bator means Red Hero after the Buddhists’ red robes – say you are in Mongolia.

IMG_6963And the Beatles statue. When Mongolia was in Soviet Russia’s orbit, the Beatles were revolutionary music and frowned upon. Now that Mongolia is fully independent, the Fab Four statue is a go-to place on a little city centre square on which sits, helpfully, a fairly well-stocked fishing tackle shop. It’s a popular place for wedding photos.

I was the only fisherman on our small aircraft flying north to the Onon river. All the other passengers worked for MRO. A bumpy drive later and we were by the river, which Marcelo had warned me was uncommonly high, which is not good for fishing anything. There I teamed up with anglers who had already fished the upper stretch of the river for a week. They were somewhat disconsolate about the lack of Taimen so far but were promised the next few days would change their luck. I got into waders and jacket and boarded Marcelo’s boat to drift downstream. He warned me that when you hook a Taimen you don’t lift your rod tip, which you do for fishing trout. Instead you “strip strike”, which means maintaining the rod low and pulling the line sharply several times to try to embed the hook in the fish’s rock-hard mouth. The water was coloured and high and not encouraging. The other anglers disappeared into the distance while the “camp followers”, staff in inflatable boats, took the entire camp, tent, shower, toilets, kitchen and everything else, down to our next camp site several hours downstream. This happened every day. One minute you’d be eating scrambled eggs in the restaurant tent and the next minute it would be on an inflatable piled high with bags floating downstream. It was a bit Lewis and Clark or maybe Livingstone, but it was efficient, ran like railways used to and made sure there was a dry bed and warm food and company every night. Easy to take for granted when you are not the one digging the next latrine or preparing dinner for eight on an open fire.

Within minutes Marcelo and I were alone on a broad sweep of river flanked by canyons on one side and plains on the other.  Half Montana, half Wyoming, all Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world but the 18th largest, with a population of three million. In a week I saw three other people and one car. The fly Marcelo gave me was heavy, to sink in the high water, and garish. It resembled a road-killed Peacock and was as easy to cast as a piano stool. Accustomed to casting more genteel creations, my shoulders began to ache, and we switched to a popper or gurgler. These are also extravagant creations which float on the surface and make a lot of splash and noise on retrieval; this annoys the aggressive Taimen no end. We tried a lot of likely spots and made a great deal of surface noise but nothing moved. I was about to suggest we change back to a weighted chicken when a Taimen zipped into the air like a missile with my gurgler in its teeth. I stripped, I struck, several times. And it stayed on long enough to be netted. It was just a small one, maybe 18 inches. But when Marcelo opened its jaws the fly just popped out. It wasn’t even hooked.

I learned the lesson very quickly. Taimen make playground bullies with stolen footballs seem positively meek and mild. For them possession is 9.5 tenths of the law. Often they will not open their mouths when “hooked” because they don’t want to give up what they have taken. In the strictest sense of the word, MANY are not hooked at all.

Other boats and anglers drifted by as this happened. “Fish on your first day huh?” said one American voice.  “Nobody is gonna talk to you this week. I hope you know that.” He was joking. The nightly banter around the dinner table as well as serious discussion of the habitat was an unforgettable feature.

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Merrill (right) with Marcelo and a nice Taimen.

In my experience a first day fish is never a good thing. It encourages the feeling that every day will bring more of the same rewards. Unless you’ve caught a first day fish and been skunked for the rest of the week, which was my Mongolian experience in a nutshell. I connected with many more, including big ones, but just couldn’t get them to the boat. Which didn’t upset me at all. That evening, in the company of six other anglers, we swapped notes and few were taking fish at all. Over a week it seemed that one boat would catch several and others nothing. The pictures I include here are of the lucky anglers who did. It was a total camping adventure, although the food and accommodation tended towards the glamping side. There was no electricity, no mobile phone coverage, no Internet. Just the sounds of water moving through wilderness. To keep camera batteries charged, I bought a solar panel with me and the only lighting in our tents was from solar-powered lamps that had fired up on boats during the day.

And they were great people. The banter was hard-edged but benign. We spent our evenings in the restaurant tent eating good food, imported vegetables and local treats. Then it would be a brisk walk in freezing temperatures back to the tent and under the many blankets as fast as possible and deep sleep. The morning light woke me up but what ultimately made me shed my blankets was the daily arrival of Tukol, a diminutive Mongolian mother of three who brought us all fresh coffee, a piece of Snickers/Marathon and a biscuit every morning. She would stoop inside the tent door, deposit a cup of coffee and a plate of goodies and say, “you are welcome” when thanked. Every day.

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An Amur trout Merril caught

After breakfast it would be back to the boats to drift downstream while the camp was packed, except for the lunch raft, which set up a barbecue and table half way down the river so we could eat pork chops with fresh apples and  sautéed potatoes bankside. In all we drifted about 100 miles downstream to the last campsite, which was a permanent fixture and lodged us in traditional Mongolian Gers, round huts made of felt and decorated on the inside the Mongolian way.

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My Gers is my castle.

The days were hot, sometimes very hot, and the fishing was hard. In one spot off the main river, head guide Peter Fong said bluntly: “I know the Taimen are here.” I cast. A Taimen grabbed my fly, leaped in the air and was gone. Then another did the same thing, then another. Meanwhile my partner in the boat, Merrill, landed two big ones. So goes fishing. They say Taimen are the fish of a thousand casts. I think that may underestimate it a bit. If Taimen are the bully boys of the river, then Pike are the outright thugs. I caught one by mistake but it was a thrilling error. All my fishing life guides have told me “keep pulling him back, your rod can take it.” Until Jack, my guide, that day  said, “whoah, let out a bit of line or you will snap the rod.” It was then I noticed it had gone U-shaped under a battling Pike.

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Guide Jack, with a nice pike minus sunscreen bottle

On the last day Jack and I were alone in the boat and fished for Pike exclusively, looking for slack water where the fish would like to ambush prey. He tied on a wire trace against the toothsome greeting of a pike, and lures that resembled small fish.

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My notebook is not clear how many we caught but they were many, all of them around an arm’s length or more and as savage as gut-shot bears. One took the hook so deep that we had to wedge its jaws open with the sunscreen bottle. Putting your hand inside a Pike’s mouth is not unlike putting it in a rat trap. Their teeth would make Hells Angels quiver.. But every day was a wilderness adventure, and every evening was camp geniality and fun. Most of the talking was about fishing far places and the experiences we had had. One day head guide Peter Fong told us that in his peripatetic family there is a rule. If you kill it, you have to eat it. This, apparently, extended to a rattlesnake his son had found and killed. And yes, they do apparently taste “a bit like chicken.”

My memories will be of the Taimen and Pike  “take,” which is like a door slamming in your face; and of one particular evening when Merrill, an amiable and witty Pilot in Chesapeake bay, told us of how he had tried to pick up a few Mongolian phrases to converse with local people. He had tried out Sem banna uu? (how are you?) on a Mongolian on a motorbike whom he encountered on the bank. “The guy looked at me as if I was crazy, sped up and disappeared,” Merril recounted.

“Do you realise what you said?” asked Tsozo, another  Mongolian guide. “You asked him: “Can I borrow a comb? What you meant to say was saIn baina uu. That’s the phrase for how are you?” The laughter lasted a long time. The memories will last for ever. Thanks to MRO and everyone in the group and in the camp. It was unforgettable.

 

FISHING IN PATAGONIA WITH EINSTEIN AND THE DALAI LAMA

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A silvery brown trout on my first day fishing a Spring Creek.

 I walked into the Lodge, a beautiful wooden structure planted on a slope overlooking a luscious lake and jagged, snowy peaks beyond. Every seat, nook and table had been placed so that guests could drink in the Patagonian landscape and breathe its intoxicating air. The windows were tall and wide, the 180-degree view from them breath-taking, in the proper sense of the phrase. After 10 days in Tierra del Fuego’s barren Patagonian wastes, this new landscape in Argentina had a soothing, sedative kind of beauty. The Kau Taupen wilderness had forced me to tighten every physical and metaphysical nerve against the raw wildness of the ever-present wind.

But the beauty of the Tres Valles lodge had the opposite effect, of unbuttoning defences, opening up, breathing in as if airing the soul after a winter’s confinement. I had chosen it as an antidote to my sortie into Tierra del Fuego in search of giant Sea Trout. And also, because it seemed to offer regular fly fishing for trout, in which I am much more versed. A part of me saw it as compensation in case I blanked at Kau Taupen. I didn’t.

So, my first thought as I looked over the lake after a three-hour drive from Esquel airport was akin to that feeling you got on birthdays or Christmas when gift-wrapped surprises tumble into your lap, a veritable embarrassment of riches. Is this all for me? And for the dozens of baseball-capped anglers in cargo pants and rain jackets who jostled with me at the carousel for their rod tubes? Not one of them had come to Tres Valles. They had all been absorbed by other lodges, other captivating landscapes. I was alone.

IS ANYBODY HOME?

Once my bags had been dropped in my vast bedroom, I hunted around for other guests. There weren’t any, it seemed. There was nobody at home apart from some friendly kitchen staff with even less English than my Spanish. But I did manage to work out that the other six people staying there were from France, including the owner a French businessman. So I settled in on the veranda, and drank in the view while reading the Guests’ book, which was exhilarating. So many people, so many fish, so much joy.

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Water and wilderness, everywhere you looked

As the sun began to set the others began to return. Bruno, the owner, his wife and small son and three other fishermen from France. We fenced around in English for a few minutes and then slipped into French, which was to become our language for an entire sociable week.  I’ve never been sure of the real perceptions the two nations hold of each other. The French call the Brits les rosbifs and the Brits call the French the frogs. But I had studied French at university and have an on-off love affair with France, and once our national guards slipped, the conversation flowed easily around the fire, dinner table and veranda.

It was greatly assisted when I identified as a Brit who does not believe in Brexit. Bugger Brexit and Bugger Boris do not translate exactly into French, but it wasn’t necessary. Around the table the collective dismay at Britain’s capacity for self-harm washed over any well-chosen phrase I could utter. We were as united in our horror as we were galvanised by our love of fishing, and the fishing, they all said, was pretty good. The rivers were low but the climate stable, they said. Even a rosbif might get a few. We fenced about rugby, which both countries love; about food, which both countries love; and about trout fishing. One of men at the table regularly fished the same French waters that the legendary Charles Ritz did in the 1930s. A great deal united us in convivial enjoyment. Very little separated us.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

I awoke in a vast bed with my curtains open on a slice of landscape that resembled views in Switzerland, Rwanda and Scotland. Hills rolled and I knew there would be streams in the folds between; clouds played peek-a-boo with mountain tops; the lodge lawn sloped gently to a vast lake. At the edges, there was the occasional dimple from a rising trout.

Dinner had been a common sizing-up, as happens at any fishing lodge around the first drink or meal. And we had found commonality in a love of landscape and fishing, and the ease that comes with being settled in, and at the mercy of, nature all around us. We were different heights, girths, ages and nationalities, but we were happy to be together in this place, each one at ease with its boundless beauty and possibilities.

The first day with a fishing guide is much the same, probing each other for common and uncommon areas. Miguel, my guide for the week, talked to me as we drove about the Rio Pisco system and what it had to offer. We settled on our first outing on a small river with occasional pools and drove up and down well-worn tracks, each peak offering a new people-free landscape, each trough offering glimpses of streams and creeks. It was nearly too much. There was a moment, on that first day, when I would have settled for a picnic on a hillside to gaze around at all the vast greenery and shimmering water.

But I doubt Miguel would have settled for that. He was (and is) an avid, addicted fisherman. While I was seeing paradise at every turn of the track, he was seeing fishing possibilities. One of the beauties of central Patagonia in Argentina and in Chile is the sheer abundance of fishable water.  Lakes, wide rivers, small rivers, rocky streams, spring creeks, and even ditches, they all hold trout which have thrived since their introduction 50 or more years ago. Miguel  gave me a bewildering choice on my first day. I opted for a river an hour’s drive away. “It’s low, but there are good pools,” he promised.

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Low, but with good pools

And so it was. Low with good pools. We scrambled down a rocky hillside to a narrow river showing its bones. No fish were rising. We put a small nymph on my five-weight and walked upstream.  I caught a couple of small fish on the way but, more importantly, seemed to satisfy Miguel that I was a fairly capable fisherman. And on the way back, to his delight, I nailed a beautiful three-pound brown trout. And then, in a tiny spring creek with about nine inches of water, another of more than four pounds. And then another. Even bigger. The sun shone. The air was fragrant and cool. Water music accompanied our bankside lunch. I felt no need to rush or hurry. It was a perfect first day.

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A bonny first fish on the first day

THE DALAI LAMA MAKES A SURPRISE APPEARANCE

Although it’s an outdoor thing, in which the unknowns of weather, water and wind are key, an organised fishing holiday is usually assembled around the knowable, earthly business of eating three times a day. Good company and conversation are part of it. The lodges vie to describe the excellence of their cuisine (very few talk about “cooking” or “food”) and wines. But the unspoken pitch here is people around a table telling stories and enjoying the company.

Breakfast is like settling down in the theatre before the curtain rises.  There is a lot of snatched and impatient conversation because the audience wants the show to start. Lunch is an interlude for reflection with the guide on the drama witnessed, a pause in which to reassess and come to conclusions that only the resumption of the play will prove true or false.

Dinner is that moment when the show is over, the curtain has fallen, and the actors acknowledge the applause and either bask in their success or go through the motions and feel, secretly in most cases, the pain of failure.

The drama was good all week, one poor day notwithstanding. That was when Miguel took me up a small and low stream to sight fish with a tiny dry fly for rising trout. I just couldn’t manage to land the fly in the right place because it’s not a style of fishing I do very often. And my eyes are as old as me.

Such was Miguel’s commitment that he took every miss, every failed cast, personally, cursed all manner of donkeys and women at the top of his voice and generally made me feel like a bumbling 69-year-old novice, which I suppose I am in many ways.

But it’s not a day that stands out in my memories. There were two lakes on the map which offered monster fish and relatively lazy fishing from his inflatable boat. On both waters I made my acquaintance with the Dalai Lama, a black streamer sometimes called the Dolly Lama. It’s apparently a fly from Alaska but, like the Dalai Lama himself, worked an awful long way from home. And in all the time I was there I never saw another fisherman on the water.

On one lake I caught the biggest Brook Trout I have ever seen. Lots of them. They pounced out of the weeds to grab the Dalai Lama like herons snaffling fry. Each fish seemed bigger than the last and my biggest was more than five pounds. It came to the net like an innocent being dragged before a firing squad. It just never gave up on the injustice of it all. I was elated. Miguel was circumspect. “There are much bigger ones,” he said. I felt he was leaving something unspoken and let it rest there.

IN SEARCH OF MOBY BROWN

And there was a second lake which contained monster Brown and Rainbow Trout. As we rowed over the shallows in bright sunlight, I could see logs on the sand at the bottom, except that these logs had fins and moved.  Miguel said there was one legendary Brown that he had seen in the shallows on our first visit.

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End of another memorable day. Miguel disassembles the boat. I watch.

We called it Moby Trout. The first time I caught him he stripped line off my reel so fast that it became a blur in my hands. Then the handle of my reel caught in my jacket, the line went tight and then pinged back towards me. The Dalai Lama caught me in the chest. Miguel invoked several parts of the male anatomy, one or two deities, my mother and some farmyard animals before he calmed down.

We went back to hunt for it on my last day.  A couple of “smaller” trout intervened – they were Rainbows and Browns weighing about five/six pounds, but our quarry was almost twice that size. We saw him jump once behind us and turned the boat round and edged towards the spot. I cast. I hooked it. It came out of the water like a missile and then ripped off line and backing as it headed for the reeds.

“Let it run, don’t try to stop it, let it run,” Miguel was yelling. “Keep the reel away from your jacket. Don’t touch anything, just let it go.”  So I let it run and it headed for a stretch of bulrushes. “Let it go into the weeds, we can follow it,” yelled Miguel bending his back into the oars to head for the weeds and catch up with the runaway monster.

And then the line suddenly whipped back towards us both. Moby Trout was off, again. I reeled in my line apologetically, in silence. Miguel found some parts of the male anatomy that he had missed in his previous outburst. He also questioned my manhood and parental antecedents.

He leant across  the boat to grab the fly.  The Dalai Lama has a black body and trailing hook attached by a piece of wire. The hook was no longer there. Only half of the fly came back. The remainder was in Moby Trout’s jaws. The fly had simply snapped in half. Some kind of honour was restored. I felt reprieved. The firing squad had shot blanks. Ten minutes later I caught the biggest Rainbow Trout I have ever landed. Miguel rowed us to the shore so we could net it safely. Eight pounds? Ten pounds? I neither know nor care. I held it in the shallows until it regained its poise and with one contemptuous flick of its enormous tail, it was gone, leaving a metre of shimmering wake.

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Nice doesn’t say it. Miguel poses my Rainbow

 

I called a halt to the fishing and Miguel rowed us across the lake to our car, where he disassembled the boat and packed our gear. I sat on a tussock looking out over the water,  drinking hot coffee and smoking cigarettes. My whole body was tingling with a sense of well-being. I drank the moment as much as the coffee. In my consciousness there was not a single dark place, snag or regret where my mind could go. There was only the feeling of being enormously lucky, deeply content, and in awe of it all.

DID EINSTEIN FISH?

 Months later I sat on a tussock in Essex, England, with my son Lewis. He had driven me from his home to show me all the greenery and nature that exists around the place where he and his girlfriend, Sam,  have made home. It was a warm summer’s afternoon. We looked out over meadows and across forests to a distant town and said very little. Not much needed saying. He is proud at having chosen a home near London which can still boast trees and water. I am proud that these are choices he has made, but which reflect my choices too.

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Lewis and Sam

Before we parted, he gave me a novel to read, a Crime/Thriller that I’d missed, and promised it would keep me occupied while I flew back to Dubai. It did. It’s one helluva good read. Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley. But in it I came across some quotes by Albert Einstein, the father of relativity, and someone I had always thought might be a bit dull and scientific. Not a bit of it. I was wrong.

“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism,” he wrote. I know I have feelings of that order when I fish, which is a key reason why I do it. I also checked out the Dalai Lama since he was so much a part of Tres Valles for me.

“We need to learn to want what we have, not to have what we want, in order to get stable and steady happiness,” he said. He also had some words which seem appropriate in this age of greed and waste. “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”

Thank you: Tres Valles, the Dalai Lama, Albert Einstein, and my son.

AJH/Dubai/2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ROD LENGTH ANXIETY CURED BY END OF WORLD BREAK

                    

IMG_8701Rod length anxiety stalked me all the way from the Horn of Africa to the windy shores at the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Somewhere between Hargeisa, Dubai, Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, I lost track of time completely. Was it Saturday or Sunday?  But the anxiety over the length of my rod never left me in all those hours of recycled air, movies adapted for showing on airplanes and what would you like to have for breakfast Mr Hill? Breakfast? Didn’t we have that after our two-hour layover in Rio de Janeiro? Full disclosure here. After all, sharing is caring. Shame dies on exposure, etc. I had long planned to go fish for Sea Trout at the Kau Taupen lodge on the banks of the Rio Grande in January, when the fish are usually running upstream to spawn, and being caught. Sea Trout are my preferred quarry and the ones I am used to catching in Ireland weigh at best 4lbs using a slim and light rod that is about nine foot in length, weighs next to nothing and which I can cast with one hand.

Continue reading “ROD LENGTH ANXIETY CURED BY END OF WORLD BREAK”

DROUGHT FISHING IN IRELAND

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.

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The Fishing Guide – diplomat, shrink and human fish-finder

You have to feel for the modern fishing guide. They’re the ones who aren’t wearing the latest Simms, Orvis and Patagonia at the launch site. Their clients are. They’re the ones who don’t strut around with rods in their hand talking about the amazing Peacock Bass in Brazil or the Taimen in Mongolia that took a lure the size of a duckling. Out of all the goretex-ed, felt-booted, baseball-capped, polaroided, khaki-clad people milling around the launch sites, the take-out ramps and the lunch spots, they’re the ones who don’t look like they’re trying to look like fishermen.

Continue reading “The Fishing Guide – diplomat, shrink and human fish-finder”

IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE

 

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Marcelo and I went out with a new guide, Ignacio, one day to show him the ropes. I think he already knew, judging by his first fish.

My son Lewis swears he never said it as we drove to the airport in 1990s Cyprus  to return him and his sister to their home in England. But I distinctly heard him tell himself: “It’s not over until the last minute.” It had been a super, sunny break, and they were leaving while I continued as a journalist in the Middle East. I felt for him. The holiday event was, indeed, at an end but the underlying love that enriched it would continue, and there was the next reunion to plot and plan. I do not think I convinced him.

Continue reading “IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE”

BIG SKY, BIG LAKE, BIG FISH AND BIG-HEARTED BERNARDO

As dusk fell the stars came out above us, the fire roared in front of us and the horses gathered around the blaze because the smoke kept the few insects that roamed the dusk at bay. Less tail swishing needed. Marcelo, my guide, stretched out in front of it all on a log with a beer, said: “Welcome to my office.”

Continue reading “BIG SKY, BIG LAKE, BIG FISH AND BIG-HEARTED BERNARDO”