POISSON D’AVRIL ON THE RIVER ARGIDEEN

 

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Peter Wolstenhome and I fishing together in April 2017

The thing driving the rental car down dark Irish country roads at midnight wasn’t the diesel engine. Not entirely. It was my expectation that in the warm perfumed hours after midnight, Sea Trout would be entering the river Argideen through the estuary my home looks over. And that I would land one to make my homecoming float the realm of the perfect dream. I hadn’t fished the river since April, and with sparse result then.But the thought of the whole month of June in which to fish, a prime month in the life cycle of both fish and fisherman, acted like an autopilot. I had a quick look at the river – it was high and the tide was pushing the river up –  went home and unpacked and was back at the water’s edge at 0330 a.m., about an hour before sunrise.

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Just after sunrise on my first day. A low river. And no fish.

Everything felt script-perfect; the air was warm; the river was pushing its way to the ocean; an otter family peeped and splashed on the opposite bank.  I cast my fly into the darkness and waited for that tug that turns the angler into a human electricity conductor. It didn’t come. As the sun made its warmth felt and light leeched into the darkness, I tried a few spinning lures, with the same result. Nothing. Back home at the cottage, intending to cull my inbox, I fell asleep on the couch, and was woken by a call from Peter Wolstenholme, my fishing companion and guru. “There’s no fish in the river,” said Peter, a little disconsolately. “They are either very late this year or have run straight through on a couple of brief floods we’ve had. It’s all very strange and disappointing.”

Disappointment doesn’t trump expectation, especially when you’ve travelled thousands of miles to your “home” river. It does take the keen edge off hope, but it doesn’t blunt it completely. Not even if you believe only 50% that “it’s not about the catching, it’s about the fishing.” So, on that very same morning, a pattern took shape that was repeated for almost the whole of June, a pattern that revolved mostly around my confidence in a river system I’ve known for 25 years. Every morning and evening I checked the weather forecast to see if it might rain, as it normally does in most Irish summers. But the digital weather soothsayers were far from encouraging. Usually a downpour raises the river level and encourages Sea Trout and Salmon to start their journey upstream.  But no downpours were expected for a while. Suddenly the expression “not a cloud on the horizon” seemed ominous. Every morning and evening, and sometimes around midday too, depending on tides, I went to the river and walked the lower pools to see if the fish had decided to come and await a flood before heading upriver; and every day I reported on our network of mobile phone contacts and social media that “there are no fish in the river.” Even when the rain crashed out of the skies for a day, the river rose very little and was still so clear you could count the stones on the bottom. But not the fish, because there were none to be seen.

One day it poured down, not quite when the weather gurus said it would, but who cared? And the river rose and turned muddy and fast while hopes rose at the same pace as the river. But the next day the river was just a little higher, as clear Ballygowan mineral water and utterly devoid of fish. Except – in my case – for one small Brown Trout that I swear I caught last year in the same place.

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Didn’t we meet here exactly one year ago?

Eric Long, another fishing friend and guru, wondered if the fish had been hoovered out of the ocean by industrial fishing ships. Others asked if they had somehow been netted by poachers. There were others, too, who thought and talked about climate change and the warming of the oceans as a possible culprit. The truth is that nobody knew except the fish, and they weren’t saying. There was one inescapable fact. Ireland (and much of Europe) was having a proper let’s-go-for-a-swim summer. The press was full of records and projections. Shops ran out of Ice cream. The sun beamed down as my visiting sister Joanna and I toiled on the patio garden.  Looking out from my kitchen window you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the Mediterranean.

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A view from my kitchen window during Ireland’s summer.

It was a bona fide heat wave. Always green, even in a drought, West Cork looked lush, fecund and positively spoilt for sunlight and water in equal measures. The hedgerows became hedgegrows.  There were people in shorts in Clonakilty’s main street and the garden centres were overgrown with customers and carts awash with colour.

But the belief the fish would come, that I would make contact with at least one mysterious bolt of silver from the deep, kept my sense of expectation high. Joanna and i , worked on my cottage, visited garden centres, and gave ourselves a day off from weeding and furniture varnishing and went whale-watching with West Cork Whale Watch .(www.whalewatchwestcork.com).   

Whale watching is a relatively new thing for West Cork but the incredible number of specimens you can see was listed on a poster on the board of Colin Barnes’ comfortable catamaran as we headed out under cloudless skies.

The stars of the show, the Humpback whales which breach and crash and show their massive tails, were somewhere further down the coast and many of the other specimens are not so ostentatious in their stage show.But Joanna and I were treated to lots of Minke whales and a circus of performing dolphins and seals. An unforgettable day. But not exactly what I needed out of the ocean.

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An amazing number of species can be seen.
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Joanna watches Minke whales.

The fish still failed to be seen. The river association held a clearing party to clear overgrown paths and banks for its small band of anglers. It was a jolly and industrious afternoon and left our riverbank looking positively Capability Brown, rather than photographer Mike Brown, who blazed a barber’s trail through the grass of the famous Bridge pool.

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The Bridge pool bank gets a Mike Brown haircut

During that exercise under a bright sun, people reported seeing a few fish, some of them young Salmon or Peel.

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Members of the clearing party at work, and looking for fish

The network buzzed with facts, fancy and speculation. Suddenly anglers started turning up for the draw for pools, a time-honoured gathering at Inchy bridge about half an hour before dark. I couldn’t work out whether it was excessive hope over experience or better fish-spotting, because I had only counted one Peel and three fish in weeks of Polaroid perusing. I fished a couple of nights, without a touch.  And told myself that the fish would be there before I no longer was, towards the first week of July.

One night I was supposed to meet Peter at the bridge to fish and chat but was too tired from an afternoon of shunting stones and earth around my tiny plot. So, I didn’t go at the allotted hour, which found me asleep instead.

The next morning, I got a message from him saying “Where were you last night. Haven’t you seen my picture on Facebook mssenger? ” The question turned my imagination into a froth of excitement. If anyone is going to take a fish on the Argideen, even in a fallow year, it’s the Yorkshireman with the Heron hair-do and the off-white car coat and green rubber boots. The answer came after a few nervous minutes in the shape of a photograph of three beautiful young sea trout arranged on a kitchen counter for a trophy photograph. Not big, but “schoolies” or “juniors” making their first foray back to their place of birth.

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I was too impatient and excited to continue the conversation over WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, and rang Peter straight away.

“Where did you get those fish.” I asked.

“About halfway up the Big Flats pool between midnight and one a.m.” he replied.

“What did they take?” said I.

“One of me’ golden ball flies with a bit of silver in it,” he said.

“Terrific,” I replied. “Will you be going up the river tonight.”

“Probably not,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked with surprise. Few fish with Peter’s boundless appetite.

“I’ve really got you going now, haven’t I? ” said Peter. “Those  fish in the photo are ones I caught last year. ”

“You BASTARD,” said I.

And made arrangements for an alternative fishing expedition. For one brief moment there, all my hope and expectation had run amok, only to be crushed by the truth.

April Fool jokes are supposed to do that too. Is this why, in French, they are called a Poisson D’avril?

 

  • AJH.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TROUT FISHING IN SOMALILAND

There isn’t any. Misleading title. 5Sorry. It’s called a hook and is supposed to grab your attention.  Think of it as an attractor. There are no trout in Somaliland or its southern neighbour, Somalia, but watch this space later this year when I go to fish trout of Bale mountains in neighbouring Ethiopia .(http://www.balemountainlodge.com/index.html). Southern Africa’s trout wealth is fairly well documented, but East Africa’s much less so.

Aidan Hartley, the author of the excellent Zanzibar Chest and former colleague at Reuters, once said I seemed to specialist in postings to countries with low-key conflict and good trout fishing. He made this remark in Kenya, which hosts some wonderful river fishing, high-altitude lakes and a lineage of introduced trout dating back to the start of the last century. There are, or perhaps were, trout in Kenya’s neighbour, Uganda as well as in Tanzania, the legacy of colonial sporting appetites. Not so well known is that a certain fishing enthusiast put trout in rivers in southern Sudan, although I wouldn’t recommend going there at the moment. It may constitute good East African trout fishing but its conflict is hardly low-key. The nearest I get to fishing in Hargeisa is the fish shop I pass on my daily bumpy drive to and from town.

It’s work, not fish, that bring me to Somaliland. I teach communications to the government and try to help the media too.

It’s uplifting to witness this unrecognised state thrive in complete contrast to Somalia, from which it declared independence in 1991.

Somaliland has been spared the chaos, anarchy and power-hungry clan feuds that have wrecked Somalia over the past 25 years. I’ve spent time in both and consider myself lucky to be working to help Somaliland consolidate growth that has brought it democratic elections, a currency, a flag, a noisy free press, admirable judicial system and a national identity founded on dialogue between clans and peoples, not ruinous rivalry. The capital grows apace and traffic jams are commonplace. It’s a friendly, knockabout town to walk around.

Central to daily life is the mild narcotic leaf Khat, which is flown in fresh daily from the upland hillsides of Ethiopia. It’s chewed, usually in the afternoons, and gives you a mild buzz.  Men in the 3.5 million population spend in excess of $800 million a year “chewing.” An astonishing amount of money in a country suffering acute drought that has impoverished hundreds of thousands of its estimated 600,000 nomads and killed their all-important livestock.img_0417 Khat is sold in licenced green kiosks all over the place and consumed in the shade of a tree, at home, or in one of the hundreds of street cafes offering not just coffee but the Somali staple of warm, sweet tea. The economy runs on camels.  And goats. Livestock exports to the Gulf are the backbone of the economy and the two beasts form the major part of the daily diet, with rice. Both can be lovely if well cooked, but take getting used to.

Camel’s milk, “Somali Viagra” in the words of my driver, is dense and slightly bitter. Camels and goat roam everywhere, some camels displaying the cell phone numbers of their owners. I shared counter space at my local kiosk this week with two goats chewing discarded crisp packets. Like all development workers here I travel in a 4X4 with a bodyguard and under strict security rules, not that I’ve ever had a problem.

I spend about 160 days a year in Hargeisa and feel privileged to see progress happen. It’s not perfect and Somalilanders know it, but that elusive quality, hope, is written large on the faces of the boys and girls I see going to school every day, or in the warm welcome I get from ordinary people, many of whom have lived or have relatives who have lived, in Britain, Netherlands, Norway, Canada, America and the Middle East.  Somalis have always been mobile world citizens. They view themselves as part of the bigger world because of that.

Much of the economy is oiled by remittances from the diaspora through electronic banking and mobile phone transfer. The shared language and culture is a thing that binds, rather than divides. So too is a love of song and poetry.  One of its most famous singers is Sarah Halgan, who runs and performs at the Hido Dawr cultural village, a collection of thatched tukuls where we also train. There are trendy cafes in town too, displaying the taste of Western style the diaspora has imported.

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The world may not yet recognise Somaliland’s independence, but Somalilanders recognise their place in the world at large.  They are proud of their passports, but need second ones for international travel because nobody accepts them. When I stand in line to fly to and from Hargeisa, I am always struck by the variety of passports Somalilanders use to visit relatives overseas and in Somaliland. I was queuing behind two young women in traditional dress brandishing Canadian passports at the airport and overheard the following:

Question: “How did you enjoy coming back to see the relatives?”

Answer.    “It was lovely to see everyone and Hargeisa’s really coming up. I had some nice camel and goat but can’t wait to get home and have a cheeseburger.”

img_0649But there is no freshwater fishing. Most fishermen get antsy about the end or the start of a fishing season, but here there is none. So, I live in a perpetual state of antsy-ness. I’ve yet to cast a line in Somaliland’s s vast offshore waters but will someday.  I whet my appetite for fly fishing while I am here through the most important fishing gadget invented in my lifetime – the Internet.  What’s the use of the latest breathable waders, gravity-defying rod, aerodynamic lines or power block reels if you can’t irrigate your field of dreams with stories and pictures of the places you want to go? And the Internet is where I find it all.

The quality of online fishing video these days is extraordinary, and I’d far rather spend a lazy afternoon watching Venturing Angler or Catch Magazine than turn on the TV and consume stale news or recycled movies. The Net has replaced the catalogues and brochures I used to send off for in the days of snail mail. Instant gratification may not be good for the soul – there is virtue in patience, as all fishermen know – but it’s hard to travel the world, as I do, with kilos of glossy brochures or even paperback books to keep me nourished with the stuff of dreams. Thank heavens for Kindle too. In the past few months I’ve read many books, some of them for a second time, whilst plotting my next adventures – Ireland, Ethiopia, Chile, Kenya and Denmark are in my sights for the next 12 months. The Internet also keeps me close to the many fishing personalities I have encountered, especially in the United States, and the way the USA uses the web on fishing information is outstanding: last night I was checking real-time water temperatures on half a dozen Montana rivers and wondering whether Wade Fellin at Big Hole lodge (www.flyfishinglodge.com)  was crunching snow beneath his wading boots and casting #22 midges through icy guides.

And there are the blogs too, which carry the authentic voice that speaks within every angler about the things he or she loves. Those voices are, to me, like the sound of running water, a link to a deeper life and the endless possibility of surprise.

Below are some of things I’ve struck at wading the Internet from the hot and dusty capital of this Horn of Africa state.  This is a very short list. You can do your own wading.

Some fishing websites/videos

And just about anything on a fishing word search throws up on www.Youtube.com

Blogs

Some Books on Kindle

  • Blood Knots- Luke Jennings
  • Love Madness Fishing- Dexter Petley
  • The Habit of Rivers – Ted Leeson
  • Somewhere else – Charles Rangeley-Wilson
  • The Orvis Fishing Guide – Tom Rosenbauer (Just updated and even better)
  • A river never sleeps – Roderick L. Haig-Brown

And absolutely anything and everything by John Gierach

(https://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Gierach/e/B000APBVVM/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1487063317&sr=1-2-ent)

Some books not on Kindle

  • Salmon Trout and Char of the World (Rupert Watson)
  • The Trout: A fisherman’s natural history (Rupert Watson)
  • The Longest Silence (Thomas Mcguane)
  • Faithful Travellers (James Dodson)
  • Love, Madness Fishing (Dexter Petley)

Wade safely, but wade often! – Andy

“I’ll never leave Montana, Little Brother”

We were seven and five and fishing a Hong Kong reservoir with our parents. Dad had parked our Ford Esquire station wagon at the top of a short slope leading down to the water where Simon, alone in his shorts and tee shirt, was trying to coax one more minnow onto his junior fishing outfit. I’d already done the older brother bit and had heeded our parents’ summons to come to the car and eat our sandwiches; but Simon, doing the younger brother bit, pretended not to hear, intent on the bobbing of his red and white float, and the silver fish that its movements betrayed beneath it.

Continue reading ““I’ll never leave Montana, Little Brother””

LAST CASTS TO THE WIND

It’s that crossroads moment where past, present, future and right now compete. The last day. The last change of fly. The last walk down the meadow. The last cast. It’s that moment when the fisherman juggles finality and future, hoping to keep both in the air; to treasure what has been without sadness, and to look forward to more of it in the uncertain time to come.thumb_DSC03649_1024.jpgI guess it’s the same with all holidays, those weeks we ring fence for real living, as opposed to the robotic daily quest for the money to finance the real thing. One cannot exist without the other. I suspect, but do not know, that we can only elevate and value the richness of life if we also know some of its drudgery and pain, its hamster wheel repetitions and frequent, flatline rhythms. Continue reading “LAST CASTS TO THE WIND”

CHILLING, CAMP FIRES AND CUTTHROAT

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I awoke one night in my tent with a strange feeling of dislocation, of something being wrong. No dream had woken me. Nor was it anything outside my nylon shelter, no animal moving. But my nervous connections were short-circuiting and the sparks had spiked my slumber. It took a couple of minutes for me to work out what ailed me. It was the cold. I was dammned cold. I’d wrestled myself out of my sleeping bag in the night and the cold had taken its place, wrapping me so tight in high-altitude chill that I could not feel my fingers. I talked to George about it as we both huddled over the morning campfire, tin mugs of coffee warming our clenched hands. “At this altitude I guess there’s less oxygen to the brain,” he said. “So it took you a while to work out you were freezing. Either that or you are going crazy.”

Continue reading “CHILLING, CAMP FIRES AND CUTTHROAT”

THE GANG OF THREE HITS THE TRAIL.

The bells on returning horses awoke me in my cabin cocoon. The sun was suggesting itself through the curtains. I could hear the ranch hands chivvying the stock into the corral for their morning feed after a night out in the open, grazing on the grassland between the forests. My breath was visible. It was damn cold. But the water in the sink tap hadn’t frozen. By the time I had pulled on thermal underwear, my Orvis fleece pants and a pair of jeans, I realized with a start that I was not bum-sore or bent double or stiffer than a frozen chicken. No more than I might have been after a long drive.

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MY CARRY-ON LUGGAGE OUTSIDE MY CABIN. THE REST GOES ON PACK HORSES.

I walked down the frosted slope to the ranch house, where the Diamond 4 cast of permanent, occasional and volunteer staff was already buzzing. I was their last guest of the season, but there was work to do getting some of the horses to lower pasture for the winter, and setting up a winter camp for the hunters. And getting a team of four horses ready to ride out to our wilderness camp for the next few nights. The spangled slopes around us were aglow with russet and gold.

Continue reading “THE GANG OF THREE HITS THE TRAIL.”

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BRANDY AFTER BREAKFAST

If you’ve seen City Slickers and/or smuggled excess Duty Free through airport customs, then you’ll have some idea of how I felt as I drove from Jackson towards Lander to drive up to Jim and Mary Allen’s Diamond 4 Ranch in the Wind River Range. City Slickers shows what happens when aging men raised on TV westerns go to a “Dude” ranch. Embarrassment. And if you’ve ever been caught trying to get more than your allowance through Customs, then you’ll know what I mean. Shame. Humiliation. Cringe.

The road up to the ranch left the world of metaled roads and sell-everything gas stations behind, winding into the 2,800 square miles of mountains that make up the Wind River Range. My instructions from the website were immaculate. Just as well. Google maps, the Internet, electricity and phone signals stopped about an hour up the track. Continue reading “BRANDY AFTER BREAKFAST”

MAN IN SPACE

This isn’t Disneyworld. The mission statement of the National Park Service is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” It’s for walking, hiking, biking, riding, fishing……or just sitting on a bench inhaling the scent of space. You may find the holiday months of August busy on the roads to, from and inside the Parks, and there is pressure on camping space too. But the amount of available wilderness is so vast that as soon as you put an hour or too into your walking boots, you are pretty much on your own. And the further you go the more on your own you are. Continue reading “MAN IN SPACE”

AMERICAN PASTORAL – FISH IN SPACE

For me New York is theatre. You are either on stage, performing, or you are in the audience, watching. Either way the theatre is packed elbow to elbow and the only way out is physical relocation. I had planned my escape from New York for months before arriving in Manhattan for a brisk few days’ work. I would fly to Wyoming and ride a horse into the Winds Mountains and fish in remote lakes and rivers; then a few days with friends in Livingston Montana before a week at a smart Orvis lodge. And to end the five-week adventure, ten days on the shores of the Puget Sound, fishing for wild specimens in the salt. Continue reading “AMERICAN PASTORAL – FISH IN SPACE”

MENDING MY LINES

It took my gamekeeper grandfather more than a day to journey from Skye to Kent, a distance of 700 miles. He, and my diminutive Gaelic-speaking grandmother, took multiple buses and trains when they were forced to exchange tending Scottish highland salmon and grouse for rearing pheasants in the “garden of England.” I wonder how he felt, chivvying what were little more than pet chickens with attitude into the paths of men in tweeds wielding 12-bore shotguns that cost more than his yearly salary.

It took me less than a day to swap a sumptuous Seychelles sunset for the river music of a flirtatious Irish spring and the healing sight of the tide licking up then down the sands of the estuary in front of my home. It’s a distance of more than 5,000 miles as the crows fly, or would, if they were migratory. Ireland’s full of crows. They are the black confetti strewn by the wind at the wedding of intensive farming and the Irish landscape. Continue reading “MENDING MY LINES”