Blood Knots by Luke Jennings is a book I would commend to any angler. It is a gentle but thought-provoking work about friendship, philosophy and angling. It centres about the author’s relationship with the late Captain Robert Nairac, who was killed whilst working undercover in 1970s Northern Ireland. Both were passionate fishers. It is some time since I read it, but my memory confirms that the author tells of Nairac’s angling philosophy and about the self imposed challenges he put on his fishing. Fishing with an upstream dry fly signified to him all that was good about angling and he was committed to this approach because it demanded discipline and self-sacrifice. I recall a particularly powerful line ‘With the understanding that there was always the hard, right way that was frustrating, costly in both time and effort, but ultimately transcendent.’
I am perhaps less far along my road to achieving angling Zen or transcendence, but I would like to think I am at least on a similar piscatorial road as Nairac as I believe it is where and how you catch your fish that matters more than numbers and weights.
I dislike having to ‘fish ugly’ in order to catch a fish, preferring whenever possible to fish in the most sporting way possible (and to me, this mostly means with a fly rod). I like providing a challenge to be overcome whether this be by fly fishing in the sea for Pollock (not the easiest way to catch them – but certainly the most fun), dry fly fishing for wild loch trout in remote lochans or fishing the fly for salmon when others are chucking out the metalwork.
Now, before I am accused of being judgemental of those choosing to fish in other ways rather than with a fly rod and being snobbish about angling methods, I must state that I am also a pragmatist who enjoys all forms of fishing. As it happens, I dislike the snobbery often associated with fly anglers and would argue that there is often far more skill involved in catching a carp in a heavily fished lake that there is in pulling out recently stocked rainbows from some commercial fishery. Each to their own however – variety is indeed the spice of life. But, for me, I always seem to enjoy my angling journey more when I am travelling with a fly rod as my companion.
At the end of last season I had a wonderful day on the Upper Redgorton beat of the Tay. What made my day so special was not only catching a fish on the fly when many others had turned to other ‘dark arts’, but crucially it was the ambience of the outing, in the company of Alan Rennie and Louis Hansen, like-minded souls and good company, who manifestly respected the river and their quarry. Mike Hay, the very engaging young gillie, also added to the day being so memorable – his enthusiasm and patience at my lack of skill were much appreciated. The fact that the successful fly was one I had tied 20 years or so previously in my first ever batch of self-tied salmon flies was very much a bonus; reminding me once again that fish don’t read angling books and are just as likely to take hold of a 20-year-old general practitioner as they are the latest ‘must-have’ cone head/turbo disc concoction.
Our lunch-time conversation would hopefully have pleased both Jennings and Nairac as we discussed the rewards of not ‘fishing ugly’.
Shortly after this venture and with these sentiments very much in mind, I was to have three days on the River Earn at Kinkell in almost the last days of its season. I had the first two days with my best pal Sean Elliott before we were to be joined on the Saturday by four other pals in one last ‘hurrah’ before putting our rods away for the winter. Sean, more usually a wild trout aficionado, had yet to catch a salmon and so that was to be the main effort of our three day’s assault. He was determined to succeed in this quest but wished to remember his first fish falling to the fly and so, despite the water being high for all three days (thus arguably favouring spinning), that is how he would fish. No fishing ugly for this ex-Ghurkha officer.
For the first two days with the water high but in fine fettle, we fished hard and with optimism but sadly with no success except for a brace of modest sea-trout each. Saturday was to see the river swollen and coloured – so apart from the great company of our other pals – any success, let alone to the fly, seemed very unlikely. Sandy, our well-kent and pragmatic ghillie, opined that our best chance of a fish would be to chuck out the metalwork and hope to intercept a running fish: and to that end we might as well all fish within the short stretch of the beat he deemed best for this tactic.
With the six of us fishing within 100 metres of each other, spirits were kept high with a fine level of bankside banter and I confess I succumbed to Sandy’s advice becoming one of the five chucking out a variety of spoons and plugs. Sean, either made of sterner stuff or his time in Nepal giving him greater appreciation of angling Zen, continued to fly fish with some pseudo Cascade I had tied for him before our trip.
It was entirely fitting therefore, that the sole fish that fell to our rods that day – and within the last hour of fishing time – came to the Zen Master, Sean. His reward for not fishing ugly was a bright silver cock grilse and memories that will live forever. As I rushed over to congratulate Sean, I thought again of Nairac’s words: ‘There was always the hard, right way that was frustrating, costly in both time and effort, but ultimately transcendent’. The rewards for not ‘fishing ugly’ are indeed great.