TO ME ANGLING is a gentle pursuit, having less to do with the slaughter of fish and more to do with processes of fusion. In my search for understanding of trout, their world and the space between us, I often turn to the musings of long-forgotten fisherfolk. And it would seem that our angling ancestors were possessed of remarkable vision and clarity of purpose. Not for them the waffle of modern angling semantics. No tie-in-three-hairs-from-the-nose-of-a-dwarf-albino-ptarmigan type instruction from these guys. They speak in broader terms and stick to the essentials. I deal in facts, and it is fact that the fishing rod was invented about 4000 years ago, just as it is a fact that within 800 years angling had become so common a commerce as to feature regularly in literature. Homer, in Book 24 of his Iliad, proves himself as dab a hand at angling idiom as any other. And Pliny the Elder gave over large chunks of his History of the World to discourse on angling. These are facts, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, or the 25,2 pounds of trout caught by a single angler on three successive casts. It happened like this, and the facts bear witness. Charlie Normal, the well-known angler-scribe-cum-bait-plunker and Bragger MacCann, a reputedly elegant fly-fisherman, were fishing side-by-side. Two more diverse styles could not be found. Charlie prides himself on his ability to cast half-bricks at the end of a 10-weight, but Bragger considers a 4-weight to be too crude a bludgeon. His fly box holds no hook larger than a size 10.
As might be imagined, their philosophic approaches share little in common. Yet for all that, they are friends and fish together from time to time. They argue the merits of their relative styles unceasingly, each claiming for his own approach some specific yet indefinable fish-catching magnetism. Over the years their dialogue has developed into the piscatorial equivalent of nuclear war.
“A fish likes a meal it can see,” says Charlie, heaving his half brick towards a rise. Bragger edges away, muttering about the spooking of trophy fish in the shallows.
“The only way he’ll catch a fish on that rig is to score a direct hit and brain the bugger,” he says to himself, tying down to a 7X tippet.
As I have said, to me angling is a contemplative process, and often as I stand at the water’s edge reflecting on the words of some long-dead angling sage or other, I feel their spirits in the air around me. Their combined wisdom has proven more sure than my Orvis Otter, and that rod is a favourite. The fact is, we had Pliny the Elder with us as we fished that day. Well, not actually Pliny, sort of more his ghost, which, with him being dead and gone these long years, has become quite faint and hard to see. His voice, too, has lost its timbre under the weight of centuries and sounds very like the sighing of the wind through dry reeds. Yet, still, his wit is sharp and his manner is forthright. The better to glean some benefit therefrom, I moved away from the squabbling friends at the waterside. As I moved, a geyser plumed skyward. Charlie’s cast head-crashed into a channel where fish had been rising freely.
“You got to chuck it in his window,” he said sagely as the water went quiet.
Now Charlie is a well-traveled angler. He has fished for marlin and maasbanker, tope and tarpon, Nile perch and three-spot pompano, tigers, trout, bass and bream. He even fishes for carp and vundu barbel, having much to say in their defence. He has been broken up so often by large barbel that it has affected his approach to leader construction. What he calls tippet would serve to stay a tent. When Charlie hooks a trout, it stays hooked. And that’s a fact.
The only fly in this particular ointment, was, however, that we were fishing on this day for wild-spawned rainbows, not your usual hatchery-reared stockie, and Charles was not having much success. Bragger was battling as well. Though picking fish up regularly, his 7X tippet could not hold them through the weed beds, and he dropped four fish in quick succession. He remained calm and tied up to 5X, much to Charlie’s amusement, who was fishing a pattern remarkably similar in shape and size to a pied kingfisher. The wind breathed through the reeds beside me and I turned to listen.
“’Thou then, whilst thine innocence is pure, flee swiftly, nor presume to set thy lure, respect these fishes for their friends are great. And in the water, empty all thy bait.’” It was Pliny, for sure, you can tell his style. He loves to quote from antiquity and has an endless supply of obscure reference with which to underscore his often oblique points.
“Come again?” I asked reverently.
“Martial,” he said. “First century scribe. Wrote pig Latin and ruined the fishing wherever he went. Something like your friend there,” he said, sighing to where Charlie was lashing himself and the water into a froth. “When Martial felt for a bit of fish he took the direct route. Requisitioned a phalanx or two of legionnaires and drained the whole goddam lake. Spoilt the fishing clear through from Carthage to Constantinople.” Bragger could bear the spectacle no longer. He put his rod down and went over to Charlie and took his 10-weight from him.
“This is a very fine rod,” he said. “Good for barbel, Charlie. Nice tarpon rig, but not entirely suitable for trout, Mr. Normal, which appreciate a spot of finesse.” He offered to let Charlie use his 4-weight Western, pointing out patiently that trout possess the rudiments of a brain, unlike those who fish for them with 15-pound fluorescent bass line. Charlie took a good look at Bragger’s braided-butt leader, running the tippet through his fingers till he held the little olive nymph in his hand.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed. “This will never catch a fish. You may hook one but you’ll never land it. And the fly, it’s so small, why bother?” He went back to wielding his nice, new 10-weight.
“’Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’” sighed Pliny in the reeds.
Brevity demands that I say no more than that both Bragger and I, fishing 4X and 5X tippets, caught and released as fair a mess of fish as a rod has a right to. Towards evening we tired of the sport, put our rods down and wandered over to where Charlie doggedly fished. He had changed patterns. No longer did his kingfisher whirr through the air. He had exchanged it for what looked like a pterodactyl.
Poor Charles has a reputation to maintain, and as his friend it grieves me to carry this burden of unalterable fact, but we came upon Charlie in a deep gully, up to his neck almost in water. He was stretched to the full limit of his rod, while just beyond reach floated a very dead 4-pound trout. Charlie was trying for all his worth to snag its gills with his huge arrangement of feathers. Somehow, even this dead fish eluded him. Bragger and I sat quietly on the bank behind him and watched as the drama unfolded. Unaware that he was under scrutiny, the man shook out a goodish length of thick fast-sinking line and attempted to cast it over the trophy bobbing just beyond reach. Three or four times the line flopped over the carcass, which seemed to twist away, as if even in death knowing better than to have anything to do with such crude tackle. It is common knowledge that Charlie — at least as much as and perhaps more than writers in general — is known to be, well, temperamental. As he tried to snag that poor dead fish, his lack of success provoked him to challenge it verbally. “I hate trout fishing,”’ he said pointedly to the fish.
“’Yet fish there be, that neither hook nor line, nor snare, nor net, nor engine can make thine,’” intoned Pliny in his sepulchral way, as a whisper of wind caressed the water.
“How do you mean?” I boldly asked, hoping to draw out old Plinius.
“John Bunyan,” he replied crustily. “From Pilgrim’s Progress. A rollicking screed that you really should read.” “These are ignorant times,” I reminded him, “and I am not familiar with the text.”
“’They must be grop’d for, and tickled too, or they’ll not be caught, whate’er you do,’ he continued crossly. ‘To what sorry pass has this world come, where art is lost and idiots flail the day away at water’s edge?’”
Bragger could contain himself no longer and called out to old Charlie, “Harpoon the mother and have done with it.”
Charlie looked kind of sheepish as he came sloshing back out.
“You guys don’t believe I was going to pretend that I had caught that fish?” asked Charlie, hiding behind his 10-weight. Pliny just laughed and quoted Andrew Lang, “’The spectral fish come and go, the ghosts of trout flit to and fro.’” By now the sun had all but set and Bragger spoke earnestly to Charles.
“Go on Charlie, have a throw. Try a couple of casts.” He rigged his 4-weight with floating line and 4X tippet. To this he added a favourite fly, a floaty, fluffy kind of peacock thing tied on a 16 down-eyed shortshank.
“Just sort of float it out. No need to cast across the lake. Concentrate on lightness and accuracy rather than distance,” said Bragger patiently.
With two whips he laid out 25m of line and the fly settled gently on the water right at the edge of a weedbank. A familiar vee cut the water where a cruising fish turned to intercept the offered morsel. Bragger turned to Charlie beside him and thrust the rod into his hands. Charlie had gone fishless all day and, principle or not, there was no way he could ignore the wave cutting towards a fly attached to a rod he was holding. Dropping his nice new 10-weight he tensed to meet the imminent take.
“Gentle, Charlie. That’s a big fish and your tippet is thin,” reminded Bragger as the fish turned with the fly. Charlie set the hook and the game was on.
It is a fact that Charles Normal is an angler of renown. Despite his disbelief in fragile tippets he fought that fish around the lake. Run after run stripped line from his reel, but each time Charlie skillfully worked the fish till it lay exhausted at his feet.
“Pure fluke,” he said disdainfully, as I netted the 8-pound trout. “The fish must be sick,” he said as I released the exquisite rainbow hen.
All of which did nothing to stop him flicking his fly out towards a cruising fish close in. No sooner had his fly touched the water than it was engulfed. The trout sped off and, gaining the sanctuary of weeds, skulked in the cover. Charlie turned the air blue. He cursed the fish, the rod, the weeds and the lack of 12-pound fluorescent bass line at the end of his leader. Mostly his deprecations were directed at poor old Bragger and myself. To hear him tell it, his predicament was entirely our fault. Had we not deprived him of his 10-weight, why, he could have just winched that old fish out of there.
“Had we not deprived you of your 10-weight, you would still have been wondering where the fish were,” said Bragger, losing patience. “Just keep a gentle steady pressure and be ready for the run.”
Sure enough, the fish eventually moved and was soon swinging from the scale. “Ten-and-a-half pounds,” sang I.
As Charles lifted his line for a third cast Bragger stopped him.
“Better replace your tippet, Charlie. You’ve caught 18 pounds of fish on that one and it has earned retirement.”
“Wouldn’t need to do that with my 10-weight,” said Charlie petulantly, as he allowed Bragger to snip off the old frail end. In no time his tippet was reconstructed and into the falling gloom he sent his fly. The tiny hook settled into the surface film and was soon lost to all but the keenest sight.
The wind had fallen clean away, leaving the water glassy and still. Charlie was all for skeetering the fly back in at about 8 knots, but we prevailed upon him to leave it out there, still, except for an occasional twitch. A puff of air arose over the water and in the riffled surface the fly was lost.
“I can’t see anything,” whined Charles from beneath a blanket of mosquitoes.
“’Leave us your rod,’” muttered Pliny in the dry grasses. “’This is not thy profession. Thou must hunt after conquering of realms and countries.’”
“Isn’t that from Plutarch’s Life of Antonius?” I asked, proud that I knew.
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” old Plinius admonished.
I stared off at where memory said the fly should be, and though seeing nothing, some instinct made me cry out, “Strike, now!” Charlie set the hook as a swirl and splash announced the take. He was into his third fish in as many casts and beginning to be unpleasantly smug about the whole affair. By the time the fish of 6,7 pounds had been netted, night had taken a solid hold. Charlie, however, took a good deal of convincing that we should call it a day.
“Last cast,” he insisted.
We both ducked as his line whined overhead in the dark. Divine justice had him soon snagged on his back cast and he had to break off. We prevailed upon him to pack it in and endured his unbearable high spirits all the way back to camp.
“Must get me one of those itty-bitty little rods,” he said over and over.
When last I saw him, he was scuttling around town trying to locate a one-weight rig. “Are you sure they don’t make zero-weight?” he asked, hefting a delicate little river rod in a tackle parlour.
“They do, they do,” I assured him, but for the rest I kept my peace, remembering Pliny’s final words to me at the waterside. He had quoted the Bishop of venerable Durham itself, saying “’Nil illegitmi carborundum.’”1
And what that means is as plain as the nose on your face.
1 Translation: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”