A Fly Fisherman’s Days With Dog and Gun

Days With Dog and Gun, Book Review by Mark Hume

Jack Hemingway used to say that his idea of the perfect day was to go steelhead fishing at first light, hunt for grouse during the mid-day, and then go back to the water as evening fell. Swapping a fly rod for a gun is a natural thing. Both require delicate eye hand coordination, and swinging a perfectly balanced shotgun on a flushed bird focuses the heart and mind in much the same way that a cast to a big, rising fish does. It is not surprising then that Bob Salisbury, a frequent contributor of fly fishing articles to A River Never Sleeps.com, has now published a book on his other passion, hunting. For the past decade Bob and his wife, Rosemary, have been developing a wildlife conservation area of lakes, woodland and meadows in the area where they live in Northern Ireland. He writes about fishing for A River Never Sleeps.com and Irish Angler’s Digest, and about hunting for Shooting Times, Sporting Gun, Australian Hunter and Irish Shooter’s Digest.

For all of our readers who love to hunt, we offer the following excerpt from his new book, Days With Dog and Gun, which can be purchased at Amazon.com.

Days With Dog and Gun By Bob Salisbury

Shooting the potato fields was at its best during February and March but on these short winter days sport usually began to tail off by about two in the afternoon. As soon as there was a lull we would gather up the shot birds, tidy up the area and head down to the vehicles. A quick journey across the city and we would arrive in time to join the organised roost shoots on the big country estates. Our favourite was always the shoot run by Big Bad Bob Davis, Head Keeper of the Easton Estate.

Bob was by any description a giant of a man. Well over six three, huge hands, wide shoulders and immense strength. He walked with a pronounced limp and seemed to live in his leather doublet and an assortment of tweed trousers.

Out of the house he was never without his battered old trilby hat with wide brim and crown, covered in every size and shape of fishing fly. As a companion on social occasions or shooting days he was like Jekyll and Hyde.  One moment, engaging, humorous and full of fun, then switching in a heartbeat to a nasty, menacing ogre – in response to an innocent comment or event.  This tendency for utter unpredictability, made him uncomfortable to be around, and the sobriquet ‘Big Bad Bob’ arose from the numerous occasions when his aggression had erupted into physical violence.

Bob had been a Sergeant in the Parachute Regiment in his younger days and had fought in North Africa and Sicily before ending up in the ill-fated battle for the bridges of Arnhem. Like most servicemen who have seen real action, he seldom talked about his exploits, but on September 25th every year he would go down to the local and drink an enormous quantity of Scotch. On those days, he would look deeply troubled and morose, and because of his reputation for turbulence, people knew to stay clear from the brooding menace sitting alone in a dark corner of the bar. Bob would remain there for hours staring into space, no doubt reliving some distant memory, and would only come out of his reverie to wave to the landlord for a refill. Only once in all the years I knew him did he ever let down his guard and talk about what had happened. I had blundered into the pub, forgotten about the date, saw him sitting alone and took him a drink over.

“How are things Bob?” I asked cheerfully as I sat down.  “Not the best. It’s the 25th” he said hardly looking in my direction.  “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t realise” and I got up to go.  “Sit awhile” he said lifting his drink.  I took a risk “What is significant about the 25th?” I asked.  He took a long time to answer but he finally said,  “That was the day I finally got out of Arnhem – well Oosterbeek to be precise, that’s where we were trapped. 25th September 1944. Lost a lot of good mates in those last three days, men who had been with me all through North Africa and Sicily.

Tough place to be. I was one of the lucky ones.”  “Why did it all go so wrong?” I asked, knowing that despite the heroics of the actual fighting men, the battle had resulted in a German victory.  “Who knows, that’s war I suppose, when the bullets start to fly most plans go out of the window, ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’, and all that.”

He paused. I said nothing.  “We were dropped too far from the bridges, nearly eight miles away – and were met almost immediately by the 10th S.S. Panzer Division which no one expected. Our radios didn’t work properly in the wooded country and we were soon pinned down. The German armour and artillery smashed the buildings we occupied and continued to stonk us with shells and mortars for days.  We felt like rats, or rabbits – cowering in holes as shrapnel fizzed around us, you don’t sleep, you start to go a bit mad.

For several days we fought amongst the rubble at very close quarters. It was a game of hide and seek. Spot a grey uniform, fire a quick burst, and move before the snipers find you”.  “Is that where you got your leg injury?” I asked.  “Yes.  I was the third man across a gap between two buildings and thought I had just tripped over, but when I looked down my trouser leg was shredded and covered in blood, and a bullet had taken away most of my calf. The next day I was evacuated to a German field hospital, and that was the end of the war for me.”

Bob’s son Peter, a twenty year old and another giant, although with a gentle disposition, always thought his father should have received professional counselling after the war.  He put down the unpredictable mood swings and irrational violent episodes to some sort of post traumatic stress disorder, rather than to an inherent flaw in his personality.  “None of my uncles are like that and all say he was very steady as a child so we all think the war changed him.”  Peter was Bob’s ‘blue eyed boy’ and they had a great relationship built on mutual respect. It is true they sometimes had flaming rows, roaring face to face like two warring giants, but Bob for once, would always be the one to back down and find a way to make peace.  Life between them would then immediately return to normal. Considering how Big Bad Bob behaved on many occasions with the rest of the world, his clemency towards disagreements with his son was unique and very special.

It was a very well run shooting estate and any news of a fox would soon have Bob on the phone assembling a small team of carefully selected guns he knew could shoot. On one occasion a fox had been seen going in to a small rectangular planting of waist high oak trees. Peter was positioned at the corner

Bob expected the fox to bolt, I was further up the same side and another man stood at the far corner. The small trees provided good cover, but almost as soon as Bob entered with his Labradors I saw a flash of rusty brown fur slipping through the undergrowth and raised a hand in warning to Peter. The animal dashed from the tree-line directly in front of Peter, and he was forced to fire a hurried shot at fairly close range. He had grown up with gun in hand and was a superb shot but on this occasion he missed completely. The fox bolted by him and at the crucial moment when Peter swung to fire his second shot, made an abrupt right angled turn and the charge of shot went harmlessly over its shoulder and in to the meadow. He was out of range of the other guns and ran into a hedgerow and out of sight.

Big Bad Bob emerged from the oaks with a wide grin on his face. He had heard the two shots and asked, “Were there two in there?”.  For a moment we were all silent.  “No. Only one”, said Peter.  “This is my first division team” said Bob, and sensing a wind-up asked “so which of you took two shots?”, “I did,” said Peter.  “What! I tell everyone you’re the best shot I know – I’ll have to revise that opinion” he laughed.  “So where is it?” Bob asked looking around for the body of the fox.  “I missed it!” said Peter “it went through the hedge over there.”  For a moment Bob said nothing, considering whether or not we were having him on, but when he fully realised Peter was serious, the mood changed and a torrent of abuse flowed like water.  “Two f….. shots at a fox in open country, it’s harder to miss than hit the f…er.  I’ve been after him for weeks, and when I find him – I’m with a bunch of f…ing clowns”

Somehow me and the other man had become part of the problem, although we still had clean barrels – and we shifted uncomfortably as Bob glared at all three of us.  His rant continued for some time, until he finally said,  “Call yourself shooting men – you couldn’t hit my f……ing hat!” snatching off his felt hat and skimming it across the meadow.

Now this was no ordinary hat. It was made of the best quality navy blue felt, had a good wide brim, a fancy braid and was adored with dozens of fishing flies, woodcock pin feathers and the bright blue feathers from the wings of the jay. Bob seldom removed it from his sizeable head, but occasionally at half time on shoot days he would place it in front of him, and begin to show it off. Every fly had some kind of significance for him.  “That one was given to be by so and so when he came here to fish” and he would list the famous TV presenter, sportsmen, politician or actor who had donated the various offerings when they had visited the estate. His hat was an angling ‘Who’s Who’ traced with their favourite flies, but the most treasured adornment, which Bob frequently polished, was his winged Parachute Regiment cap-badge, pinned on the left of the hat in accordance with tradition.

The hat flew out of Bob’s hand, caught the wind and skimmed like a flying saucer through the air. Peter closed his gun and in a single movement, mounted it to his shoulder and fired the choke barrel. It was a direct hit at close range, which completely destroyed the hat.  The felt brim down one side almost disintegrated, the top of the crown opened up like a tin can and the flies flew out in all directions. We all stood speechless as the noise of the shot reverberated down the valley, not quite knowing what would happen next.

Bob walked over and picked up the remains. Miraculously his beloved cap badge was undamaged but the felt surrounding it was peppered with holes, perhaps a tiny metaphor for the places the winged badge had been and the action it had seen. He pulled the shredded rim on to his head and suddenly smiled broadly at his son and joked “Hat was beginning to stink anyway. Which way did you say Reynard went?” and highly relieved, we all joined in the laughter.  “Pretty good shot from that angle” I said to Peter as we walked off.

“Aye. I thought so,” he laughed.