Why Fish?

Story and Photography by  Bob Salisbury

One section of my favourite small river in Tyrone winds along the boundary of the local golf course and golfers regularly stop to pass the time of day or to enquire about the quality of the fishing. Earlier in the year I was in the middle of the river, casting a tiny ginger quill up the narrow flows between the floating weeds trying to temp a few of the good wild browns which inhabit this stretch. It was delicate work, with light leader and size eighteen fly, but on the occasions when the ‘quill’ landed squarely in the centre of a clear stream it almost always brought a reaction and the sport was truly exciting. Of course many of the casts were inaccurate as the breeze sometimes shifted the line at the last minute and the fly finished up sitting on the weed beds and avoiding a snag as the line was gently retrieved, proved a tricky business at times.

However, the risk of losing flies or getting caught up was justified by the almost continuous action when things went well and already I had taken several excellent fish on my journey up river. When these trout are on the feed they rise the second a morsel comes into view and sometimes their takes were just too quick for me and were missed or the trout was well hooked but subsequently lost in the streaming vegetation. Four golfers, waiting near the tee for their next fairway to clear watched me fish and came over to the bank as the rod arched into another good trout. It was a spirited fight and eventually the fish was brought to the net, the hook removed and the ‘brown’ returned to the water.
“Don’t see the point of fishing at all,” said the nearest golfer. “Spend half the day up to your chest in water and when you finally get one, let it go again!

No sense in it!”

I didn’t respond. One look at his appearance, head to foot in the latest ‘must have’ golfing gear, told me that a man who spends time thoroughly convinced that knocking a small ball into a hole has a much greater purpose than catching a trout, would probably not appreciate my explanation of the subtleties of angling as a pursuit. In any case, fates kindly intervened on my behalf when his fluent practice swing turned into an arthritic hack once a ball was involved and his shot bounced away down the fairway before finishing up with a satisfying plop into the river.
“He needs a licence if he wants to start fishing?” I shouted.

His mates guffawed. He scowled. The ginger quill was cast out again.

In fact, trying to analyse what it is about fishing, in all its forms,that keeps us enthralled for a lifetime is no easy task to explain to the uninitiated or the cynical. What is the urge which makes us return season after season to our favourite waters? Why are we so motivated to put up with the frustrations, disappointments, frozen fingers, regular soakings, sea sickness and all of the other trials and tribulations which can at times, confront us as passionate anglers?

It is not, as many non-fishermen think, simply about catching fish for as we all know the actual fascination with the sport is far more multi-layered and complex. Of course taking a fresh run salmon is a joy and once or twice a year slicing the fillets and cooking them in the simplest way possible does provide some of the best eating ever, but for most anglers, supplying the table is not the primary reason for venturing out with rod and line. Indeed those who seek roach, tench or any of the other species of coarse fish would never dream of killing anything brought to the net and increasingly the growing ‘catch and release’ movement amongst game and sea anglers aspires to encourage a similar philosophy.

Some years ago it used to be commonplace and acceptable for some game anglers to boast about how many salmon they had taken in a season, but in recent times as we have become more conservation minded, ’fishmongers’ are now frowned upon and attitudes have clearly changed. The sustainability of our sport is now our main concern and happily it is far more usual these days to hear stories of fish being successfully returned than automatically knocked on the head.

In my view, fishing is a privilege, an obligation for lovers of the countryside to get out and renew an affinity with wild places, find solitude in quiet corners and enjoy the numerous loughs, rivers and coastlines  which Ireland possesses and which thankfully, have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Fishing expeditions provide a golden opportunity to observe, close up, wildlife which for much of the time we ignore or overlook. It is a chance to watch dragonflies dance, dippers scuttle about on the rapids or oyster catchers scouring the sandbars but above all, an opportunity in this busy world to simply ’stand and stare’.

It matters little if a newly –built motorway is now roaring past or airliners are leaving feathery trails across the sky, what is important is that the water itself is timeless and the river flowing by our feet, for a few hours at least, becomes our very own ‘theatre of dreams’ where the next cast will tease our imaginations and perhaps provide the fish of a lifetime. For me, simply being near water is a journey into magic and one of the real thrills of angling is about wondering what roams below the surface and whether or not I have the skill and knowledge to temp it out of hiding.

To make the day worthwhile the contest to outwit the fish has to be difficult. The greater the challenge the more satisfying the outcome so finally fooling a trout which has occupied an almost impossible lie for years increases the pleasure of the capture and stays firmly in the mind. One large brown on our local river took up station in a deep channel under an overhanging alder tree. He has lived there for years and still remains to this day. Most evenings he can be spotted taking flies with a slap which can be heard yards down the river and as every angler knows, usually signifies the presence of a substantial fish. Sometimes when the setting sun is low in the sky his long dark shape can be seen patrolling his favourite channel but the river on his side is deep and inaccessible and any long cast drags the minute it hits the water and instantly puts him down.

When he is feeding we all try a few throws his way but the result is always futile and he sinks down to the depths until the danger has passed. Last season after a prolonged dry spell the river dropped to an all-time low and with care and probing gingerly forward with the wading stick, I discovered that it was possible to wade, chest deep, upstream towards him by negotiating a recently accessible submerged rock ledge. A pheasant tail nymph was attached and I managed at the first attempt to get the cast under the alders and into his stream. It rolled in the current down to where he usually waited and he took it immediately with a swirl like an explosion.

The rod was lifted, the line went taut and he leapt clear out of the water before tearing off down river. He was considerably bigger and heavier than I had thought and the ratchet on the reel sang as he headed off in the current. My exhilaration at hooking him was short lived because his muscular jerks soon took him to the shelter of the ledge, where he threw out the offending nymph and the battle for that day was over. A day or so later the water levels rose and he was back, unassailable in his usual haunt. He may never be caught, but the challenge that fish poses to all the anglers who spot him is one of the true pleasures of angling. For experienced sportsmen, there has to be an element of unpredictability in angling as a sport and as in ‘feathering ‘for mackerel, fishing which is so easy that it is reduced to a certainty, quickly loses its charm.

People who have never fished find it difficult to comprehend the pure excitement and anticipation anglers get when seeing a good fish rise or watching a float, which has sat motionless for hours on the mirror like surface suddenly twitches into life, bobs a few times and then shoots down to the depths. To non-anglers it is nigh on impossible to describe the thrill experienced when after days of standing up to the chest in freezing water, fruitlessly flogging away with the salmon rod, the tug of a fish finally comes.

Or the enjoyment we get when choosing the right fly and casting to a difficult lie brings a fine fish to the net. Angling is a fascinating sport which provides endless variation and pleasure for thousands and I am sure we could debate for hours why we all take part but what is certain is that few who take it up can give it up. The pursuit of fish may be seen by some as a strange obsession, but for those in the know, an outing with rod and line is never wasted. So called ‘blank days’ when no fish are caught are seldom ‘blank’ because an outing with good companions, in unspoiled places and delightful scenery is always pure pleasure. These excursions may not always result in catching the fish we seek but does that really matter?