“ALL FISHERMEN ARE INVETERATE LIARS AND FISH ARE THE ONLY CREATURES ON GOD’S EARTH WHICH ENJOY A PRONOUNCED DEGREE OF POSTHUMOUS GROWTH” (#1)
Fly-fishing is a funny thing, not quite a sport, yet still, to many, more than a hobby, on the one hand conjuring to mind primitive remnants of a hunter-gatherer past, where our common ancestors stood and fell by their ability to forage off the landscape, but at the same time exerting a most captivating and thoroughly modern appeal to the intellect. To cognoscenti, the question of how one goes about it is possibly more significant than the fact of fishing itself - as attested to in the reams of reference and catalogues left by the many that have gone before. The global library of angling literature is so vast, as to give rise to serious claims that more has been published about fishing than on any other single subject under the sun. And that, right there, is the kind of thing that anglers hook into. It has an agreeable ring to it and is almost impossible to disprove, so that when Graham Swift tells us, “The very health of literature itself, it seems, is dependent on good fishing - and this is not such a tongue-in-cheek conceit as might appear...( #2)” we can be easily convinced.
Of course, not all angling literature is equally high-minded, allowing him to go on, saying with his next breath, “Many experts in the field have glided into print on the subject, unable to write for toffee; inferior piscatorial literature, feverish with enthusiasm or entangled in its own jargon is dully predictable stuff, bristling with cliches, folksiness and bucolic warblings.”
Despite the procession, which includes more than a few colossi - literary and otherwise - having left behind an endless cache of testimony, more than anyone could assimilate in a single lifetime, still, the best fishing is to be found, not on paper, but in that universal solvent, water. No matter how good the writing, for a reader it is always at a remove from the actual experience, and the metaphor evoked in the mind’s eye, no matter how subtle, is vicarious at best. What is a little less obvious, is that the best fishing is neither necessarily nor inextricably linked to the best fish. As the ancient Latins used to say “Piscator non solum Piscatur”. That translates roughly as “There is more to fishing than catching fish”. Dig it?
In the confines of my own narrow life experience, leaping clear above a store of unforgettable angling memories salted away over a half century , there are many great fish, but equally, there are countless moments that resonate with an imagery entirely devoid of ichthyc fins and piscine detail. They are no less precious for it.
I am reminded, by way of example, of an outing undertaken a good few decades back. Fishing as the guest of a member of the Middelpunt Syndicate, I found myself among a group of anglers to whom fly-fishing was a matter far more important than mere life or death. During the course of the weekend I began to understand that, rather more than is usual, Don, my gracious host, defined himself primarily in terms of his ability to out-fish his companions. The fervour with which he approached his angling seemed tied to some imaginary leader board that only he could see. As soon as he felt himself ahead in the speculative competition, his fishing became quite desultory, almost as if he found it a touch tedious. But if he fell behind, in the sense that someone else present caught more, or a larger trout, he would transform instantly into a fishing dervish, galvanised by the imperative to reestablish his status. The man was a legend in his own mind.
Well there I was, a long cast away from where Don was lashing the water in Pavlovian response to a good fish that had just been landed by one of our party fishing off to the other side of him, up in a narrow inlet. Standing just off a thick stand of water sedge, ankle deep in water, laying a small brown caddis emerger over the channel, I
heard a faint rustle in the sedges behind me. Turning to investigate, I was greeted by the sight of a young water snake (Lycodonomorphus rufulus) coiling and threshing among the grass stems. Stepping closer to get a better look revealed that the slender constrictor had its jaws clamped to the forearm of a large, desperately thrashing common Rana (green-striped frog). Using the powerful spring in its hind legs, that muscular meal leapt for its life. For long moments the frog looked as if it might shake free at any instant, but, by degrees, the balance shifted and the snake began to exert a dominance. In a trice I had discarded my rod for a camera. Some two hours and four long rolls of film later, soaked to the skin from wallowing face down, inches away from the action, I had been treated to a front row, frame-by-frame spectacle of one of Nature’s minor miracles. To both the snake and the frog, it was no more than an event in the tableau of survival, but to me it was an intimate glimpse into a process that is as old as life itself. In the viewfinder, each magnified frame of action seemed more remarkable than the previous, and I kept snapping as fast as the flashgun recharged.
All the while, working against the fulcrum of its jaws, the water snake cradled the unfortunate amphibian in three muscular turns of coil, squeezing, breath by breath, the life air from it. When the frog moved no more, the snake unwound and began to unhinge its jaw. With its gape all unlimbered, the snake took the frog by the nose. To the photographer, watching, it seemed an impossible task. Painfully, slowly, millimetre by millimetre, the snout of the frog disappeared, until, coming up to the broadest part of the head, at the frog’s eyes, the water snake seemed to be chewing on more than it could comfortably bite off, or visa versa. Things were at an impasse. I turned to reload with a new spool, and in that instance the snake, with jaws distended many times its own width, overcame the obstruction. The meal fair slid down its throat, until, coming upon the forelegs, turgid in rigour mortis at right angles to the swallow, it seemed sure that the snake could go no further. I found myself speculating as to whether it might choke, and I wondered if it would perish on the hoist of its own petard, a victim of its own ambition. Eventually, this insurmountable obstacle was also overcome, the muscle in the snake’s throat just slowly winched those legs in, till in time, no more that the frog’s rear toes protruded. One last muscular swallow and they too were gone. That snake was barely as thick as my little finger, yet it swallowed a frog that was at least the size of a woman’s fist, balled.
Later that evening, with Don still mumbling about how he had wasted a perfectly good day’s fishing on a worthless ingrate, I attempted to share the marvel to which I had been witness, but it left my companions cold. Needless to say, as an angler against whom to pit their competitive urge, I had been tested and found wanting. I was considered a dead loss. Don never forgave me for not entering into the spirit of their competitive angling fraternity, for offering so meagre a challenge and to the day he died I was never again invited to prove my prowess with a fly among that merry brotherhood. . .
But for me that day was special. To add insult to injury, the photos have been published widely over the intervening years, underlining, for me at least, that the benefits of angling extend far beyond the reach of the furthest cast of hook or line, and the main event may well be conjunctive, rather than the fishing itself.
As I was saying, fly-fishing is a funny business. One either loves it or hates it. It brings out the best and the worst, not only in people, but of them too.
#1. David Profumo, The Magic Wheel - An Anthology of Fishing in Literature, isbn 0 33029072X, Picador 1985.
#2. Graham Swift, The Magic Wheel -