© Wolf Avni
January 18, 2005
There is no substitute for pedigree and breeding. You can see it in racehorses, in fine livestock, in trout even - and in the toffee-sounding vowels of them what are ‘brung up proper’. Allow me to explain. Puffadder Bill is one of my favourite people. I couldn’t say why though. We are that different. For one thing, one of us is still full of youth and vigour while the other is deep into decrepitude. For another, Puffadder was ever a willing servant to convention and protocol, almost its slave one might say, whereas I, undeserved though it be, have at times been libelled with labels and tagged as something of a wild child, a product of the nihilism of the permissive sixties. As might be expected, our fishing styles are planets apart; his being based on tradition and traditional interpretations of convention. He would deny it, but when first we met, almost twenty years back, old Puffadder still fished with a sloppy-casting, split cane of high pedigree but dubious vintage. His lines were made of treated silk and his waders of gutta-percha. His reel looked as if it were crafted around the time of the discovery of the wheel. His flies were tied on monstrous, rust-etched lumps of steel, veritable meat-hooks. His boots were genuine Wellington’s and his jacket an authentic Barber. The only way he knew to fish was downstream and across. Be that as it may, Puffadder, without doubt is a thoroughbred from the old school, with a sense of decency founded in a pre-war innocence. To Puffadder, rectitude is not so much what one does as who one is. For him the rule of life is the rule of law and to him, law is in the letter of it, beyond questions, beyond abstraction. To this day he regards float-tubes and kick-boats as some sort of newfangled cheating - a device which allows people to troll in defiance of the bye-laws of nature. Yet beneath his crusty exterior, at heart, the man is nothing but gooey mallow and in my book, he is as genuine as they come.
Now my own relationship with fly-fishing has been rather more the consequence of chance discoveries made in the context of an accidentally intense relationship with aquatic biology. The thing is, though having spent as much time at it as any other mere mortal, I am a fly-fisher more by accident than intent and my homage to its hallowed traditions is considered by many to be at best, scant and at worst, heretic. For me, the sine qua non by which any angler is judged is simple. One the one hand it is the measure of respect he or she might show for the natural world around us and on the other, it is defined by the degree of their fundamental insight into the biological processes which make the whole thing happen.
Puffadder, secure in his certainty that the meek shall inherit the earth, looks to no one for special favours and so it was with a great deal of astonishment that I fielded his phone call. “I have a favour to ask,” he told me.
“My sister-in-law and her no-good husband are out from the UK. They are looking for some decent fishing and have booked into your lodge. Please look to their comfort,” he exhorted. “The old fool hasn’t brought a stitch of tackle with him,” Puffadder continued, “and I’ve had to lend him everything from my rod to the gumboots!”
“Neither a lender nor a borrower be,” I reminded him kindly. He seemed less than pleased.
In due course, Puffadder’s in-laws arrived and moved seamlessly into the lodge. They were as neat and entirely ‘proper’ as could be. Both were immaculately groomed, with not a stitch, nor a hair, nor a high-church vowel out of place. Neither their dress nor their mien would have been inappropriate for a high tea, say on the lawns at Balmoral. In no time they prepared for their first session of fishing. From the selection of craft available at the lake edge, they selected the Mirror sailing dingy. Though by far the prettiest, most stylish boat available, she was also the least practical from a fly-fishing perspective, being neither stable nor easy to handle at oar. Undeterred, their old bones embarked and sedately they set off across the lake, rowing for the honey hole up against the reeds. The day was perfect with not a breath of wind, the lake an unblemished mirror reflecting the entire valley as the very exegesis of tranquillity.
In the main house, elevated above the water, dashing an occasional, perfunctory glance their way over the lake, I went about the vexations of my daily routine. This went on for a couple of hours, till, casting my eye their way I noticed that the Mirror at anchor in the distance across the lake was riding on an alarmingly uneven keel. She heeled hard to starboard. The occupants were both leaning over the gunwale, as if examining something in the water, or perhaps they were reaching out to net a fish. Whatever the reason, it was obvious that the craft was headed one way, and that would be arse-about-kettle. I dropped what I was doing and sprinted for the boathouse. As I did, an almighty crash came reverberating across the serene water. Oars, picnic baskets, binoculars, and all the baggage of a refined day’s fly-fishing tumbled and clattered on its way to a burial in cold, benthic silt.
At the boathouse I leapt into my boat, cast off and cranked the electric thruster up to full power. It took me long minutes to cover the distance across the water and as I did, thoughts flitted through my mind as to what I might say to Puffadder were I to lose his wife’s sister and her husband to the honey-hole. Coming around, I eased up upon the overturned hull of the swamped craft, to be greeted by my guests. As unperturbed as if they were munching on crust-less cucumber sandwiches on the lawns back at the palace, the pair treaded water, the duchess, doing a difficult, though still-elegant one-handed breaststroke, while in the other, she held aloft a pair of expensive binoculars, high above the water.
“Well, at least there are no crocs or hippos,” she said calmly in perfectly modulated, rounded vowels as I throttled up to effect a rescue-and-retrieval. “Yup,” I agreed. “Though I guess that might depend on how you define old-crock, ” I continued brightly as I helped her sodden rump into the boat. She called me cheeky. Of Puffadder’s kit there was no sign. His precious, ancient split-cane rod was gone. So were his genuine Wellingtons and his archaic, telescoping-handled net. The wicker lid of a picnic hamper floated nearby, along with a lonely fly box and one or two bits of insignificant flotsam. Everything else was lost.
Later, Puffadder rounded on me. “What kind of friend are you?” he asked. “Give me a break,” I demanded. “What do you want? I returned both your wife’s sister and her husband, hardly the worse for wear, with even their dignities intact!”
“That’s the thing,” he said sadly, “a true friend would have focussed more priority on retrieving my precious fly-fishing tackle, and rather less on an artificial preservation of those aristocratic relicts!”
All’s well that ends well I say, and this event had a most salubrious outcome. Old Puffadder was forced to replace his archaic tackle and we managed to coax him into a half-decent high-tech carbon-compound rod and some of the more modern, forward-thinking elements of the game. With a decent rod and correctly matched lines, the man has begun to explore some of the concepts of modern fly-fishing; such as the upstream-emerger, and the deep nymph. He no longer thinks of still water trout fishing as outright treason and is slowly becoming used to the concept of the micro-pattern. The other day, in a local tackle store, I saw him furtively eyeing a pair of neoprene waders and a copy of my recently published book. You can’t get any more modern than that!