Episode Two – The smallest fish in the river.
Since taking up fly fishing at the age of 38 1/4, I have been conscious of leaving myself open to the charge of sad bloke in mid-life crisis territory. Although the gf has not yet openly accused me of this, I can see it flash past in the roll of her eyes like ticker-tape as she watches me poring over the latest orvis catalogue, eyeing up the stretch brown cords with a new appreciation.
And she had a point. I didn’t want to become one of those desperately over-competitive men of a certain age with a beer-belly swinging over their running shorts as they try to catch up with themselves ten years ago. But fly fishing just isn’t like that, I would say after the third glass of wine. “Especially the kind of fly fishing I am doing – small rivers after wild brown trout.”
To which the gf would usually respond by sliding back into the corner of the sofa, casting a languid arm over its back, and saying something like: “Its Friday night. It’s eleven oclock. Jemima is asleep in bed. And you are talking to me about fishing? In fact – you are still talking?” Then that ticker-tape would flash past again. Now I am not suggesting that fly fishing isn’t competitive. Far from it. But the competitive instinct, like rivers themselves, can take on many worms. And the opportunities for oneupmanship, like the trout in those rivers, can pop up in the most unexpected of places.
It was early in the season. I met Dave at the bridge where we park cars to tackle up. Dave was a few minutes ahead of me, and had on a new vest, a new hat with a big, floppy brim, and a new pair of breathable waders. “You alright Dave?” I asked, more by way of a hello. I had met Dave a week or two earlier, and both being new to flyfishing we hit it off straight away, free to share our insecurities on the riverbank, our mutual incompetence liberating. Dave smiled nervously. “Bit parky for this lark.” He wrung his big hands together in a knot. Dave was a big man, but small things clearly plagued him. From our previous conversation I knew that Dave thought that he had finally found his one, true sport. Fly fishing can take a person of a worrying disposition and make a contemplative man or woman of them. We made our separate ways onto the river.
It must have been three hours later when I returned to the car. Dave was already there, and was still looking worried. I felt more than a little anxious myself. It had been a thankless morning. There were few signs of life on the river and that stiff breeze stubbornly refused to let the leader form anything much other than a coil on the water. Just when i was reassuring myself for the last time that it was far too early in the season and that the conditions were just not right for a hatch, I snatched in the line and felt something there. The river was still shrugging off the last of the winter, and I assumed my fly had snagged on another leaf floating downstream. But no, coming towards me, skittering over the surface, was a tiny, bright-eyed trout. It must have taken the fly as a dare as it darted subsurface when I began that last, bad tempered retrieve. It must have been the smallest fish I had ever seen.
“Any luck?” asked Dave. I sensed a certain shiftiness about his demeanour, which I matched with my own. “Just the one,” I said. We shuffled in our waders. “Me too,” said Dave. “Not much happening though, was there? Not easy fishing.” I nodded. “Aye,” I said. “Not easy at all.” “But we do it for the challenge.” said Dave. There was another awkward silence – we both clearly had more to say. “Mine was very small.” I finally blurted out, in the hope that confession was indeed good for the soul. “In fact,” I went on, “It couldn’t have been much bigger than my little finger. I think it must have been the smallest fish in the river!”
Dave laughed too, clearly sharing my relief. “No, it couldn’t have been, that was mine. We can’t both have caught the smallest fish in the river!” There was another pause as we laughed ourselves out. “But that’s the thing about fly fishing isn’t it?” Said Dave finally. “It’s not about what you catch, how big or how many, it’s about how you catch, isn’t it?” “Oh yes,” I agreed sagely, “Pitting your wits, it’s all about fooling the trout.” “Hmm,” we chorused, nodding like dogs. It was then that I realised that we were actually competing that day over which one of us had caught the smallest fish. Then a shadow crossed Dave’s face. “I met John earlier, he was fishing further up stream.” John was the local fly fishing guru who worked in a fly fishing shop. “He’d had six when I met him.” When I heard the inflexion in Dave’s voice, I realised why he always looked so worried. I too shivered. So people were catching. It wasn’t the time of the year or the lack of a hatch – it was just plain me. “But John’s a pro.” I made myself jump – I had said this out loud. “Oh yeah – ” agreed Dave. “And anyway, they weren’t as small as ours…” And there by our cars, with the river still dripping around us, we both laughed. Laughed because although we knew that we were beginners, we also knew that we both had potential. We had the potential to become true afficionados of the fly fishing art, happy to catch the smallest fish in the river. And the second smallest.
You can visit author Andrew Griffiths at his website – www.startflytying.com