Foam resembling a thousand drits of snow.Soundless, the peach and pear trees form their battalions of spring. With one jug of wine And a fishing line, On this earth how many are as happy as I? I dip the oar – in the spring winds the boat drifts like a leaf. A delicate hook on the end of a silk tassel, An island covered with flowers, A jugful of wine. Among the ten thousand waves I wander in freedom!
– ‘Fisherman’s Song’, Li Yu (937AD – 978AD)
It may appear to be a strange question to ask – yet so many people are saying “It doesn’t matter”, that I admit I’m a little unsure about the answer.
Maybe, for me, instinct kicks in? That head-shaking, line-tearing feeling on the end of my fly line is something that can’t be duplicated; knowing you’ve deceived a fish that has thousands of years of instinct on its side can do wonderful things to a person – your place in the order of things is correct, or simply that the right choices were made.
Of course, I love the other aspects that come with fishing: the wildlife, the scenery, the peace and solitude… All these are vital for making me a ‘fisherman’, and they form part of the experience. Yet at the core of it lies that little spark of instinct. Brighter in some, but still in all of us, as little or as much as we are willing or dare to use. You see it in good fisherman; they’re more aware, more in tune, always ready to change tactics or search out other places, looking all the time for feeding fish. And when they do see something, they slow down, move back into the shadows, becoming almost invisible as they become more hunter than fisherman.
There are times when fishing with a friend that the streamside discussions and the general denigrating of your mate’s casting ability is enough – yet the moment a fish rises everything goes quiet, there’s a surge of anticipation, the game has changed. Time slows as we wait for a second rise, when he finally shows himself; we can see him through the surface film, riding the river’s steady current, moving gently left to right, rising and falling as he chooses… The line is drawn off, a fly gently cast forward; we both watch as if our lives depend on this success, not a word is spoken as the fly floats down, the current makes a grab and draws the little emerger along the silken surface. All in slow motion as spray fills the air and the line stops dead… Then he’s there – kicking and fighting, doing anything he can to be rid of this unknown force. Satisfaction, happiness, even a sense of contentment filters through.
Is this the primal need fulfilled? Perhaps – and when I try to narrow it down, it’s all pretty simple, really: I go fishing because I love catching fish.
At times I have to remember how fortunate I am to live where I do. Good fishing is only twenty minutes’ away and I can go two or three times a week – and no-one notices. Very fortunate, indeed. At the other end of the scale are friends who have to travel three to four hours to a stream or lake that they never really get to know. As anglers, it’s our purpose to work it all out; it’s just a little harder when you only get to see the water a couple of times a year. This situation possibly leads to a different style of angler, and a very different way of looking at the craft. They have so little time and so few opportunities that they have to cram it all in (it’s a bit like trying to fit a sleeping-bag back into its cover – it has to be rolled tighter than you thought, but eventually, through sheer will, you succeed). These anglers are so keen to learn, they read any book they can get their hands on, they’ve seen every DVD on the market, and their enthusiasm is unstoppable… yet the numbers of fish caught are few. Ask them if it’s all about catching fish and most times the answer is ‘no’. Talk to them about fishing as a way of life, and you will witness an enthusiasm that you may have long forgotten. They talk about patterns, tying flies, their next big adventure, the birds they saw, road kill… It’s all there. You can see a fire burning in them in and you know it’ll go on for as long as they draw breath. This is all about fishing, and it’s the same journey we’re all on.
The other day we were fishing the South Esk, wandering along the bank, quietly talking, letting it all wash over us, when we thought we could hear an old man whistling down by the river. It was an odd tune, with a haunting quality. As we came closer, a tiny bird flew out of the hawthorn and continued his beautiful song. That bird followed us for the rest of the evening rise – as content as we were to simply wander along – all the while serenading our every move.
It is in these small moments that fishing becomes about far more than fish. Yes, I love catching fish, but take away the less-tangible elements and you remove some of the purpose, leaving us as an empty cup. Hand-in-glove, the tangible cannot exist without the intangible.
We are fortunate to live where we do, where we are free to wander, enjoy and bow down to this amazing island; to share adventures with our friends, and to fish quietly on our own with nature all over us. So, to all our friends, this may be a good time to do what Marcus tells me all the time…
“Go fishing, fill your journal, tie flies – the lawns can wait – chase giants, seek solitude, forge memories. But, most of all, go fishing!”