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So, what's the attraction?

December 8 2008

Fiona Armstrong, International broadcaster and presenter

Some are born to fishing - some achieve it and others have fishing thrust upon them. I come, alas, into the last category. All that wasted time! All those empty years! When I was a gal, fishing was a strange pastime, indeed. To me, the men (yes, anglers were generally male and elderly), would escape from the wife, don green rubber and sit out in rain and wind, hurling sharp hooks laced with wriggling worms into murky ponds. As for flyfishing - well, flies were a nuisance at a picnic; reels, a Scottish dance. To me, the attraction was as mysterious as the technique.

So what changed?! Well, the fact that I went to work in the Scottish borders. The fact that I found myself living in a house by a river. The fact that I married a man who HAD been born to fish - and that was my option. River widow or river widow? I took the only course available.

Let me say here, that getting your husband to teach you to fish, is about as romantic as getting him to teach you to drive. I mean, would you really want his gentle words of encouragement in your ear? ‘Not that way, for God’s sake! You nearly took my ear off!’ No. That is a sure fire way to disagreement. Take a lesson from the highland ghillie who’s seen it all before.

‘They came up here on their honeymoon’, he said casually. ‘Really in love they were. And she sat on the bank and watched him fish. And then...’ His voice rose a little. ‘Then, he hooked a salmon - and she was so excited, she couldn’t help it. She rushed into the water and threw her arms around him...’ The ghillie’s voice became sombre. ‘And she stood on the line and pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth.’ He looked thoughtfully across the great expanse of cold, fishless water. ‘They’re divorced now, of course. Though I canna think that was the main reason...’

I tell you, it probably was. And there’s another reason for not allowing your spouse anywhere near your precious fly rod. Because what usually occurs with a learner is a touch of what’s referred to as Beginner’s Luck. It always happens and it usually means a fish or three on the first outing. And there you are, you have caught a fish and he, a veteran angler, has not. I ask you - is that any way to court marital harmony? No, when it comes to fishing, choose your husband’s best man, his father, or even his mother. But not your better half.

The hard stuff

Yes, there’s fishing and there’s life and death. And there’s a spot of the hard stuff, too. Most anglers like to see either whisky or fish in their water. I, personally, could live without the former, but I do remember the late, great fishing guru, Hugh Falkus, taking me for a lesson and telling me that a good caster should be able to throw out a line with a glass of golden malt balanced neatly on their head. If that wasn’t impossible enough, his first words were meant to be encouraging. They just didn’t come out that way. ‘Enough! I’ve seen enough. You are sadly at fault!’ I had been fishing for ten years at this stage one minute of that in front of him. That’s the thing about the sport. You can practise for years and still be floundering in the shallows. They say the only experts in this game are the fish - and that is the one true thing you can say.

Other pearls of wisdom are frighteningly contradictory. ‘If your line’s not in the water, you won’t catch fish’, sounds a plausible enough truism. But when you come to: ‘To get a fish, you should have been here yesterday...?!’ That excuse could leave you fishless all year.

Seriously, forget about the cold and the wet, which it inevitably is. Forget the blank days (you really SHOULD have been here yesterday!) Forget the times when your fly gets tangled up in a prickly gorse bush or your nylon twists into a thousand tiny windknots. (Note: if you really find yourself in trouble, always ask the older fisher for help. This veteran of the waterside has usually seen it all before, has nothing more to prove and will readily come to your help. The ones to avoid are the younger, macho types. They are generally there for one purpose only and that is to flog the water black and blue until they force some poor fish to surrender.) Forget the time you had to go to hospital after pulling a sharp hook into your hand or the frustrations of trying to master the twists and turns of the Spey cast, and the loops and curls of the double Spey, the Snake and the Switch. Forget the midges with bites as big as bullets. Forget all of this.

Remember instead the pride you take in assembling your very first fly rod and the feeling of satisfaction when fourteen foot of reel and line are ready to go. Remember the very first river you chose to fish on - be it a small spate stream, or a wide expanse of Tayside water. Remember especially that it is your first fishing trip - and that you, with your Beginner’s Luck have a good chance of catching more than a mere cold. Remember how you chose your fly - that red and black, long tailed creation with the delightful name - was it a Muddler or a Hairy Mary?! It doesn’t matter. It looked quite simply delicious and the best lure for the day, a day on which conditions were just right, the water dropping back after a heavy fall of rain, the sky overcast.

Remember the first trembling casts with that unwieldy rod. And the way you learned to pull in line, jerking the fly ever so gently to make it resemble a waterborne creature. And then, who could forget the nibbles and the touches, as something out there bumps your lure in the water. And the swirl and thud as the line tightens and starts to reel off the end of the rod.

‘Keep your rod tip up!’ ‘Wind in!’ ‘Let him run!’ A first fish will always cause the greatest panic to all around, not least to the novice. For they will be as desperate as you are to get that offering onto the bank. Especially as it is an unwritten rule that beginners catching a first fish must buy the drinks all night. (I actually made that up, but you never know, I might end up on a river bank with one of you one of these days...)

The play will be endless, as you try to tire your fish, but at some stage, be it minutes or hours, there will be less resistance on the line. As he quietens in the water, get your net ready and pull the fish gently into it.

First fish

Your first fish! The feeling is indescribable, but I will try. You might climb a mountain, try a thirty-six year old malt, meet the man of your dreams, win the lottery...! No, all these will pall in comparison. You are triumphant and eager to get back into the water to try again. But first, wait! Here is the dilemma. Game fishers have traditionally killed and eaten what they catch. But these days, there is a growing trend toward catch and release especially in the spring. Always try to convince yourself that the landing is better than the keeping. It might be a Kelt, an old fish, or a hen fish, full of eggs and about to spawn. In which case, put it back quickly and carefully. Do not stand around posing for photos to show the chaps in the office. But, if you are on a water where catch and release is not compulsory - and if it is your first fish and a good silvery male - then, by all means, do keep it, if you are prepared to kill it yourself. Keep it and eat fried gently in butter with a squeeze of lemon and some buttered brown bread.

You have caught your first Fish! So forget the forgets. And remember the other side of the sport. The camaraderie. I have never yet met a nasty angler. The chats and the jokes, the sharing and the sympathy. The characters you meet, the ghillies and water watchers, or the locals out for a walk. The drains (or wine) in the fishing hut at the end of the day. Above all, the freshness of it all. The water and the wind and the grass and the trees. Away from faxes, phones and children. Free to concentrate on the matter in hand or to let you imagination soar with every upward cast. And of course, the best of all, the tall tales. For angling really is a sport where you can do this shamelessly. Like the man who was sitting in the fishing hut with his arms stretched three feet wide. ‘Oh, come on’ said one of the other anglers. ‘It can’t have been that long!’ ‘Long?!’ replied the first man. ‘That was the width between its eyes!’

I wish you the joy of the river and the luck of the draw. Luck does play a huge part in fishing - especially in salmon fishing. But luck is not all - and as my wise old father-in-law says. If your line’s not in the water, you’ll not catch fish. So, if it’s your first time, keep it wet and keep it moving and let me know what it was like for you!