Wullie took me down through the beat, pointing out the pools and the likely lies as we went. Of course I didn’t pay a blind bit of notice to him, so keen was I to get the rod up and get in the water. I’d splashed out on a fair bit of tackle to compliment my new "serious" salmon fly rod - a manageable 13 foot Daiwa - and the most expensive item was a pair of neoprene chest waders. I rapidly discovered however that the Nith near the village of Sanquar didn’t run any deeper than my thigh in all of the fishable pools. In the unfishable pools it dropped maybe twenty feet or so right off the bank, but hey, at least I was now looking the part and the added danger allowed that I could go out and buy an automatic life preserver. A man can never have enough fishing gear, although usually it is the wrong gear that he initially buys for any given set of circumstances.
Wullie - I promise you that I never have.
Anyway, I stood at the side of the water swishing away with my efforts at Spey casting, the line flopping first upstream in a heap, then downstream in a heap and finally snaking out to land in a large dog-legged heap vaguely 45 degrees across the stream from where I was standing. The pool was called, I discovered later, The Sawmill though like all salmon pools the origin of the name was lost in the mists of time as there was no sign of any sawmill near the treeless banks.
Salmon were showing regularly in the pool and, much to my frustration, they simply would not take my fly, even my nice shiny new "serious" salmon flies, even when I managed to land one right in the circle of their rise like you would for a trout. What was wrong with these fish?
Just above me at the neck of the pool, there was a rushing torrent of water and two guys were fixed to the spot. Their technique was unusual; they were using a fly rod and line all right, but the cast consisted of flicking the fly a mere rod length out and letting it trot down the stream. Every so often, I’d hear a shout and turn round to see one or other bent into a fish. They must have taken at least 5 salmon from that run in quick succession.
I decided to move on; frustration and jealousy don’t make good companions.
I headed upstream and bumped into a very strange character who was walking his dog. The large rangy, mangy black beast bounded up to me and immediately stuck its nose into my groin (the dog that is, the guy just stuck out his hand and said “I’m John”). It seemed appropriate to stop dead in my tracks at this point, just in case. John had a slightly wild look about him, exacerbated by a lopsided face which looked numb and virtually immobile on one side. I thought I heard the distant twang of a banjo to the theme tune of Deliverance, and I half expected him to say “You sure got a purty mouth…”
He was a really nice fellow as it turned out and I got to know him quite well over the season, along with several of the other regulars. There was an old guy called Robert who, every time I met him, would say to me “I’m eighty three you know”. He pronounced it “aichty three” and, over lunch, he would sit and tell me all about his previous career as the owner of a painting and decorating business, and his now even busier retirement. He made wine all winter, helped to deliver the meals-on-wheels to the “old folks” most days, drove his grandchildren to school regularly and went fishing as often as he possibly could. I envied the purpose to his life, not to mention the energy required to live it.
One day I was walking along the road which looks down on the river and I spied the same two guys that had been taking all of the fish from The Sawmill. They were casting square across the neck of a fast stream and then dragging the fly quickly though it by whipping their rods round level with the water. I watched for a while before I realised that they were, in fact, poaching. What to do? I was a day-ticket holder with Right on my side but with, perhaps, no rights and these were two guys of unknown standing in the local fishing club, clearly doing something illegal. It fairly explained why they had been catching so many fish the last time I saw them.
I walked back and told Robert, who was sitting in his car eating his lunch, what I had saw. We pondered the situation a bit and, just as we had reached no conclusion whatsoever, the water bailiff showed up. He was a small, game, guy called Jackie and when I told him what I had suspected was going on he demanded to be shown where the perps were.
With a little apprehension, but feeling like a commando, I sneaked down the bank towards them with Jackie at my back. I started to have doubts about the wisdom of it all. I mean, what if I was wrong? What if it was a big mistake or worse, what if it all turned just plain nasty? I was there to fish, not to fight. So I pointed out where they were and walked back to where Robert was waiting, feeling more than a little guilty all the while for leaving Jackie to deal with it himself.
After a while, Jackie came back and confirmed that the guys had indeed been poaching, that he’d not only marched them off the water but had also confiscated their gear and permits. Way to go, Jackie-o. He took my name and details and guaranteed me a season ticket place for next year if I wanted it. I was pleased, but still had that nagging feeling you get when you know you backed down when you really should have stepped up. It’s a guy thing, but reflected glory is better than none I guess.
I never took a single fish that season; not one. I went down faithfully every week and watched fish after fish being hauled out by the regulars. It was a bonanza year and everyone, except me, was getting more than their share.
I waited all winter, all the next spring and all summer for my chance again.
The following year, on my first trip of the new season, I renewed my acquaintance with John, his groin-sniffing dog and also old Robert. “I’m aichty fower noo” said Robert when we met up. John told me that Jackie had died suddenly over the winter. I was moved by this although, apart from that one day, I never really knew the man.
We looked gloomily at the river. The water was high and was the colour of chocolate. Not even a rank amateur like me thought that it was fishable for salmon with a fly. But I’d travelled a long way so I reasoned that I might as well give it a try. I climbed gingerly into the head of the stream and had only gotten three feet from the bank when I realised that the normally ankle deep water was now pressing against my backside.
With mounting panic, I could feel my feet losing contact with the bed of the river. I jammed the fly rod under one arm, grabbed hold of the emergency ripcord on the inflatable fishing vest I was wearing and planted my wading stick firmly in front of me for leverage. The pressure of water behind me was unbelievable. I was only three feet from the bank but I simply could not move sideways. Slowly I calmed myself down and started to inch my way forward. One inch forward, one inch sideways. It must have taken me almost half an hour and 30 yards or more downstream before I could haul out onto the bank, terrified out of my wits.
I looked around at the spot I had landed up at and figured, what the hell, I was there to fish, right? Unhooking the fly from the keeper ring, a large Blue Charm copper tube, I flicked it out into the chocolate torrent. As it swung round, I felt some weight. I lifted the rod and that, nowadays more familiar, nodding pressure was there. It was a fish!
I honestly can’t recall a single bit of the fight, but I remember getting the fish on the bank, dispatching it and then doing a jig. I had done it; my very first salmon caught “properly”on a fly rod.
When the old ticker had stopped hammering, I thought I’d have another bash. What's to lose, after all? Just two or three casts later and the line stopped dead. I had another one on! Two salmon on the same day, both on the fly and in a massive spate to boot.
I got this one in and dispatched it too. It wasn’t going to get any better, I decided, so I determined to pack up and quit while I was ahead – a sound strategy that I wish I still followed today, in more than fishing it has to be said.
I arrived back at the car to find Robert and Wullie chatting by the roadside. I grinned fit to break my face and showed them my prizes. “Mmm hmmm” said Wullie “A bit black, but fine enough”.
In later years, I have discovered that this translates roughly as “Why the bloody hell did you kill a couple of old kippers like that? Since they’re your first, we’ll let you off, but don’t ever do that again!”
As often happens, what started as a hobby website grew arms and
legs until it eventually became a full-blown book. In February 2004
it was published under the slightly enhanced title Game Fishing Diaries: Details from Fishing in Life and is now available from most outlets from as little a $2.99
on Amazon Kindle. In November 2011 Volume 2 made an appearance also
available on Kindle
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 1
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 2