The god of angling is merciful  . . .

The god of angling is merciful . . .


PRAYERS COME easily to the fly-fisherman.   A whispered plea for a breath of wind when all around is so still you feel you could bend the surface tension of the water as if it were latex stretched shiny, thin and opaque.

Please. Just a small cottonwool ball or two of cloud cover. If I can see the bottom 10 metres out, my fly-line is going to look like a steel hawser to any grazing fish as it flashes in front of that brilliant sun.

Please, a little warmer.  Please, a little cooler. Please, a wee clue for me, a humble misbegotten angler. Which tiny ephemerid morsel are those scaly jaws sucking down ever-so-gently on this lochan today?

What have I done to deserve another empty basket when I have an unshakeable faith that there is a 5lb leviathan lurking beneath the water and greedily waiting to pounce on my feathered concoction masquerading as his next freshwater shrimp?

There is a god of angling. But he is contrary. Often he decrees that one fish is too many and no fish is not enough, as if in a very strange way, a small trout is like some particularly delicious Belgian chocolate sweetmeat.

And fickle. He favours my angling companion – a coarse fellow with a devilishly carefree ‘chuck it and see’ approach – who only worships at the altar of fly-fishing twice a year and whose assortment of ragged and mouldy tackle lies for the remainder of the time in the bottom of his tattered bag at the back of the garage, forgotten and uncherished.

Yet a brace of gold and red-dappled flanks lie in the bottom of the boat, my companion’s to admire, to wave in front of me every 15 minutes, and devour later.

Meanwhile I, I who donate generously and regularly on the offering plate at the Temple of Mail Order Tackle Vendors, am cast aside empty-handed.  It is a sin to envy and the god is testing me.  But I am weak and jealous and it is decreed that in the great Fishing Register in the sky, the entry for G Mack today will be blank.

There is a god of angling. But he is mischievous. He understands the siren appeal of this ancient pastime and promises dreams, riches and paradise around the next bend in the river, at the next loch, on the next cast.  On another day.

He loves the underdog and the beginner, and charms them subtly with little favours and generous gifts aimed at winning undying devotion and respect.  A Spey cast learned in half a morning; a first salmon to the fly the same day.  The virgin angler is hooked more easily than his quarry.

The god of angling knows too how quickly dispirited we supplicants can become.  He throws us the metaphoric fish – a dimpling rise just out of reach. Another, a fraction farther away. Two or three more. A little rise to quicken the pulse. Should I change that fly? Perhaps try a floating line?

Quick fingers: there is no time for hesitation.  The first long cast to the widening rings of that feeding fish.  The expectant, gentle, retrieve. The focused concentration. The god of angling smiles impishly.  A sharp puff of wind from an unexpected quarter to tangle your leader. A snagged fly on the back cast and the rise has passed.

The god of angling is merciful.  A tantalising sudden pull on the fly line,  “A Jerk On One End” as Robert Hughes so aptly, but ambiguously, titled his book.  And then nothing.  The fish has slipped the hook.   Another cast and it’s on, tugging and cartwheeling over the water before slipping into the net.

Merciful, glory be. And thankfully forgiving too when listening to historical hyperbole.  That little 6oz trout swells in stature long after it is coated in seasoned oatmeal and pan-fried with an egg for breakfast.  Anecdotal catch returns would have you believe that the average weight of a trout caught in Scotland is well over the pound mark.  The reality is that most truly wild fish rarely exceed 8oz, often much less.  The ones that get away are always, of course, the largest of all.

I have a sign above my desk which states: “The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span, the hours spent in fishing.”  It is a comforting text taken from the litany of the Common Book of Piscatorial Prayer and it offers particular consolation, especially when moral dilemmas have to be faced. Such as finding a forgotten acceptance to a historic club outing which unfortunately seems to coincide with a scheduled visit to The Ghillie Herself’s mother next weekend.

Or salving the conscience over that growing slush-fund which will finance a visit with the lads for a spot of tarpon fishing off Florida next spring.

The god of angling works mostly in mysterious ways, however. One October day some years ago, I rose at dawn and crept through the field in front of my father-in-law’s house on Skye down to the riverside.

It was a clear, crisp, chilly morning with just a hint of a first autumn frost.  I crouched uncomfortably among some broadleaved rushes where a stone dyke ran down into the water.  The river was dropping rapidly after a spate and its rush and gurgle was quickly soothing in my awkward lie.   I eyed the water eagerly, but I was carrying not a fly rod, but a 12-bore shotgun.

It was a little early for the geese, but I was awaiting the arrival of a flight of mallards which I had seen arriving and departing at regular intervals from close to that very spot over the previous few days like holiday charters on Fair Saturday. I didn’t have to wait long.

They came up the river from the estuary talking occasionally among themselves and made a pass wide of where I was sitting: a precautionary circle before landing. Then they turned and descended flying fast down river towards me. Four of them in tight formation just ten or 15 feet above the running water.

I kneeled and waited for them to pass in front, planning to let loose on them from the rear. As they approached there was an almighty splash and a salmon rose from the pool beneath my feet as if to try to pluck a bird from the air. The ducks veered away squawking noisily. I swivelled and fired off a barrel, but my attention had been drawn to the water and the little spectacle I had just witnessed: I knew they were out of range.

Why didn’t you aim at the salmon? The Ghillie Herself inquired later, smiling over the breakfast table.

The god of angling, I deeply suspect, is a woman.