Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing

My friend, let's refer to him as Steve, has convinced me that a few hours of fly-fishing will enhance my life. I suppose there’s always a chance it might, after all, if you don’t try, you never know.

But I had the feeling it would not be as straightforward as he envisaged, for several reasons. Firstly, I’ve done it once before with only ‘moderate’ success; in fact, the only thing that went right first time was that I didn’t actually die. Secondly, the weather locally is forecast somewhere below 5 degrees with 30 mph easterly winds - 45 mph gusts! In addition, I’m not a registered fisherman, so am obliged to buy a day ticket from the Environmental Agency website. Press this, press that for half an hour and I am proud owner of a day rod license costing £6.60. (How did they come up with that figure??)

Finally, I’ll have to pay £20 to fish on Bessy Beck Trout Fishery in Newbiggin-on-Lune. Cumbria. This will allow me to legally freeze my ‘adjectives’ off for 4 hours. And…. listen at this doozy - included in the price is that I must return all fish to the water! If I want to keep one, I must pay more but I refuse to pay for something that has a less than 2% chance of happening. Besides, the thought of gutting and preparing the fish for the table isn’t very appealing.

Steve and I drive down in our camper. It’s only a short journey, but those few precious minutes would prove to be the last comfortable ones for some time. We register in a sort of clubroom where two old armchairs sit either side of a blazing fire and pay our fee in an honesty box. The thought of going outside into that freezing gale not appealing. The furious wind is trying to force its way around the window frame and squeeze past the door with threatening whistling noises. I suddenly appreciate how Scott must have felt before he left his Antarctic tent.

So, dressed up like Nanook of the North and his brother we venture out. Steve rigs up my line after a minor faux-pax by me. You see my hands suffer badly on cold days and I basically can’t feel my finger ends. The consequences are twofold, one I’ll never make a concert pianist, and two, it’s why I can’t thread line through ever-smaller eyes up a fishing rod. I eventually managed to get the line all the way out the top of the eyes, but only after a frustrating, profanity-laden period where line kept slipping from my grasp to end up flapping about in the gale. Steve was due to take over and complete the technical bit of the assembly – like putting a hook on. Then he began tutting and mumbling as he noticed the first bit of line was spiraled round the rod. He completed his dissatisfaction routine with a profanity-laden shoulder-shrug and a bosom-heave. My error is so basic I’m not surprised he huffed. 

I have been fly-fishing once before, with the same friend, at a different reservoir. That was the occasion referred to above when I didn’t die - though this time seems more likely, taking into account the arctic conditions. 

That body of water in The Pennines would have had roughly one fish per 100 cubic meters of water (about the volume of a single car garage). Hence, the chance of me, as a novice, catching anything was actually in the negative. In other words, by the time I’ve hooked one, a female fish would have gone through a couple of breeding cycles and the population would have increased!

Here, because it’s a ‘commercial’ fishery, paying punters have to catch something or they won’t come back. As a result, it’s well stocked and there is probably one fish per cubic foot so the chances of hooking one is greatly increased. Unless they’ve been caught before of course, in which case they become wary. In these circumstances, when an angler approaches, the fish go and sit in a tree till the danger has passed. My friend reckons, ‘the waters are stuffed with so many fish you can just about walk across on their backs.’

Steve is glad I’m here; I think he enjoys my sharing his passion for fishing, even if I’m crap at it. I have to be instructed on the most fundamentals but it’s not possible for him to think of everything. After we’ve finally got the rod set up, it’s time, as I put it, ‘to chuck it in the water’. We wander down the side of one of the large ponds, leaning into the wind, hoping not to be blasted into the water. Initially, I stand and watch because there’s a knack to the fly-fishing cast, and I need some pointers.

You’ll perhaps have seen fly-fishing on TV. I recall watching a sporting celebrity casting in a chalk stream on an idyllic simmer’s evening. As the sun refracted and reflected off the chuckling waters, insects danced in sunbeams. Our fisherman, dressed in chest-high waters and a daft hat, lazily flicked the line to and fro before the fly landed, butterfly-like, in the shade of a bush twenty yards away. A spot that looks the ideal resting place for a rainbow or a brown. That’s how it should be done. And this is pretty much how my mate does it, minus the sun and lazy summer insects. He makes it look easy, as does anyone with the confidence of practice (and a little natural ability).

‘I’ll leave you too it then,’ he says as he marches off to another ‘peg’ with his rod and landing net. In this situation, a peg is a designated fishing position marked by a small white post in the ground – as opposed to something with which you secure your underpants to a clothesline.

He locates himself about twenty yards away behind a spindly willow tree, chucks his fly in. We now experience two very different minutes. He lands a trout within a few seconds - a thrashing, wriggling thing. I can see him battling with it behind his leafless tree. He releases it and I can sense he's happy.

My minute is, er, less accomplished. As instructed, I pull some spare line off the reel, pull the rod back to vertical, pause a moment and bring the rod forward…. oh, but no - my fly gets stuck in a bush behind me. Thankfully Steve can’t see - he’s hidden behind the willow. I’m doing my best but am operating with the panic of unfamiliarity. It’s like my fly is the enemy and I’m trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible. I disentangle it from the bush and have a second chuck. I do it with the manic force of someone trying to throw his fly into the next parish. My forward thrust is accompanied by a whooshing, whipping noise, as the rod whips through at lightning speed. I imagine the noise to be like that of a stray bullet whistling past. My line gets hopelessly tangled round the far end of the rod and I realize that the casting sequence fell apart………. because I was standing on the line!

Finally, I get a bit of rhythm and I manage to lob the fly out about fifteen yards. Then panic! I get a bite. My line charges left and right as a fish, suffering the indignity of being hooked by an idiot, tries to escape. And escape it does. It’s a relief in some ways, poor fish. I realize that I have the wrong attitude if I’m sympathizing with my prey. Stalin wouldn’t have become the tyrant he did with that attitude.

I settled down and cast again, and again…… and again. I’m just about to give up and go and have one of the sausages my wife kindly cooked to fuel our adventure, when I get another bite. This one stays on long enough for Steve to arrive. ‘It’s a big one,’ he says, as he wanders over from his peg. ‘A real beauty.’

This one entertained me for about 27 seconds before it had had enough and disappeared to the depths with about 6 feet of my friend’s line attached to a rather smart ‘fluffy white fly’. I can safely say that this description is inaccurate. These carefully crafted, bespoke flies have been developed by fly-fishermen over millennia and given appropriate names – unlike ‘fluffy white fly’. I think that one was called a cat’s eye fly or cat’s whisker. Whichever, it was about three quid’s worth of fluff that will never again see the light of day.

My fish did feel strong, and we’d got into an arm-wrestle. Which, it turns out, is the wrong thing to do. I should have let it run; let it take some line. Instead, not wanting to be outmuscled by a trout, I pulled like hell and the line snapped.

‘You should have let it run,’ said Steve helpfully after the fish had won.

‘It has done,’ I reply.

‘Yes, but with you still attached to it.’

Of course, he’s instructing me after the event, which isn’t much good. At least, as far as landing that particular fish is concerned. But at least he’s proving the maxim, ‘you learn by your cock-ups'. The thing is, he can’t possibly anticipate everything. Regarding some aspects of ‘the art of fly fishing’, he may have hoped I’d rely on my intuition and common sense, like not getting a fly stuck in a bush. But others, like the landing of a fish, could have benefitted from some rudimentary instruction. I can only conclude that he didn’t expect me to hook anything.

And that was it for me. We retired to the ‘club house’ where somebody had considerately turned the fire off, and we got stuck into the sausages. I had been for a bike ride earlier in the morning, about 18 miles in freezing, gusty winds, so reckoned I deserved the lion’s share of the bangers. The flask of coffee I’d put up was welcome too. We shared a comradely half hour, relating heroic tales of conquests and cock-ups. A bit like the inquest in the bar after a round of golf when the day’s indiscretions become but distant memories. Time (and alcohol) have rescued many a sporting performance.

Steve decided he wanted ‘a final half hour’ so he togged up again and I watched him reel in 3 fish at the rate of one a minute. I can take some of the credit for this surge in fish because it happened to coincide with my second retirement from fly-fishing.

There's a reason that Steve now landed a veritable shoal of fish. I believe that the trout had this inbuilt sense that I was no longer a threat. They’d dropped their guard you see, because a mighty hunter had retired from the game, allowing Steve, a mere journeyman fisher, to profit.

I went to chat with another brave (and cold) soul, fishing down the way. I learned he is a resident of Keswick, so I was able to say something vaguely sensible, having lived there for 6 months about forty years ago. I’d also stayed there during my recent cross-country cycle ride. Nice chap he was, though he did have limited mobility. The only signs of life were the movement of arms and head. He’d been there a while, so I feared he was petrified to his canvas stool.

Then the owner of the fishery wandered up with four of the most beautiful black Labradors, sheer black and the picture of health. He was asking if I was the owner of the camper van parked in his car park. I affirmed, realizing that he was making sure I wasn’t a wild camper – a phenomenon that is becoming more frequent. Unfortunately, those who don’t respect 'wild' sites (unofficial spaces as opposed to designated campsites) and leave litter (and worse) lying around, are getting campers in general a bad name. As is often the case, it’s the decent, considerate people who suffer as private landowners and councils crack down on ‘wild’ camping. Once he realized I was merely a heroic sporting god, he was very affable.

Steve caught six nice trout, including a blue, a species I had never even heard of, never mind caught. In fact, I caught bugger all, instead experiencing a series of minor disasters. It may have been amusing to onlookers, but, I suspect my second retirement will be my last.

I can’t quantify the rate-per-fish of my sporting 'investment’, namely £26.60 - because I didn’t catch any. I can claim £13.30 per bite I suppose. More realistically, it works out at £3.31 per frozen finger, without taking into account two dead thumbs and assorted frozen extremities. But despite it all, I enjoyed my few hours at Bessy Beck Fishery.

Conviviality and comradeship is what it’s all about.