My experience of last Friday got me thinking about fish that I have lost over the years and the varying degrees of anguish which I felt each time the line went suddenly slack. Of course we all lose fish - plenty of them – and the vast majority are soon forgotten; the little sprot that drops off soon after being hooked, the knackered stockie we were trying to drag in quickly, you know the sort of thing.
But then there are others – the ones which live in the memory for weeks, even years after. The ones which leave the angler with that sudden, bewildered, gut-deep emptiness and afterwards, that tendency we all have to exaggerate and embellish the details of the events in the interest of a good yarn.
Last Friday’s trout fell into neither of these categories for me. Sure I was disappointed, but in the context of the day I can’t say I was surprised and when I drew the fish toward me and saw the tenuous grip that my size 16 hook had on his upper jaw, I realised that one good twist and the fish would be off.
I suppose that trout would have made the day, but if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think his capture would have made the day a truly memorable one – the weather was too foul and my feet too cold and there was little beauty in the day. For me the joy of a fishing day is as much about the water, wildlife and countryside as catching fish. On days when the wonders of nature conspire to provide a totally absorbing and life-affirming experience, the capture of a fine fish sometimes helps to elevate the occasion to something almost ethereal; but when the weather makes it a struggle and the river appears lifeless, no fish that swims can lift that day to the same status.
I reckon there to be three categories into which I can place the fish I have lost – at least the ones which stand out in my memory. They can be described thus:
Scenario 1: A fish is hooked and it is quickly apparent that it is a good ‘un. The fish is played for a period of time, during which it is seen (leaping clear, thrashing on the surface etc), and its size can be pretty accurately estimated. Then it’s off.
Most of the fish I lose fall into this category and events are usually accompanied by a sentence like ‘Bugger! That was a good fish!’ I lost a really big brownie and a salmon in this fashion on the same day last season, whilst bugging for grayling - and it hurt.
Scenario 2: A fish is hooked, played out and then as it is being drawn, knackered, over the rim of the net, the hook pings out. See same exclamation as above and reference Friday’s trout. I can never get too upset about this situation as the way I see it, the fish has been successfully fooled, hooked and as good as landed, and I probably wasn’t going to kill it anyway.
Scenario 3: This is the one that messes my head up. The fish is hooked, immediately feels large and is played for a period of time. Then it’s off and the fish hasn’t even been seen. Cue wild speculation as to what species was hooked and more importantly, how big it was. The imagined immensity of the fish increases proportionately with the amount of time the angler was attached to the unseen beast. Thus a pike I hooked on the River Wyre when I was a lad and fought for around 30 minutes without even seeing my float resurface, will always be a thirty pounder in my imagination.
I remember hooking a fish on the Lune downstream of Broadraine Weir a few years ago. I was fishing the lingy-coloured remnants of a spate with a small redworm on light tackle, hoping for a sea-trout, when I got that indescribable feeling that we fishers get, which tells us to lift, tells us that something has taken the bait - and when I did, I was greeted by the solid resistance of something very large indeed. The fish proceeded to make a couple of slow, deep circuits of the dub before a shake of the head of awesome power and the line literally fizzing through the surface as it powered off downstream and shook the tiny hook’s hold.
That fish haunts me to this day. Was it a decent-sized salmon, maybe even just a fresh grilse, feeling massive on my light tackle……or was it the sea trout of a lifetime?
I will never know.