Hannah Hamilton on how things are going at The Inchbeg Fishing School;
Oh, how fast nettles grow! I’ve only been away from the River Field for three weeks and the banks already look like nobody ever loved them, with stingers towering five, even six feet high, choking the bank for a half a mile.
In wellies and too-thin jeans, I’ve negotiated a way through this vicious green mangrove to the edge of the low field, imagining slithy toves underfoot, borrogroves at every turn, beastliness and never-ending rabbit holes lurking in the dips, with me the Fantastical Adventurer on the hunt for secret pools of fishy treasure…
I’m not sure my colourful narrative will wash with the fishermen, though, especially those that are used to the naked banks and convenient jetties of well-stocked lakes, who turn up to the relative wilderness of the Inchbeg Fishing School in shorts and trainers and put on brave faces while wringing every last drop from the docs… Yes, it’s time to take a menagerie of rotating blades to this jungle – strimmers, hedgecutters, two types of mower – and cut the venom out. For the sake of business, if nothing else.
Business, now you mention it, is ticking over quite nicely. We’ve had four groups of fishermen so far, with the fifth booked in, and the sixth, seventh and maybe even eighth poking their noses over the horizon, meaning we’ve broken even and are now in three digits of profit for the Alzheimer’s Society, which we’re chuffed with.
I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately, and it’s occurred to me that learning to fly fish has a lot in common with learning to play the guitar. Just as no aspiring guitar virtuoso imagines themselves on stage strumming a three chord folk song at a forgiving mid tempo, nobody learning to fly fish dreams of catching a four-inch sprat, or a sheep, or a tree, or worse, casting forward and watching the top of the rod fly off and float away down the river.
And yet all of these things do happen, and with considerably more frequency than triumphant encounters with 10lb salmon or 2lb trout.
Experienced coarse fishermen, used to stringing up a hook, lobbing it in the water, having a snooze while waiting for the alarm to go off frustrate themselves with the intricacies, delicate arts and frequent losses of fly fishing in much the same way that Guitar Hero champions visibly wither when a real live six string crosses their path.
The fiddly little flies with knots and eyes and fine, fine lines that break and snap like spider’s webs… The pitch and rhythm, the aim and timing, in one single cast… The gentle flourish at the end of a sustained note, when the line unfurls gracefully onto the water and the fly plinks itself down right on top of the rise with just the right amount of reverb…
Fish like their dinner presented in a calm, natural, appetising manner. And to do that requires patience, focus, technique and instinct… all things necessary for great art.
For many people, stumbling across the art in something you’d always assumed was a skill bookends the experience with tension, which is of course completely at odds with the aim. We fish to unwind, it’s true, but in order to fly fish we must be unwound already. After all, lines don’t lie: fish feel the frustration when they whip the water, they know when a cast is aggressively flung. They see the tree shake as you rip your embedded fly from a branch. They smell the testosterone in the sweat oozing from your pores, and they don’t have much of a taste for it (which is why, I’m told, women make better fly-fisherpeople).
…when you relax and ease into the score of the cast, when you let your self consciousness float away downstream, when you fall into rhythm with all that’s around you, when the line makes that gorgeous “switch” sound and the big trout gulp in harmony with each other and the subtleties of the riverside symphony emerge from pizzicato into a rich, devastating fortississimo…
…then you begin to learn how to fly fish.
And there’s no lesson can teach you that.
(Hannah introduced us to The Inchbeg Fishing School in ‘River Man’, her beautiful contribution to ‘Caught by the River – A Collection of Words on Water‘).