illustration by Jon McNaught
An extract from the new Caught by the River book, On Nature.
Ireland gave me my first trout. I went there every summer in my teens, to stay with a pal of mine – Simon – at his mother’s and my Godmother’s house near Caherdaniel in Co. Kerry. The first year we took the train from Paddington, bikes in the goods van, London Calling on the tape deck. I seem to recall Milford Haven ablaze, an orange firmament dancing on the underside of clouds as we set sail. Maybe it always looked like that. The ferry smelt of sick and bleach but it was exciting just to be crossing the waters. I didn’t sleep much and woke early to watch the green, rolling pastures of the Cork estuary slide slowly by. The seventy mile bike ride from Cork to the far end of Kerry – past the highest pub in Ireland where chickens roamed the bar – took us a full day and my arse was sore at the end of it. But I was used to cycling then and at the far end we cycled a whole lot more. Rods over handlebars we pounded the Ring of Kerry tarmac from Waterville to Sneem and back again and though we fished more or less every day, for a long time that first summer we caught absolutely nothing – though our enthusiasm was undimmed. Days rock-hopping Lamb’s Head, evenings at the disco in Casey’s Cove: all this added up to an idyllic summer in my book, fish or no fish. But I remember the very first finned creature – a flounder – hooked off Derrynane. Simon reeled it in, jumped up and down with joy, lit a cigarette, made a victory sign, and hit it on the head. We ate it and it didn’t taste of much, other than success, but after that fishing seemed easy.
We got better at our sport and soon pollack and wrasse were caught. Simon was never happier than when he was sitting on a rock, fag in gob, doing his best to look like Terry Hall, waiting for one of those marine beasties to pull his string. Something else pulled me though, down the road to a stream that drained Eagles Hill, the valley ending in rock and cloud out of which spilled a mercurial, frothy torrent. It fell quickly down the steep hill, past an ancient hill-fort to Castlecove, where, for the last few hundred yards before it hit the sea the stream slowed enough to allow a bit of weed to grow on the engine blocks that made a riffle under the bridge of the N70. The river turned a long corner around the back of some kind of junk yard or bus depot, and a few of the old lumps of iron no longer needed or able to power western Kerry’s wheezy old buses had rolled down that bank into the Castlecove river. In those last few lazy pools, that no-one else ever fished, and which no-one ever stopped me from fishing, were enormous brown trout. Some went to 8 oz. I didn’t know how to cast a fly then and wouldn’t have been able to anyway – the place was a thicket of gorse and overgrown trees that turned the deepest pools into blackened caves of possibility. I had a short, green spinning rod that I’d built in the school hobby-room and a croaky old Invicta fixed-spool reel. I used a worm – no floats or lead – flicked upstream and drifted back towards me. I watched the line for takes. They came thick and fast. The river, like most Irish rivers I have since fished, was full of trout. Sometimes several small fish would grapple with the same outsized lobworm. And sometimes a whopper would slide out from the drowned roots of the streamside trees or from behind a crank-case, to engulf it whole. I still remember the first. It jumped clear of the water and danced like crazy on the end of the line and was just so damn pretty. I fell in love with trout then and, locked inside the Song of Wandering Aengus, I’ve been fishing for them ever since.