Just as music is all about the spaces between the notes, and how you can judge the authenticity of a friend who fails to say or do something, so there is much to learn from when you don’t catch fish.
Longest silence, and all that stuff. It’s therapeutic. It’s not about the fish.
I recently spent a day on the Mooi, when the wind blew so damned hard that when I got to Krantz pool, I swear the water was occasionally piling up in a great big bulge in the middle of the stream before flattening out again in a big noisy flopping motion, that had me feeling nervous about hippos. And at scissors run, a gust actually blew my line off the surface of the water into a pile of sticks. I didn’t see a fish all day.
Then before the season opened I went off to a stillwater on my own. I sort of snuck out there without telling my fishing buddies, on the strength of an illogical hunch I had that there would be big fish there. I had never fished the water before. There were big fish there. Two of them. I lost them both. One snapped me up when I stood on the line. The other one pulled my leader out of the end of the fly line. Bloody superglue! Anton makes you drink when you get snapped off. I am avoiding him.
Then as the first storms of early November were starting to make an appearance, I went out on a day when the water was a soup of runoff…all deep green like and smacking of good fish. I threw delicate midges, and peeping caddis, and small “Gold Ribbed”. Then I chucked a big dragon on an intermediate line. Then a woolly bugger. Then a massive Minkie. I ended up with a minnow imitation that Roy had asked me whether I intended to use in the salt.
It looked so good. The others got fish. Me. Nil.
Then one year I forked out on rental of a top water with a few other guys. A top, top water. A really top water. My buddies made pigs of themselves. On my fourth trip out there I landed a stockie that might have gone thirteen inches.
The other day I was out in the mist chucking that dragon of mine all day. You know the one that you can’t go wrong on….the famous one. All day.
I came home late to find my family had picked up a stray dog. A basset. My son, with disregard to its gender, thought it looked like a dog that should be called “Kevin”. It was on heat. I went to bed.
In Thomas McGuane’s wonderful book of the same name he writes “For the ardent fisherman, progress is toward the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals.”
That is a deep thought, and one that makes me feel a little better. Clearly I am progressing, because I am not catching a whole pile of fish! Of course I would like to catch some better sized fish, or a few more of them, but I will bow graciously to this “progress” that has been bestowed on me.
The truth be told, I have done a great deal of progressing in my time as a fly-fisherman. Quite aside from my current slump, I have had some steep graphed periods in which I could not complain about the size of the fish, or the mix being in favour of “stockies” as is currently the case, because I caught nothing at all.
My kids have just ended school for the short September holiday, and it reminds me of such a ten day holiday of my own. We had stocked a small dam over on the far boundary of the farm, and the fish should by then have grown to a size that they were worthy of being caught. It was however a warm year, so I fished only the early mornings. It must have been before I was riding a motorbike or driving, because I remember walking there and back every day before breakfast for ten days straight. Each morning I would see a fish or two rise, or experience some small glimmer of hope, for I returned every single day. But every day I trudged well over a kilometer back to the farmhouse, empty handed and hungry for the first meal of the day. Ten days straight, I tell you, and not so much as a nibble.
A diary entry of mine in July 1998 records that one of my pals had his 17th blank day straight!
As a university student, a few of us once took off for a week and camped at Glengarry campsite. We fanned out each day and fished various stillwaters. One or two of the guys got a fish here or there, but they were very sparse, and I remember enough to know that I caught nothing at all. My diary records that it was so cold that my toothpaste froze, and I remember it being as miserable as that. After a week of camping and blank fishing days my buddies dropped me back at the farm, where I wasted no time in calling Guy, my other fishing friend, and arranging to go and fish Aberfoyle dam the very next day. We caught nothing there either!
Aberfoyle dam was a lovely NFFC water, close to town, but the rules were such that you had to park and walk to the dam , which put many people off. We often went there and fished, and waved at the drivers of the passing trains. On one trip back in 1989, the water was dirty, and we caught nothing at all, yet again. We did however consume a few beers, the effects of which had us wondering if we could employ a trick from the old stories in which a can of milk was poured into the river in the morning to clear up the water for later in the day.
The strange thing about these slow patches, it that they cause me to want to fish more, and to fish more carefully. They serve to heighten the pleasure of the days when it does all come together. But beside all that, some of the greatest mischief, some of the best memories, and the most unusual experiences, have been had plunking around in water apparently devoid of fish.
So here’s to progress!
May it end soon.