By Bill Drew
The poacher peered at me with concern as he cradled his pint of light. The smoke filled bar had its usual three dogs, four old timers and assorted charcters. There was no jukebox and the TV was only switched on for Racing Rubgy and Football. If you did not like it "Mine Host" usually gave you the option of leaving in a crisply delivered phrase of two words one of which had four letters. The ale was good and a round for two cost about the same as an unpretentious glass of Chardonnay in the city.
The poacher had obviously arrived somewhat early in the day and was now in a talkative mood. I was grateful for he knew his fish and every inch of the local water from the Yarrow valley to "Wild" Ettrick side. He had taken trout, grayling, pike and especially salmon in every way known to man. He had then probably added some black arts of his own. Retired by the local constabulary from some of the more legally dubious aspects of his craft he now looked on me as an aging apprentice. Until his baby son was old enough to carry on the fishing traditions of many generations then I would do. This with a few adjectives removed is a description of a few of my early lessons.
First he shook his head sagely as I described my recent season and intermitten success (or as a pessimist would say frequent failure). To encourage me he praised my early year grassing of grayling from the upper Tweed." A good fish the grayling ", he said, "more guts spunk and power than a brownie in my book". Warming to the task he concluded all debate on the topic, "Man a graylings mair half pike half trout than anything else - a hardy survivor that just does away with out any soul giving it a helping hand". We drank to the grayling. "And why did you score with the grayling then" he quizzed. He soon told me the answer. Firstly I had fished where and when no-one else chose to fish. Secondly I had fished only a quarter of a mile of bank until I knew it like an old friend. Finally I had fished alone and relatively quietly. Still I had broken a number of golden rules. Having been daft enough to fish when the water was too high I had then chosen to turn up my nose at the humble worm. Next I had allowed my social life to put fishing in second place inevitably venturing out when the water was too dirty/bright/cold etc." If you want to limit your chances of catching trout you surely have all the tricks . Remember that as a fisher the fish should come first. You can put the rest down to experience". In addition I was fishing blind, I was trying to catch fish without knowing if they were there. Vainly I protested that the local waters were no southern chalkstream. The poacher reminded me that you did not actually have to see a fish to be able to know that it was there. It was clear that I had to be taken in hand. A master class was to follow and soon. Glasses clinked again.
Numerous other less important items delayed the process. I bumped into the poacher in the square and the High street. "Theres nothing like the yellow flash of a trouts belly winking at you from the water", and other such pithy asides whetted my appetite. May itself arrived and the great day dawned.
The poacher had actually bought a permit for the season, and the local police force had first of all breathed a sigh of relief before understandably returning to cynicism. The poacher had mentioned the possible use of "leather men", caddis grubs. Apparently some locals felt that the beasties were kept at their squirming best by being stored by the angler between the teeth and the upper lip, handy for rapid insertion on the hook, ready moistened. Thankfully the "leather men had passed by the time we hit the river. We were equipped for the day. Vitals, fluid, kit and enthusiasm were abundant. The Ettrick and Yarrow awaited us and my schooling was to begin.
The poacher was frequently diverted by his hunt for bailiffs. He was desperate to meet one of his old protaganists and wave his permit in their face. He was to be disappointed. First we tried a favourite pot in the Ettrick. We were not amused to find a fellow fisher casting a little way from our destination. The stranger was no local, " A foreigner by the look of him and not used to our ways, French or Italian". I puffed with pride as the poacher made me a newly christened "local". I had only lived in the town for 15 years. It usually took a generation, if you were willing to work hard at blending in, before you stopped being an incomer. The chap in question was indeed worse than foreign, he was English, but pleasant enough in a vaguely "Home Counties" way. When he confessed that he was up for a wedding but had taken his rod with him, he seemed acceptable enough to us both. The poacher passed on a recommended fly and some advice, after tutting at the bright collection of lures which the stranger had offered for inspection.
We nipped cross country to the Yarrow. Parking we passed through woodland pausing for a brief discourse on what makes a good stick, a topic worthy of a PHD. Skirting a fallen tree we came upon a pool which literally took my breath away. It was cupped in a hollow with only the sound of birds and nearby gurgling rapids to break the silence. The opposite steep bank had bushes and native trees jostling to reach the water and chuck goodies on the trout below. In places it was very very deep. It also had shallows and a rippling area of near calm.
That day the poacher worked with a worm, followed by a single wet fly and he even considered the dry despite the high water. Nothing succeeded but as he fished he read the river for me. The spot below the bush where a ripple channeled food; the slow easy draw which always held fish but at a mid to bottom level; the spot where escaped rainbows from a fishery some way down stream seemed to feel relaxed and ready to resume fairly indiscriminating guzzling All this was to prove true in the next few weeks as I the Duffer took but never killed trout from this spot. The largest was a 3/4 lb brownie which refused to surrender and when eventually released took off at 20 knots and not even a thank you. 1/4 1/2 lb was the norm but in that tight spot , where a back cast was a luxury, they all felt like a triumph. I lost two for every one to the net. These guys had never met a stockie and they certainly were not keen to become better aquainted with the Duffer.
The poacher told me of a celebrated worthy who had cast a line for salmon directly in front of the "Big House" at a spot near Melrose on the full blown Tweed. A furious plus-foured lady of the house had sent him on his way with dire threats. "Did he not know that this was her water"? Two hours later she had near apoplexy when she came upon the same rougue again casting in front of her home. " Im sorry, you see I heard what you said and went for a seat and a smoke under yonder brigg. I am back because by now surely all of your water will have been past and on its way to Kelso." His explanation was of course illegal and unacceptable but for dumb insolence it takes a lot of beating.
© Bill Drew 1999
This article has also been published in the UK Flyfishing Magazine: FISH AND FLY: www.fishandfly.co.uk
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