Friday, 8 May 2015

Waxing Time



If fly-fishing is a pointless activity, fly-tying is possibly an even bigger waste of time. Unless you are particularly nimble fingered, it’s going to be a slow process. I could buy thousands of flies in the thirty seconds it takes me press assuredly on my Ipad. Instead, thirty minutes of nervous fumbling will get me two flies. It’s an entirely false economy. My kit, my beads, my feathers and my hooks probably make each fly I tie fly worth about £5. On an average fishing trip I expect to lose one or two flies, I probably lose three or four. I might as well be lobbing bottles of Pouilly Fume into the river.

Then again, that’s price. Fly tying is value. I think I can tie a more ethical fly. I can ensure that all my hooks are barbless, I avoid exotic materials. I do wish the welfare of the chickens by suppliers of my saddle feathers were better. It is hypocritical of me to buy free range eggs and buy factory farm feathers. So I’ve stopped buying any new saddles until I can find a better source. More importantly, I know who has tied it. My working conditions are great. This is my shed/office space.


 I am pretty sure that many cheap flies are tied by underpaid people in horrible conditions.
The real value though is in the enjoyment. It’s a truly mindless activity, which makes it mindful. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in thepresent moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity
As I concentrate on the feel of thread and feather on my fingers, or even a sharp prick from careless hook handling, I am taken away from my daily woes, or lingering problems. This sort of activity is meant to be good for you. The true joy of fly-tying is found through a warm embrace of the ridiculous. Trying to create something beautiful with precision from the detritus of dead things is silly. Surely no sane person should buy a filing cabinet to house nothing else but a motley collection of squirrel tails and dried up rabbit faces? Crazier still, I’m really proud of my neat system for carcass storage.

I had great fun this week trying to imitate Gwilym Hughes’s famous Cul de Canon. It requires cobbler’s wax to add colour and sheen to yellow thread. This is difficult to source and it really is a needless expense at a time when I am trying to buy windows, carpets and kitchens. Therefore, I did a mad thing and decided to make my own. I sacrificed a block of fly tying wax given to me by the magisterial Michael Pattinson of Leeds Fly Dresser’s Guild with much kindness and, perhaps a little disdain, that I wasn’t properly equipped.  I couldn’t bear to melt my lovely block of pure beeswax made by Sally Pointer and her own bees.

Against all sound advice, I melted it in the microwave. My saucepans are far too posh to get covered in wax. It worked and a stirred in a tiny amounts of brown shoe polish using a satay stick. A cleaned up Nespresso Capsule served as a mould. I then had to wait patiently for the wax to set before it could be cut free from its metal shell.



The result was pleasingly disappointing in appearance. For my efforts, I made a small turd that smells of coffee.  


It’s a great tying wax though. The shoe polish has made it very tacky, which will be useful for sticking fur to it. I’m really pleased with the bodies of my first Cul de Canon efforts. The bodies are dull and shiny, a good imitation of a hatching olive. Two hours of mindfully wasted time. Brilliant.




Monday, 20 April 2015

Dipteran Dreams or Cycling to Work along the Thames Towpath



The truth of the matter is that buying and owning houses is not conducive to fishing or writing. Most weekends last season were spent traipsing through beige houses with beige carpets and bedspreads that were probably owned by beige people.  People of Surrey, you should know that you can buy things from places other than John Lewis- liberate yourselves! Yes, we’ve moved to Surrey. As a Cricklewood girl, leaving Zone 2 breaks my heart but moving to Surrey has meant I’m near to work and we have more than one bedroom and a fair chunk of garden. We bought the only house that wasn’t beige but that means it's a bit of a wreck- it’s full of potential though. Indeed it’s nothing but potential. Our minty green bathroom is downstairs and is bigger than our nicotine yellow kitchen. Nothing is insulated and our ceilings are weak. When we moved in every possible surface was covered in excrement both human and animal and everything else was covered in grime. Nature surrounds and invades us. We are still blessed frequently by the presence of false widow spiders but the two snails eating the dried piss behind the bidet were bid a crunchy farewell. It’s now clean but we have years of work ahead.Apart from its absence of beige, I love this silly terraced cottage because it’s near the river. It strikes me that I’ve often settled for living in places where the river defines the town. In York, the Ouse dominated the city; it was a wild river. My evening walks were punctuated by the sounds of pike gobbling things, its dark waters barely tamed.

I now own a bicycle and the bright evenings and mornings mean I now cycle to work along the river towpath to Hampton Court Palace where I work. I’m very spoiled. I’m not speedy; the shower situation in my Tudor office is a bit dire; so I strive to achieve nothing more than a lady’s glow rather than a horse’s sweat. It’s a pleasant enough four and half miles of river. The Thames is not a beautiful river. It lacks the stunning elegance of chalk streams. Chalk streams are the lazy Hollywood starlets of English rivers. The Thames by contrast is a working river, the actress’s cabbie.


For millennia the Thames has been carrying things, precious cargo, royal princes to their palaces and a heck of a lot of sewage. Even here, in Surrey, warehouses and factories protrude from the banks. The weirs and locks scream of industry, the river’s flow made even more workmanlike by steel and concrete interventions.


Reservoirs tower over my commuter stretch of river, they are both threatening and comforting. One day, when my garden is filled with poppies and salvia it will need water and if there is ever an earthquake, I will probably drown.


The sounds of splashing oars, rowlocks, sliding seats, officious coxes and grunting humans greet me daily when I cycle to work along the Thames to Hampton Court. My stretch of the Thames is littered with boat-houses. I’m filled with happy memories of pimms, champagne, the Bodleian and boys in  lycra. 

It’s an idyllic commute and I’m enjoying the achy stiffening of my chubby legs, they will get stronger and hopefully a little leaner. I’m enjoying seeing blossom and wilting daffodils and streaky patches of young bluebells. What I’m not enjoying is cycling through clouds of itchy midges. I keep swallowing them as I trundle along the towpath. This is rather horrid, and as I spit out the small and pathetic corpses of dead dipterae I am reminded that on other rivers there are flies hatching and trout rising and I`m not there.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

On Sea Trout


Sea trout have always seemed like a magic fish to me.  Their whole life stories are a mystery because there is apparently no real difference between their silver loveliness and a chubby, brown river trout.  Apparently, a bog standard trout will suddenly get a wanderlust and for no particular reason, head out to sea. Some years later, on a whim, the trout will return, prodigal-like to their birthplace to breed.  Yes, the sea trout is the mystic of the river, the aquatic equivalent of the moon-gazing hare.

My father told me true fairytales of sea trout fishing in Ireland, where all nights were a success because every night, like clock work, he would be accompanied by a furry faced otter. The first time my father took me with him was in Northumberland; I can’t have been much more than 12 years old. I was entranced by the flitting birds and confused by my hurting ears. My father mentioned slowly that they were bats and that the pulsing, repetitive stinging in my ears was their echo locating clicks. The whole evening was eerie. I could only think of vampires in the darkness.

The second time we went to a famous pool on the River Itchen. Monks from a different age excavated it as a pit to net salmon and sea trout. It forms a perfect circle reminiscent of standing-stones. I was an older and possibly surlier teenager and I think I was just about to start at University. I thought I was so damned smart. I read Hugh Falkus cover to cover sucking information from it. Needless to say, in that freezing cold night that poured with rain we caught bugger all. Falkus had told us that in those conditions it would be the case and so it was. Mr Falkus had, however, neglected to include any help or hints of any kind as to what to do when nearly two hundred swans (I counted) cover every inch of the pool and treat it like a cheap hotel in Benidorm.  There was no room to swing a cat and certainly, my duffer skills of an inept student didn’t allow me to cast anywhere with any success. It was as if the trout had conspired and cast some dark magic spell to smother the water with white birds. Their hissing and aggressive, magnificent wing-flapping gave the swans an air of guardianship.

All in all I was pleased to return there this year. I felt I had unfinished business with swan lake.  The conditions were kinder, the weather was good, the tide was right. My father, our friend and I were so excited. I felt edgy and clammy and our conversation almost turned to shouting with all the nervous energy.  We set to fishing, excitedly assembling our gear and casting into the inky pool full of hope.


That pool, for all its mysticism is intimidatingly urban. You fish under the glare of streetlights overlooked by a Brutalist tower block.  Police sirens and the wail of ambulances accompany the hoots and tweets of birdlife.  We were joyfully swan free.  However, to be honest, I still don’t know what I am doing and neither really did any of us. As the hours passed our chum who wears dodgy waders hooked in to a silver beauty. As a band of amateurs, landing and killing the trout in the dark became a team affair. I made artless lunges in the dark with the net. Once netted our friend walked 20 yards away from the river in order to claim his prize and avoid it spilling back into the water. My father made the deathblow. He and I spent the rest of the evening green with envy, sour-faced and fish-less. However, by morning I think I understood more about how to catch sea trout; how your line and the tide and the currents need to be forced to conspire together to snare a moon trout.  As the sun rose, we bundled ourselves into the car and I was dropped back at work. I was able to snatch two hours of sleep on the sofa in my office. I wrapped myself up in discarded silk damask from the Haunted Gallery and close my eyes. My sleepy mind clouded with desperate longing to return and catch a sea trout, the spookiest of fish.