Monday, 20 June 2016

Ephemeral Anguish

I think if we fishermen are honest with ourselves we spend the first couple of months of the season waiting. Throwing weighty nymphs and speculative casts are all well and good but it’s never truly satisfying. 
So, for the early parts of the season we watch and wait for hatches of march browns and clouds of grannom but nothing captivates us like the mayfly. Their life cycle means crazed fish and fishermen. There’s an intense sense of getting to the river “first” at my club at the moment. Members are determined to grab the best beats as they hunt for fish and the mayfly. For many, this is the only time of year they fish. I’d like to say I’m immune but there is nothing quite like watching a river change and go into a frenzy as angry looking trout gobble up lace-like and fragile mayfly. Or indeed my favourite spectacle of all, watching little ducklings strain their necks to snap at them.


Last season enormous hatches blessed my daily cycle along the Thames. They seemed to be everywhere, dancing above the brambles or fluttering into my face. Every evening as I crossed the bridge at Hampton court, there were always a few resting in the stone bridge. Normally, the webs, which span the fine, baroque ironwork at the palace are peppered with mayfly corpses.  I enjoyed listening to squeals of horror as they invaded the garden of my local pub. For me, a resting mayfly on a cool pint glass is a welcome companion.

This year, my cycle rides are spent straining my neck to see traces of mayfly in cobwebs, or their shucks floating on the slower, gloomier parts of the river.  


I’ve become fascinated by scavenging seagulls, dipping and diving for elusive insects over the barges. I question the custody team at work about them, and none have become imprisoned in the Tijou. 
Tijou Screen Hampton Court Palace.

I’m getting desperate. Where are they? I angered a speedy lycra-clad cyclist by dithering on the banks as I searched for signs of mayfly presence. He shouted “fucking knob” at me and I shouted back “Don’t you care about nature you sweaty bastard?” At first I questioned my aggression but I was anxious. Anxious over the whereabouts of an ephemeral insect.

Monday, 13 July 2015

On Marginalia...

My mother said I should never write in books.  Sorry Ma, but I’ve always ignored you on that one. School set-texts were vigorously highlighted and annotated, I even colour coded my scribbles. My museum training tells me that these books are now forever ruined and conservators make me fear biro being both indelible and acidic. My school copy of Pride and Prejudice will probably fizzle and crumble away but for now my teenage scribbles of “ooh er Mr Darcy”,“Go Lizzy!” and “yawn, yawn, yawn” make me smile and have recorded my first impressions of reading that great novel. Incidentally, I don’t actually like the book that much but I did enjoy the BBC seres, you know, the one where Colin Firth jumps in a lake.

I found genuine joy as a student reading the well-thumbed Bodleian copies of the standard texts. In true Oxford pretentious fashion, there would be long commentaries by individual students, arguing in the margins, academic, arrogant posturing.  Other scribbles were more helpful. I am forever thankful to the student who wrote ‘this is bollocks, read Brian Davies instead’. It saved me a lot of time on the run up to a tight deadline. Indeed, I think I remember adding an illicit “thanks” in the margin.  Best of all though, is when you see a scribble in a book that was given as a present and memories of that person and that past flood back. 

There’s a long history of margin scribbling. One of my favourite museum objects ever is Liebniz’s copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, in the Bodmer museum in Geneva. It’s annotated all over; the hatchings and blots are the reasons behind their longstanding and famous battle for scientific supremacy in the eyes of the establishment. In my own studies, the daily menus of King George I list pies, eels, and boiled beef in the main, but the margins have hasty additions of things like liverwurst and pretzels- evidence of a German monarch longing for home. There’s a word for these bonus pieces of text- marginalia.  As someone who regularly trawls through the archives, finding an inky, blotchy scribble in the side-lines is always exciting. They point out errors, bring a little context, or just add a welcome human distraction in the endless pages of accounts and bureaucracy I'm often reading.

The skill of fishing chalk-streams is really the ability to skirt your fly close to the reeds, under trees and in the edges. It’s an exercise in reading marginalia, for in these snug spots lie the biggest and most wily of trout. Some fishermen are numbers men, happy to drag nymphs in the main current through shoals of grayling or torture baby trout that rise for anything. Personally, I’d rather endure more Jane Austen; it’s a bore unhooking grayling and they make my hands smell. So, unless it’s a specimen size, these days catching a grayling is a disappointment. I’m not after pewter; I’m chasing gold. So clear troughs of gravel are best ignored.

I’ve had some good trout this season. In April, when it can be a bit cold and dire my father and I spotted a snug spot, where tree roots had made a pretty ring, almost like bathing pool. Although nothing had risen and the river had not yet cleared enough to see through, I plopped a nymph to its edge and winkled out a tubby trout. It was particularly pleasing as I'd tied  it myself to my own experimental design using lots of peacock, green dubbing, and copper.

In early June I had a fantastic and rare, free afternoon following a successful bid at Christies for work. I hopped into my car changed out of a suit and into scruffy stuff in a motorway service station. After a slow afternoon, I was treated to a spate of mayfly. I watched a steady riser on the edge of a flowering flowing stretch of reed. I wanted to speed towards it, but that never works, so I had an agonising slow walk, casting and catching irrelevant small fish along the way. I arrived in casting range, steeled myself, cast and caught the reeds then cast and caught the reeds again. Luckily they were so thick, nothing was disturbed, but I was taking a chance. On the third cast, when by some godly grace my fly landed well and could trace the line of weed, I got her; a plump and pretty fish worth waiting for: mission accomplished.

With time to spare, I took three steps forward and saw a lovely, dark inlet. Again, I willed my fly to kiss the reeds because the spot looked likely. It was. I don’t often boast or brag but this was a good three-pound cock fish, it was also really, bloody, ugly. It had a kype and a generally rather bruised and dark appearance.  Still, this “outsider” of a trout serves as an extreme example of the rewards of fishing on the edges. A wise fisherman told me once, “that if I haven’t lost at least three flies, I’m not trying hard enough”. That can only be because he knows the wisest thing to do is to ignore the mainstream and hunt in the margins.

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.