Wednesday 25 August 2010

Fishing Trips III: Looking for Eloy

The weather has been rather miserable in Yorkshire recently and I have been thinking of sunnier times.

A few years back I went to Belize as part of a tour to Mexico. The trip was ostensibly to look at Mayan ruins. However, most of the trip was spent exploring the wilds and jungles of the Yucatan. By the time we had reached Belize, I had swum in ice cold underground rivers, seen shit throwing spider monkeys and tasted the most glorious toffee-like Guatemalan coffee whilst playing scrabble in a tree house. I had one overwhelming worry. I hadn’t done enough fishing. My highly giggle-making boat trip, where I had braved tampons and rednecks gave me a taste for salt-water fly fishing.

We arrived on Caye Caulker with our backpacks and our smelly selves assembled on golf buggies. I looked out onto the bright blue shallow seas and thought of fish. I looked out towards the town and spotted something fabulous- a man with a fly rod. I’m not sure if this is true, but I am sure I leapt off the golf buggy and started chasing him. I caught up with him, nearly splicing my flip-flopped feet in the process.

“You can fish here?”
“Yeah, been after bonies”,
“How do I arrange it?”
“Oh you need to speak to Eloy”
“Who is Eloy, and where do I find him”.
“Not sure, just ask”.

Now, Caye Caulker is part of a string of limestone islands and atolls on the Belizean barrier reef. Despite being in central America, the official language is English, the Queen is on the banknotes and the population consists largely of the Rastafarian descendents of slaves brought over by the English to cut Mahoghany. The rest of the population is Amish, but that’s another story. The whole island is rather like an advert for Lilt, it has a totally tropical taste.
We arrived at the hotel and my search for Eloy began. You have to imagine the native dialogue in a Caribbean accent. When I try to mimic it, I sound Welsh. I asked at the hotel reception.

“I’m searching for a man called Eloy, do you know where I can find him?”
“Oh he be aroun”
"jus’ keep walkin’’”

I walked towards the town. The houses are wooden affairs on stilts painted bright colours. Coconuts and fishing nets litter the streets. Chickens squawk and run about.

“I’m sorry, can you tell me where I can find Eloy?”
“Eloy the fisherman?”
“Eloy, he crazee, you fin’ him aroun”
“But where?”
“Oh, aroun’ town”

“I’m looking for Eloy”
“Eloy, the fisherman?”
“Yes”. I was getting a little exasperated, I had been walking through a very small town a rather long time
“You wanna catch bonies?”
“I’d like to go fly fishing yes”
“Follow me”

I followed the man down the only back alley in town. I was worried and clutched onto my travellers cheques and passports tightly. He knocked on a door marked Eloy’s Fishing Experiences. No one was in. I was a bit despondent. My raised hopes dashed and I had got rather bored of this Caribbean Kafka. Suddenly the man squawked like one of the shit-hrowing spider monkeys I had seen before.

Baby girl, I’m Eloy. You’ve asked nearly every man in this town! Everywhere I went they was saying there’s some English girl wanting to go fly-fishing” He squawked again, “You should see your face!”

I laughed hysterically with him. “So bonies on the fly, this I gotta see, I’ll take you the day after tomorrow, see me here at 5am”.

I was overjoyed and walked back looking out onto the flats. The next day I snorkelled with sharks and manatees, fishing tomorrow would be rather different from an English chalkstream.

Monday 16 August 2010

On Arrogance

I’ve been having a brilliant summer’s fishing. In May, I was surrounded by a surfeit of buttery mayflies and cheatingly, fish would hurl themselves at my fly. In June, I used increasingly small flies and the fish loved them. In July, I mastered Heart Break Corner on the Wye. This season I have been catching fish when no one else could. I have also begun to dispatch sagely advice to others. “You see up here, northerly fish are frightened by the large flies used in the south. Fish using smaller flies”. This success has been coupled with a surprising amount of people clicking on and tuning in to read this. I had a period of two weeks where at least three people would email congratulations and compliments to me. Fishermen asked me on dates. Quite frankly, it all went to my head a bit. In my swollen mind I was a river goddess, the babe of the beck, the true lady of the stream. How very wrong I was and how bloody stupid.
 I had a casting lesson a couple of weeks ago with a man you have to take very seriously. Not only, is David Griffiths kind, but he also has a kind of dancing magic in his eyes which lets you know he is a piscatorial pied piper. Frank Sawyer taught him how to fish with nymphs. He was lucky enough to have been an army officer on the Wessex Avon, where Frank Sawyer was river keeper. Apparently, he would say things to David like, “Did you see his mouth move?” “Did you see the tail flick?” David claims that he never saw anything that was pointed out to him. I don’t believe this but it seems to add weight to Charles Ritz’s assessment of Frank Sawyer as being in possession of the fisherman’s sixth sense and the creator of the “acme” of the nymph fishing method.Despite David’s modesty, he knows a thing or two about fishing. When he casts it is with seeming ease and total control. He makes it all look so easy that you know it must be very difficult.
A View of Fonthill Abbey from the Stone Quarry, by JMW Turner, (1799)
I was taught on his fishing platforms, set in one of William Beckford’s lakes. The whole area is tainted with the presence of the great Regency collector, author and once “the richest commoner in England”. He squandered his money on fine art and the building of the outlandish Fonthill Abbey. It was James Wyatt’s greatest building. So great, in fact, that it collapsed in on itself. All that remains are the outsized urns on the gateway to the Fonthill estate. The lake itself is huge and magnificent, surrounded by hills peppered with grottoes which locals say bore witness to Beckford’s occultism. To use a great eighteenth century phrase, it’s sublime.
I assumed confidently that my lesson would be a sharpening up of my technique. However, after an hour with David I learned that, 1) my loops are too large; 2) I bring my rod too far forward; 3) I have an undisciplined wrist. Overall I discovered that I am a bit brutal and I lack finesse. Most importantly, and thanks to David, I know how to correct it all. By the end of the hour I think I was getting a little bit better.
My Father
I went fishing with my father for the rest of the day. He is a superb fisherman, lacking a little bit of grace in his execution but deadly with it. He will always catch fish and he always wears a bow tie. He also loves the rivers he fishes, wishing that he was rich enough that he could buy them all to ensure that they will be well cared for. 
I spent the day unsure of my fishing. My casting arm had betrayed me. I missed rises. With trying to cast using an entirely new technique, I had far too much to think about to fish properly. I let myself be overly distracted by the wildflowers, frogs and insects surrounding me. It was an excuse. I had lost my fishing mojo, and for the first time this year, I didn’t catch a single fish. Admittedly, it was a difficult day with little insect life about and hardly any rising fish to be seen. Still, the babe of the beck was beaten.

It was the snap in the line that I needed. I realised that if I am to be any good at all I need to work at my fishing. I need to practise. I need to train. I need to treat fishing like any other sport. I know someone who is a very serious and successful climber. Climbing is his only priority and he drinks odd, brightly coloured liquids that he concocts from powders. He has deformed his body by relentless training. I think this is a little excessive. He once completed a six mile run and then refused a patisserie cake from Bettys on the grounds that he didn’t want to undo the good work he had done. In my opinion that kind of exertion means that you are deserving of cake and probably can get away with eating two. I shan’t get that serious because, a) I am not mad; b) luckily fishing isn’t competitive c) Bettys make a very good fruitcake. I shall however, adhere to his oft repeated maxim, “you don’t get strong by accident” and keep up casting practice using new techniques taught to me by David.
Seeing such a great fisherman brought me down a peg or three. I thought of my father who thinks less about his own fishing and more about the rivers that he fishes. I realised that true greatness means not bragging about wins or making a fuss about how you get so brilliant. It’s a gentle knowing accompanied by great modesty and humility. My arrogance, more than my poor casting confirms me as average. I conclude happily that I am no river goddess but a flyfisherlady.

Author's Comments
My Father would very much like to have it made clear that the reason why he was excited by catching a two pound rainbow is that it was a wild rainbow trout. These are exceedingly rare in Britain and the ones on the River Wye are characterized by the white tips on their fins.
Please also find some links which will give you some background information on this week's blog.
William Beckford
Frank Sawyer
Also here is a link to David Griffiths' Website
The Turner Watercolour at Fonthill is copyright of Leeds Museums and Galleries. They have a wonderful collection of eighteenth century watercolours. If you want to read about more curiosities of their collections read their blog The Secret Lives of Objects.

Monday 2 August 2010

Fishing Trips II: Love at First Wye

Back in May I was sent to Derbyshire on a study trip. I saw six country houses in three days and ate as many Bakewell tarts. It was exhausting, believe it or not, staring intently at furniture and arguing over who made it with venerable experts is rather wearing.

The highlight of the trip for me had to be Haddon Hall. Not because of the painted medieval chapel with its ancient stools. Not for the rare tapestries hanging off the walls, glistening with gold and silver thread. Neither for the myriad of courtyards dappled with wisteria, the stonework charmingly askew. For me it was the river. It ran clear under a charming stone bridge. I spotted a rise and anything clever I may have had to say about the seventeenth century interior disappeared like the insect the trout had gobbled.

We had supper in the café. I kept looking back to the river. I ate my fourth Bakewell tart of the trip hurriedly. I took an extended loo break and took off my high heels and ran to look at the river again. With the castle in the background and the brief, illicit nature of my visit I felt like this was a piscator’s Romeo and Juliet. After the trip I took a detour to Rowsley, I walked up the river. I fell in love, I had to go back.
What I saw in May
I waited until the end of July and I was joined by my mother and father, it was a birthday treat. I was hugely restless and arrived at the Peacock hotel early. I lugged my fly tying kit with me and quietly spread fur and feathers all over the place. I tried to tie something called an LTD sedge. I failed and made a huge mess.
A bad photograph of a very badly tied fly
My parents arrived and we chuckled together before heading into Bakewell Town and gawped at the massive wild rainbows made huge by tourist bread. At supper we spoke of nothing but fishing. We went to sleep full and little tipsy. I am sure, that like me, both my mother and father dreamed of trout.

I woke up early restless and tied some more flies. We were being taken by Jan the river keeper. I think we flummoxed him a little. There were three of us for starters. As a family we also bicker and tease each other a lot. I was quite intimidated by him at first because he is very tall and I am rather short.

He took us to meadows outside of the town and got each of us casting. He pointed me in the right direction. I can’t fish well with an audience and I got very flummoxed and nervous as he watched me and my glasses starting steaming up which was strange and off putting, then my line got in a tangle. Then we both started giggling so everything was fine. I lost my nerves was a good girl and did everything Jan told me to and hooked a beautiful, beautiful brown trout. It probably weighed about a pound. It was so lovely, I felt mean hurrying Jan along as he carefully pointed out its distinct Wye features. I just wanted it to go back safely.
My father caught a “bloody big rainbow” and I watched it splash my mother in the face as she netted it for him. I’ll hear about that fish for a long while I think.

We moved to another section of the Wye. I found a lovely corner with rising
fish. I had just changed my fly to a black gnat, when Jan came along.
“Ah, Heartbreak Corner, no one...” A splash and tug and I was into a feisty rainbow
“You were saying Jan...” “Well, I was going to say, that no one ever catches a fish from Heartbreak corner. There are always fish rising but no one manages it”. A smug smile crept over my face, a day later it’s still there I think.

Jan left us for the afternoon and I set about exploring. I was stunned by the sheer prettiness of the place. A wonderful river, fringed by pink flowers cutting through deep green hills is a dream come true.

My father caught a grayling and my mother settled on a spot and caught a rainbow or two and was really excited catching a hard fighting brown. I didn’t catch anything else. I didn’t care. It’s only the beginning of my Derbyshire affair.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Fishing Trips I

I was in Cancun, finding ways to while away the hours while my then boyfriend was at a conference. I spent three days lying and reading whilst enjoying the sun and the beach. I enjoyed sending the waiters, who wore pleasingly tight white shorts, scuttling up and down the beach to bring me useful things, like prawns and guacamole and margaritas.

A girl can tire such of things. So, at great expense I booked myself some fly fishing for tarpon and well, whatever else might come along. I waited outside the hotel at five in the morning. I was bundled into a white jeep and accompanied by three Americans. They soon proved to be Neanderthal in intellect as well as size. I assume that Neanderthals were wide.

“Wowee Bob we have a lady on board!”

“Looks like we do”


“I am here”. I thought grumpily as they continued to refer to me in the third person.

I was dressed for protecting myself from the beating Mexican sun. I wore a white shirt, long white skirt made of cheesecloth and a large brimmed hat. I suddenly felt very English and aware that the colonies could be frightening places.

“Wha, you goin’ flyfishin’? Kinda limits ya chances don’t it?”

I turned all prim and proper. “Yes, but there is a certain elegance about it don’t you think?”

“Mind those Tarpon they fight like I fuck. Hard and fast baby, hard and fast”.

The middle-aged man turned to his middle aged buddies and guffawed. It was a charmless and a somewhat unbelievable statement.

“I’ll bear that in mind, thank you”.

I was relieved that I wouldn’t be sharing a boat with them. I feared that I may get Viagra and testosterone poisoning.

My guide was a man named José, whose deep blue eyes just peeped through the wrinkles of his dark, leathery face. It soon became clear that he spoke very little English. I think I made myself understood by using a dodgy mixture of Italian, GCSE French and Year 9 Spanish.

I twigged that the company taking me out really wasn’t set up for fly fishing when I was handed perhaps the nastiest looking fishing rod I had ever seen, with the nastiest looking line.

We headed out towards the mangroves and I watched the sun rise. As it illuminated the coastal waters I was shocked by the changes in colour to pale blue, navy blue and pea green.

We went into a small inlet. The tree roots bored into the water like witches’ claws. I peered into the trees and saw monkeys and odd white birds. The water was eerily still and was a gluey brown.

I began to cast towards the trees. I might as well have been using one of the trees the rod was so heavy. Every third cast the rod tip fell into the water.
José put his fingers to his lips then spoke.
“I beg your pardon”
“Tampon!” I felt suddenly conscious of being in white and began to do female calculations in my head.
His odd exclamation of feminine hygiene products was explained as a massive movement broke the syrupy surface film. I felt massively relieved.
“Oh Tarpon” I whispered reverently.
I cast again, dragging the mouse-like surface lure across the water. A huge wake followed my line.
In the ten seconds that followed I was suddenly reminded of Jaws, I needed a bigger boat and a better rod. I knew these fish could reach eighty pounds. I looked at the scratched rod in my hand, I looked at the hurrying wake of water, I looked at the crappy rod and I flinched. I was scared. The mangrove waters went still again as the monster returned. It was rather exciting.
José and I both mopped our brows and enjoyed a soothing coca-cola.
I handed José the fly rod, wary of its power. I decided I wouldn’t like to conjure up any more beasts. I think José understood. I took up the spinning rod and caught a few fish. One was called a snook and looked like a trout had mated with a pike, the other looked like a dinner plate.
In the heat of the midday sun we returned to shore. I sat at the bow of the boat, holding my hat to the head as we sped along the striped waters. I fancied myself to be a bit like Katherine Hepburn in the African Queen.
We reached the shore and José kissed me on the cheek. I was taken aback but he explained.
“First woman fishing. She fly rod”.
I smiled and thanked him. The silence was broken by the return of the middle-aged wannabe lotharios.

I listened to their boasts and watched them gesticulate madly with their fat arms as we jostled in the jeep. As we approached my hotel, one of them finally asked if I had caught anything.
“Oh, me I nearly caught a tampon”. I watched the confusion contort his pink face before stepping out of the jeep, blowing them all a kiss and giggling.