The fish that almost wasn’t

Scorton Lake betrayed nothing to suggest that this wasn’t going to be one of its usual May mornings.

As my oars plucked quietly at the water, easing me along the left-hand shore of the west bay, an electric blue squadron of damsel flies sortied out to investigate me. A handful of wasps offered them a fighter escort as far as the alder tips, the terns wheeled and mewed overhead and the power lines hummed along with the bees.

The water was calm enough to dispense with a drogue, but rippled enough to allow my first choice tactic of a dry blue damsel on a floating line, with a size 22 black gnat on the point. Like many people, I find dry flies by far the most satisfying way to fish. When I used to fence, I would much rather have scored a hit with an elegant, challenging move than an easy one. This meant I lost many more bouts than I won, but always went home dreaming contentedly of the hits I could have made if only my feint had fooled my opponent. I realise this makes me an evolutionary dead end, but at least my line would die happy.

As I lifted my hands from the oars, seven damsel flies pleasingly settled along the shaft of starboard one. I left that oar in the rowlock and shipped the other one.

With half an eye still on the damsels, I cast my two-fly team out and winced as my first effort hit the water like an unpicked cardigan. The flies were too close together for my liking, but as I towed them back for another airing, a broad grey head created a wake behind them.

I stopped. The head disappeared. I started pulling again. The head didn’t reappear. I stopped again. I ate a sandwich and looked around.

Around me, the occasional grey back breached the surface, but I saw no other heads. Nothing was taking the many damselflies from the ripples, and I concluded the bright sunlight had something to do with it.

Okay, I thought. Let’s at least get a score on the board. Muhammad Ali danced like a butterfly, but at least he knew when to sting like a bee. Graceful as you might think you appear to that disdainful-looking grebe, you can’t call yourself a fisherman without a fish.

So given what I could see from my side of the surface, on went the obvious choice. A gold-head damsel nymph. With a bit of a blue flash to pique the interest.

Counter-intuitively, I cast ittowardsthe shore and twitched it back towards the boat. Real fishermen will tell me that in real life, damsel nymphs hatch in the deep, then work their way ashore and climb a reed to get their wings. But the opposite’s often worked for me, so I don’t question Nature. And besides, the shore was far too overgrown to approach fromterra firma.

Anyway, I was right. Or half right. Suddenly, I was the centre of interest.

Fish were following my fly. Occasionally, they were moved to lunge at it. But none of them were convinced enough to engulf it whole, just plucking at the tail like collies nipping sheep.

Again, I stopped and looked around.

The water was clear. About four feet deep. I could see weed beds waving at me as if to hint at what should have been obvious.

Corixa nymphs.

I reached into the bag in anticipatory triumph. All I had to do was tie on a little corixa pattern, break my duck, and settle back to watch the swans.

Except the box with the corixa nymphs wasn’t there. Because the previous night, I’d had the forethought to tie a few, but not enough forethought to put the box in my bag.

Still, all, I felt, was not lost. I phlegmatically snipped the tail off the damsel nymph. Okay, it didn’t have the two-tone contrast of the original, but near enough might just be good enough to a feeding trout.

I cast it out. I twitched it. Thinking the fish were all at sixes and sevens, I figure-of-eighted it. Then I gave it the whole nine yards and speeded it up.

That’s all it took.

At first, the line felt like a yoyo hitting the bottom of its trajectory. Then it felt like a Labrador refusing to let go of a shoe. Then it pinged and thrummed and straightened and flung a rainbow of tiny droplets skywards as the trout set off for the cover of the trees.

I leaned the rod to the right to turn it back towards the deeper water.

I decided it must be a brown trout, since for the first ten minutes, I didn’t see it at all, so doggedly did it dip and burrow through the weed beds.

For the next ten minutes. I was convinced it was foul-hooked. It showed no signs of tiring. However, after a few more minutes of patiently leaning the rod left and right, a solid pink and blue flank rolled just beneath the surface, then pumped its shovel of a tail once and slipped back to the depths.

I’d seen enough both to encourage and unsettle me. The good news was the hook was firmly in the scissor of the jaw, so I had a firm hold on it, but the bad news was this fish was considerably larger than the 3lb tippet could bully into the net.

As it turned out, this latter point wouldn’t be a problem.

A bit more gentle pressure and the fish started swimming towards the boat. A little too fast for me to gather line. My heart sank as a loop of line secured itself around the loose oar. As the fish passed under the boat, I frantically threw the oar into the water, threw the loop over the end, flipped the oar back into the boat and turned to see the fish surfacing on the port side. Albeit that I’d turned about so many times I had no idea which was the port side anyway.

Feverishly pulling in more line, watching the fish, and reaching for the net in one, I discovered too late that I was not good at multitasking. Feverish fingers knocked the net into the water and, still watching the fish, I groped and larruped at the reflection of the net as it sank.

So now I had no net, inadequate tippet and I was drifting into the trees. I was going to have to get into deeper water so I could tire the fish out.

I splashed the oar between the boat and the trees, and thankfully the line snaked out towards the mid-lake. I dipped an oar to turn the boat, then tightened the drag to let the fish slowly pull the boat away from the shore.

As I got closer, I started winding in. The fish was tiring, but as the boat neared, it took off again.

I leaned the rod to the left and the fish began circling the boat.

I laid the drogue into the water, and pushed it under with the oar, with the brilliant plan of guiding the fish over it, so I could simply lift it in. But the fish wasn’t that daft. It took one look at the drogue and took off again.

It dived, it surfaced, it circled, but after what seemed a whole afternoon, it finally came up presenting its flank.

I put the rod down and grabbed the line. Then hand over hand, I drew it towards the boat.

Finally, with the tippet in my left hand, I was able to reach over, slip a finger into the gill cover and lift the tired trout into the boat.

I decided I’d pushed my luck enough for one day, and was unlikely to improve on the experience, so I wound my line in, pulled in the useless drogue, unshipped the oars and pulled for home.

The fish weighed in at just under six pounds.

Thanks to Simon Sinclair

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