No fish annoys me as much as salmon do. They’re nothing but sexy little rod-teasers. They promise the earth and deliver nothing. They’re fickle, fussy and expensive. Get me hot, then let me down. Time and time again. I love to eat them. But hate to try and catch them. Mainly, because they seem to hate to be caught by me.
My first foray into the world of adult salmon fishing started in Farlow’s fishing shop, in the posh west end of London. Where, I made the hideous mistake of listening to, and believing, an Irishman. A man whose romantic perception of salmon fishing bore no resemblance to reality.
He told me tempting tales of the river Laune in south west Ireland. It’s the river that flushes out of Lake Killarney and then rushes a few short miles to the sea.
‘It’s only a wee short river, stuffed full of fish’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘It’s the only way in or out of the lake, where the salmon have to come to find spawning streams.’
Early season was the time he recommended, when I would, he said find shed-loads of bright fit salmon, practically begging me to give them a leg-up, out of the river and into my fishing bag.
After hundreds of pounds worth of tackle, air fares, bed and breakfast, car hire and rod licences, my mate Floyd and I, found ourselves staring dumbly at a torrential river, so swollen and so coloured, it could’ve passed as the Mississippi in a bad mood.
On the flight over, I finished my cover-to-cover study of Hugh Falkus’s seminal work on the sport, imaginatively entitled, Salmon Fishing. A fat book full of useful, well-researched information about taking times, taking strips and the most effective flies to use.
I had poured over Hugh’s excellent diagrams of potential beats, which illustrated how a river flowed, and where in it salmon would most likely be found. What I’d seen between the well thumbed covers, bore absolutely no resemblance to brown-sauce coloured beast that lay before me.
Half the water reserves of Europe and most of the mud of Eire, had come together in an opaque orgy of flood. There wasn’t a salmon in sight. In five days of flogging the brown muck to a frenzied froth, we never saw one fish. Dead or alive.
Each day at dawn, we’d stagger down the river. Clutching the Spam sandwich packed lunches provided by our kindly landlady, and eat them in the pouring rain. And all day we tried in vain to conquer the impenetrable puzzle that was the river Laune.
We tried spinning. We tried flies. Big ones and small ones. Tubes, trebles, double and singles. We tried worming under floats. Pin-mounted purple dyed shrimps. We tried water craft and witchcraft. And by the end of the fourth day, I was openly weeping with frustration.
Truth was, we hadn’t a clue. We’d talked the talk. Read the books. Dreamed the dream. But reality was aeons away from our fishing fantasy.
I know now that I stood about as much chance of catching a salmon in those conditions, as a ferret stands of winning Top Dog Award at Crufts. At the time I knew nothing. Only disappointment.
On the fifth day, the local tackle dealer persuaded us to try something different. He’d become an ally. Day after day we’d turn up in his shop asking for advice, buying newfangled pieces of kit, in the vain hope that by buying something new, we might miraculously change our luck.
‘Fish the lake, lads’ he said with compassion. ‘With all this rain, you stand more chance in the lake’.
And so, early the next morning, I found myself perched on the luggage rack of a rusty moped. With no crash helmet, but cradling a two gallon can of petrol on my lap. My buttocks bounced painfully against the metal rack, as Eamon hurtled the moped along a pothole-strewn track. Eamon never stopped talking from the moment we first met to the minute we waved goodbye.
Eamon was our ghillie for the day. A man with a boat. An engine. But no petrol. Eamon ferried me, Floyd, our tackle, some freshly bought petrol, our lunches and his small brown Jack Russell terrier a few miles around the lake on his moped. To his boat. He made umpteen trips. Talking fifty to the dozen all the way. Even when no one else was on pillion.
Even though I couldn’t hear, or understand a word Eamon said because of his thick accent, and the whining rattly noise of the moped engine, he never stopped talking. Eamon didn’t believe in dialogue. He didn’t need answers or questions. Or a sympathetic ear. Eamon simply talked for exercise. Like other people go jogging.
Boat fishing for salmon on Lake Killarney is an ancient tradition. Each boat has pair of fourteen foot long ‘rods’ which stick out at 45 degrees. Like outriggers on a tuna boat. The line is wrapped on wooden frames, and is thick waxed cotton. Strong enough to tow a family car.
Rapala lures or big Toby spoons are trolled at fifty to sixty yards behind the boat. And the bite detector is a half brick lain on top of the boat end of the line.
‘When a fish hits the bait’ explained Eamon, ‘the brick jumps off the seat. The hook’ll be set and all you have to do then is haul it in’. From the look of the industrial strength line, ‘haul’ is about the best we could hope for.
Boats fishing the lake are searching for fresh run salmon, who have made it up the river Laune from the sea. They are then cruising the lake trying to decide which of the feeder streams or small rivers, to swim into, in search of decent spawning redds.
The whole set up looked very suspect to me. The lake looked big and featureless and the tackle looked like something my boys would knock-up in the shed for a joke.
But, when the brick suddenly jumped a full two foot in the air, only to come crashing down on the wooden floor of the boat, I was shocked.
‘Grab the rod there’ said Eamon to Floyd. Who did as he was told and began a short and bloody battle with a gorgeous-looking twelve pound salmon.The fight was short, because the rod was stout. It had all the through-action of a telegraph pole and the line was practically unbreakable. When these ghillies do hook a fish, they like to give it as little chance of escape as possible. They’re in the business of boating fish. Not playing with them. They take no prisoners. Light tackle angling is a concept which has not reached this green and pleasant part of the British Isles.
So, within five minutes we had a great big salmon in the boat. Eamon hit it with the half brick, with all the violence of a crazed psychopath. Floyd and I looked down at it bleeding on the boat’s clinker-built deck. Our emotions in a jangle.
I was half-delighted to see a fish. Half-jealous it wasn’t mine. And oddly depressed at the way it had been so unsportingly caught and despatched.
Floyd was over the moon. Sort of. He had a fish. But it had been got in a manner so unlike the classy methodical technique so richly described in Hugh’s seminal book.
It was the only fish we caught all day. Eamon was thrilled with his day’s work. We were numb. We shook hands after he’d ferried us back on his moped and popped the trunk of our hire car.
It was an odd introduction to the ‘sport’ of salmon fishing. At home we didn’t know whether to boast of our success, or feel sorry for the unfitting end to a salmon’s mammoth migration.
To this day I feel conflicted about our first salmon trip. Did we do the right thing? Or somehow sully the sacred covenant of game fishing?
Back at my house, surrounded by acres of steaks, gravadlax and a warm salmon salad, we congratulated ourselves with enthusiasm. Yet, it felt hollow. God, I know we’d worked for this fish. Paid for this fish a hundred times over. But did we really deserve it?