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Small but perfectly formed

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Life, like a crouching cat, waits until we think everything is good and quiet, then springs upon us, all claws and teeth, and would devour what we really want to be. I fought free and fled to one of those small tributaries that feed the northern end of Lough Mask, where I absorbed myself in my angling, flicking a small dry fly into pools and runs and catching little speckled trout.
So perfectly pretty, these fish live in an unimpaired setting. Clean, cold water, high and unkempt banks, a wilderness of alder and bramble and not a pylon or fencepost in sight. I can see past the broken fence, the discarded loops of barbed wire and even imagine that waste plastic draped over low branches isn’t there at all, and somehow my ears close out that distant drone of traffic and focus on the gurgle and rush of the stream and the whirr of the dipper’s wing as it flies upstream before me.
Long tendrils reached down the steep bank, offering lush blackberry fruit. I stopped to taste unripe sloes and put a sprig of wild mint in my buttonhole, caught another trout and took to turning stones to see what lived beneath.
One large rock was firmly embedded in the silt and simply refused to budge. With my arm submerged up to the elbow I felt around its edge and found the upstream end terminated in a broad ledge, the underside of which had been excavated, probably be white-clawed crayfish. My fingers reached in and found, not the bony carapace and sharp claws of a resident cray, but an unknown and unexpected, slippery, wriggling mass.
When I pulled my hand away it came back to me with two five-inch long worm-like creatures attached. My initial reaction was to flick them off, which was easily done. Then, though, curiosity got the better of me and I went back to the rock for more.
This time the mass was no longer there and I came back with just one, which clung to my thumbnail with its mouth. What was it? Something that most people have never seen, and are unlikely ever to meet: a Brook lamprey, perhaps the most peculiar of all the fishes that are found in this part of the world.
I examined my freshly caught lamprey, which clung to my thumbnail with its round, sucker mouth. About five inches long and grey-brown in colour, it certainly looked insignificant, and I wrongly considered that either its presence or absence in any particular river or stream would be of little account.
I looked more closely and took in that earnest, silvery eye and the neat row of seven gill pores that ran either side of the creature, behind its head. On top of the head itself was a single olfactory opening, a sort of nostril, that looked rather like a third and empty eye socket and no doubt contains many sensitive chemical receptors.
The little fish squirmed as the gills flared in search of life-giving water, and I put it back in its element. It clung to my nail a few moments more, then wriggled away to safety.
Brook lampreys spawn in May or June, once water temperature rises above 10 or 11 degrees Celsius, and die within a few weeks, so the ones I found beneath that rock were likely at the very end of their lives. Prior to this, they lived five or six years buried in silt, with their heads protruding just enough to let them filter water and sediment for minute items of food. As such, they had need for neither jaws nor teeth, nor a powerful swimming action. They are fish-worms, and little more.
I thought later about the niche that they fill, and what purpose they might serve. Perhaps, being filter feeders, they absorb nutrients that would be missed by larger fish species such as trout, and use them to grow a tasty body that same trout would find most appealing. Then I come along and find my trout attractively fat, and take it home with no thought for the little lamprey that made it so.
Now, if trout eat them, so could I. Washed and dried, rolled in flour and fried in bacon fat, they should be very tasty. I’ll try them, soon.
For now, the world has its claws in my back. The marriage of one’s daughter obscures lampreys, even trout, from one’s vision. There will be wine, and poached salmon.