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The gentle art of coarse fishing

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

We finally have a bit of daylight after teatime, and the world is astir.
Blackbirds are brawling over hedgerow corners and in the garden two pairs of tits have their eyes on the one nesting box. Along the riverbank Old Mother Badger has been gathering winter grass to make a warm bed for her new family, the arrival of which is imminent. Birch twigs are deepening in colour, becoming rich and more full in preparation for bud-burst. Male mallard, eager-eyed and curly tailed, pursue the females relentlessly. For me, such developments awaken an ancient, primeval hunger.
I’m going fishing. At least, I hope to go. At present I cannot get close enough to the river to make a cast, for it has spilled over its banks to become a lake. Further, this relentless succession of storms has filled the sea with tonne upon tonne of dead weed, so that any line cast there would surely be lost.
I could go to Lough Mask, I suppose, which will throw up the usual contingent of early season, out-of-condition and barely-worth-catching trout. I’ve been there though, and done that.
I found an ancient fisherman in the village, leaning at the stone wall across the road from the pub as if he was waiting just for me. With his long brown overcoat, flat cap over a heavily weathered face and worn-out wellington boots, he might have been there half a century or more. At his side stood a roach pole, long and slender with a soiled handle, above which was fitted an antiquated reel, and beside this was a large tackle box, which would double as a seat.
“Where are you going?” I enquired.
He have a slow nod. “Just beyond.”
“And what will you catch?”
“We’ll see.” With that he picked up his gear and led the way along a narrow path beneath the bare boughs of winter trees until we reached the edge of a small lake, just a few acres in extent. A small promontory jutted out from the shore, and on the edge of this the man set down his box and readied himself for action.
Neither of us spoke as he threw fistfuls of dampened breadcrumbs into the water and watched as they broke apart and slowly sank. We stood there with the thin breeze swirling by as the fisherman tested the point of his hook against his thumbnail and adjusted the depth of his float. A small piece of bread was his bait. He squeezed it onto his hook and cast just ten feet from the bank.
As the float settled I tried to make conversation. “Do you fish here much then?”
The man turned his head as if surprised I was there, just as the float slipped beneath the surface. He lifted his rod gently and swung a small silvery fish to his waiting hand before unhooking it carefully. “Roach,” he said, as if to himself, and then added “No, not for years. There used to be rudd.”
We were silent then, him pulling a succession of bright fishes from the dark water while I watched. It soon became obvious I was watching a master at work. Each fish was carefully examined as if it were a new miracle, before being slipped back into the lake. There seemed to be no end to them. Barely had his float hit the water before it was drawn under again and again. In the end it was too much. “Can I have a go? Would you mind?”
He handed me the rod. “Don’t rush, there’s no hurry. When you get a bite just lift gently.”
I thought it would be easy – he had made it look so. And I was partly right, getting the fish to take the bait was easy enough, but persuading them to stay on the hook was another matter. It was long minutes before I finally caught another small roach. I handed the rod back and looked on as another dozen fish were caught and released in short order.
“Did you ever eat them?” I asked, as yet another specimen was given its freedom.
The answer came in the form of a brief nod, together with a more hurried release of the next fish before I had chance to appropriate it. And that was it. I left my new friend to his fishing and made my way home through the tail end of winter. Now I must get a roach pole. Coarse fishing, they call it, this gentle art.