a fisher sat where all was green
and looked it.
He saw, when light was growing dim,
a fish – or else the fish saw him –
and hooked it.
He took, with high erected comb,
the fish – or else the story – home
and cooked it.
Recording angels by his bed
weighed all that he had done or said –
and booked it!
Saturday evening. Sadie’s in town. I’m splitting timber and admiring Ted and Evie’s rapt attention to the new puddle in the yard. Total immersion, almost. Ducking into the house, I throw a weather eye at the laptop. The webcam at the weir in Srahnamanragh and corresponding graph of river depth shows a steep rise on the Owenduff all day. This after a lengthy period of little water, when sea trout and salmon must surely be gagging to run this most tempermental of small spate rivers. I’ve booked the Rock House beat in Srahduggaun for tomorrow – but will that be, as usual, a day late?
The phone rings. It’s Bob. He’s been there since early afternoon and is all excited, says he’s already hooked and lost a few, that the river is alive with salmon. He tells me to come on up and quick. I tell him I’ll leave as soon as I can but I’d need a favour from John Noel, the beat keeper, to fish it this evening as well as tomorrow. Sadie returns. We eat. I pack my gear and make sandwiches. All this happens in parallel to a lengthy text dialogue with my most abstruse brother, who, in a cryptic and riddlesome dialogue of torturous slowness requiring extensive decoding, is pestering me to get him an iPhone, an exchange to which I am duty-bound to attend, carefully, fish or no fish. I’m still juggling tasks and chasing my tail when Bob calls again.
– Where are you now?
– Still at home.
– Ah, jaysus, man. Get up here.
I plead family commitments, lamely.
– Get the pedal to the metal, boy.
– Sadie’s just…
– Look it, Sadie will always be there, the fish won’t.
You have to admire Bob. He treats it like a vocation, a personal mission. County Mayo is his parish, her fish his unruly flock. He has regard for family values as much as the next man, but the next man doesn’t fish for salmon and the river is already dropping away.
I get my dispensation from John Noel to throw out a few casts this evening and I’m off, headed for a Father’s Day alone on the river with Pip, the trusty collie. God is in his heaven and I am flirting with the speed limit from the far side. Entering Mayo, the only noticeable novelty is a hand-painted sign propped up in a disused trailer by the roadside: “JESUS DIED FOR THE UNGODLY”. What, and he lives for the rest of you? Border country, I muse, as we skirt the viaduct at Newport, where Maxwell took his silent farewell of Christendom in 1819, “the Ultima Thule of civilized Europe”. At Mulranney, we slip between the mountains and enter Erris. Mountains to the right, sea to the left, bog in between – life is simplifying nicely.
We get to the blue cottage at the foot of the hills in Srahduggaun about nine pm and step out of the car into a cloud of midges. As I pull on my waders and tackle up quickly, I hear Bob’s voice in my head saying “the bastards may be bad here but in Donegal they have knives and forks”. Midges aren’t what Pip needs right now but in matters of loyalty, needs must. We head downstream towards the bigger pools. I’m casting into the Wall Pool when Bob arrives upriver.
– Don’t mind that pool.
– It’s hard to pass it.
– I know what you mean. But here, those two pools below, the long beachy one and the one below again, if I were you, I’d just fish them. If you hit nothing, fish them again, but differently. I’m not trying to tell you what to do or anything but if I were you I wouldn’t bother with anywhere else. I’m after hooking and losing about eight fish there. I swear to Christ, I’ve lost count. They have me meithered. I got one up on the bank alright.
He is referring to the Broken Banks Pool and the High Banks Pool. I know this only because I’ve recently scanned the map of the beat into the computer and studied it. Long beachy one works just as well for me.
– Any size in the one you landed?
– About four or five pounds, a grilse, dead fresh.
– Great stuff, well done. How come you lost the others?
– I don’t know. I rang Paddy and he reckons it’s because I’m using treble hooks. So maybe you should just use singles or doubles.
Paddy is the guru, instructor to the good and the great. A day with Paddy costs a few quid but it’s always been money well spent. Bob gives me a few flies, as he always does, and says he’s off to the Junction Pool to wind down from the adrenalin. I make for the pools mentioned and see from the stone beaches how much the river has dropped off even in the last hour or so. In a halo of midges, I fish both pools, tricky work in such low water. Instinct commands one to stand well back, the river is so narrow. Not a nibble.
At midnight I return upstream to the blue cottage, wondering if booking tomorrow was wise. It’ll be another day of low water, there’ll hardly be rain tonight. I’ve had three blank days here already this year and countless others previously. The most I’ve ever lifted from this beat has been a few fat sea trout, never a grilse, not to mention a spring salmon. But at least there were fish taking here today and there might be more tomorrow yet. When I get back to the blue cottage, Bob is dozing by the fire. He’s landed a sea trout in the Junction Pool and is sleeping the codhladh an gascaigh, the warrior’s sleep. He’s working early tomorrow in Westport so I leave him and head for the lodge in Srahnamanragh, at the far end of the river.
The alarm wakes me at 4:30. Sunrise is for 5:05 so I drag myself to life. Surprised by how much water the river still holds down here in the Bridge Pool, the last before the estuary, I decide to give it a lash before heading back up to Srahduggaun, ten miles upstream. The only sure thing at this point is that there will have to be a lengthy nap later in the day. It’s breakfast time for the midges. Pip looks askance from the bank as I wade in under the bridge. Though there’s plenty of water and a good flow, not a fish stirs and at 6:40 I’m in the car wondering why that pool took so long.
Just before the bend for the blue cottage, I’m startled by a deer stood stock still just off the road, staring in at me. I stop the car and stare back. A big beast but no antlers, does that make it female? I file this question away for Ted to answer later, he who gets his bedtime reading from the Collins Guide to Irish Wildlife. When she’s had her fill of me, the deer bolts across the road in front of the car and away through the bog towards the encircling mountains.
There’s no sign of Bob’s car at the cottage but an Offaly reg land rover suggests Oisín, that foxy old furniture flogger from the midlands one meets on almost every second visit here. Oisín is a deadly foe to god-fearing salmon the length and breadth of the Barony and the thought crosses my mind that if I don’t catch one today, I might at least see one in his clutches. A glance at John Campbell’s Rock in the adjoining stream tells that the river must be low. I suck my cheek. But the trickling, gurgling water and rejoicing larks above remind me why I’m really here and how, water levels notwithstanding, nothing really matters.
Sure enough, on my way down past the Wall Pool, Pip’s growls herald Oisín’s arrival upriver with a fine fresh grilse, about a six-pounder. He’s full of the joys. My mind rattles to a collision of conflicting thoughts: “What was I at wasting time in the Bridge Pool?” and “Look, a fish that took only this morning, despite low water.” Net result optimism.
– You’ve been busy.
– Indeed and I have. Begob but that pool is heaving with salmon.
– Really, which pool?
– That one beyond the stony one, what do you call it, the High Banks I think it is. Absolutely heaving with them.
– Really, did you hook him far down?
– About half way, I’d say. I fished it from the far bank.
– Did you?
– I did. I always fish those pools from the far side, especially in low water. The lies are all on this side, you see, right under the bank. Salmon are easily spooked. It only takes one frightened fish to run back along the pool and put all the others down. Walking the bank this side is enough to send them all to the bottom. They can feel it. That’s my opinion on it anyway.
He strikes me as a man who knows these fish personally and has great regard for their heightened sensitivities. It occurs to me also that as often as not he’s carrying a fish when I meet him.
– Well, seeing as I’ve never caught a salmon on this beat, I might follow your example.
– Have you not?
I remember his penchant for the small fly, especially the Black Pennell and steal a glance at his rod.
– What fly had you up?
– This little lad here.
He’s pointing to a very small fly on his dropper. It has a hint of purple and a shank of silver. I can’t name it and he doesn’t. His tail fly catches my eye.
– You had the Black Pennell on the tail.
– Begob and I did. Never leave home without it.
Many’s the day I’ve met Oisín with a salmon in one hand and a Pennell retired to the cork of his rod. On one particular day he had just released a sixteen-pounder, having hooked him on the smallest Pennell to be had. I’m still remembering all this when Oisín opens the end-game. He is the type of man who assumes that, like himself, you are on the river as much seeking solitude as salmon.
– Isn’t this a little bit of heaven? Well, I’ll leave you in peace. I’m off now to Mulranney for a swim and a bit of breakfast. I’ll drop back again later.
I thank him for his advice and am grateful for his manners, because he’s right. There’s nothing I want more now than to be alone with the river.
Despite having always fished the High Banks Pool from the near side in a manner I’ve considered scientific, I wade the river at the first opportunity and fish my way down the far side of the Broken Banks Pool towards this now famously ‘heaving’ pool. In deference to Oisín, I’ve opted for a Black Pennell, about the size of his tiny killer fly. Just one, I don’t bother with a dropper. It’s a single hook, so I think of Paddy nodding sagely. I apply a rub of quick-sink mud to the nylon, just to get it deeper that bit quicker. Though I’ve not seen even a suspicion of fish along the way, by the time I get to where the river quickens to the neck of the High Banks, I’ve mastered the breeze and am casting fairly well, all focus, treading the bank as softly as a shade. Mine is a high risk style of casting when water is low. No false casting, just pick a spot and try to get the fly there in one cast. Experience and today’s reading of the river would have told me, without Oisín’s intelligence, that the fish must be lying under the far bank, where the water is deep, even now. The fly must land gently as close as possible to that bank. But whatever about precision, subtlety is a must. No point landing the fly in the right place with a splash. All this is tricky for a right-hander casting across and downstream with a single-handed rod when the river is flowing to the right and the breeze is blowing upstream. The fly must swim around before the noses of the fish who are facing the current, so that when it’s time to retrieve the line and cast again, a kind of back-hand action is required. Into the wind, tighten your loops – Paddy nods again. But all this has been practised on the previous pool and now I have a decent rhythm going.
I’m just in the swing of things when Pip growls and my heart sinks at the sight of another angler walking upstream along the far bank towards us. After all my efforts at stealth, this clown is about to plod the turf directly above the fish. John Noel has told me all four rods are booked today, so if he’s number three, who will be the last? Strangely, there’d been only Oisín’s car when I arrived at the blue cottage. And this man hadn’t passed me going downstream. What road did he come? Yet he’s no farmer, at least not today. He’s wearing thigh waders and wielding a fly rod. Bob mentioned an angler here last night who’d never resurfaced at the blue cottage, the only legitimate point of departure from the beat. And there was another day last month when a mysterious angler’d been seen disappearing into the bog. I try to focus on my casting and am relieved when he takes the higher path along the bank, away from the river. He stops at the neck of the pool.
– Any joy?
– No. I’ve just got started. Yourself?
– No. The water’s awful low. There was plenty in it yesterday.
His complexion is ruddy and his accent local, unusual for anglers here.
– I met Oisín there a while ago with a fine grilse, do you know him?
– I don’t. Was it a big fish?
– About six pounds. He says there’s loads of them in this pool.
As I speak, a decent fish breaks the surface about thirty yards downstream. We watch its ever-increasing ripples dissipate into the wash.
– Are you from around here?
– I’m from Mulranney.
– Really? Where are you parked? I saw no car.
– I was dropped off.
Silence. The larks are impressive this morning. The sky over the mountains has darkened.
– Where are you from yourself?
It comes on to rain, nothing heavy but something different, what brother Dec likes to call a ‘potential trigger’. My fly is landing nicely under the far bank now. I’m not managing to get the line to turn it over exactly as I’d like but at least the nylon is landing very gently, if in a bit of a coil. A bird’s nest, I hear Gerry Fitz say, “it landed in a bit of a bird’s nest”. So when it drops on the water, I tug gently to straighten the line, then let the current swim the fly back round. Another fish rises downstream. The Man From Mulranney is in the mood for a chat.
– Galway. What part?
I’m in with a thump before I know it. The line takes on a life of it’s own, tensing. So firm is the knocking that I resist striking the fish. Even if it’s a trout he’s hooked already, surely. I raise the rod, press the line to the butt with my finger and drop all the slack to the bank. All tightens and the rod bends as the fish heads for the bottom. A beautiful drug begins to course in my veins, but a command to attention rings out from within. I reel in the slack line and hold the bent rod high, nodding to The Man From Mulranney, indicating the take. He gestures as if striking a fish.
– And you wouldn’t strike it?
The fish takes off up the pool. Hard to know how big but surely a grilse. I allow him to take line off the reel, then tighten up its drag, careful to keep the tension decent. I’ll be damned if I lose him for lack of vigilance. He stops mid-river. I reel him back towards me and he comes, reluctantly. Off he goes again, exacting line from my singing reel, to back under the far bank where I hooked him. We play this game a few times until he heads downstream so fast my reel sprays mist from wet line unspooling. I’ll not go chasing him. There are gorse bushes along the way to get snagged in and my rod is only eleven-foot. For as long as possible I’d like to control things from right here, so I don’t budge, just up the drag on the reel which slows him again to a stop mid-river. By now I know he’s not big. Pip takes a sudden interest when the fish leaps from the water and thrashes about, showing himself to be dead fresh, a bar of pure silver, then heads again for the sea. This time I loosen the drag and he stops, confusing, I imagine, the loss of tension with freedom and a chance to rest. I tighten up again quickly and haul him back, draining him of any hope. He shows a flank, so I ready the net from off my back, take the lucky stone from my waders pocket, drop it in to keep the mesh down, and lower the net gently in. Belly up, the fish drifts towards me.
– You’re a cool man.
If only The Man From Mulranney could know that this is my first fish this season and in all likelihood, my first grilse ever on this beat. I had forgotten about him but now the pressure is on. He is all eyes, admiring me like I do this every day before breakfast. I banish him again from my thoughts. Don’t lose him at the net, don’t go at him with it too soon. This is a fresh fish, full of energy. I back him slowly into the net, lift him to the bank and give thanks to all the gods, living and dead. I’ve already decided that this fish has a future so I remove the fly quickly, take a snap with the phone and get him back in the water.
– You’re putting him back?
– I am.
The fish doesn’t stir so I bring him up to fast water and try again, a finger and thumb of my right hand circling his wrist and my left supporting his breast. After a minute of drinking oxygen, I tickle his belly, away he swims and I am left to fist the air, in my mind, while The Man From Mulranney ponders my stupidity from the far bank.
– Thanks. That was my first this year. In fact, my first grilse ever on this stretch.
Why am I telling him that? My first this morning would have been equally true.
– I’ve had four spring salmon this year, two eight pound and two ten.
Why don’t I believe you? Though I’d say you’ve been here often enough and there have been a lot of fish about. But where do you hide the car? That I’d love to know. Thirty six pounds of wild Atlantic salmon, gratis, and ape here paying seventy a pop for each blank day. It occurs to me that he’s standing there because he wants to fish this very pool, so etiquette prevailing over suspicion, I move off downstream to let him begin.
I think of Oisín in his jacuzzi, full of breakfast, purring. Thanks for the tip, old-timer. I send the picture and a short text to a few. Bob replies instantly: “Fantastic, fair play in low water. Broke your duck.” Then comes news from brother Dec at Salmon Central: “Nice trout! Any grilse?” My learned kinsman is not one to drown in sentiment. He has, no doubt, enlarged the picture, examined the maxillary scissors, inspected the tail, counted the bleeding scales. Had Thomas not doubted back in the day, would we now have science? What matter, it was a fish. And if fish was good enough for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour, it’s good enough for moi. And such a beautiful, fresh fish. Easily three pounds, it had put up a great fight and was now safely back at work. We’ll enjoy it as a grilse for now, thinks I, and let the brother later prove me wrong. I consider again Belacqua and his surprise at the fishmonger’s expression.
– Lepping fresh, sir, fresh in this morning.
To what other creature than a fish would “lepping” be ascribed?
I fish down the river slowly to the tail of the next long pool, but tiredness has caught up with me. Resting up, I pull the sandwiches from the back of my coat. Home-grown onions and mozzarella. Pip is all over me. Aithníonn mutso mozzarella. Curiously, she won’t eat any of her own grub upriver, only bits of mine. It’s a tacit contract. A couple of extra sliced pans a year is the net price of her unbending loyalty. I’ll buy that. Again with the growling, though. This time I see three men in the distance making good headway down the opposite bank towards me. But who? Could they be The Man From Mulranney’s family coming to fetch him later but to drown me first for turning him in. I’d noticed him watching with interest as I texted and enjoyed his possible unease at what intelligence I was transmitting to whom. Pip is barking furiously when I recognize John Noel. I push her from the bank and the swift current soon sees to her barking. We cross back over.
John Noel is showing two Frenchmen the beat. They’ll be fishing here in the afternoon. So there we have it, two and two – them, Oisín and myself. He congratulates me roundly on the fish. For years my lack of luck has earned his upbeat sympathy and now he seems relieved to say something fresh. His ears prick at the mention of The Man From Mulranney. They haven’t seen him on their way downriver. How is that now? I left him only one pool up. They should have passed him.
– He shouldn’t be here. What does he look like?
– Dark, straight hair, mid-fifties, I’d say. Big. A fine, healthy rose of a man.
I mention that Bob met him here only last night. And he was there another day too, according to the Dooleys from Kildare. And never a car. John Noel puts his own two and two together but doesn’t share the sum.
– I think I know where he’s hiding the car. He’s not afraid of a good walk, the same man. If you see him again will you give me a shout?
They take a shortcut back across the bog and I head back up the riverbank, too tired now for unfamiliar shortcuts over the bog.
At the High Banks Pool, I spy Oisín standing exactly where I stood when I hooked the fish. He’s casting beautiful long lines out under my near bank. I take care to walk it lightly, well back from the river.
– I heard the good news. Congratulations.
– Thanks. I was actually standing right there where you are when I hooked him.
So who bore the good news? I don’t ask. He may have just met John Noel on intersecting shortcuts. I’m more interested in watching his casting.
– Well, you’ve opened your account anyway. A grilse, was it?
– I thought so. But the brother thought it was a sea trout when I sent him a snap.
– Ah, it was a grilse surely. Did you release it?
– I did.
– Good man.
I have to smile. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the White Heron.
– But I have a picture on the phone.
– I might take a look at it later. What did I tell you, fish it from this bank.
– You were dead right.
– Look it, I’m sixty-five years walking this earth and I can tell you that without doubt the most important thing when you’re fishing for salmon is stealth. You see lads tramping up and down the bank here and leaping from one spot to another. Why jump when you can walk quietly?
His line cuts an elegant set of arcs as he lifts it lightly from the surface, tosses it far and high over his shoulder and casts it perfectly from its apogeé to where it alights somewhere under where I’m standing, out of sight.
– Do you know the way, in a swimming pool, lads’d be walking along the side and you’d hear them, muffled like, but you know they’re there. I’ve seen it in a pool like this on a different river where the water is clear. I’d be watching from high up. A lad’d march along the bank and just like that a salmon at the neck of it’d tear back along the pool and all the fish go to the bottom. Honest to god. And they’d stay there for half an hour at least. You wouldn’t have a hope.
– I hear you. Until today I’ve always fished this pool from this side.
– Well that might work for you in high water. Anything goes in a flood. And from that bank there at least you can let out a good long line. But in low water I only ever fish it from here. A salmon’ll never follow your fly from slack water into fast water, but he will follow from fast water into slack, do you get me?
– Oh, indeed, yes. You see, the salmon in slack water and the salmon in fast water are two different fish. The lad in the slack water is lying on the bottom. The one in the fast water is on the fin. He’ll follow your fly. I always cast into fast water when the water is low and let the fly come round.
He reels in. I don’t get it. He’s only starting this pool. What’s with the reeling in?
– Well, I’ll leave you in peace.
– Don’t mind me, I’m heading back to the cottage for a kip. Fish away.
– Ah, now, it was hopping with them here this morning but they’re all quiet now. They might have gone on up, even in this water. I’ll leave you in peace and head on downstream.
I wonder if The Man From Mulranney might have dropped a bomb in this pool after I’d left. Or could it be that the fish are just no longer in the mood? If I could hook one here, surely Oisín would. And then it dawns on me that hunger for solitude is what’s moving him on. Even with my departure, too many words have been uttered here too recently.
As I get out of my waders at the blue cottage, the Frenchmen are donning theirs.
– Bonne chance.
It’s two pm. I set the phone for five thirty and fall onto a mattress. The alarm calls me forth just as the Frenchmen return.
– Non. No water. And ze…
He suggests midges in the manner of one whose hair has been lit with petrol.
– Yes. Midges. They’re fucking bastards.
At John Campbell’s Rock I drop to my knees and sink my head in the cool water. Time to wake up and smell the fish. The plan has been hatched. Cross the river up here at the Junction Pool and fish all the pools down from the far side until we’re limbered up and ready for another decent assault on the High Banks. Moving through the Wall Pool and the Broken Banks I’m amazed at what a different river it is from the far side. Same landmarks, different experience. Same result, though – no fish. But pleasant. Just enough breeze to keep the midges in hiding. Bosa boga na gaoithe ag cuimilt mo leicne. The river has dropped off another foot since I bedded down so optimism is slightly on the wane. But optimism is a different creature when you’ve had one on the bank already. Cushioned by a little success, optimism never quite diminishes to pessimism, just less optimism. Keeping faith with the Black Pennell, I go for a smaller one again, a size sixteen. In deference to Oisín and his overtures on subtlety, I tie the fly with only four turns of the nylon. It’s a light knot but it feels sound.
By the time we get to the High Banks Pool, my mojo is back up and running. Pip is under orders to stay well back from the water. Long backhand casts are landing the fly just under the far bank. Again I’ve applied the quick-sink mud to the nylon. Again the bird’s nest, so again the wee tug after each cast. I’m just surmising that I’m at the very spot where I hooked the fish this morning when the line knocks violently. And again. Hello! And again. Hallelujah. I raise the rod and kill the slack. The line tightens, the rod bends radically and the fish heads for the deeps. This is no trout. This is bigger. My heart whomps in its cage as I reel in the slack and get ready for battle. The fish takes off downstream, deep below the far bank. I try to deploy this morning’s tactics but have to concede to his strength and go with him, tightening the drag as I go. He doesn’t take me as far as the dreaded gorse before I coax him back and retrace my steps. For ten minutes he moves over and back and only a little downstream, a game I’m happy to play. He’s bound to tire before me. Making a sudden dash upstream he leaps vertically, leaving the water entirely. The heart skips one whomp as I drop the tip of the rod – it’s no match for that dead weight in air. In that extended moment of zenith I see his eye and feel his fear like a dart. Does he see me? He plunges back into the wash and I raise the rod again fast, relieved to feel the tension renewed. As he thrashes about just below the surface I see my nylon scraping tight along his fins. I think of the knot and its four turns. The tiny fly. How can it hold? He must not be landed early, only when fully played out. He is by far the biggest fish I’ve ever hooked, surely eight or nine pounds. The kype tells me he’s a cock. Chivalry not required then, just you and me, mate. Between dives he’s beginning to show more on the surface and I can see he’s been in the river about a week. His spine and head have dulled slightly but the the flanks are still pure silver. He’s well rested and full of fight. Only as he begins to show his belly do my thoughts turn to what to do if I land him.
I think of Jeri, my sister-in-law in London, wedding next month. Have I not told her that the first decent salmon I might catch would be for her big day? That was the deal – she was to persuade Sadie to let me out fishing at every opportunity and I would do my best for her banquet. But is it fresh enough? After twenty-five minutes of nip and tuck, I ease him into the net and lift him out onto the bank. An absolute beauty. Certainly fresh enough for any table. Nine or ten pounds easy. I make the uneasy decision but having no priest to hand I quickly search the river bed for the right rock to administer the last rites, taking care not to disfigure his face. I whisper my silent apology. Take into the air my dying breath…
After the customary snap and text I rest on my knees, allow the heart to slow back down to workable, savour the gentle breeze and rejoice in the warbling larks. A sandpiper skims the black, glassy surface like a fighter plane, a dipper clings to rounded, submerged stones and swallows dart about in pursuit of flies. Life abounds around me. The fish twitches violently one last time, the shudder that takes it from flesh to meat. And now I hear more intensely the whorling and gurgling and trickling stream on its never-ending way to the sea, the river that contains all the sounds of the universe, the river you can never fish twice. Éist le fuaim na habhann ‘s gheobhfaidh tú breac.
A low growl from Pip brings Oisín into view on the far bank.
– Well, any joy?
– Yes, in fact. I’ve just landed this lad.
I proffer the catch.
– Ah, fair play to you. That’s a decent fish. Nine pound I’d say. In about a week. Where did you hook him?
– Right there, same spot as the sea trout this morning.
How easy now to concede to science. Of course it was a sea trout. What the hell do I care?
– Really. Jaysus, isn’t it a good spot so? Congratulations.
– He gave a great account of himself. I was nearly in him half an hour.
– I’d say. He had a few days in it to draw breath. Bejayney, you’re catching up with yourself today.
– I certainly am.
– Well, I’ll leave you in peace.
Pip is licking the fish, almost reverently. I whoosh her away and consider my options. It’s just after eight and I feel I’ve only begun. Wind down with a bit more fishing, then take the prize home – that sounds like a plan. I move downstream a bit as the fight must surely have disturbed the neck of the pool. A quick check of the fly and the nylon shows all to be still good. On the third cast, knock knock, who’s there, whomp, and I’m in again.
The fight is like the last. This fish seems about as big and goes in for the same aeronautics. When he first shows a flank I see he’s a cock and fresh. Extremely fresh. Lepping. I keep a cool head and when I have him in the net, I note his sea lice with their tails still intact. So, fresh in this morning, just as the fishmonger said. Or, at least, fresh in from the sea this past twenty-four hours. What a fish! A great big bar of pure silver. I make the dreaded decision again. One of these salmon will add to the fish option on the wedding menu. Both would provide the entire option. This guy is a few inches shorter than his pal but fatter. I dispatch him quickly and consider this day of days. Lá dár saol é. On the bank at my feet are two spring salmon bursting with life, even in death. Born within a mile or three and fledged locally for maybe as many years. Two further years and who knows how many thousands of miles at sea, only to come home to this sorry end. Fooled by pheasant tail tip on a hook and string. How will I square this away with Ted? He has me under strict injunction to kill no fish. The breeze has dropped and I am practically inhaling midges now. I’ll thrash that out later with Ted. He’s not the boss of me!
Now it’s time to quit and work fast. Thanking myself profusely for having kept an old bootlace in my pocket, I tie it around the wrists of both salmon, roughly eight inches between them, and hoist them over my right shoulder so that one hangs down my front, the other down my back. It’s just a mile, I tell myself, just a mile.
One carefully-negotiated, midge-blackened mile-and-a-half later, I arrive at the car. Within seconds, Pip growls and Oisín emerges from the river bank. He must have been following.
– Begob, you got another.
He helps lift the burden from my shoulder and lays the fish out on the grass. The relief is immense, the lace has eaten into my shoulder.
– Fine fish. That second one is dead fresh. Where did you hook that lad?
– Only a few yards down from the other two. It’s like a sacred spot or something.
– Well d’ye know, I was thinking that that pool had filled with fresh fish and disturbed the residents. They were fighting for the lies. I thought that might be why the pool was so agitated with them.
– I feel kinda bad about killing the two but we’ve a wedding coming up and they’d be perfect for it.
– Ah, sure aren’t they your first decent fish in the place? You’d have a right to take them with you. Jaysus but you came back in style, boy. Congratulations.
He extends a hand warmly. I could hug him, clasp him to my breast with hoops of steel even, but it’s not what we wild sportsmen do.
– I’ll leave you in peace.
He climbs into his jeep and rolls down the window.
– I got another one myself down below, about eight pound.
And then he’s gone, away from his Tír na nÓg and back to his chairs and tables and mattresses. A beautiful soul rinsed over by another day on the river, our very own Ballycroy Goldi. I cut the bootlace between the fish and remark that this is my first time ever leaving here, after a day’s fishing, in daylight.
Reading the scales at the blue cottage I’m surprised and delighted to see they are ten and a half pounds, the first one, and ten pounds even, the second. Holy Saint Anthony who preached to the fish, what a day! And who would have thunk it and the water so low? I wash each of them in the stream by John Campbell’s Rock. Midges stick to them as I carry them towards the car. This is midge city, their hotspot. The phone rings. It has to be Bob but now is just not the time. The zealousness of his mission extends to assiduous monitoring of my time with his flock. He wants the details. I want to get to the car alive. With lips sealed, eyes squinting and arms hanging off me, I ease the fish onto the back of my jacket in the boot of the car, fire the rod and net any old way onto the back seat, leap in with the dog and turn on all fans to cold. A text comes in from brother Dec: “Scales in blue cottage bit dodgy, easy to misread too. U prob have ur own scales at home. Hard to tell from pic but they look at least 8 or 9. Well done.” What I would not give to have directed the scene where his calibrated, minutely graduated, digital scales puts them at ten point five and eleven pounds, respectively, the very next day.
For pure pig iron, I take the back road by Shean, searching out boreens and bog tracks where The Man From Mulranney might yet be parked behind a reek of turf, snoring like a sailor in his old Avenger, awaiting an ungodly hour to emerge and strike again. I take my hat off to his commitment, he certainly puts in the time and the hard yards. Descending the lonely road back into Ballycroy village, a text comes in from the abstruse brother: “?enohpEYE ym tcelloc I od erehw dna nehw oS”. This Father’s Day is over.
 Wild Sports of the West Of Ireland, by William Hamilton Maxwell, 1832.
 a play on “aithníonn cíaróg cíaróg eile“, meaning “it takes one to know one” (literally, a beetle recognises another beetle – in this case, the dog recognises mozzarella!).
 translates literally as “the soft palms of the breeze caressing my temples” from a poem by Maírtín Ó Direán (I think!).
 an old Irish proverb which translates literally as, “listen to the sound of the river and you’ll get a trout.”
 translates literally as “It was a day out of our lives” – a phrase regarded by John McGahern as practically untranslateable into English, which recurs in Tomás Ó Criomhtháin’s An t-Oileánach (The Islandman).
 The mythical land of eternal youth where the legendary Oisín spent nine hundred years before returning to Ireland on horseback and, upon his stirrup breaking, his foot touched the ground and he perished.