by David Gray-Clough
A question sometimes asked in our angling club, usually after a beer or two in the Joiners’ Arms, is “What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?”
Never mind “What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?”—I would suggest that a much more sensible question to ask a real fisherman is “What’s the best fish you’ve ever caught?”
This allows him to re-create all those golden memories of fish he’s enjoyed stalking and catching, like the time he fished for a day with never a sniff or sight of a trout, then just as he was packing up, at the very last cast, there was that tug of a beautiful wild brownie that fought like a demon and nearly got away and just as he was being netted the line broke, the fly fell loose, and the fish was only captured by diving into the water after it. Ah, that was a fish to remember!
The biggest fish I ever caught was huge anyway, he said casually. Over 200 pounds. It really was a monster. 205 pounds. Of skate.
A fish looking very much like a dustbin lid, and one that is just about as much fun to catch. I lugged it up from the bottom of the sea into a boat off the Irish coast. It was an ugly brute, which I was only too glad to return to the depths.
That was my one and only bit of boasting big fish story. Now back to the best fish.
It’s a difficult one to answer. I once caught a huge perch from a gloriously fertile Irish lough, near my granddad’s house in Monaghan. I was ten years old and the perch was the brightest and fiercest fish I’d ever seen, black and white striped and flaring its row of spikes at me, flapping its scarlet fins and glaring at me for daring to catch it. That was a beautiful fish and a contender for best fish for several years.
Then there was the time I was demonstrating the art of fly fishing to an admiring young lady (who later became my wife). Just as I had cast the perfect cast and said, “There! With a bit of luck I should get a rise any second,” a fat trout popped up right on cue and gobbled my fly.
I was so surprised I forgot to strike (I was probably taking a bow at the time). Luckily for me, the fish had hooked itself and I was able to bring it gently to the bank and lay it at her feet with all the nonchalant skill of the expert fly fisher.
I don’t know what I expected from her—praise, hero worship—something along those lines would have gone down well.
As it was, what I actually got from her was, “Aw!” (in that heartrendingly sorrowful way she has). “Look at the nasty hook in its mouth.”
No—beautiful, timely fish though that was, it could never be my best fish. My best fish was the day I outfished the County Fermanagh angling champion.
Tommy Mills was his name, a lifelong and expert real fisherman. Expert at salmon and trout, local publican, and friend of my Uncle Jack, he had done me the great honor of letting me go fishing with him and his friend George (I forget his surname, but another awesomely skillful fly fisher). I was fourteen, fresh over from England for the summer, and equipped with a headful of fishing books and a boxful of English flies. A know-it-all beginner.
We went to the Colebrooke River, a stony-bottomed trout river near Brookeborough in County Tyrone. It was an unseasonably cold day for August, and I looked in vain for a hatch of flies. Tommy soon noticed me squinting at the water.
“Got something in your eye, have yiz?” he asked.
I shook my head and unfolded my small net for trapping flies on the water.
Tommy and George came close to watch.
“What’s that you’re doing there now young un?”
“Checking the hatch, Mr. Mills. Trying to identify what they’re taking, so I can use an exact imitation.”
Both men whistled. “That so?”
“Yes,” I said, a trifle testily. (There’s nothing like a new convert to anything for fiery enthusiasm, and I was a new convert to fly fishing.)
I tried to ignore the crudity of their tackle and consoled myself that they might be considered good fishermen here in Ireland, but I would show them how to catch fish, for I had all the skill and knowledge of Oliver Kite and Frank Sawyer behind me. I knew G. E. M. Skues’s principles of fly identification off by heart. I had read all their books.
Tommy and George were ready now and waiting for me to start. I knelt at the water and scanned the sedges.
“Not much of a hatch today,” I announced.
“Oh, a hatch. Is it a hatch you’re looking for?”
“Yes. I was hoping for Blue Winged Olives.”
“Blue Wing Olives is it?” Tommy turned to George.
“Have yiz caught sight of any Blue Wing Olives yet George?”
George shook his head and muttered something about being more likely to catch his death of cold than a fish if we didn’t get started soon.
“Well now David,” said Tommy kindly. “I don’t think we get too many of thum Olives round these parts. Maybe they don’t like crossing The Water [from England].”
I didn’t know whether he was being slow or deliberately obstructive, but I was well into my decision-making phase now and paid little heed to his rustic ramblings. I unpacked my new fly box and ran my eye proudly over the neat lines of flies I had so carefully constructed, using Veniard’s Fly Dresser’s Guide.
“Here,” said Tommy. “Let’s have a wee look at the flies you’re using.”
I opened the box and proudly showed him the contents.
He whistled. “B’Jasus! Will yez look at these now George, aren’t they the thing for catching trout?”
The rows of tiny Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears twinkled in the light. My imitation Olives looked magnificent. The Pale Watery Spinners were works of art.
“Did y’ivver see the likes of thum now, George?”
George obviously hadn’t, for he grunted and slid down the bank on his backside.
I prepared to put on a size 18 Blue Quill, a tiny gem of a fly.
Tommy peered close.
“Here, try one of these,” he said, taking something out of his pocket. It wasn’t in a fly box or anything, just loose in his pocket.
I held out my hand and he dropped something on it. It was a furry meat hook. It looked like a gerbil on a spike.
“What is it?” I asked in some alarm (and some disdain, I might add).
“It’s a . . . ah, what d’ye call it George?”
George looked up from the contemplation of his much-patched waders. “Looks like an Ugly Wee Focker to me,” he said laconically.
“There y’are now David, it’s an Ugly Wee Focker.”
I took the gerbil. “Well thanks, Mr. Mills, I’ll give it a try later.” (Like hell I will! Peasants! As if anything so heavy and crude as this furry creature could betray that intellectual aristocrat of fish, the trout. Why, the idea was ridiculous.) I stuffed it into my side pocket and forgot all about it. Then we separated and arranged to meet up later.
All day I fished with my English flies. G. E. M. Skues must have been having an off day, because none of his recommendations worked. I trudged up and down miles of river, with never a sight of a rise. I changed my flies regularly, I tried different techniques. I dry flied, I nymphed. I swapped my Double Taper Kingfisher for a Shooting Head AFTM8. I turned in desperation to three wet flies fished on droppers. Still I caught nothing.
The wind blew harsh and squally. There were heavy showers of wintry rain. There was little cover on the banks. I was thoroughly wet and miserable. By evening I was fed up and ready to go home, then in the distance I saw the other two approaching.
Instantly I was rejuvenated. My fishing took on a new intensity, as I put on an expert display of fly casting, rolling great loops of line across the water, covering the whole width of the river to the far bank. They’d be impressed by that, I thought, even though I hadn’t caught a fish.
Then I remembered the Ugly Wee Focker. They might feel insulted if they thought I’d scorned their advice and hadn’t even bothered to try it. Quickly I reeled in and bit the tail fly off, substituting the Ugly Wee Focker in its place.
Out went the line again, only this time my lovely roll cast didn’t seem to work. The Ugly Wee Focker was so heavy it unbalanced the line, resulting in top-heavy clanging splashes on the water. I winced at each one, wondering what G. E. M. Skues would say if he was to see me whanging gerbils across the water.
Tommy and George stood on my bank, some yards back, watching me fish. I squirmed under their scrutiny, wishing I’d stuck to three of my own flies instead of that furry beast that was now my tail fly. After each clumsy cast I drew in line miserably. Mercifully, it was getting dark now and it was hard to see what was going on.
Suddenly, just under the bank below me, I had a take. A real, thudding tug that nearly wrenched the rod from my grip. There was no question of missing the fish—I’d been winding in on the reel and there was no slack in the line. The fish tugged and was on. All I had to do was to avoid snags, hope the knot held, and land it safely.
In a couple of minutes the fish turned on its side and I drew it into slack water. Tommy netted it for me.
“A nice fish!” he called up to me (for I was some yards away along a steep bank). “A pound and a half at least!”
I stood panting and puffed with pride.
Tommy laughed, “And all George and I caught was cold!”
Could it be true? I had outfished the pair of them! I couldn’t stop grinning. Me—a beginner—had caught a trout, while Tommy Mills, one of the best fishermen in a county full of fish, had caught nothing!
Tommy was kneeling, taking the fly out of the fish’s mouth for me.
“Which fly did he take?” I asked. It was impossible to see in the darkness.
“It was the . . .” Tommy paused.
“What did you say? I can’t hear in this wind.”
“It was wan of yours. The Blue Wing Olive I expect.”
I inflated even more. Of course, it had taken the Blue Winged Olive, what did they expect? Not only had I outfished the County Fermanagh angling champion, but I had done so with a fly I had tied myself!
It was a wonder I could get my head inside the car on the way back.
Now Tommy’s dead and gone and there won’t be many Englishmen fishing the Colebrooke River this year or for years to come, for the river rises in the hills on the border with the Republic and falls toward Enniskillen town.
I’ve still got the Ugly Wee Focker. I kept it as a symbol, a symbol of how superior local knowledge and experience is when compared with book knowledge. A symbol of how foolish it is to patronize anyone, no matter how countrified they might be. A symbol of the magnanimity of the real fisherman.
For I had seen the wink that passed between Tommy and George as we drove home that night, and I had known then that the fly that caught the trout was not one of mine, not a Blue Winged Olive at all.
It was Tommy’s Ugly Wee Focker.
Only I wasn’t man enough to admit it at the time.
And that is why the trout I caught that day is the best fish I ever caught.
David Gray-Clough has been a fisherman since he fell in the river at age four, watching his dad fish. He’s spent most of his life fly fishing for trout and grayling on Yorkshire rivers, as well as in Ireland, where his mother was born. He is the author of two books, Yorkie Boys (2019) and Yorkie Boys and Girls (2020). A third, Yorkie Boys Go Fishing, will be published this year. All three are published by Michael Terence and available through Amazon. David has been a finalist in the Colm Toibin International Short Story competition at the Wexford Literary Festival twice in the last three years. He lives in North Yorkshire, England.