I’d be quite happy to die in my waders, but walking through a graveyard in them as the sun begins to dip below the trees feels a little like tempting fate. Instead, we take the pathway that runs along the other side of the church wall – Dog Shit Alley, and in the gloaming you smell them before you see them.
It’s a balmy mid-summer evening and the water is low. We should be in our beds, sleeping off the obligatory beers and BBQ, resting up ahead of a full day of salmon fishing – but the warmest and driest summer in our collective memories has forced a change of plans. The river is on its bones and there hasn’t been a cloud for what seems like weeks. We have opted to go nocturnal.
To me ‘night fishing’ has always conjured images of bite alarms and bivvies, drenched in camo, reeking of boilies and all washed down with lukewarm Belgian lager. Instead, I’m being inducted into the shadowy world of sea trout fishing – wading blind and casting into the dark some of the prettiest flies you’ll not quite see.
Jim and I sit together on the pool’s bench in the fading light and wait for the green grass to lose its colour. Once the sun has set it will be several hours before the moon swings through, giving us a window of opportunity. To kill time until then we evaluate, at length and in our time-honoured tradition, the pros and cons associated with each of us having the first run down the pool. I lose the argument and wade out to the head. I look down at my feet and the pebbles below dissolve in greyscale to a blackness of indeterminable depth. There is a sharp drop-off around here somewhere, I remember. With this in mind I realise that my intended starting point was far too close to the run and I would likely spook the fish. I stop my nervous shuffling, relieved by my reasoning, and pull out line to cast.
I swing a small black fly through an all-too-rare run of faster water on the far side. The recent lack of rain has left many of the famous pools along this beat so sluggish they’re on the cusp of flowing the wrong way. The last cast of the run is taken by a fish. A small fish, but a fish nonetheless – perhaps there was even a flash of silver as I flicked it off the line. A herling, as the one-winter sea trout are known in these parts, or maybe I imagined it, wishfully.
I return to the bank to hand Jim the shared rod and reclaim control of the Large Black Dog who has accompanied us on tonight’s venture. He has sat alert for the last hour or so emitting a low but disconcerting growl at some unseen menace in the black. As I rummage through the bag in search of the mandatory chocolate Hobnobs, Jim switches to a surface lure – an attempt to draw some life up from the flat calm of the middle section of the pool. He wades out and after a few false casts, the line lands straight and true in the heavy oil-slick-black. His slow figure-of-eight creates a wake across the pool, caught by the light from the pub perched at the top of the cliff. The dog finally settles.
My attempts to enjoy this moment of tranquillity were shattered mere seconds later. Leaping to his feet, trialling his best big-boy-bark, LBD made a charge for The Thing. I caught his collar at the last second with the tip of my little finger, sending biscuits flying, but sparing the club angler who had had the audacity to open the metal gate behind us. The newcomer’s voice wobbled, audibly shaken, into the dark, “Is that Malcolm?”. “No”, I replied and before I had a chance to offer our names in return he’d vanished as quickly as he’d arrived. We didn’t see him again, or Malcom for that matter.
My turn to fish again came sooner than expected and with all the excitement, brought to us courtesy of Not-Malcolm, I was still a little jittery. It was well and truly dark now and standing thigh-deep, surrounded by night elicits a certain freedom of thought. The red sandstone cliffs loom large across the pool and it’s easy to see why the river thought twice upon meeting them, doing an almost-about-turn and fleeing for softer ground. Apparitions of 250 million year old sand dunes appear out of the rock in the half-light and the shadows cast add a cathedralic element to the scene. This reminds me of the church behind me, and of the melancholic story that connects it to this pool.
Local lore has it that a group of churchgoers drowned here after crossing the river by boat to attend mass at the church behind me. It’s a spate river and heavy rain can make it fierce in no time. My mother’s family hails from the next valley over, so some of those that died were likely known to my ancestors. Of course, in the rationality of daytime this is a largely irrelevant addition, a mere finessing of the story, but standing here in the pool, with the night, the graveyard and the growling, with Not-Malcolm and without Malcolm, it all feels rather eerie. Then I heard the first proper fish of the night.
Off to my left I hear a sizeable sea trout leap and then, what feels like some seconds later, flop back to the water. I scan the pool but can’t see the ripples to accompany the noise. I look back to the bank where Jim and the LBD are up on their feet, ears pricked and staring into the darkness – at least I hadn’t imagined it. A few minutes later, I was retrieving a medium-sized dark fly through the deep, slow section of the pool when I had hefty pull. Immediately I cast back through the same spot, the sort of rushed cast you throw when your hands are shaking and your heart is racing. Nothing. I try a few more times with an odd feeling that there was nothing there. Thankfully, Jim had a similar experience at the tail of the pool an hour or so later.
The fish, these ghosts of the pool, kept leaping through the night until the moon brought colour back to the grass, but not once did any of us see the water move.
The original article appeared in Issue 3 (Spring 2019) of Fly Culture