One sunny May afternoon in Wiltshire I met an old man on the riverbank. I was catching nothing. He asked what fly I’d been using, and when I showed him, snorted and offered me one from his own box, saying he’d been taking trout all day on the pattern. He said, in rather falsely modest voice, that one of them had been a wild fish of over 4 lbs – big for a southern English chalkstream.
A few hours later, I bumped into him again. Now he was with a friend, the two of them chatting amiably as they sauntered up the evening riverbank, keen to get home before it was too dark. ‘Thanks for that fly,’ I said, ‘I’ve been catching fish all afternoon, though I didn’t get anything as big as your four pounder.’
His friend answered before he could reply. ‘ He told you it was HOW big? That fish was half that size – two pounds if it was an ounce.’ And off down the riverbank they wandered, friends squabbling and laughing as they had squabbled for decades. That’s one of the things I adore about fishing. It makes you a child again.
I do not propose to spend any words at all explaining to those who have no ears to listen why I find the infantilising power of fishing so seductive. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Read no further.
Most of us learned to fish as children, and so going fishing is a reversion to a state of uncomplicatedness, before plans, before careers, before bills. Maybe lots of other pursuits have similar powers. I know nothing of bungee-jumping or embroidery. But I do know a little bit about the ability of fly-fishing to dissolve the cares of the world.
The worst times of the year for a fishermen are the dank days of late January and early February. By March we are already tying up flies representing the triumph of hope over experience, and while I have never caught a trout on a fabled March Brown in March, it is a month of dreams.
But what to do about those first few weeks of the year? The Close Season, the spawning season, when no-one goes fishing, is a period of miserable abstinence. It is time to think of elsewhere.
Those lucky enough to have been bitten by the fishing bug have always travelled. In the early days of the twentieth century, the rivers of Norway and Iceland were infested with Dukes, Earls and successful bankers and industrialists. By the end of the century, travel agents were organising visits for any Tom, Dick or Harry.
Destinations proliferated. With the collapse of communism, former Red Army helicopters were used to ferry men and women in waders across the tundra of the Kola peninsula and into Outer Mongolia. The few thousand inhabitants of Christmas Island in the Pacific, who had already done nothing to deserve being chosen as a nuclear bomb test site in the Fifties, now found themselves invaded by an army of men and women in bad hats trying to fly-fish in the sea.
To try to catch trout, the noblest of freshwater fish, in winter, you must go south. The imperial British took their obsessions with them when they grabbed their colonies, and you can find the descendants of Loch Leven trout everywhere from New Zealand to Kashmir.
Chile was never a formal part of the Empire, but for my money, it has the best trout fishing on earth, with clear, wild rivers cascading out of snow-tipped mountains and air so clean that you can almost feel it descaling your lungs. The Rio Cisnes – a clear, wild dream of a river – surely, is the place to be reintroduced to your twelve-year self.
Doubtless, there were fish in the rivers of Patagonia before settlers planted trout in them a hundred-odd years ago. But if so, they were long ago eaten or driven out. And, if getting away from it all is what you’re after, Patagonia is the place to be. Is there something absurd about spending fourteen hours flying to Santiago, hamfing about in the airports and then taking another flight to reach the little regional capital, Coihayque, and then embarking a three hour road trip? Yes, of course there is. But at the end of the journey at least we knew we were properly away, in summer, in the middle of northern winter. For an internet connection you had to travel fifteen kilometres of dirt road, and then sit on the ground outside the municipal offices, to hop onto the wifi in a town which appeared to be under occupation by an army of sleeping dogs with a very unusual number of legs between them. It was preposterous. And it was heaven.
Though it will test the credulity of sensible people further to say so, it is important that it is not too easy to catch a fish. But it is true. The rivers of Patagonia teem with wild trout. But that does not mean they are necessarily exceptionally stupid and the principles of fishing remain the same, wherever you are. Part of the explanation for fishing’s powerful grip may simply be the companionship of pals. But I think there is something else, too.
Fish cannot survive in our world for long, nor we in theirs. Fishing is where the universes meet. Flicking a fly onto the surface of the water and watching with bated breath as a trout swims lazily up to inspect it, then turns away, dissatisfied, is to be reminded of the limits of our capabilities: fully grown human beings humbled by a creature with a brain the size of a pea. The activity’s obsessional quality is what makes it instantly and unerringly comic. For three adult males accustomed to being listened to, to travel thousands of miles to be ignored by stupid trout is just funny.
Fishing is about guile and deception. And its promise – which never fails – is to take you to a place where humankind doesn’t belong. It might be the depths of a lake. Or it might, like Patagonia, be a crazy landscape of snowy mountaintops, plunging valleys thick with ancient trees, prickly calafate bushes and fuschias, at the bottom of which are racing, glacier-melt rivers on whose banks lupins have seeded themselves everywhere. The only human you are likely to see all day might be a solitary black-hatted gaucho on a piebald horse, with some indefinable breed of dog trotting at his horse’s heels. We even saw the occasional condor wheeling in the sky.
Ferdinand Magellan gave Patagonia its name, because he thought the place to be inhabited by indigenous tribes with enormous feet (‘patagones’). But actually, humanity has trod very lightly on the landscape. Ibises honked their mild irritation at being disturbed on the riverbank, but bronze-breasted kingfishers sitting on riverside branches seemed to have almost no fear of humans at all.
Mind you, the flies we were asked to use by the two fishing guides seemed to have little relation to any insect we had ever seen – great rubber-legged supposed imitations of grasshoppers with names like ‘Fat Albert’ or what I took to be a ‘Purple Penis’ (I had misheard: it was a Purple Peanut.)
Sometimes we fished in the conventional English dry-fly manner, to rising fish. More often, we threw these patterns – the size of small birds – into what looked likely spots.
And soon we were back in the world of the child. Who had caught the most? Who had caught the biggest fish? The bickering continued all day. Did I catch 18 or 20 trout that first day? Who cares? But care you must, or else what does any of it matter. After a while we all lost count, but over the course of nine days we certainly caught four or five hundred trout.
My biggest shock in Patagonia was to stop on a dirt road to pick up a bent old gaucho, standing with his thumb out. He looked to have walked from a sepia photo, in pin-striped breeches and broad-brimmed straw hat. He had a strong farmyard smell, and attempted to put on his seatbelt by attaching it to his trousers as if it were a pair of back-to-front braces. When I asked him ‘quantos anos tiene?” I discovered that he was the same age as me. It didn’t seem possible.
To follow in Jeremy’s footsteps, please contact Charlie White or Hannah Treliving.