There are many fish which won’t be caught – but none which can’t be caught
Perhaps I should have heeded those wise words when I set about trying to catch the one fish which had not only eluded me, but every other member of the fishing club as well.
The fish in question had acquired the nickname of ‘Old Particular’ although no one could remember why. So renowned was he that we had a special trophy which would be presented at the AGM to anyone who managed to catch him – but no one had ever claimed it. In fact, most members had long since abandoned any hope of catching Old Particular and instead just spoke of him with reverence and respect.
Strangely enough, he was not what you might call a ‘trophy fish’. He was as wild and as wily as they come but he only weighed about two pounds at best. For as long as anyone could remember he’d occupied a lie on one of the wider beats. It was as difficult to reach as any you could envisage, tucked up under the branches of a willow on the far bank and just below a large stone which provided him with an element of respite from the current. That same stone also rendered him all but impossible to reach with a fly because it disrupted the flow of the river and, however well you cast, your fly would inevitably veer away to one side of it or the other then sweep past him unnoticed. It was said that the only way to catch Old Particular was to wait until he ventured into the mid-stream of the river to feed but even then it was a hopeless task. He would disdainfully ignore whatever you threw at him.
As I say, most club members had given up trying to catch him, although few could resist the odd cast from time to time, more in hope than anticipation. Usually they abandoned that when their fly ended up with all the others which festooned the branches of the willow tree above his lie. Not surprisingly it was said that over the years Old Particular had seen every fly in your fly box more times than you could count and probably even knew who’d tied them!
For my part, I was beginning to feel like a reasonably competent fisherman so decided to try my hand at being the one to catch this elusive fish and set off one day with that very purpose in mind. I’d designed a fly especially for the job – one he wouldn’t have seen before. It was a simple pattern which consisted of a CDC wing, some hare’s ear dubbing, a Grizzle hackle and a red collar, all tied on a size 18 hook. This was based on the premise that the only flies Old Particular had ever bothered to examine closely all included something red, even though he’d never once succumbed to any of them.
I timed my mission for those vital hours before dusk and walked along the river bank as quietly as you like. When I neared the section where he had his lie I got down on my hands and knees and crawled the last few yards along the margin, carefully keeping myself concealed as best I could. When I parted the bushes, I found that whilst I couldn’t actually see him, I could at least see his lie and was certain he was ‘at home’.
I didn’t have to wait long before he drifted out into the middle of the river and there set about feasting on whatever invertebrates he could find, hoovering them up as though he hadn’t a care in the world. Still I waited, biding my time knowing that he was always very wary and all too easily spooked.
I watched him until my enthusiasm got the better of me and I risked a cast. When I did, my fly landed far too far upstream before drifting off line towards the opposite bank. Either Old Particular didn’t see it or he chose to ignore it so I gave it a few moments before casting again, thereby allowing him time to settle. My next cast was all but perfect and I held my breath as I watched my fly drift towards him. There was a flurry of movement on the water as it passed right over his nose and, when I looked again, my fly was gone. Cursing my somewhat limited fly dressing skills, I assumed it had sunk so gave a gentle tug in the hope of re-floating it. Almost at once I met resistance – and it certainly didn’t feel like a snag – it felt just like…
Having taken my fly, Old Particular took off like a bat from hell. I let him run until I could see that he was headed straight towards the tangled roots of an old gnarled and twisted tree which grew right on the edge of the far bank. I eased him back with as much pressure as I dared to exert and he slewed across the river, turned and with no more than a heartbeat’s hesitation, started back towards me. I took up the slack as fast as I could and tried to stop him reaching the bridge downstream. He responded by leaping into the air like a salmon, then diving deep towards the river bed. Then he was off upstream again, pulling like a train as I prayed that my leader wouldn’t break or my knots let me down. This went on for at least five heart stopping minutes until it seemed Old Particular acknowledged that he’d met his match. I got up and dipped my landing net into the water and guided him gingerly towards it. To my surprise he was not remotely net shy, instead he simply swam into the net and waited as I lifted him up onto the bank.
I’d been worried about using a barbless hook lest he got off but, in the end, I was pleased I had as it meant he’d been able to shake it free without me needing to remove it. It lay in the net beside him as he stared up at me, calm yet defiant, as if completely unfazed by the experience.
I hurriedly took out my phone and photographed what to me was the most significant fish I’d ever caught. That done, I wetted my hands and lowered him gently into the river, pointing him upstream so that the water flowed past his gills. Then, as he gave a slight wriggle, I released him and watched him swim away.
I stood there for a few moments, contemplating the sight of that trophy on my mantlepiece and the bragging rights I’d enjoy at the next club social. It was then that I realised I was not alone.
Strictly speaking Donald Tready was not just our river keeper, he was one of the founder members of the club and an excellent fisherman to boot. He looked at me, his head nodding with what I took to be respect. ‘So laddie, you had him did you not?’ said Donald.
I was speechless and so pleased with myself that I could do nothing more than grin like some kind of mindless idiot.
‘Aye, then that’s to the good,’ mused Donald. ‘And that you released him unharmed, that’s even better. But the question is, what are you going to do now?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, finding my voice at last.
‘Well, you might have noticed that Old Particular come easy to the net.’
‘That’s right he did,’ I agreed.
‘Och, don’t look so surprised, laddie. It’s because he’s used to it, do you see.’
‘He’s used to it!’ I exclaimed. ‘How can he be used to the net if he’s never been caught before…’
Donald gave a little laugh. ‘Do you not ken what I’m saying? Old Particular has been caught afore right enough, but he’s a tad choosy about the company he keeps. I first landed him a few years back and your new club captain, Matthew Dowling, caught him the season afore last. No others mind, leastways not so far as I know.’
‘So why have neither of you claimed the trophy?’
‘Aye, well there’s the rub of it. Have you no heard tell of the difference between a true fisherman and someone who catches fish?’
I shook my head, not sure where this was going.
‘Well now, you see if you’re someone who catches fish you’d claim that trophy right enough and deservedly so. But if you’re a true fisherman you’d know that Old Particular is something special. He’s a part of this river. Part of its soul, if you will. And all the while nobody catches him that legend lives on.’
‘I’m not sure I follow,’ I said.
He came across to stand beside me and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Then think on this,’ he said. ‘You did well to catch him. In doing so, it’s plain enough that you’ve the skill needed to call yourself a man who catches fish. But you also showed respect for your quarry. To be sure you took a quick photo of him, but you didn’t kiss the wee fishy or dance up and down the bank like some demented fool, you just quietly returned him to the river so he could be away and about his business. All that points to you being a true fisherman. But we’ll only know for your sure when you decide what to do next.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well, you could rightfully claim that trophy and nobody could blame you for that. But if you do, once they know that the fish can be caught, all the others will want to try their hand and sooner or later some of them will get lucky. It then won’t be long before Old Particular ends up in a glass case on somebody’s wall or, perish the thought of it, will be taken for the pot. Either way, once the spell is broken he’s no longer ‘special’ – he becomes just another fish in the river and the legend is lost forever. And that would surely be a great pity and a loss to us all.’
‘So, what would the true fisherman do?’
‘Ah, well he’d be after leaving things as they are. He’d let the legend be and just write in the catch report that he’d caught one wild brownie and be done with it, making no mention of Old Particular. Of course, you’d have the satisfaction of knowing that you’d caught him and maybe that would be reward enough. But you’d also join the likes of myself and your captain as part of the wee band of ‘true fishermen’ in this club. So, laddie, like I said, you’ve to decide what you’re going to do next.’
I looked at him long and hard then smiled. ‘I think I know that already,’ I said.
Aye,’ said Donald. ‘When I watched you land that fish and relese it, I somehow thought you might.’
THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN TROUT AND SALMON MAGAZINE IN SEPTEMBER 2019