To be a Catcher on the Fly

Fisherman Lindsay Neil with minutes from Selkirk Fishing Club.
Fisherman Lindsay Neil with minutes from Selkirk Fishing Club.

When Nick Adams – the hero of writer Ernest Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River – comes home from the trenches of Flanders, it is to the rivers and woods of his native northern Michigan that he heads.

In one of literature’s great descriptions of angling, Hemingway writes of Adams: “He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tightly to his legs. His shoes felt the gravel ... There was a tug on the line. It was his first strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he brought in the line with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pumping against the current.”

It is a passage that will strike a chord with the many Southern readers who know what it is like to test their skills against the inhabitatnts of our Border rivers and lochs.

But what is it about fly-fishing that has hooked people like Hemingway and so many others?

A good place to start might be Selkirk Rugby Club’s premises tomorrow night.

The clubrooms are the venue for Selkirk & District Angling Association’s 150th anniversary celebrations and doubtless there will be many tales told of the ‘ones that got away’.

The association has the fishing rights for trout on the Ettrick and Yarrow rivers and for salmon on the Selkirk town water, and also issues permits for rainbow trout fishing at Lindean Reservoir.

David Mitchell, secretary for more than a decade, agrees fishing, particularly for trout and salmon, has a special magic which continues to hold its allure for many.

“We have almost 100 members and the association is very healthy. One thing we would like to see, though, is an increase in the number of youngsters trying fishing,” David told TheSouthern this week.

“It’s still popular amongst older people, but things like computers and other electronic gadgets seem to interest many young people a lot more than fishing, unfortunately.

“Perhaps, though, they will come to fishing when they, themselves, reach a more mature age and recognise the wonderful pleasures that are to be had from fishing for trout and salmon in such beautiful areas as the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys.”

As well as trout fishing, the association – unusually for a local angling association – also has salmon fishing rights which it leases from local owners, including the Selkirk Common Good Fund.

It was back in 2006 that Selkirk’s civic leaders won a legal battle against the Crown Estate to have the salmon fishing rights on the local town water recognised as a common good asset.

“Winning that legal case over local salmon fishing rights was a massive boost for the association,” said David.

But while the salmon fishing seems to be holding up this year, trout fishing – in common with many other parts of the Borders – seems to have been poor or patchy.

“I think the brown trout situation is now starting to improve, thanks to the catch-and-release policy we have operated for the past five years – but we have no idea why it has not been as good as it should have been in recent years,” said David.

“There are a lot of possible factors, such as hill drainage, forestry or chemicals leaching into the water. Our rivers are also smaller in the summer and that makes the fish vulnerable to predators such as goosanders and herons.”

The association has a large collection of official minute books, detailing its activities over the years – but only as far back as 1910.

David explained: “Although the earliest minute book we have is the one from 1910, we know the association was originally set up to protect trout stocks on these rivers.

“There was a lot of poaching back then because it was a valuable food source.

“One of the main problems was the netting of trout on these rivers – something that went on until the 1920s and 30s.”

Tomorrow night, Dr Lindsay Neil will recite excerpts from the 1910 minute book to fellow association members, which will include Sheriff Kevin Drummond, himself a keen angler and the evening’s main speaker.

One thing David would have loved to be able to produce for the event are some of the missing minute books. Sadly, his extensive searches have so far failed to turn up any trace of the vanished documents.

“We’ll be lucky if we ever find them, which is a great shame.”

For anglers like David and many of the others who will raise a glass tomorrow night to commemorate all those local fishermen – and women – who have gone before them, angling is not just about catching fish.

David said: “There is something very special about being out in the country, on your own, with only the wildlife for company. Many of those who fish in and around Selkirk will tell you they do it as much for the relaxation it brings than anything else.

“Selkirk & District Angling Association members have been fishing for 150 years and I have no doubt they will continue long into the future.”