JOHN ARCHIBALD sets out in a quest to catch a legendary creature in an urban river.
There have long been rumours among those in the know of large, mysterious fish in the water of Leith, that bonnie body of water that rises in the Pentland Hills to busy itself through the middle of Edinburgh before easing into the Firth of Forth at Leith. A whisper here, a quiet nod there; nothing given away, for that would be foolish.
It might attract a reporter from Trout & Salmon, or some less notable rag, giving the game away to the trophy hunters.
Hushed whispers in a fishermans’ bar
In Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh’s New Town there is a neuk frequented by gentlemen of a certain age, who have been known to cast a fly at rising trout a few minutes’ walk from the capital’s Princes Street.
In this shady place – the bar, not the river – the ‘big ones’ are occasionally mentioned with a quiet smile and a sip of the craitur. There is much knowing in these old souls, not the least of which pertains to the places where the ‘big ones’ have been spotted, or even hooked. Some may have been landed, but no-one speaks of such victories, for in such hubris lies the road to opprobrium.
One autumn evening I was enjoying a quiet pint in the said neuk, the main bar being busy with regulars, when I overheard snippets of whispered conversation from four elderly gentlemen at the adjacent table, “ … a big one…”, “a fush…”, “…took a wet fly …”, St Bernard’s Well…”. I was intrigued, but despite my best efforts I was unable to garner any further information on what I took to be an obvious conversation about a large fish, possibly a salmon, that had been hooked a short walk from my home.
The pursuit begins
This was too good a chance to miss. In that instant, I undertook to pursue this leviathan and, if successful, to proclaim the fact to the world, for it is in such extraordinary and infrequent moments of triumph that the amateur (immature?) fisherman finds solace and reward. The next day, having repaired and donned my old waders, I strode with purpose, but as nonchalantly as possible, cane rod in hand through the cobbled streets of Stockbridge, not entirely oblivious to the strange looks I was receiving.
Along much of the river’s journey through the city there is a ten foot drop from path level to the river, but at St Bernard’s Well a stone stairway offers access to the waterside. With barely concealed excitement, I slowly made my way to the water’s edge, where I sat down to put up my rod and attach my fly, for I had early-on decided that a single fly would bring increased chances of success - or to put it another way, a decreased chance of a caught branch or a fowl up (there are ducks in these waters).
I’ve always felt that the first cast of the day is like the first kiss of one’s youth; it brings with it the highest expectation and the greatest of pleasure, to be followed inevitably by disappointment. The second cast was no more successful. A posse of feckless young bikers stopped to gape. “Caught onything mister?” “Not yet, oh callow youth, not yet”.
An epic tussle
I cast again, the bikers having departed with a laugh and a scoff. I scoffed in return. Little did they know. No sooner had I mentally uttered these words than a sharp tug announced the presence of something significant on the end of my line. I have on occasion been snarled by the unwanted attention of curious ducks, especially when my fly sported a hat of white bread (for spotting purposes only you understand), but this was no mallard. This was fish, and with attitude.
I tightened the line, slowly putting pressure on my piscatorial adversary. I didn’t want to suffer an early break. In fact I didn’t want to suffer a break at all, at any stage, but my knot-tying skills were not all that I would have wished, and discretion was the better part of valour.
The fish obviously mistook my tentative approach to be weakness, and set off upstream at a rate of knots like a demented spaniel (most are). I was helpless to contain its powerful thrust and so set off after it as best I could, through riffle and pool, across the slippery rocks and under the overhanging trees, under the Dean Bridge built by Sir Thomas Telford in 1832, until coming to a halt at the impassable weir at the Dean Village, some quarter of a mile upstream from where I had, literally, taken off.
Well. It’s funny how one’s mind wanders at such times, and I took to wondering what Telford would have thought of the situation. Being a Border lad from Eskdale he would probably have thought, “fush”, as this was without doubt a migrator who, from the look of things, had been here before.
With the fish trapped by the waterfall I felt victory was nigh. It was only a matter of time before he threw in the towel and gave way to the inevitable coup de grace. Visions of a front page headline and leading article in Trout & Salmon swam before my eyes; perhaps an interview with Brian Clarke, fishing correspondent of The Times?
The great angler in the sky has a way of dealing with such smugness, and today was to be no exception. The line stopped moving, there was an agonising moment when my inner fisherman processed what was happening, and before I could say “Lord, please no!”, the line shot back over my head.
A cheer rent the air. It was the posse of feckless youths. The possibility of wives and children reading this article prevents me from quoting what was next said, but rest assured the youths were impressed both by the innovative nature of the stream of consciousness invective and the quality of the delivery.
A smile then spread over my face. How could I have even considered landing the brute? I would never have been able to show my face in Kay’s Bar again, nor been accepted in polite Edinburgh company. From the blue ribbon trout waters of New Zealand to the bone fish flats of Cuba I would have been a pariah, my name dirt. No; this was for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.
It was then I noticed the fishy shape drifting slowly towards me in the current, its white stomach skywards. I waded out to retrieve the exhausted fish. It was a cod.