Fishing for sea-trout is perfect for both self-isolating and sociopaths – if you can stand the disruption to your body clock. And despair, warns Ian Coghill
The setting for sea-trout fishing is cold, dark and lonely. And yet you will be hooked even before the fish is, promises Ian Coghill.
For further ponderings on the joy of fishing from some of our greatest angling writers, read A Twitch Upon the Thread: Writers on Fishing.
I was born in the industrial Midlands, a few months after the ending of the last unpleasantness with our German friends. Someone had evidently told the man who ran the Luftwaffe that an awful lot of ball bearings, nuts and bolts, and machine tools were made in our town and his chaps clearly thought that it was their bounden duty to the Fatherland to put a stop to it.
As a result, I grew up surrounded by bomb sites and by people who had, as part of their daily lives, pulled the dead and injured from ruined buildings, put out fires, tipped sand on incendiary bombs, filled holes in the road so the buses could run and wondered what to do about the 1,000lb landmine that was sitting in their garden.
Having been surrounded by such stoicism, I felt it was my duty not to be too upset by our latest tribulations. Upsetting and dreadful though they are, I find it helps me to remember that our ancestors had it worse, and not only got through it but did so with good humour and far less resources at their disposal than are at ours.
That said, I admit that I have another advantage when it comes to self-isolation: some of my favourite sporting activities provide plenty of excellent practice. The nocturnal pursuit of sea-trout or grey geese would seem to have been designed for a sociopath. I have yet to encounter a sea-trout fisherman who truly feels, whatever they may say, that their night is enhanced by someone else fishing a pool they yearned to fish alone. No wildfowler I have ever met can with honesty say that his heart leaps with joy when he finds a row of cars parked behind the sea wall on arrival for morning flight.
I’m not saying that, say, sea-trouters cannot be fun at parties. Of course they can be, and often are, but if you don’t like your own company, and lots of isolation, this may not be the sport for you. If, however, you can be happy on your own in the dark, waiting for something to happen, that probably won’t, and if you can, to quote dear Rudyard, meet with triumph and disaster and treat those twin imposters just the same, chasing sea-trout or geese may be the sports for you.
As someone who loves the night, and who is happiest in the summer inching down a pitch-dark pool waist deep in water, I am amazed that more people don’t do it. In one sense, does that matter? If there are no new entrants, won’t it mean that I will have less competition and more space, which is, after all, what we all crave? Yes, but our sports do not exist in a vacuum and they need constant renewal and new blood, and only a fool thinks that fruit is sweeter because you have killed the vine.
BARRIERS AND REWARDS
What are the barriers and what the rewards? What might be stopping people having a go, let alone making it a regular and important part of their year?
The first problem is access. Whilst sea-trout as a species occur in small numbers in many parts of the country, sea-trout fishing is worthwhile in a relatively small number of rivers. Most of these are in the West Country, Wales, the North of England and Scotland. Even in these areas, lots of rivers are, for no apparent reason, a waste of time. Even where they occur, the fish vary for reasons yet to be explained; the Tweed is a river that regularly yields double-figure sea-trout, the Tay provides few bigger than three or four pounds.
Despite this handicap there is some good news. A lot of the best sea-trout fishing is association water and these clubs are frequently remarkably generous when it comes to visitor permits. Sea-trout have never commanded the premium associated with salmon and it is often possible for an outsider to gain access to some excellent sea-trout fishing on weekly and daily permits. In Scotland, the sea-trout fishing is normally let with the salmon fishing by private beats and the cost can be higher but usually this extra cost will provide more privacy, access to facilities and advice from a gillie, which is definitely not what you would get on association water.
Do your research. Look at catch records. Especially look at the time of year when most fish are caught. Read any old fishing reports you can find. Going in May to a river that fishes best in July is not a great idea. If you are going to a private beat, make sure they will let you fish at night before you book. There is no guarantee that you will catch sea-trout but you can improve the odds.
Read the excellent books on the subject and equip yourself accordingly. The things you must not go without are functioning waders, warm clothing, torches, midge repellent, food, drink and a mobile phone. Keep it simple, keep moving and persevere. Initially you will wonder what you are doing wrong. All you need to do is stay on the shallow side, cast to the deep side, make sure the fly is under the water and keep it and yourself moving. Eventually something will grab the fly. When that happens it’s not complicated. There are only three possible endings: it falls off; you land it; or you die of a heart attack.
Until you’ve had a big sea-trout take hold in the Stygian darkness you cannot appreciate just how likely the third option is. You may have been casting into the night for hours, hearing the occasional fish jump and, if you are on a river with double-figure fish, occasionally hearing what sounds like someone throwing a pig off the bank. You’ve eaten your sandwiches, drunk your coffee, you’re cold and, although you won’t admit it, not entirely enjoying yourself.
As your fly, which you’ve been thinking of changing for half an hour, swings over eight feet of water, a large sea-trout decides that something about it is just too bloody annoying to put up with and it launches itself at its fastest (which is very fast) at the preposterous little thing. When it takes hold, its head stops and the rest of it carries on for a spectacular split second, it then reacts very badly indeed. If a salmon taking can be likened to shaking hands with a gentleman, the take of a big sea-trout in the dark is akin to knocking over a Peaky Blinder’s drink.
At your end of the line, it is four hours past your usual bedtime, you’re being kept awake, just, by caffeine, all hope has gone and most bodily functions are shutting down and you get attacked by the angriest fish you are ever going to meet and in total darkness. The adrenaline surge could kill a buffalo.
One of the hazards faced by sea-trout beginners is that of unrealistic expectations. A lot of old photographs and graphic accounts of night fishing for sea-trout give a false impression of what to expect and always did. I’m lucky enough to have some photographs of good bags of fish in the days when we took fish. They make me look a very competent angler. There are no photographs of me trudging back to the car on the nights I caught nothing. Had there been, the album would have been filled a lot sooner. The likeliest number of fish to catch in a night is zero; every fish is a triumph. Do not expect fish after fish; these are wild things, they will decide what happens.
A consequence of the knowledge that it isn’t easy, and you are likely to catch nothing, is that it is always worth persevering. The mere fact that nothing has happened for the past four hours does not mean that it won’t happen at all.
Sea-trout are peculiar fish and their behaviour varies from night to night in an infuriating but fascinating way. One of their foibles is their ability to take a fly, give it a savage tug, almost enough to pull the rod out of your hand, and sail away unhooked. Sometimes this will go on for hours, whatever hook you use. I’ve used tiny trebles so sharp that they were difficult to tie on without impaling oneself and still you can’t get them to stick or even to stop doing it. Then without warning everything stops and the river seems empty. An hour of deathly silence and just when you have really had enough and are thinking of your nice warm bed, you get a solid take and 10 minutes later a lovely six-pound fish is gently netted.
Be warned: chasing sea-trout is addictive and can damage your mental and physical health. It can, in its more extreme forms, become a sort of self-harm. At the end of a week’s night fishing your body clock is disarranged for weeks to come, your alimentary tract is deeply confused and you will have risked acquiring a sense of injustice that may colour your views for the rest of your life. But when you least expect it, the gods relent and it all goes right, and you are more hooked than any sea-trout will ever be.
I once fished hard for four nights, in pools crowded with fish, fish leaping over my line, big fish, little fish, fresh fish, stale fish, every sort of fish except a taking fish. The last night was the worst, a cold upstream wind sprang up and every cast was misery. My timing went to pieces. I began creating wind knots at a rate of knots. An hour before dawn I contemplated hanging myself but I couldn’t find a tree. I sat hollow-eyed and desperate on the gravel and found some nylon so stiff and thick that no wind would ever knot it and made doubly sure by making the leader just over two-foot long.
I fished through the pool I had fished all night and when the fly got to the lip of the tail a fish took and ran up into the pool to be steered eventually onto the gravel. I went back in and every time the fly got to that exact spot it was taken. Fish after fish. Some were missed, some came off, several were landed, the biggest seven pounds. They stopped when the dawn broke and I staggered back to the car none the wiser about why or how but more certain than ever that fishing for sea-trout at night is the best thing in the world. Everybody should try it – but don’t give up until you’ve caught a fish or two.