Crake and ales

Patrick Galbraith hears a rare bird but fails with the rod

Country Notes

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In spite of the golden Hebridean sun, the rain was coming down hard. “It all depends what you want,” John Docherty said, standing at the window and looking out over the sea. “What do you want?” The question felt like an uncomfortably existential one. “Well, I want a big sea trout really,” I replied. John shrugged as though to say we all want big sea trout and then told me again that I’d come to North Uist about two months too early.

The fishing was an afterthought. I almost never go north without a fly rod, but I was up on the islands in the hope of hearing a corncrake, a bird that was once ubiquitous throughout Britain but has now been driven out to the periphery by the destruction of its habitat.

Rain when you’re fishing is a good thing, causing insects to rise to the surface and disguising your line landing on the water

I’d arrived the previous day and after a conversation with an old lady digging at the bottom of her croft about the rains that were coming, I decided to sleep out in the hope of hearing my bird before the weather turned.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, shivering as the sun went down, an electric pink gash spread across the sky, and almost as soon as the lapwings stopped crying, I heard my first corncrake, its distinctive “crex crex” rising up from among the marigolds just below me.

From half twelve until one in the morning I slept, but the rest of the night I lay awake listening to the tide going out. The following morning I walked back to the Lochmaddy Hotel and it was either going to be fishing or sitting in my room pretending to write.

“The thing is,” John continued, pointing at the map hanging in the hall, “I could send you to any one of these wee hill lochs and you’d catch dozens of small fish but you should try somewhere like Hosta.” Loch Hosta, by John’s reckoning — and by the reckoning of many Scottish anglers, I’ve since learned — is one of the best brown trout lochs in the world. “You’ll either have the best day’s fishing of your life,” he called after me as I stepped into the rain, “or the worst. Very big fish but not many of them.”

By the time I’d climbed over the barbed wire fence and had put my two lunchtime beers in the water to cool, the rain had stopped coming down quite so hard. Water running down your back is miserable but rain when you’re fishing is a good thing, causing insects to rise to the surface and disguising your line landing on the water.

All morning I fished hard up the north side of the loch, watched over by a cuckoo calling somewhere up the hill behind me. It’s often said that fishing is dull, particularly when there’s nothing on the end of the line, but it requires an intense focus on the water which makes it a deeply intimate way to commune with nature.

After three hours I sat and watched the raindrops splashing on the water

Rich and malty, Old Jock is a proper beer and after two bottles, I was ready to go again, tottering along the bank with warmth and passion. The morning had been a blank but I had every hope for the afternoon and after every cast I imagined my fly, a Soldier Palmer, red and golden feathers, drifting down over the rocks to where the big fish lay. After three hours I sat and watched the raindrops splashing on the water.

Every so often I receive an email from someone inviting me fishing in somewhere like Hampshire. “Not far from London,” they often say. “A lovely hut too, and plenty of big fish.” Well, of course they are, because they were pumped out of a lorry last week. Over the past year, I’ve been reading lots of old sporting books and what strikes me more than anything is that, once upon a time, field sports were tough. Even for the wealthy, it was often a case of going to Norway and knocking on farmers’ doors to inquire about the local salmon river or heading north on a cramped boat in the hope of finding some lodgings and a few grouse. Two years ago, I ended up on a shoot in Suffolk where the owner told us merrily not to bother picking up empty cartridges: “There’s a man will do that for you.”

That evening at the hotel, John wandered into the restaurant. I was on the Old Jocks again. “How was it,” he asked, leaning over the bar. “It all depends what you want,” I replied. I didn’t actually, but I wish I had. Instead I shrugged and told him a tale about a nibble that came to nothing. “As I said,” John shrugged, “either the best day’s fishing of your life or the worst.”

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