Friday, March 27, 2015

The Loch at the Back

A version of this yarn seems to have appeared in the Summer 2015 Edition of The Drake Magazine

By Jon Atherton

We were 17, just legal driving age, when we first went to Colin's parents' cottage in the north-west Highlands of Scotland. The Assynt region is as remote a place as exists on the British mainland, and probably the isles too. The house was two windows and a door, two wind beaten bedrooms upstairs, an outside toilet when we cared to reach it, and for many years no shower or bath. It sits on the side of the Atlantic Ocean. Across the sea is the town of Stornoway, the hub of the Outer Hebrides, and then America. Sheep graze the grass, but otherwise the place hasn't changed in centuries. 

We'd already been hooked on fly fishing by our first visit when my friend Grant wandered three-quarters of a mile up the hills at the back of the cottage to see what he could see. The cliffs to the ocean were steep, but over the final brow he saw a puddle, no more than an acre and a half, two at most, nestled in a hillside bowl. Cows and sheep roamed the unwieldy croft  and an old sheeling ruin sat at the access point to the water; designed, no doubt, to provide shelter and amenity to the farmer and his cattle. 

We fished it the night after Grant's discovery, and like most Highland puddles we found that the Loch at the Back contained free-rising wild brown trout. Five or more to the pound, mostly, with the odd surprise in the 3/4lb bracket, and maybe an old cannibal, though we never found out. Colin reminds me that we fished with Invicta, Loch Ordie, Silver Butcher, Alexandria and a few others. Probably a Greenwell's Glory. They weren't as romantic then as they seem now. They were just how you fished. 

The place is special because we were kids. Nobody went there, and nobody goes there. You'll never visit. But this is where we learned what fishing was and a bit about the lesser matters of how to do it. Don't stand in one place, and before you get there, cast your fly-line onto the bank, only leader touching the puddle's margins, and trout will swirl and take – this is the sort of magic that never leaves you. In moorland acid, the fish were stunted from only wind-blown heather flies and other spartan fare. Midges, mostly. I learned not to wade at this place. I probably learned to smoke there too, purely out of self-preservation. The dreaded midges were murder on a calm night, and we'd beat it back to the cottage to play cards and evolve our way through varied drink and recreational drugs. 

June became our favorite month in the Highlands, and we came back every year for what seemed like 10 years. A bit early for sea-trout, and back then too broke for summer salmon, but in early June the trout would be awake and still reliably hungry. It became our home and a place we cared passionately for.

I remember going to the Loch at the Back on my own a few times. Appealing things were going down in the cottage and the hike was unappealing for a teenager and then later for a twenty-something, but that last brow before the water was something. I've never been surer of exclusive rights, and the trout were plentiful and easy. One night I crested the last hill and saw a red stag at the water. The paintings call this guy "the monarch of the glen" - more a Scottish cliche than shortbread and bagpipes - but the sight will make a lad feel rightfully small and rightfully humbled. These are the experiences, I think. Walking alone on a Highland hill and seeing that.   

Grant reminds me of an important point. Leaving the Loch and returning to the ocean for our downhill walk to the cottage wasn't just a bonus. This being the longest month in the North, the sun dips for only a few, cloudy hours, and only enough to make the Atlantic look like the largest thing you can imagine, the faraway street lights of old Stornoway visible in the west. I thought it was the edge of the world. Another 50 pence for the Cottage's electricity meter and lights up; we'd get on with being teenagers.

Years later, and now transplanted to America, I took my girl back to the cottage and proposed to her right there on the beach below the Loch. I don't think she minded sharing my bond with the place, and I'm glad about that because I don't go there now and I have more reasons to remember it. This year Colin's father parted with the cottage and I suspect it will feel bad for them for some time. It was my home too, but I can only be grateful. My friend sent me a picture of the Loch at the Back today. Other than our own photos, it’s probably one of just a few, and one that even fewer will see. I opened it on the 38th floor of a skyscraper overlooking Central Park in New York City.


Spit or Swallow?

Yesterday, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into legislation a bill that is raising grizzly flatwing hackles all over the state, and it seems, even beyond.  Before we explain the bill's content, a little background is in order:  Carp and suckers are notoriously finicky fish.  They will refuse to take a fly that, to the angler, would appear to be flawless in form and presentation.  We all know this.  What we also know is that, until now, these carp et al. were at least required to provide a legitimate explanation for their refusal.  We've all heard the excuses:  "It was too deep."  "It was too shallow."  "It was moving too fast!" "It was moving too slow!"  Roll your eyes if you must, but it was something.

Pence's new legislation throws it all out the window.  Carp are no longer required to provide any justification for refusing a fly, other than "Because I didn't like it."

For carp anglers, this is puzzling but Pence made clear his motivations.  "My base is made up of these bottom-feeders.  Like carp, I myself am a bottom-feeder.  I suck.  For far too long, we bottom-feeders have had to justify our behaviors, and that's just wrong. Whether to spit or to swallow should be our choice and we shouldn't have to explain it."

"Ich bin ein bottom-feeder!"

Monday, March 23, 2015

In Brief: A Whole Different Thing

Some ten years ago, pre-migration, I visited Connecticut for the Christmas holiday. Scrabbling for an initial point of connection, I remember my father-in-law greeting me with great enthusiasm and a bellowed question: "DID YOU BRING YOUR AUGER?" Back then I was starting to realise *how foreign I was. I could've employed a full-time interpreter and awkwardly I asked him to repeat the new word. But nothing in his spastic fist twisting suggested anything other than a man who liked an early sherry. A good sign, but no explanation.

A year or two later, post-migration, I started to fly-fish my way down a list of new and truly great fish. The ponds and rivers remained largely familiar; with the exception of the Brookie, trout were still trout. The ocean was a new thing, and if pressed, I'd say it's become the place where I most want to be. All said, I've established a roughly workable calender of fresh and salt water fishing, with good options through spring, summer, fall and winter, frozen rivers and other burdens notwithstanding.

I always suspected that too many reliable men where doing it for it to be anything but right. They asked if I wanted to try it the way they broke steelhead to me - the crack cocaine of all fish. Reverential tones, voices lowered, words at a loss to explain. There would be no going back.   

We all have tolerance limits, and ice fishing always looked like a whole different thing. Flies and even rods exchanged for spending time in company, a counter dose of lunacy for the mental drag of dormant New England winter. Sure, a reason - any reason? - for desperate men to be outside in January, February, March. At least, that's what ice shanties meant to an ignoramus like me. 

Lesson #1. A shelter is essential for preserving the pungent beauty of sausages

Last night the seal was broken on new territory, and of course I remain, sirs, entirely ignorant of its workings. But I recognize the rare and rather exciting feeling for a new thing uncovered, and of double-edged gratitude for this spiked curiosity, more wondrous ruin.

Walleye are great looking fish

Simply, genius

Guinness is Good For You

**I pity you, for you have no idea how good this tasted.

Short but welcome. Andy is 6' 3.

A hole different thing
Setting camp on a frozen lake on a mild March night, the mist-laden reek of butter-fried kielbasa and pierogis, scanning and running for the occasional Zander, is as good an explanation as ever I needed.


* Like spelling realise correctly, I've come to greatly enjoy alien-ship as a permanent pass-time.
** Several orders of magnitude better than indoor Collinsville salsa.

Writhing in Mud

No peeping yet, but the light has changed and crocus are poking up. In a few weeks I'll be lathered in hot mud and consumed by gyrating, horny worms.

Here's a very short film to watch when you're on your own.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Mailing Cutlery

We've been taking pictures of frozen water and assorted animals, instead of fishing. Others are ice fishing, or fly tying, or sitting by fires writing about ice fishing. We pick up and play with whatever comes to the hand that gives us pleasure.

My Dad was a strummer. He grew up a working class Liverpool kid, one of 4 who slept together with a newspaper-wrapped hot brick to keep out winter chills. Though he opted for the financial sector, the family business was Atherton's Typewriters, servicing the many machines that came in off the transatlantic ships in one of the busiest ports in the world. He made his first bikes and guitars, then saved the cash to buy one: a Hofner "Senator", purchased in the early '60s at Hessy's music shop, Liverpool; the same shop where 4 other kids bought their kit and went onto good things. My Dad's Hofner was a semi-acoustic. It had cello or "f" holes that I "mailed" things into when I was a baby. Cutlery mostly. The guitar would rattle when Dad picked it up, as he did most evenings after dinner. My son did the same thing to my guitar, mailing spoons and forks into the round sound hole. I can tell you, when your dad leaves, these details are everything.

Dad's Hofner

English Senior, when he was junior (on left).

A young Jonny looks on as Dad strums.

Jonny's favorite corner,  with added Taylor. 

With the Hofner always there, I became a strummer. It was a whore to play, which I guess may have helped me learn. I've long known that I can't dance for shit, but I can strum a guitar, and no more. Rather than make my own, I recently convinced my beloved to invest in my passion for a quality stringed instrument. Tommy B told me I should get a Taylor, an America guitar - like he knows shit. But he chose well.

If May is the finest month in new England, February has been the worst. So I pick up my guitar and play.

Funny thing. As a kid my Dad went to the Cavern Club to watch the rag-tag bands play, but my Mum's parents were proud - it wasn't the place for a daughter. So my folks played out their courtship ballroom dancing. My Mum was a hairdresser in Liverpool's Penny Lane. She cut George Harrison's Mum's hair, but told her she didn't much care for the Beatles.

Funny how shit pans out.