April 21st, 2003

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Tatterdermalion
By Jim Clarke, UK

I am aware that the word above is a strange one to anyone born outside Northern Ireland, but its meaning will be explained in due course, but first I will ignore it and shoot off at a tangent as in most good fishing stories.

Some few years ago a customer had a humbling experience, although being him, he possibly didn't really notice, you will judge.

Charles had been a business neighbour and acquaintance for some time, an accountant with an office in the building next door. So far as we were aware he had never engaged in any field sport. Charles had probably never been in a field.

This man of figures walked into the shop one fine day and announced to all and sundry---"I have decided to take up trout fishing."

A bombshell! Charles fishing? Charles in the open air? Charles not in a pinstripe suit and without a calculator in his hand? Unthinkable.

But Charles was adamant.

Sir Thomas X was a very successful and wealthy businessman, and had recently become a client of Charles', in a small way. He was also a dedicated fisherman and had the fishing bug quite badly--- full set of rods from Hardy's, stretch of water in Scotland, fishing parties in Ireland for favoured friends and business acquaintances, etc. You get the idea? Charles had decided to launch himself into this deep commercial end. He would join the club. He would catch fish with Sir Thomas (Tom) He would grace fishing forays into the depths of the far-flung regions of the country. He would be known as the fishing accountant. Just like that!

The fact that Sir Thomas (Tom) might also put a little more of his valuable business Charles' way, was obviously not important, ----but if it so happened--- then one was, after all, an accountant. . .

To give Charles his due, he took casting lessons first. I was invited to Sunday lunch but the casting demo and lessons did not materialise. Things got in the way. One was a phone call from Sir Thomas (Tom)! On the next Sunday came the casting lessons and Charles proved to be a not impossible pupil. In his garden, on a large lawn, he was quite quickly laying out respectable line with a trout rod and getting a grasp of the other essentials, casts, flies, retrieves etc. "Oh! I like this, I feel I am going to be good at this."

Next day the shop was mobilised like a military operation in aid of Charles' projection into fishing society. Every conceivable item of trout fishing tackle was produced. Rod, reel, spare drums, lines - floating, sinking and intermediate, net, flies, fly boxes, casts and spools of cast making material, scissor pliers, tweezers, priest and containers for everything. Finally Brady's biggest bag was supplied as a container for the containers!

Suddenly, a hitch. Clothing! Charles had forgotten the outdoor equivalent of the pinstripe suit. Fishing apparel must be organised. And it was. Moleskin trousers, Tattersal shirt, wool tie with a salmon fly embroidered thereon, tweed stockings, the essential French rubber boots with the leather lining and the zip up the side (like Tom wears). Finally a Norfolk jacket was judged quite dashing (in a somewhat outdoorsy way) and duly purchased. Topped with the regulation deerstalker and clad in the regulation Barbour jacket, Charles was complete! Possibly the most elegantly turned customer we had ever sent on his way. Even we could think of nothing else he needed, quite an admission for the tackle trade!

Now this may be where we went wrong, or perhaps it was inevitable. Charles had sense enough to agree when we suggest that a little preliminary practice and experience might be a good, nay essential idea, before accepting the invitation which was bound to come shortly, especially now that a box of dry flies was prominently displayed on Charles' desk where customers, and Sir Thomas (Tom) could hardly miss it.

We suggested a local put and take Stillwater where enough of the water was within reach of a casting beginner not to discourage him and the clientele was not known to be too fussy who they fished shoulder to shoulder with. Our hero duly presented himself at lakeside early one morning. The preliminaries were negotiated. Rod assembled, reel attached, line through rings, cast on end and fly on end of that. Charles was GO!

An hour passed, nothing had happened, no fish had the courtesy to attach itself. Disillusionment lay lurking around the bend.

To make matters worse the chap on the next casting platform had caught fish! Three, to be precise. This individual had worked out that the fish were taking buzzers about nine inches down and had adapted his tackle and technique accordingly. He was a fairly scruffy chap, black wellies, jeans and a blue donkey jacket of the type supplied to their workers by one of the country's larger building companies, in fact their name was emblazoned across the back!

Curious and envious glances were cast in his direction until at last Charles could stand it no longer. He sidled over (accountants do seem to sidle rather well) and struck up a conversation.

"You've been lucky."

"Yus"

"What did you catch them on?"

"Buzzer"

"Pardon me?"

"Buzzer"

"Oh really?"

"Yus, greased floating fifteen foot leader, six inches sinking on t' end and size sixteen black buzzer."

This was as ancient Greek to our hero, and by now it was apparent that some lack of conversational sophistication was about to curtail this blossoming friendship. This may well have topped up the pressure on Charles to some degree. Be that as it may, it was now that Charles uttered the phrase which he was never to live down and ultimately brought his fishing career to an end, branded, as he was about to be, as totally unsuitable to be a fisherman.

"Buzzer?"

"Yus"

"You caught all those fish on that little thing?"

"Yus"

"But-but-you don't even look the part!"

Now to take you back twenty five years and in the passing explain "tatterdemalion" to all and sundry.

Raymond and I had four days arranged in Donegal. We were staying in Inver and were going to fish the Eanymore, our favourite river, based at our favourite hotel. This was the archetypal Irish fishing hotel. A large old manor house that had seen better (much) better days, but yet displayed and seemed proud of its seedy glamour. The leather armchairs were cavernous, no matter that copious quantities of horsehair were escaping with enthusiasm from every joint, the beds were bottomless, the drinks were large, the meals were gargantuan.

The bar was in the cellar, dark and mysterious. Many aged bottles hid themselves on the old oak shelves and had been there for ever, or so it appeared. Here were sold Guiness and Bushmills whisky for proper drinkers, and sherry was available for the occasional lady who might brave the wilds of Donegal in the company of a fishing husband.

Breakfast, the fisherman's meal, was traditional Irish. Porridge, followed by kippers, and then "Will two eggs be enough with your bacon, sir" and "Will you be all right for toast, sir? We've sent out for another couple of loaves."

We had the hotel to ourselves this weekend, the season having barely opened. No rising at the scraik of dawn for us. A leisurely breakfast, heavy on the bacon, eggs and toast, two or three pots of coffee and then a gentle sally to the river. Not that we weren't keen, far from it, but we had the whole day before us, and most of the night too if sea trout were in evidence. Between a full day's fishing and a night foray lay a dinner fit for giants. We saw no reason to deny ourselves anything except possibly a formal lunch. Beer and sandwiches by the river would have to do.

The Eanymore, in the stretches where we liked to fish, was heavily overgrown in places, clear banked in others. Murphy's Law decreed that the best pools were surrounded by trees, bushes and thorns, the clear banks seemed to hold little delight for our quarry, they avoided these areas like the plague.

As with the hotel, we had the river to ourselves, it really was too early in the year, but so what? Hope springs eternal etc...

We pulled the car into the side of the lane, put up the rods and sallied forth.

There was an angler there! In our favourite starting spot! There before us!

We had never seen anyone here at this time of the year, not here, not in our pet spot.

What to do? Go elsewhere? Push him in? Approach him and make ourselves thoroughly objectionable so he would move in self-defence? We lurked in the undergrowth and deliberated.

"Gosh!" said Raymond, that was a lovely cast."

The shock wearing off, we began to take in other facts than this interloper's mere presence. That his casting was superb, smooth and effortless was immediately clear. A soft split cane rod was wafted ( the only word ) in the air, the line followed as night follows day with no visible application of power. It just flowed. We were watching a master at work. Other things soon became apparent. Irishmen are not noted for their dedication to sartorial elegance, Irish fishermen even less. This character broke even those rules. You will have seen the round balls of tumbleweed which feature often in Western films to suggest an air of desolation. He looked a bit like one of those with a hat on. Short, rotund, legless in the proper sense and hairy, those were the first impressions, followed by the realisation that he was dressed in the hairiest, most dilapidated set of tweeds I, for one, had ever seen. He was a short man, short legged and bullet headed. The overall look was of a little hairy ball with a fly rod sticking out of it.

We watched, fascinated. The rod put out a beautiful upstream cast, almost of its own volition, and three flies landed on the water like a maiden's kiss. A pudgy left hand pulled line back smoothly and a fish broke water as it took. Just like that! It was as if the fish had been expected. There was no shock, no excitement. No incredulity. Just a tightening then a controlled playing of a spirited sea trout of about three pounds. We realised that this fellow knew where the fish were, unlike us, he didn't just fish the water, he fished for a fish, and it seemed as if he usually caught it.

We became aware that our trespasser (or so we considered him) was knee deep in the water, contributing no little to the round hairy outline. The fish, played out, was brought to the hand, unhooked and gently released. Released! In those days we did not release fish. We ate fish. When we had enough fish for the next two meals for ourselves and immediate family we stopped fishing.

This man released fish. This was a man with principles we didn't understand. Why fish if you were so disinterested in eating fish? Years later we both understood and indeed practised catch and release but at that time it was strange behaviour indeed.

We drew back as the figure in the stream turned as if to come our way, we popped behind a hedge as if we had been doing something wrong. Peeping out a few moments later we saw our angler proceeding upstream to the next run. He really was the untidiest fisherman we had ever seen. He carried no bag, so every pocket bulged, no net and his hat had seen better days, probably years! Old fashioned double texture waders adorned his legs. Waders that were more patch than wader. Not patches of the same material mind you, that almost universal beige material of the past. No, these patches were of red rubber and black rubber, rubber that had come from inner tubes and cut roughly, very roughly to shape. The leather brogues normally worn with waders had given way to heavy hobnailed boots, one black, one brown. The whole was surmounted by a hat, a hat in hairy Donegal tweed. For those of you not acquainted with Donegal tweed, it can be very hairy indeed. It was liberally covered in flies. Flies of every size and colour, old flies and very old flies, flies that had been there forever. The jacket was indescribable. It had sleeves and reached the top of the waders. Nothing else could be said about it.

The man was a tatterdemalion! Defeated morally and territorially we slunk away, deciding on this occasion to start elsewhere, leaving the stranger to practice his consummate art in peace.

That superb casting was on our minds all day and if nothing else put us in a self critical frame of mind. "Surely I could reach that stone." "Perhaps a little less effort is needed."

"Oops! The fly hit the water a little smartly that time" Such acknowledgement of one's faults is bound to be the first step in their elimination.

We sat down to dinner that evening in a sober frame of mind. We had been taught a few lessons that day, together with the fact that we had caught no fish. Dinner would be steak, breakfast would be bacon and eggs again!

We asked John, the hotel proprietor, if he had heard of a strange untidy sort of angler on the river. "There is no-one else here at all, except maybe the doctor might be down."

"What doctor?"

"Doctor Humphries. He has a bit of a cottage up on the hill yonder and comes down from the city now and then. He fishes like a mad thing when he's here, fishes at all hours of the day and night. He's a great fisherman altogether."

Still the penny did not drop. "What does he do in the city?"

"He is a professor of something in the university and writes books and stuff."

"What sort of books?"

"Och! Dry old stuff about ancient ruins and so on, and a few about fishing and the like."

"Humphries! Frederick Humphries! Just the foremost angler and writer of his day, that's all. The author of three or four standard reference works on trout and sea trout fishing in the west of Ireland. A casting champion of repute. He even almost had a Hardy rod named after him, to join the ranks of Halford, Bridgett, Grey, Kieth Rollo and many other famous brothers of the angle, but declined the honour.

We had watched but failed to appreciate what we were watching. We had missed the opportunity of talking with one of our heroes. What pearls of wisdom might have come our way had we not mentally dismissed the man as a poaching tatterdemalion, and not to put too fine a point on it, one who didn't even look the part! ~ Jim Clarke


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