Some Thoughts on Guiding

(Last Night, Last Fish, by C.D. Clarke)

Like fishing, but with the chance to look up.

[by Andrew Griffiths]

AFTER STEPPING DOWN OFF THE RIVERBANK TO THE MARGINS PROPER, a midthigh drop, I knelt on the pillow of moss and reached into the water to lift up and cradle in my fingers the small yellow flower of the spearwort, one of the Ranunculus genus. Across the river a dipper hopped from one rock to another, and farther down still the metal-blue back of a kingfisher glinted as it shot low to the water, weaving through the reeds and boulders, keeping well ahead of me, as it had been doing for the last half mile or so as I’d walked the river path.

Maybe that is why I shall never be a great fly fisher. I don’t look up enough.

Kneeling there, beneath the shade of Alnus glutinosa, the alder tree, I felt the cool damp of the moss starting to seep through the knee patch of my jeans. I heard the kek kek of the peregrine, a pair nesting in the crags above the valley, and looking up I saw what must have been the two of them, as they soared off high above the limestone rock. And me.

I like to write like this. As though I know the name of every plant and animal by the river. I like to try on that persona, that old riverman, the one who scrapes his heels in the dirt and digs in his toes and gives no truck to fools, the one who shovels gravel in his throat and spits it out like buckshot. The one who knows.

But I don’t. The names don’t stick. They come in one instant and are gone the next. But I have these handy apps on my phone—one for trees, another for plants, I’ve just used one now to look up Alnus glutinosa, the alder. Did you know that if you cut alder, it looks like it is bleeding? Really bleeding? Very deep red drops? Folks thought it bad luck to pass an alder, in the old days, the bleeding tree. Amazing things, smartphones.

It’s good to have time to do this, to stop, to take time to kneel, to look things up, to cradle a flower head in my fingers, letting the clear flow of water run between. I usually don’t, because I am usually fishing. When I am fishing, it isn’t that I don’t notice these things, I do—I am highly tuned to the whole river environment, but I notice it the way I notice the outer rings of the target, in the sense that they draw me into the center, into that thing that I am trying to hit.

And that center is the fish. That is what holds my focus, my every nerve end geared to it, everything else there by the river and in the river merely there to support it, to give it context there at the center. It is that fish that I want.

Someone once told me a story about an old coach and a young footballer. The boy had skill; he was quick and nimble on the pitch, and could tackle when needed. But he played only what was in front of him. “Look up,” the old coach kept saying, “Look up.” And one day the boy did. He lifted his head and looked around, and he saw what the coach had meant. He saw the plays to make, the spaces to fill. He had it within him to be that complete player.

Maybe that is why I shall never be a great fly fisher. I don’t look up enough. I see only the hatch of the time, only the flurry of limbs and the hot breath of the footballer. The eye leading straight to action, the reflex, the rise up ahead and the rush to it. Reacting. All the time, reacting. I’m not looking round the next bend, behind the next hour, looking at the nymphs on the flats of stones catching the sun in the shallow water at the edge of riffles, waiting to emerge. This endless juvenilia, where everything comes as a surprise, which has its compensations, it is where most of us live. Not making the thoughtful play.

I HAVE A FRIEND WHO OWNS A TACKLE SHOP IN ENGLAND, and he takes people fishing on some of the most famous trout streams in the country. He says that guiding is like going fishing with a broken rod. Which is a neat line and tells its own story, but I’ve just started guiding a bit, and for me it’s like going fishing but with the chance to look up.

It’s not my moment; it’s theirs. They’ve earned it. They are paying for it.

That first client, he had a splendid hat.

It was the kind of hat that he’d probably begun wearing to rivers and streams 40 years ago, maybe just after graduation, perhaps on holiday with the girl who would eventually become his wife. That holiday where they had sworn to love each other forever and have children and bring them up somewhere open and wild and near a stream and make enough by the time they were 40 to live somewhere open and wild, near the river and the mountains, all the time. That holiday where he had caught his first fish while wearing his new hat, and then he and his soon-to-be wife had spent that evening grilling the trout on the barbecue outside the cabin that sat in a clearing and they had rented for a week.

And as he had grown older, and more prominent, and successful, something in real estate I think, that hat would come out more battered and faded, once a year, on his holiday from the city back near the rivers and mountains again, the rivers he once thought he would think of as home. And he’d take a guide, and he’d fish.