Archive for December, 2013

I was first taught the “birds and bees” lesson about human reproduction in my last year of primary school. Before that I had given the matter no thought at all, unlike the kids of today who seem to know enough to write a PhD thesis on human sexuality by the time they are 10.

I can remember the lesson very clearly. While we were out on the playground playing our customary game of football with a tennis ball, Miss Howe had been busy drawing enormous diagrams of human genitalia on the blackboard and these diagrams became, naturally, the focus of our attention as soon as we returned to our desks.

This was a kind of awkward situation and I was keen to see how the other kids were going to react. Would they giggle? Would they blush? Did they look as though they knew all this stuff already? Most of them gave little away but I noticed something odd about Jimmy Simmonds.

Jimmy was one of those kids with thick lenses on his glasses which distorted his eyes and made it look as though he viewed the world through the bottom of beer glasses. What was immediately obvious about Jimmy, and this image I will never be able to erase from my memory, was that his reaction to the huge chalk diagrams could not be read from his eyes because the insides of his spectacles had completely misted over. The structures of the human reproductive organs were hidden from him by a thin layer of fog.

It’s funny how things work out. I am now a teacher myself and, Like Miss Howe, I find myself explaining to a new generation where babies come from.

It is difficult to think about sex and sexual reproduction without our natural bias towards reproduction in humans. If kids are told that the next topic is sexual reproduction they will assume it is about human sexual reproduction and turn up to the next lesson on time, or even early, and foaming at the mouth. But sex is, biologically speaking, what makes the world go round and is overwhelmingly common in just about every species you might care to think of. Even flowers and trees contrive to reproduce sexually in the majority cases although they have no awareness that they are doing so.

Biologists have often been puzzled by how commonplace sexual reproduction has become. It is not necessarily the easiest or most reliable means of producing offspring. For one thing you need to locate a reproductive partner or organise, as flowers do, for your sex cells to be delivered to one. But the benefits in terms of genetic reshuffling during the formation of sex cells, and the new genetic variability resulting from combing the genes of two parents, seem to outweigh the costs involved.

I usually introduce the sexual reproduction topic by getting the kids to think of organisms which are not human, and among my favourite are the fish. And, among the favourite fish of fly fishermen everywhere, and at the top of the list for many, are the salmonids.

Salmonids, which include char, trout, salmon and grayling, can be taken as pretty representative of fish in general in terms of how they reproduce. Sperm cells can swim quite happily in water they are released there by the male fish and fertilise eggs, which are also released into the water by the female. This typically happens in fast flowing, cold, well-oxygenated water in the upper reaches of rivers and streams. This external form of fertilisation is typical of fish and frogs and other animals that reproduce in the water. Of course, problems arise for animals that live on dry land and it is the absence of a liquid medium through which sperm can travel that drove the evolution of internal methods of fertilisation of land lubbers like us. In humans the sperm need to be deposited inside the reproductive tract of the female which results, among other things, in the giggling of the kids sitting in the back of the class in Year 9.

Before returning to the salmonids, here is an interesting thing that happened at work a few years ago. One of my colleagues came into my class in an agitated state. She was, at the time, teaching the “Sexual Reproduction” topic to Year 7 and was having to fend off probing and embarrassing questions on the topic by one of the boys. There seemed to be nothing he was not prepared to ask. I could only sympathise. Fearless kids like this can make teaching this stuff tricky. It was only some time later that I got wind of the fact that the other, more timid boys, were paying the other kid to ask the questions on their behalf. They were egging each other on, each trying to come up with a question to make the teacher most uncomfortable.

The going rate for questions about sex? One euro a pop.

Where were we? Okay, I remember, back to the salmon and trout. Once the fertilised eggs are deposited and covered by stones they are pretty much on their own. Mum and Dad are not going to be around to take care of them and, invariably, a punishingly high level of mortality results in very few of the offspring surviving even their first year. To offset these huge losses, large numbers of eggs are deposited and this, again, is quite typical of fish.

It is probably fair to say that it is the reproduction of salmonids which is best known by people with no particular interest in fish. The image of a salmon navigating obstacle and dangers to return from their ocean feeding and growing to the rivers of their own birth is vividly etched in the popular imagination. We have all seen the waterfalls they leap and the grizzly bears trying to hunt the fish as they push their way endlessly upstream. It is the salmon, and particularly the half dozen or so species of Pacific salmon that swum through our television sets and into our living rooms. They provide a spectacle that is unrivalled in natural history.

But the price to be paid for sex by these salmon is death. The Atlantic salmon may survive the rigours of spawning, although most do not, but this is not true of their Pacific counterparts whose spent bodies, post-spawning, litter the watercourses like the petals of flowers that have served their purpose and remain scattered on the ground. The nutrients within those remains are locally recycled and the whole migration can be seen as a swimming conduit of nutrients from the cold ocean to the interior of a continent hundreds or thousands of miles distant.

Reproduction of brown trout is essentially similar although the migratory distances will be relatively short. Some sea-going trout will have returned from their coastal wanderings to spawn, like the river relatives from which they are genetically indistinguishable, they are very likely will spawn in the rivers in which they were born.

Most of this drama is unseen by the fishermen who might have spent hundreds of hours chasing after trout during the fishing season. I came across some beautiful photos taken by Miguel Aguilar which show trout spawning. If you would like to see them, you might like to follow this link:

I got a present of a book by Bob Wyatt for Christmas. It is called “What trout Want”. Wyatt is a good writer and this is a fine book from which I learnt many things. It also threw light on a mystery: the giant trout of the back country rivers of New Zealand.

I have long been puzzled by these iconic fish. Their large size and the remote pristine landscape they inhabit probably draw thousands to New Zealand each year. The thing I found odd about these fish was that most of them seem to be males, often broad in the back and with the characteristic kype. Why is this? And how could such huge fish sustain their bulk in these headwaters?

The answer, according to Wyatt, is that these are fish which have remained in the reaches of the river close to their spawning grounds after the others have dropped back to the more hospitable reaches of the river further downstream, or into large lakes into which these rivers drain. The fish may indeed struggle to maintain their bulk here and many will, in due course, work their way downstream where the food supply is more likely to meet their demands. And there they may remain until the powerful reproductive urges drive them upstream to spawn again.

It is difficult for me to think about things like the back country trout and the powerful drive that push salmon to the spawning grounds following their ocean wanderings. It is enough to make my glasses steam up!

I found this lovely drawing of a male (top) and female brown trout (bottom) on a blog called The Weedbed Blog. It was made by a Canadian guy called Nick Lafferiere.


Letter to Santa

I´ve got to be honest. I am really not sure about Santa Claus. Doubts have been brewing in my mind for some time and I have developed two different hypotheses.

 The first is that he simply does not exist at all, unbelievable as that may sound. A lot of people seem to say this, mainly children.

 The second is that he does exist but he is a mean-spirited sod. This may seem like a harsh thing to say but there is some evidence to support it. For a start, at the sixth form Christmas bash “Secret Santa” got a present for all of the people in the room except one. Guess who?

And another thing, have you noticed how Santa gets really cool and expensive toys for the kids of rich families and the kids from the wrong side of the tracks get worthless crap or nothing at all? What the hell is on his mind? Surely he should give the poor kids a break, after all the parents of the rich kids can make sure they don´t want for anything.

No, Santa seems to like to preserve the status quo and I´m pretty pissed off that he hasn´t given me a damn thing since I was a kid.

 If hypothesis number two is correct and he does actually exist, I thought I might ingratiate myself to him by forging a letter and send it off to the North Pole. I pretended it came from my own kids and bank on him not realising they are now both teenagers and no longer in the business of writing to Santa. I have reproduced a copy of the letter below which will appear if you double click on it.

 Who knows? It might be a long shot.

Santa letter

23.4 ° turns out to be a pretty significant measurement for all fly fishermen. It is not, as you might first imagine, a measurement of the temperature at which something meaningful happens. It is, in fact, an angle. It is the angle of the earth´s tilt. To an astronomer this angle is also known as the “obliquity of the ecliptic,” a term which has no meaning whatsoever to me but, in the interest of appearing well-educated, I shall also adopt.

Why is this angle such a big deal?

Well, the result of this angle is that most of the world´s fly fishermen are sitting at home with a whiskey in their hands dreaming of the next fishing season, or reminiscing over the events of the last one. Many of them will have turned their attention to reading books or tying flies.

For them, today is the shortest day of the year. Many of the rivers which they remember the adventures of the summer are cold and dark, maybe even frozen over. The musical rivulets of the spring are frozen fingers of ice. Trout are close to the time they will spawn on many rivers, a drama unseen by most of us.

Meanwhile, down in the southern hemisphere things are on the up and up. The Mataura river in New Zealand, where I fished during my couple of seasons living in the South Island, will now be coming into its own. My friend Harry Abbot will now be on the New Zealand leg of his trip and I hope he enjoys good sport with the famous rainbows and browns.

Here, in southern Spain, we avoid the worst of the winter blues which descend on northern Europe. My local river, the Guadalhorce, has been fishing well, even into December. I had never tried the river in the winter before and look forward to revisiting it in January and February.

For the gloomy fly fishermen of the North I would like to offer a picture or two to cheer you up. Spring and summer may seem a long way off but the “obliquity of the ecliptic” which robbed you of daylight and warmth today, will repay you in June.

We have no reindeer in Spain but I have used some state of the art graphics to convert Tony, our resident pony, and one of our two puppies in reindeers of sorts.

If you have a whiskey in your hands, enjoy it.

Tony the reindeer

Boris, the little reindeer

Boris, the little reindeer

Honesty is a character flaw that besets too many of us and it is wise to keep it in check. Of course politicians have known this for some time and are adept at steering away from the dangers of truthfulness. This, presumably, is the reason we elect them in the first place. As fishermen, we are widely assumed to be economical with the truth by those who choose not to fool around on the riverbank, and it is reassuring to know that others, who know very little about what else we get up to, can at least acknowledge this shared attribute.

No other activity I can think of provides such rich opportunities to inculcate among its followers the traits of dishonesty, duplicity, trickery and corruption. And long may it continue! After all, we spend much of our time alone in wild and desolate places, often in that murky and distorted world where the day merges with the night. Nobody can see us, and if we return with tall tales of triumph they just have to take our word for it.

And of course the prevailing catch and release philosophy is a terrific asset. Now we can claim to have taken heaps of good fish without the need to produce any physical evidence whatsoever while, at the same time, pretending that we care about ethics, value conservation and are remotely interested in the long term health of our fisheries. We’ve never had it so good!

You are probably reading this fine publication because it provides excellent guidance and tips by acknowledged experts with diverse areas of specialism. They can tell us how to cast with tight loops, improve the timing on our double haul, tie delicate posts on tiny dries, identify hatching insects, and so on.

Now I don’t want to play down the contributions that these guys make. They really do know their stuff. But don’t worry too much. You can continue to tie rubbish flies, fling them into nearby branches, wade clumsily, put down every fish in the river and still promulgate the myth that you are an expert. There are many ways to do it but let’s start with a technique which is easy to master.

Imagine that, after a day of fishing, you come across another fisherman. Inevitably there will be an exchange of pleasantries and each will want to know how the other got on. My tip here is to ask the other guy before he has a chance to ask you. When it’s his turn to ask, you simply state your own results which are similar, but of course a little better than his. Don’t overdo it. The intention is not to humiliate him but merely to imply that you are a more accomplished angler than he is.

Here is an example of how this might be done in practice.

Angler A: Hi there, how are you?

Angler B: Hello. I’m very well

Angler A: Any luck?

Angler B: It’s been okay. I managed a couple on a sedge.

Angler A: Excellent. Well done. What kind of size?

Angler B: Nothing special, but one might have been a pound and a half. How about you?

Angler A: It’s been pretty quiet really. I think I had four in the end. Like you say most were pretty ordinary. Best was just about two pounds.

Game, set and match.

Published as “The Fine Art of Lying” Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Monthly, April 2012.

Radio Head

If an experienced fisherman wants to figure out whether it may be a good day for fishing he might start thinking about the way the wind has been blowing, recent changes in atmospheric pressure, rainfall patterns which might affect water levels, and that kind of thing.

Real experts go a little further, factoring in fluctuations in solar wind, subtle changes in the earth´s orbit and the possible distortions to the fabric of reality resulting from the curvature of space time.

Personally, I´m to dumb for any of this and so I rely on a relatively simple method of figuring out if it is going to be a decent day for fishing. I just listen to the radio.

In this neck of the woods we only get decent reception for Kiss FM and, thankfully, they tend to drop a lot of the DJ yapping and get on with the business of playing music. All is well with the world if they play Dire Straits, or Eric Clapton or something equally easy on the ear.

But if they are in the frame of mind to play, say, Wham, or the Pet Shop Boys or Madonna or Culture Club, it becomes immediately clear that things are simply not going well. So the music on the radio has become a kind of barometer of fortune and indicates whether a day is going well and has the potential to get better or is heading downhill fast. And this goes for fishing too. A selection of good songs augurs well for any proposed fishing venture but if you end up with a lousy song selection you might as well stay at home,  throw a few logs on the fire and put your feet up.

Yesterday I started thinking about sneaking off to the river around lunchtime. At the time I was driving Leo home after he had some tennis coaching. It was likely that people had other plans for me, but the sun was shining and the river, as I imagined it, was seductive in the gentle breeze. There were good fish flashing their flanks as they turned in the current.

Would the fishing be any good? I listened to the radio to find out. Kiss FM was playing one of those annoying Christmas tunes that are designed to mislead you into thinking that a whole pile of joy is just around the corner. Normally this would be a sure sign that the fishing was going to be a waste of time. The river might have dried up, or become a raging torrent or that all the fish have had been poisoned. A song like this is a portent of disaster.

But then a funny thing happened. I resisted the temptation to switch the radio off and Leo and I listened to the song together. It was such a classic of the “let´s make a few quid out of Christmas” genre and was so cheesy and awful that we began to find it, somehow, brilliantly entertaining. And so we cruised along the road between Marbella and Coin with the radio turned up high and the car resonating with cracker pulling, family-loving, carol singing, fire crackling, merriment. Suddenly Leo´s father, known in the family as a miserable bastard at this particular time of year, was full of the joys of the season.

That settled it. The fishing was on! And it turned out to be pretty good too. All the fish took a little nymph fished under an indicator but the takes were so quick and tentative that sometimes no movement of the indicator was registered.

I managed to find a way of changing the position of the indicator pretty easily. The indicator is a piece of coloured foam with the leader threaded through with a needle. A couple of slip knots are tied either side of the indicator to allow it to be re-positioned. I must remember that!

The fishing was so good, in the end, that I had to drag myself away from the river and get home in time to dress up to go out for a formal dinner bash with the other teachers and the sixth form.

A nice carp

A nice carp

This is the thing they seemed to want

This is the thing they seemed to want


The first barbel

The first barbel


The other barbel

The other barbel


Here is Leo and me getting ready  to go out to the sixth form Christmas bash.

Here is Leo and me getting ready to go out to the sixth form Christmas bash.




Fishing Camp

Let me tell you about our fishing camp. My brother Sean and an old friend Mark convene each summer to fish some of the great limestone loughs of the west of Ireland. If you live a life of squalor and misery, you might picture our camp easily. It’s pretty upmarket if you normally sleep in a cardboard box under an embankment. But, if you are accustomed to snuggling under quilted eiderdown in a sumptuously appointed log cabin, you might want to look away now, or, if courageous enough to proceed, to have a stiff drink in your hand.

We set up camp on the shores of Lough Mask. This is remote and desolate country. The trees are sparse and the winds can be fierce and unrelenting. Weathered limestone bedrock breaks the surface and yields reluctantly to the shallow soil. It is hard to push a tent peg fully into the ground here. More than anything else, though, this country is wet.

In Ireland the boundary between the water and the land is as disputed as the one between the water and the sky. It is in this hazy and indistinct world, blanketed by drizzle, we appear each July and set up our two dome tents. For as long as we can negotiate absences from families and work, this will be our home.

One evening last year we returned to our tents to find them ringing wet. This surprised us because the day had been unusually breezy and dry. It turned out that cows had been pissing on them. While we were away pulling teams of wet flies before the noses of indifferent trout, cattle had come across our lodgings and decided that these would provide a convenient latrine for the entire herd.

It is easy to forget that chancing upon these unusual structures in their barren world may well have been the most exciting event that had ever occurred in the lives of these ponderous herbivores. I can only imagine what they might have said to each other.

“What the hell are these things?”

“Christ knows. I’ve never seen anything like them!”

“Are they alive?”

“They don’t seem to move or to make noise”

“What shall we do?”

“Let’s piss all over them!”

Of course we have learnt to be philosophical about such things. There are a number of methods for becoming wet and, over the years, we have mastered most of the techniques. In Ireland this is part of our cultural heritage and a primary reason we shun umbrellas despite the certainty of rain. But having our encampment saturated in such a novel way greatly increased our respect for these lowly animals.

I am very tempted to pour myself a drink now and tell you all about what we do and say at camp. But such reminiscences create a tremendous yearning to sit once again around our camp fire with a glass of wine in the company of those seasoned bullshitters. I will therefore desist. For the three of us, this is a treat which is strictly reserved for the summer.

Published under the title “Cowboys” Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Monthly, June 2011.

Yesterday, while I was fooling around on the river, my friend Harry was off enjoying the kind fishing adventures guys like me can only dream about. Like me, he landed a couple of fish, but his were absolute stunners. One was an Arapaima, one of the largest-growing freshwater fish in the world and the other was a Pacu, a deep-bodied fish, not unlike a piranha to which it is closely related. I have seen both of these before swimming around in various aquaria and know a little about them. Both come from South America and so, when I saw Harry´s photos yesterday evening, I assumed he was having some crazy adventure on the Amazon.

As it happened he was in Thailand fishing a water stocked with various kinds of large tropical fish. The other anglers fish more conventionally using bait but Harry is, in his heart, a fly fisherman and he took both of his fish in the fly.

Arapaima are fascinating things. They need to surface periodically to breathe air and can survive in places which are so depleted in oxygen that many other species fail to survive. They also have such tough scales that they are able to resist the attention of piranhas. What I was little prepared for, when I saw Harry´s photo was just how beautiful they are. They have a flattened head which appears almost reptilian, and large scales protecting an elongated body.

Harry said that the Arapaima hit the fly pretty much as soon as it hit the water and that it was dark before the great fish was finally released.

The Pacu are as strong as hell. The specimen pictured was estimated to weigh 9 or 10 kilos. Apparently they have extremely sharp teeth and will bite through anything that is not made out of steel. Harry hooked his fish with a nymph and it was not taken in enough to result in his line being bitten through. Apparently hooking these things is like getting you fly caught in the 10.23 from Paddington, and they will do their level best to snag you in some underwater obstacle if they have not already bitten through your line. I had always thought of them like big docile herbivores, like swimming sheep, but I obviously underestimated them.

Harry is on his way to New Zealand and was kind enough to allow me to report on his adventures. So hopefully we will have more stories to report soon.



Harry with his beautiful Arapaima, estimated at 25 kilos.

Harry with his beautiful Arapaima, estimated at 25 kilos.

The weather continues to be fine here and the dark skies of earlier in the week threatened rain but did not deliver. Today the sun shone and it seemed worth giving the river a whirl in the afternoon. I had hoped Norman, who introduced me to this stretch of the river, might be free to join me today but unfortunately he had other commitments. He did tell me, however, that yesterday he had a close encounter with a golden eagle which landed very close to his house. What an awesome thing to see!

The barbel seem to be active in the river. They are less easy to spot than earlier in the year but they still occupy the fast seams and broken water and will take a nymph if you are lucky. The carp put in an appearance too. They repeatedly refused the nymphs I offered but this is their party trick. I tried to coax them into taking the fly by telling them that I would immortalise them by posting their photos on my blog and that all I wanted in return was that they surrender their liberty temporarily. But the carp, being carp, would have none of it.

I did actually manage to hook a carp in the end, quite a good one too, but it spat out the nymph after a minute or so which surprised me as I thought it was well hooked. Such is life!

In the end I had to settle for a couple of gypsy barbel but they were fine strong fish. How lucky I am to be able to fish at this time of year when most fly fishermen have hung up their waders and are tying flies or just hanging around at home getting on their wives´ nerves.

When I got home I found a message from my friend Harry Abbot who is off fishing in the tropics. He has made a couple of fine catches already and I will report on his adventures shortly.

Numero uno

Numero uno








The nymph

The nymph








Numero dos

Numero dos




Naked Trout Fishing

Nudism isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Why a bunch of people want to wander around buck naked is a bit of a mystery to most of us. Playing volleyball on the lawn on a sunny day may well be more pleasurable without the encumbrance of clothing but I suspect that may not be true of walking through nettles, climbing over electric fences or wading in icy rivers which, let’s face it, is the kind of thing we tend to get up to. You don’t need me to tell you that, as anglers, trying to get over a barbed wire fence could be difficult. And nobody wants to arrive at the riverside with their tackle scratched.

So it is tempting to think that naturists are all simply nutters who have collectively taken leave of their minds as well as their kit, and I have never heard of any convincing argument in favour of conducting our lives “au naturelle”, except for one. And here it is; when we remove our clothes we also remove the labels that define us and we can become, in a sense, equals. One person looks pretty much like another and, as you may have noticed, most nudists look like animated prunes.

I mention all this because fly fishermen really ought to be thinking of ways they can reduce to a minimum the number of things they need to cart around. Coarse fishermen win first prize in the amount of kit that is deemed necessary for a day by the water. Fly fishermen, by comparison, travel light. And, to me at least, it seems that the more accomplished they become the more they feel they can dispense with. First to go is the fully laden fishing vest which, in time, is replaced by a single box of flies and a couple of spools of tippet material. The net is gone too. Every item of equipment needs to argue a strong case in its favour to be included in a shirt pocket or two. If we can do without it why carry it around?

The only down side is that with less stuff it becomes harder to impress your friends with flash gizmos. Have you seen my new waterproof, digital camera? It has an inbuilt photoshop facility which allows you to effortlessly engineer images so that you can simply paste, onto a picture of your outstretched arms, the picture of a ten pound brown trout. You don’t even need to catch the damn thing! And I’ve had a robotic arm welded to my titanium fishing suit! This thing casts all day for me so my hands can be kept warm in my fur-lined hand warmers. They had to club a couple of seal pups to be able to make these but, boy, was it worth it! And of course it’s cleverly designed to allow me to slip my hand out to access to the inbuilt mini bar.

The funny thing is, I suspect, I may not actually need this stuff. Maybe the old nudists have a point after all. Maybe we should dispense with these things and make our lives less complicated. From now on, as far as I’m concerned, less is more, and nothing at all is the very best. I’m going to start going fishing naked. I won’t even carry a rod. My trout will all be caught by tickling as I lie on the stretches riverbank where the nettles are few and far between.

Naked Tout Fishing – published by Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Monthly (July 2010)

A Day in December

I believe today is the first day I have fished on the river in December. It was a beautiful day and, as usual, I had the river to myself. There were quite a few mullet active in the shallows but they were  skittish and the disturbance of a nymph landing on the water was enough to see them off.

I was hoping that a weighted nymph might be interest a fish or two even if there were no fish showing and I was fortunate to take a nice barbel. I would have done well had fish I managed to hook not thrown the hook. This happened with another couple of barbel and a pretty decent carp. Never mind. Such is life!

I used an indicator about three feet from the nymph. Unfortunately I couldn´t lay my hands on the yarn indicator I have used in the past and made do with a little piece from a wine cork with the leader threaded through it using a needle. It seemed to work fine.

I don´t know if I will ever figure out the fish in this river. Just as I was about to leave and it was getting dark the odd barbel began to rise to dry flies. Needless to say, they ignored the little dry sedge I floated over them!


The only fish I managed to land

The only fish I managed to land