Having trouble sleeping? Well, you could try counting sheep. But, personally I don’t recommend it. I tried it for years but it just doesn’t seem to work very well. Sheep can be very frustrating. For one thing they tend to move around a lot. This makes it very difficult to decide if the sheep you are counting has been counted already. I have been caught out by this more than once. My usual technique involves standing in an imaginary field and counting from right to left. The danger is that a sheep, already counted, which had been standing on my right can sneak around behind me and appear on the left. This might result purely by chance as a result of random movement but I suspect that there are some who do it deliberately. They can fool you in other ways too. Sheep in the distance look like little white dots and if the mood takes them they can pair up and pretend to be a larger sheep. The technical name for this behaviour is clumping and shepherds have known about it for years. I suspect that the difficulties experienced by Little Bo Peep may well be attributable to cunning and deceitful behaviour within her flock. For these reasons I have abandoned sheep counting and have had to look elsewhere for a cure to insomnia.

The answer came to me one night while, as usual, I was tossing and turning. In the distance sheep were clumping and I’m sure that one or two were sneaking round the back. It finally dawned on me that I was crazy to persevere with these annoying ruminants when the entire animal kingdom was at my disposal. So having shortlisted a few vertebrates worthy of being counted I finally arrived at my final choice, the brown trout.

Why had it never occurred to me before? It was so obvious! I love these things! I have lost count of the number I have chased over the years on windswept loughs and tumbling streams. And the more I see of them the more beautiful they appear. They speak to me of wilderness, the deep history of ice ages, of mist lifting above a river at dawn.

And so I set to work finding these fish in the crystal stream of my imagination. They were hard to see at first. But as my eyes took in the shadows the weeds threw over polished stones, one by one, they began to appear. Occasionally a sideways movement would give one away as it drifted from its lie to intercept a drifting insect. But most were, initially at least, sensed rather seen, like a path in the moonlight.

Mine are like trout seen from a bridge. A bird’s eye view can reveal details denied to us from our usual stance on the riverbank. I am happy just to watch them and maybe learn a thing or two. Are they active? Are they feeding? Are they rising? Why is the biggest fish where it is? What are the subtleties of the stream that make this lie a more highly valued piece of real estate than others nearby which look identical?

Sometimes in my night time trout stream a hatch is underway. The trout are alert and quick. They make more frequent adjustments to their position in order to lift up and sip an insect from the top, or intercept a nymph making its once in a lifetime dash to the surface.

So if you, like me, have a mind buzzing with the events and worries of the day and struggle to drop off each night, forget about sheep! The damned things are more trouble than they’re worth! Consider getting a stream of your own. You can stock it with whatever you want. Rainbows, browns, grayling – take your pick! Count them if you want or, if you prefer, just watch them swimming around.

My own trout occupy me more and more each night. Sometimes I watch them until dawn. And if they stop me from getting to sleep, that’s okay too. Chances are I would have dreamt about trout anyway.

Published as “Counting Fish” by Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Monthly, December 2012