Fishing in Ireland, fly tying

Colours of our lives

The cold cuts me like a knife, a raw winter morning of windblown snow and I am stood shivering on the stone breakwater of Stonehaven harbour. My head still pounds from the alcohol of last night which I spent drinking pale ale and awkwardly trying to chat up skinny blue jeaned girls. My old parka jacket does little to prevent me being chilled to the very bone as we load rods and heavy bags of gear into the small white boat and head out into the grey expanse of the North Sea. Winter Sundays were all about cod fishing back in those far off days, Ally, Dod, me and maybe some others hired the services of an old lad who kept a boat in the harbour and we would use lug worm baited hooks or feathers to haul out prodigious bags of middling sized cod. I preferred to use pirk and feather, I liked the way that rig seemed to produce the bigger fish. Rough seas or flat calm, it mattered not to us, just let us out there and we would do the rest. Muscles strained as another fish was pulled up from the depths, quickly dispatched with a thump on the head from an old chair leg filled at one end with lead, then the gear is sent back into the deeps again to try and repeat the process. I would forget how cold I was and happily drag in fish after fish, Sunday after Sunday. Fingers, blue with the cold, treacherous slime covered decks, gulls mobbing us as we gutted the catch steaming home, rough banter between us mill workers. Nothing delicate or cultured about this sport but I absolutely loved it.

‘Lucky’ Jim Falconer (RIP), Rod McLennan, Eric, Davie, Dod Gauld and Big Doug McConnachie, just some of the worthies I used to fish with. This photo must have been taken at a club competition since the fish are being weighed.

Of course I made my own feathers. Compared to the tiny flies I made for trout and salmon at that time the feathers were a breeze to manufacture, just a few brightly coloured hackles bound to a stainless O’Shaughnessy hook with heavy thread. I bought packets of loose cock hackle specifically for this purpose from Jim Somers tackle shop in Thistle Street. Mixed colours, the red and orange were my favourites. I didn’t much care for the pink ones, I don’t know why but they didn’t catch as many fish as the other colours.

Fast forward many years, indeed, the best part of a lifetime. I am sitting at the vice mulling over a new pattern I want to tie but can’t quite decide on the hackles. Boxes containing scores if not hundreds of polythene packets, each full of different shades of hackles abide in my fly tying cabinet. Slowly I search through them but nothing really floats my boat. There is a large green box under the cabinet which holds odds and ends which has become a graveyard for unloved materials. I begin to look through this rubbish and almost immediately my eye falls on a small packet of pink feathers. They are poor quality but I recognise them as the remnants of those old ones I used to buy from Somer’s for making cod feathers. For forty plus years they have been in my possession but completely forgotten about. This is exactly what I want!

The Mosely May is one of the most popular flies in use on Irish loughs at mayfly time. I use it a lot when dry fly fishing but what I want to create today is a wet fly with something like the same shades in its makeup. A bumble type of fly for the top dropper is on my mind so I make one with four hackles. A mexican blue feather from the rump of a cock pheasant in front. The other three I palmer together down the body, one pink, one blue dun and one of medium olive. I use a tail of golden pheasant crest and rib the body made of yellow seals fur and hare’s mask with oval gold tinsel.

Hmmm, I’m not too happy with the result. It looks too ‘pink’ to my eye so I make another one but this time use the pink hackle only at the head behind the pheasant. This is much better. I go to tie a few more but this time with muddler heads on them. I am absorbed in what I am doing so time slips past effortlessly. Only a very few of the pink hackles are usable, the others are too big for trout flies but I return them to their packet and put that back into the green box. You never can tell, I might find a use for them yet.

Little did that long-haired young fella, stood shivering on the old stone pier at Stonehaven in his wellies and parka with holes in the elbows back in the winter of ’78 imagine where life would lead him. Nor how those pink hackles which the cod didn’t really like would end up being used to make bumbles for use on Lough Conn. This life has many colours. I wonder where that skinny blonde, the one in the denims and cowboy boots who brushed me off ended up?

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