The Travellers Return

Blog post by: Simon Kitcher

It is still cold here in Yorkshire – very cold by English standards, with the frozen ground remaining like brown concrete late into the afternoon.  All thoughts are focused on the changing seasons as we wait for spring to lift the sap and our spirits from the cold grip of winter.  Portents of change such snowdrops on the woodland floor and the raucous reengagement of the rooks with their scruffy wind-blown nests invite us to contemplate the delicious thought of another springs beauty around the corner.  The wonderful spring, full of the energetic scent, colour, noise and movement that the rising sun makes possible; what a privilege to be alive!

With the knowledge of springs arrival, comes contemplation of the summer ahead – the long, warm white nights of the northern summer.  Like a blank canvas it waits to be filled with the full repertoire of sensations and emotions, of drama as yet unseen on the cobbled banks of that northern river.  Far out in the Northern Atlantic a special fish is still feeding on the rich bounty of the arctic seas, perhaps they also feel the change before it comes.  The impulse is deeply buried in their DNA to return to their freshwater home through the terrible expanse of green salt water; to return from a wild, unconfined, tempestuous and freezing place, almost limitless in its geographical extent, to the birthplace of the salmon – a pool in the river where it was born.  The salmon returns to a much smaller, intimate space; an intention shared by those aerial harbingers of summer’s heat, the cobalt blue swooping swallows which arrive to herald the return of the salmon.  In the early summer the world of our travelling salmon shrinks in size as the coastline, a place of crashing waves and seabird cries, gives structure and direction to the travelling groups of fish; the land is immovable, solid and must be examined at its interface with the salt sea for the smell of the river which calls the fish so urgently.  Salmon move along the coast seeking long forgotten reefs and archipelagos’ – signposts for year class groups to leave their travelling companions and enter the home fjord, before moving as one with a single consciousness toward the river and ultimately the pool they know as home.

We, the anglers, the sports, the salmon fishermen are spread around the great vastness of the globe.  From cities, towns, villages, tower blocks, and tenements we too will return, will migrate.  Our individual worlds gradually shrinking in extent as we fly great distances through the air or sleep on rolling ferries or drive those long, sweet miles returning to our rivers and our pools full of life and hope after the long and perilous journey – a breathless, beautiful exhaustion fulfilled.  Like the salmon, our priority has been to survive and grow; to have the strength both of body and of purpose of mind to return to the river that draws us – the river we are often mentally reunited with when the east wind and a blue-black leaden sky throws raging rain against the window panes in the November storms – when the traffic has stopped and we sit weary and entombed within our machine wondering if this is all there is.  The river is our island in the raging seas of life, and the thought of the return saves us from drowning in our sorrows.

As the days grow longer and warmer we begin to take an interest in our gear – rods and reels – lines and flies – waders and jackets.  These inanimate objects will soon live again; will travel with us to the river.  A plan begins to formulate, as we think of potential struggles head – lets replace the loops on this shooting head – what about that new tube fly double hook I read about – how are the soles on these boots – need to get new fluorocarbon for the June fishing.  We realize that there is much more in the planning than we hoped for; the planning will be necessary if we are to have a chance of landing our big June salmon.  Our gear we can be masters of; we can control the outcome of our decisions and action.  The salmon we will fish for, strive for, forego sleep for, starve for and always hope for will have their own plans, and the river condition and the pool we fish will be important elements in the success or failure of our encounters.  The rivers of the North in June will test gear like nowhere else that man seeks the salmon with his fly.  Snow melt water, high, cold, fast, and noisy will help the salmon to smash gear – it is Darwinian in the North.  Hooks can bend out, leader knots and leader can fail, connections on shooting head, running line and (god forbid!) backing can fail, reels can jam, rods break; and the river and the salmon can break the bodies of men as we run, with rod held high across the cobble-strewn bars of the rivers of the North.  All must be ready, there is no room for weakness here – no place for innocents.

So much against us – the world a place of turmoil and conflict; yet when success comes to us, when our strategy is correct and our gear has stood the test - then we can breathe again as we realize what has happened.  The rod lies, hurriedly placed and inert on the shimmering silica-rich sandbank; line trails limply from the rod tip to the place at the water’s edge where the fly lies still swimming; the long, soft wing undulating to the pulse of the golden river.  The salmon is large; he is over 30 pounds and he is tired – we both are, however I have not been fighting for my life.  Respectfully I support my catch; cradle him gently as I would a weary comrade on the battlefield.  We exchange a look, and I feel the strength return as he attempts to kick away, his body undulating in my grip.  As I release him so I too am released.  I have fulfilled my responsibility as a comrade, as a sportsman with a defined moral compass, and as a man who has at last achieved union with his environment.

Simon Kitcher began fly fishing for salmon in 1982 at the age of 17 in the Western Isles of Scotland on the Grimersta Fishery. Since 1992 he has been a guide every summer except one at Gaula and Stjordal rivers in Norway; watching, listening, learning, catching fish, refining and experimenting.

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