The Fear

The night my hands don’t shake when I tie that fly to the leader is the night I stop fishing for sea trout. For the quiet few, this is what our waters do best; quiet because it’s a largely solitary pursuit and hot spots are spoken of in hushed tones only between close friends, if at all. Few because most normal fly fishers get tangled, frustrated and don’t like it or simply don’t know it even exists. For me, it’s all about the anticipation of a moment. You know that moment in fly fishing where the calm goes to chaos in a split second? Night fishing for sea trout takes that moment and triple-distills it. Your blinkered world flips from the eeriest silence where your senses strain and you practically hear the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as the fly swings, to the extreme violence of a hooked fish like a head-on collision, turning the inky-black river to furious white spray. It’s like that moment in a horror movie when you know something is about to happen, yet you still jump out of your skin.

These are sea-run brown trout for those that aren’t sure, and ‘peal’ to those who hail from this, the far west corner of England. We’re fishing small, clear rivers that run off the stark, granite-strewn terrain of the moors. These fish hunt baitfish in the English Channel and Atlantic for half the year before running their native river to breed. By day, sea trout will spook if you stand thirty yards away and exhale. They are super paranoid, but less so at night. Once you get over the novelty of learning to do everything in the dark, the fishing is pretty simple; slowly swing or retrieve a black streamer of one to four inches long or skate a Gurgler or spun deer hair creation over the slow waters in which these fish like to rest. They are the UK’s hardest fighting fish – no argument – and their pursuit will take you to our most special places.

The moors of Devon and Cornwall have been hunted by man for around 12,000 years. That oak tree that blocks the moonlight from the river has been here half a millennium. The granite boulder you’re sat on, changing the fly under dim torchlight, well, it’s really old. There is history here; that standing stone you can see in the distance was placed by man many thousands of years ago. With the landscape come folklore and legend. There are landmarks with names like Hangman’s Pit, Hound Tor, Spitchwick Gallows and Deadman’s Corner and the tourists drink it in. For the realist, bogs, ankle-breaking, granite-littered tracks and thick, sudden sweeping fog that makes hikers lose all bearings are ever-present dangers. It’s not by accident that this landscape has been used to train the British military since Napoleon’s time.

When fishing these moorland streams, you don’t have to be swept away by folklore and the supernatural, but you’re in a pretty remote place, alone in the middle of the night and, well, the mind plays tricks. I have friends that still won’t night fish on their own; some of these guys have grown up in the country and spend their days working alone in the great outdoors. Many of us (I reckon all, just some are too proud to admit it) still get ‘the fear’. I still, with some regularity, tell myself “Don’t be such a wuss”, having twitched at the sound of a breaking stick. Nocturnal animals have strange voices. Otters snort and squeak, owls screech, deer bark and crash through woodland, badgers growl, vixens scream, and herons, well, they make the freakish noise you’d imagine a goblin makes. It’s fine if you know what the night wildlife sounds like – you can identify them. Then there are those that you can’t.

When I first started fishing a particular moorland pool, I was given differing opinions from the old hands, long since retired from moorland night fishing (often referred to as a young man’s game). The first recoiled in his chair and said “King Pool? On your own? Not for me boy, no. It’s got a feel about it.”

The other, quite matter-of-factly stated “Good water. I’ve seen some big fish taken there. There is one thing; there’s a fella there, but it’s okay… he won’t harm you.”

So I chickened out and the first few times I fished King, I took friends. We caught some fish, lost plenty, even chased a 26-incher through the rapids below in the pitch black without breaking limbs or drowning, but there was still this odd air about the place. I’ve fished many different rivers, many times alone and never felt this before or since. I still can’t put my finger on it. Whether it’s the infinite blackness of the woodland behind, the silhouetted ancient oaks reaching over you like some giant’s skeletal claw, or the fact that, in a downstream wind, the rush of water at the head of the pool sometimes sounds like a murmuring human voice.

Around four years ago, I fished King with a friend. I stood at the head of the pool fishing the deep water while he fished the tail, so we were maybe fifty yards apart. I was so wrapped in concentration that I didn’t even turn my head when I heard my friend slowly walk up behind me, footfalls crunching the dead bracken on the river bank. “Any good?” I asked quietly. Nothing. I repeated myself in a louder voice. My friend’s answer “What?” came from fifty yards downstream, where he was still fishing. I spun round and fumbled to flick my head torch on, to find no one there, obviously. I had to go and sit down and drink coffee.

Weird as it was, there was no way it would stop me fishing this river so, kill or cure, I drove to the same pool the following night, alone. Admittedly twitchy as the light went and the colours melted away, I fished hard and the fish were up for it. Three solid sea trout, somewhere between four and six pounds had pummelled my three-inch black Intruder-alike on the sunk line and I felt exhilarated and victorious. Life was great and as far as I was concerned, the fear was for girls.

The fourth fish did what they so often do and thrash thrash thrashed, wheel-spinning on the surface as soon as firm contact was made. The tip of the seven-weight bowed to the river as the fish left the water and cartwheeled several feet into the night sky. The line went slack. As I cursed, sighed and then retrieved the fly to check it, I swear the temperature dropped a few degrees. A shiver ran down my spine and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as not being welcome. Without hesitation, yet in no rush, I cut the fly off and edged out of the water backwards, almost afraid to turn round and face the fear that was surely towering over me. I slung my bag over my shoulder, tipped my cap to the river and started the long walk out of the woods back to the car.

Gladly, the fear has crept up on me just once or twice this season, and I’ve not done a runner since that time at King Pool. The fact is that I often like to fish with company, but when I want to fish hard, I go alone. I have the pick of the water and there’s no lengthy, essential bullshit-talking to break concentration. It’s not just that though.

It’s only when you fish alone that you get that true intensity of the take. It’s the eerie silence, the suspense, that tingle down the spine and the paranoid glance over the shoulder because you are sure someone’s watching you. The fear is part of the game. It heightens that high of ‘calm to chaos’ and the pursuit of sea trout by night just wouldn’t be the same without it.