The Day on the Lake Short Story
Second of two stories written after some trips to the West of Ireland where I got to go fishing with a very cool old local.
The Day on the Lake
We drove down to the lake shore from the house; the car hot in the early June sun. The old man sat in the back, letting James in the front, to jump out and open and shut the few gates along the lane; which was blooming Fuchsia and late hawthorn.
We came to the shore and stopped beside the boathouse. There were two boats outside; one parallel to the shore, tied to a thick branch of a gorse bush growing close to the water, and prevented from floating out by a line of rocks that formed a stepping stone jetty. The other was dragged up on the gravel of the shore alongside the boathouse, the wall of which jutted out to form a concrete pier. This boat was tied to a large boulder standing some feet from the water. The old man stepped into that one and began to bail out rainwater from the bottom.
I opened the boathouse and took out the fuel tank for the outboard, leaving it on the pier beside the boathouse wall. There were three rods hanging up in the boathouse: one fly and two bait rods. We two took them out, and, laying them down outside, found ourselves without further occupation, besides looking at the old man, who was now putting the outboard fuel tank into the boat and getting ready to attach the fuel line to the engine.
He looked up at us, thought for a moment, and swore. “Ah Jaesus! I left the feckin’ box e’baits up in the shed! Would yous go up and git it?”
We went off, and returning with a big green fishing box that had been pointed out for us up at the house, discovered that the boat was ready to leave – the old man having lifted the huge rock to remove the rope, and dragged the boat down the shore until it floated. We put our boots on and climbed aboard, thinking that maybe he had left the baits behind so that he would have something to keep us out of his way while he prepared the boat.
We climbed aboard: James pushing us off. The old man steered us out into deep water and told us to take our already-baited rods and let out the lines.
We trolled around the shores and islands; the old man speeding up at certain places where he knew there to be rocks that could snag the lines, so that the baits would rise clear.
“Johnny. How long have you been fishing the lake?” I asked him, as I offered around a bar of milk chocolate.
“Jeasus, I donno,” he smiled, taking a chunk of the bar. “More than sixty years!”
“Sixty years!? How old are you now?”
“Eighty three now! Started fishin’ when I was a lad. Been here all me life.”
“I bet you caught a few here, eh, Johnny?” asked James.
“Oh, I have that,” the old man replied, smiling, “and,” he continued with a slight gleam in his eye, “A good number of salmon too!”
“Have you caught many trout this year?” I asked.
His smile faded as he replied. “Well. No. Didn’t catch too many this year. Jeasus, the bloody mayfly was fierce disappointing. I donno what happened, but it was too warm – ruined it, it did. And I was looking forward to the mayfly. Jeasus, when they’re goin’, boy, the trout are flyin’!
“I had a few friends over from France for it, and Jeasus, they only got five trout between them. Very disappointin’.”
“Sure, there’s always next year, Johnny,” James said.
He glanced at James and then looked out at the water, shaking his head slightly. “Jeas’, I donno, if I’ll be around next year,” he said wistfully.
“Don’t worry Johnny,” replied James. “Plenty of years left in you!”
Johnny looked at James and gave a little laugh.
We trolled on. After a while, Johnny told us to reel in so that we could move to another area of the lake.
“This place,” he said, “when the salmon are runnin’, it’s a powerful spot for them!”
When I reeled in, we saw that my bait was missing: bitten off by the last pike that had struck.
“I’ll have to pull in to put a new one on for ye,” Johnny said, and steered us toward a tree-clad island.
As we approached it, he spoke again. “I remember, I used to have me lunch here during the mayfly: me and some friends I used to have over from Spain, and we’d stop here and light a fire and have a few bottles of stout,” he chuckled.
He steered into a landing and cut the engine. We got out and tried to drag the boat up, but there were some rocks in the way.
“Go out there a bit,” he told James, “and bring the boat back out.”
When James had a hold of the boat, floating a little way out from the landing, Johnny waded in and lifted the rocks out of the way, throwing them back into the water some feet away. James and I looked wide eyed at each other and laughed.
When the landing was clear, he grabbed the boat and dragged it up onto the gravel.
James and I looked about the shore as Johnny looked through the bait-box. We noticed a circle of blackened stones where fires had been made, many times it seemed.
“I could give ye this,” said Johnny, holding up a similar type minnow-looking bait to the one that had originally been hanging on my line. It’s a bit early for them yet,” he continued, “but we’ll see. I’ll change it for ye later if it’s not workin’.”
He took a leader and some line, and began to weave a complex-looking knot with his large hands.
“I should’ve brought me glasses!” he said, laughing. He held the knot up to me. “Is that through?”
He took the end of the line that was sticking out of the loop he had indicated in his fingers and then pulled it tight. He manipulated it in his right hand and raised it to his mouth, sticking it in and grasping the end of the line between two of the last of his opposing front teeth, and pulled.
“I usually keep me nails long for the knots,” he said. He looked at it again. It had been pulled tight neatly into a tiny ball; thinner than the leader. He cut the end with his knife, and once again I was ready to fish.
Just then, something dropped from a branch above us, and fell sideways with the wind past our faces. Johnny stuck out his hand very quickly and grabbed it. Opening his hand slowly and inserting the thumb and index finger of his other, he grasped a struggling fly. It was heavy bodied with opaque wings and a three-pointed tail.
“Now, where did you come from?” Johnny asked the mayfly.
James and I smiled at one another. Maybe now he would try out the fly-rod for a while.
“Do you reckon it would be worth using the fly-rod, Johnny?” James asked.
“Maybe,” he smiled, letting the mayfly go.
We left the island, and continued trolling. Shortly, Johnny took up the fly-rod, and made a few experimental casts, but he was getting tangled with my line, so he left it back.
“Here,” I told him. “Sure, I’ll reel in for a bit if you want to use that, Johnny.”
“No. Ye’r all right”, he replied. “I might take us in to a spot later.” Then, smiling, said of the place: “That’s a good spot for trout durin’ the mayfly!”
The sun shone on, and we continued, sitting on the hard wooden seats, soaking it up, to keep us warm in the breeze that blew across the lake; looking around at the green and grey mountains that surrounded the lake.
As we went by the islands, I could see mayflies dropping from the trees to fly along the breeze as they fell to the water below.
But Johnny never took us in so that he could fly fish. I wished he did; though he obviously wanted to let us try our luck, hoping we could catch ourselves some trout: for I am sure that he would have had more to show than our few bites and couple of pike, which is all we had accumulated when evening drew us in to shore.
We shook hands as we left that evening.
“Ye’r a grand couple of lads to fish with!” he told us. “Ye’ll have to come back again: we’ll see if we can get ye a salmon!” he chuckled.
We laughed too. “I dunno, Johnny,” I said. “I think it’ll take a bit of training before we’re up to that! But we’ll have to come back and practise, all right.”
But the summer sped by before we could arrange to return, and the next year I moved away with work. I kept moving for a few years, but when ever I could I tried my hand at the trout, and eventually became fairly skilled at the flies. James also left: he went to Canada, where he learned to fish eventually.
I went out to visit him once, and he showed me a place where you could take salmon like they were mackerel. We reminisced about our youth, and talked about the last time we had fished together, with fondness, and wondered if the old man had lived to see the next mayfly season.
It was ten years before I was back in the west of Ireland; on a holiday with my wife and son. We were driving through the valleys, and I was telling stories and pointing out the places I had visited as a young man, when before I recognised the place, we passed by the farmhouse.
He was there; sitting in an old wooden chair on the porch, soaking up the rare afternoon sun.
I couldn’t believe it. He looked a lot frailer than he had been, but hell; I was frailer now myself than he had seemed then. Yet he was there, and in the few seconds I saw him as we sped past, it seemed like yesterday, that day on the lake. He was smiling to himself: probably thinking of going out on the lake this afternoon, I thought; smiling myself.
I instinctively slowed the car, and as my wife looked questioningly as me, I wondered if I should go back and say hello. But as I looked at her, and saw little Jamie out of the corner of my eye, I realised how many years had passed, and I knew he probably wouldn’t have remembered me – his memory being too full of mayfly seasons, to remember two young-fellas from one afternoon, when we never even landed a trout.