The Salmon Short Story
This is the first of two stories inspired by some visits to the west of Ireland and some fishing days with a local man, who was a very special guy in the fishing community there.
We only had one day there. We were due to arrive at a friend’s house the next evening, and we had only arrived at the house on the lake late at night; when there seemed little point in taking out the boat. Instead we’d had an enormous meal, and three bottles of wine between our small party: James and I, our host and hostess, and the old man, Johnny.
Johnny didn’t take any wine. He took tea with his meal, and afterward, poured some whiskey into it; then when he had drank that, poured water into his whiskey.
When the third bottle of wine was finished, James and I had to be quite stern in our insistence that another should not be opened, but we failed to prevent new glasses, with a good measure of whiskey and a small drop of water, being forced upon us.
After the first two whiskeys, we no longer felt like refusing, and soon a second bottle of Black Bush had been opened and dispensed with, while the conversation went around the table, and the clock hands swept towards dawn. When it had been almost reached, we also reached our beds, and slumped in dehydrated slumber, until thirst awoke us, and the smell of cooking told us that we must remain awake.
Johnny was sitting in his chair, sipping tea, with a smile on his face; having already dispensed with his breakfast and had a short walk with the dogs, to check the weather that would sweep down the valley during the day. It was going to be fine for some time he told us; fair weather for fishing for a couple of young fellas. Looking down on the two plates of eggs, bacon, sausages, pudding, tomatoes and mushrooms that had scant room on the table between the breads, spreads, cheeses and tea, which our hostess; also smiling inexplicably, had brought us, we had to remind ourselves of our luck with the weather, and try hard not to wish for a reason to return to bed for a few hours.
The weather indeed was splendid. The sun shone from just above the mountains down to the lake, leaving long shadows that would soon vanish as it moved around to reflect off the water until mid-afternoon. Some white clouds hung on the horizon as if serving only to complete the scene. It seemed to prove that this trip of ours was locked in luck, and that we would be as fortuitous in our fishing as we were in finding a dry day in this normally rainy place.
We set off, the outboard bringing us slowly out to deep water, where we dropped our baits on long lines to let them go down, to where, we were sure, the trout lay along the gravel, waiting for food that was too good to be true.
Soon James had his first bite. It was just a nibble, though. The trout had slipped the hook before he had time to lift the rod into the air to force the barbs into its mouth. He described it as a light tug, afterwards. I had never caught a trout before, so I didn’t know what to take from any description. James had taken a few small trout before, so I bowed to his better experience.
My own experience consisted of many afternoons spent on a pier beside my older brother, as he sat there with his line in the water for hours, and rarely reeling in a pollock or mackerel. The only fish I had ever caught myself was a small pike, who took my simple spinner like a pit-bull terrier takes a tabby cat and who weighed the line until I took it out and laid in on the limestone, before summoning one of my friends who knew what he was doing, to take out the hook.
I soon felt a familiar tug on the line, but this one was gone before I began to reel in. There was no pressure, so I left the rod back down, and it was only later, when we were taking in to travel to another place, that I noticed the bait missing. We had neglected a steel trace in our enthusiasm for trout, though the pike seemed to be as plentiful.
After a new bait had been applied, we were not long with the lines out when another strain stayed as I twirled the twine around to reveal an identical Jack-pike to the one I had pulled out of another lake all those years ago. I smiled around at James to show him that my luck at least was holding up, whether we caught a trout or no. Johnny was not nearly as impressed. As the fish had come close laying on its side in the water, he had hoped that it was a small trout, and, to James’s affected distress, ripped out the deeply imbedded hook with his penknife and tossed the fish into the lake again.
We trawled along cliffs and around islands, for some several hours without another fish becoming interested in what the end of our lines offered. The weather eventually changed somewhat, with the clouds covering the sun for long periods, and the wind across the water becoming chill. We put on our raincoats to keep out the breeze, and dug into their pockets for chocolate, as hours from breakfast began to be noticed by our bodies. We two were determined to land an edible fish, so we gave most of our chocolate to Johnny, hoping that he would be happy to stay out as long as possible, as he sucked on the sweets; spitting out the peanuts that were too much for his few remaining teeth.
The time began to drag however, and evening was drawing as our legs stiffened and our arses got sore from sitting too long upon the hard seats. We were edging towards our moorings, when suddenly James shouted. I looked to see his rod bending like it had snagged, and an urgent smile on Johnny’s face saying, by god, it was a salmon!
Salmon were rarely found this far up in the lake, and to have hooked one was extremely lucky. The excitement rose in me, and I leaned closer to James, was still struggling with the rod, the end of which was bending under the strain of the big fish.
Johnny shouted at him, “Let him some line!”
James did not reply, but continued pulling at the rod, as the salmon rose to the surface some ten feet out from the boat, and splashed in a violent effort to rid its mouth of the hook.
“Reel out – let it go a bit,” I said helpfully: thinking that James couldn’t understand the old man’s accent, in his concentration on the fish, which was a whole new experience to the few half-pound trout he had caught before.
“Let him some line!” shouted Johnny again, as I was saying this. “He’ll tear the hook!”
“Will the two of you stop fucking shouting at me!” cried James. “I’m doing my fucking best!”
“I know, I know,” I said quietly.
Johnny looked like he was thinking of taking the rod off James to bring in the fish himself. It was probably a good idea – it was a salmon: and that pre-empted any claim on landing the fish by the man who hooked it, if he didn’t have the experience to be sure of landing it.
“You have to keep it under the surface,” I told James. “If it splashes, it can tear the hook out of its mouth.”
I took the landing net and leaned over past James, handing it to Johnny. He took it and held it on the edge of the boat, in readiness.
“Let out the line and keep the rod up high,” he told James.
James complied, and the salmon, still just under the surface, came nearer. I leaned closer as Johnny moved the net out of the boat and dipped the cloth in the water, close to the fish. The salmon started struggling again, and Johnny took the net back in, saying, “It’s not ready yet! You can’t land a salmon until it’s ready.”
James reeled out a little to let the salmon run some more. It moved away slightly and then came to the surface again, flapping its body from side to side. James lowered the rod slightly and reeled in; but the strain was gone from the rod, and it rose easily, lifting the bait out of the water and showing the hook empty. The salmon was gone.
We stared in disbelief and then disgust. All three of us swore, simultaneously and repeatedly.
There was nothing to do but reel out the baits again and hope to hook another. That one wouldn’t be taking anything for a few days. They were starting to feed, as it got later, but we were getting closer to the point when hunger and the pressings of time would force us toward shore again.
James was still cursing. “I don’t know what happened! It was there one minute and then it just fucking wasn’t!”
“You must have let the line go slack,” said Johnny; offering a probable explanation in a calm tone, as if it was a common occurrence, “and it was able to get the hook out.” But to himself, quietly – I didn’t hear, but James heard: and it disappointed him more than losing the fish – he said: “I should have taken the rod.”