The most memorable blank of my River Guiding career
This article on the River Annan was written by Orvis Endorsed Guide Stewart Collingswood and Austin Hagwood, National Geographic Early Career Grantee
Fishing Guide’s Introduction – by Stewart Collingswood
Blanking or getting skunked is something you rarely hear fishing guides write about. Let’s face it: if you’re a guide, promoting your services it’s all about catching the fish, right? Or is it?
When I dragged my ageing corpse out of my Edinburgh bed at 5:30am to get ready to fish with Austin, I had no idea it would be one of the most memorable days of my life.
I met Austin a short distance from Edinburgh Castle on a wet cold December morning. He was armed with a hot coffee and brimming with optimism. I knew I liked him the second we met. We spent the 90-minute journey chatting about life, philosophy, love, and Austin’s adventures while working in Papua New Guinea, researching new plant species and their medicinal impact.
There was no them and us with Austin. Often as a guide you can feel detached from your client. These are the days when you dig deep, and do all you can to make the guests day memorable and break down those barriers. With Austin, he was an open book. And a damn interesting one too. We were protagonists on a mission to defy the shitty weather and catch The Lady of the Stream, the Grayling.
I’m going to leave it now to Austin to describe our day. He’s far more eloquent than I am. However I will say, that he fished with a determination and persistence that outlived mine. It was also a day when the grayling were simply not feeding and to add to the challenge the weather and rain made conditions very grim indeed.
Wait a minute, that’s a Salmon! – by Austin Hagwood
Approached from Edinburgh, the River Annan winds its way to the sea through a cascade of peaks, the bones of mountains studded with boulders and interlaced with icy streams. Stewart Collingswood and I were up to our chests in frigid water, hands burning in the cold air, searching for creatures we could not see. A pale knife of sunlight crept above the nearby pines.
Damp fog filled the valleys, and I half expected to see a druid priest atop a hill or Macbeth out for a jog with a claymore on his back. We were wading into the kind of day that becomes a memory even as you live it. Arctic grayling were swimming through Scotland; we were fishing to glimpse them.
We left the city after a cup of coffee, manoeuvring Stewart’s Land Rover between towers of black stone slicked like obsidian after last night’s rain. A yellow lab named Keely yawned in the back next to an arsenal of fly rods, rain jackets, and a basket stocked with scotch and homemade soup. To the north we could see oak trees, their leaves gone with winter, their branches webbed above white cottages and valleys veiled in mist.
There’s a feeling you have when you are an American driving Scottish roads: that one of the small white houses secretly belongs to you, and you will go there after a day on the river to find a fire in the hearth and ale in the fridge. Fly-fishing here seemed like returning to the birthplace of an ancient art, and I asked Stewart how he became one of its artists.
From Software company to River Bank
I was running a software company, he said. Then one day I went walking in the hills above Edinburgh and took a piece of paper and wrote down everything I liked: Scotland, the outdoors, fishing, photography, good food, meeting people. Now I get to share all of it.
On a heather-covered slope near the river we slipped into waders and drank a hot toddy to banish the morning chill. There was lemon and coriander and the scotch was strong enough to fuel the perpetual optimism you must have to fish in winter. As their name implies, Arctic grayling thrive in the coldest freshwater streams.
Photographs depicted them as a miracle of morphology rainbow scales and a large dorsal fin in shades of peacock feathers rising like a sail out of the fish’s steel-blue back. Rain had fallen in the night and today the river was swift.
We walked down a hill with an audience of placid sheep and crossed the river near the road to the smooth gray pebbles on the other side. We carried light tackle a three-weight rod with 5x tippet and two small nymphs under a fluffy white New Zealand strike indicator. Soon I settled into the trance-like rhythm of casting line and watching the piece of wool drift through silver riffles, poised for the slightest sign of fish.
Ancient waters of the River Annan
Ancient water is quiet water. Two hours passed in the same way: cast, drift, retrieve, cast. There are times, watching a river, when your mind floods with images. Yellow leaves suspended in liquid space, the clatter of current flowing over rocks, a grazing ram and the green fly line. Dewdrops on the grass glitter with light. Water falls from black oak boughs and ripples in the stream.
It was noon now and we were hungry. Agreeing another toddy was required, we sipped scotch while the soup heated and thick clouds obscured the sun. The soup was what it needed to be: hot broth, fresh chicken, barley, carrots, all laced with Thai Spices. We reassured each other the way anglers do halfway through a day where neither has had a strike.
I’ll bet the bite turns on this afternoon, I said.
I know a spot up ahead sure to hold fish, said Stewart.
Conditions should be just about perfect, I said.
This part of the river can hold grayling of over three pounds, said Stewart.
Keely the fishing dog leads the way
Keely ran ahead of us through a soggy field, and we followed her to a bend in the river above a slow, copper-colored eddy. There was a shallow stretch upstream, and we forded there to reach the opposite bank and cast into the glassy surface.
It started to rain. Another hour passed without a strike, and still we watched the indicators with the grim persistence of men sustained by water and chicken soup and scotch. Peering out from the hood of my rain slicker and seeing the river and the green hills before the copse of pines bucking in the wind, the trees scattering droplets like silver coins from their wet branches, I felt quiet and thought, This is a moment that will never happen again.
It was raining hard now, the clouds swollen into storm, rain pattering into the river and bombarding the wispy indicator. That’s when it happened. I looked for the wool the wool was gone. With an instinctive flick, I jerked the rod and set the hook into a sunken log.
Then the log moved.
An internal conversation starts in your head when you hook a fish. A second voice enters your brain, and it is the fisherman voice familiar to every fisherman.
Remember the basics, the voice said. Keep tension on the line so the barbless hook doesn’t slip out of his mouth.
Somewhere outside my fish-blurred vision, I heard Stewart say: Good man, Austin. Keep that rod tip up and walk back slowly toward the shore.
The fish was still hooked and the fish felt strange. Instead of the blistering, line-peeling runs of trout, this fish was giving an occasional, annoyed head-shake. The line inched out of the water.
I am using light tackle, and the fish probably feels heavier than he really is,I thought. That is why I’m struggling to pull him into shore.
Then the voice said, By God, I’ll bet it’s a record grayling over four pounds.
Don’t say that, I thought. It must be a small fish and the tackle is deceiving you.
Another minute passed. The indicator emerged out of the water. Only a few more feet and the fish would appear.
The voice said, By God, here he comes.
An explosion in the river of silver
Suddenly a bolt of lightning exploded through the rod and line was ripping through the reel and the world slowed down and the fish was there, leaping from the water with his full body frozen in time above the river, and the fish was a salmon and he was bathed in glory and as I watched he turned a furious eye and broke the line and plunged into the Annan, gone forever and away from me.
The line was slack.
He must’ve seen you near the shore, Stewart said. What a beautiful salmon I’d say he weighed ten pounds.
Part of the reason people hunt and fish seems to stem from a primordial desire to see animals up close, to touch and hold a life unseen. Anglers will try to tell you about the gut-sick feeling of losing a fish, of not bringing it to the net to be photographed and held.
The salmon in Scotland was different. I didn’t feel loss; I was awash in awe, stunned into silence by the sheer beauty of a leviathan fish in an unassuming river and the ephemeral gift of being connected to him, tied together by a fluorocarbon thread and knowing it could not last.
The rain was still falling when we returned to the Land Rover and the roads were empty except for squares of warm light from white cottages in the dark. At the pub in Moffat we hung our jackets by the fire. There was ale in the pie and ale in my glass, and Stewart and I talked of fish while rain kept falling on the Annan and on the grayling, swimming then as they do today.