The Old Man – by Mike Connor

The old man was there again, and he obviously had a good fish on, judging by the bend in his rod. We watched him land the fish with a long handled net from the high bank.

“Looks like another good one for the old man,” my companion remarked, “he certainly does seem to do well over there, hardly anybody else fishes the place, too dark under the trees and very difficult to cast, the high bank is a nuisance as well, he must be good to get fish there.”

This was my sixth trip of the season to this particular water, and every time I had visited the place, the old man had been there before me, even when I arrived at four a.m., always in the same place, and had always seemed to catch fish. He had still been there when I left as well. We went back to our fishing, and when we left at about eight ó clock the old man was still there.

We discussed the day a little on the ride home in the car, and I asked Dave if he knew “the old man,” “No,” he said, “never actually met him, but he is well known here, always fishes the same place, and always gets a couple of nice fish, he must really know his stuff, this is a difficult water, I heard he always fishes dry flies as well, a real ace, keeps himself to himself though, bit of a legend here actually, nobody ever sees him come or go, but he always seems to be fishing in the same place, no matter when you come or go, must just about live here.”

We moved on to other topics, and were home in a short while. We arranged to meet on the following Saturday, and Dave took his leave.

As luck would have it, I got a day off in the middle of the week, and decided to fish the water again in the hope of better results than at the week-end.

When I arrived at just after five a.m. “the old man” was already in his accustomed place, it was eerie really, somehow not quite normal, one had the impression he had never left the place, and the irrational “ghostly” feeling was enhanced considerably by the dancing swirling wreaths of early morning mist partially shrouding his dark figure on the opposite bank, making it seem to float wraithlike above the ground. He never seemed to move much at all, but often when one looked up he was playing another fish, or so it seemed.

I fished hard along the rocky shore for several hours without a take, the water was littered with midge cases all along the waterline, but not a fish was moving. I looked up again at about nine, and “the old man” was playing yet another fish.

Heavy overcast and no wind and the lightly swirling mist made the water absolutely still, and nothing was moving at all, the mist was slowly dissolving, although the sun had not yet put in any worthwhile appearance. It was fairly cold and clammy. I had tried most of the standard methods I knew, but without success. I resolved to trek around the lake and ask “the old man” about his killing methods.

It took me a good forty minutes of walking at a fairly stiff pace to get to the bay opposite where I had been fishing, and I was sweating profusely by the time I got to the stand of trees overshadowing the bay.

I have no idea what caused me to hurry so, there was no real need, I had the whole day before me, but for some unaccountable reason I felt haste was important, as if he might disappear before I got there or something.

I moved quietly and slowly now, down through the trees towards the water and was about at the middle of the stand of trees about thirty feet from the waters edge, when a voice seemingly from nowhere said “now then”. I very nearly suffered a heart attack on the spot, and fully expected to be struck dead on the instant, god knows what nonsense flashed through my mind in this moment, flight, death, demons, the devil or worse. The sweat running down my back turned icy cold and I shivered uncontrollably for an instant, resisting the overpowering temptation to break into headlong flight, and at the same time being rooted to the spot.

As nothing happened, and my pounding heart slowly subsided to a somewhat more normal rate, I turned slowly, and saw him standing near the trees at the waters edge. He looked perfectly normal, was not flying with horns and claws bared to attack me, and so I did the only sensible thing, I replied almost unintelligibly “now then.”

“Don’t get many round this side” he said, again perfectly normally, and I am afraid I made rather a fool of myself then as I replied rather forcefully “no bloody wonder!”, exhaling at the same time a large quantity of pent up breath, which I did not even realise I had been holding up to that moment.

He turned away from his rod again looked at me rather closely, and then said “yes it is a long hike, especially in waders, you doing any good?” Having gathered my shattered wits and composure in the meantime I was able to reply in a more sensible tone. I told him I had caught nothing, and he showed me three very nice fish he had caught. I asked him if he would mind if I sat and watched for a while, or if it would disturb him. “No no, you go ahead”, he agreed and so I sat down and got my flask and sandwiches from my bag.

I offered him some tea from my flask, and a sandwich maybe. He declined the sandwich but accepted the tea. He reeled in his line, and came and sat down on the same grassy knoll where I was sitting.

We got to talking about the fishing, and I asked him if it was true that he only fished dries.

“Yes, that´s true, I can’t retrieve very well at all, I have arthritis very badly in both hands,” he remarked quite matter of factly, “and dry flies are easier to fish, I just pay out the line and let them float around the bay here, and occasionally I get a fish or two.” “My gear is pretty old and decrepit as well, I doubt if it would stand up to much casting anyway, I just pay out line into the current around that small headland, and it floats my fly out over the deep water, the fish seem to patrol this route, and so I get quite a few this way.”

He showed me the fly he was using, a big bushy brown and white dry fly about size eight, “it is a bit big he said, but I am getting a bit blind as well, I have to use something I can tie on and see, and the fish dont seem to mind too much.”

We talked for quite a while, he seemed happy to have some company for a change, it turned out he was on the pension now, his wife had died some time before, and so he went fishing nearly every day to while away the time, and to “get out from under peoples feet” as he put it. His daughter brought him down to the top of the wood in the car on her way to milking most mornings, and his son picked him up at the same spot late in the evening. He had a pensioners season ticket, so did not have to go through the normal access gate to the lake, which explained his rather ghostlike comings and goings.

I showed him my fly-boxes, and offered him a couple of flies, but he declined, saying they would not do him much good, as he could not cast or retrieve them properly anyway. He admired my gear, and my flies, although he had obvious difficulty even seeing some of them properly. His gear was indeed old and decrepit, but he was still fit, apart from his gnarled and damaged hands and the obvious pain he was in when he moved much.

I managed to find a few big bushy dry flies in one of my boxes, and he seemed happy to accept these, saying it was difficult to get the flies he required at any of the shops, and they were a bit expensive anyway. I gave him all I had, a couple of dozen perhaps, and two tapered casts which he also declined at first, but then accepted when I pressed him.

We talked for a while longer, and then I rose, gathered my gear, took my farewell and moved on along the lake after wishing him tight lines, and giving him one of my business cards so that he could phone me if he needed any more flies, having told him that I tied my own, and it would be no problem to tie up some for him if he wished.

I met him quite a few times after that, and we always had a longish chat, he told me lots of local history, and talked of the war which he had fought in and a myriad other things. I tied him quite a few flies as well, but strangely enough I never told anybody about it. I don’t really know why. I fished with Dave on the Saturday following the first meeting, and never mentioned it to him, even when he remarked “the old man must be having a day off ” at lunchtime when we sat down to eat our sandwiches “no sign of him today.”

I took the old man boat fishing a couple of times on another lake with some big trout in it, he enjoyed it, and he got a couple of lovely fish, but sitting in the exposed boat on the hard wooden seats even with a cushion was something of an ordeal for him, so we did not go very often, although he obviously would have liked to.

His name was George Reading, and he was seventy-six years old when I met him. I attended his funeral three years later after his daughter had telephoned to inform me of his death. His son found him sitting on the stile at the top of the path through the wood to the lake, he had three large fish on his lap, and was sitting quite peacefully on the stile, dead, apparently having had a stroke.

I have fished that lake a couple of times since then, although it was a long time ago now, and every time I fished it I found myself looking up every now and again towards the stand of trees half expecting to see “the old man” had got another fish.

Tight lines George wherever you are, I hope the fish are just as obliging. ~
Mike Connor

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