October 18th, 2003
What do they have to do with flyfishing, you ask? Well, not a great deal, as it turns out. But I am going to write about them anyway, because a) seahorses are an important part of my fishy past and b) Paul told me to, and I always do what Paul asks me to do in case he gets annoyed and fails to drag me from a raging southern hemisphere torrent in a fit of pique.
Once upon a time, I had a job which involved caring for a large number of seahorses. Weíd buy them from a tropical fish importer for display in the public aquarium gallery at the museum where I worked for a couple of years, and I became entranced by them Ė so much so, in fact, that I would stay behind after work to watch them finning their way gently around their tanks after work. I watched them entwine themselves around each other, apparently affectionately, for hours on end; I watched them change colour in a manner that would turn any chameleon literally green with envy. And it was with a heavy heart that I had to say goodbye to them in the autumn of 1987, as Mrs Thatcher decided that science and learning were less important than profitability.
Hereís what most people know about seahorses: it is the males of the genus Hippocampus, rather than the females, that give birth Ė a phenomenon I watched wide-eyed on many occasions, as a fat, fecund male apparently exploded and mutated into 200 tiny, identical copies of himself. (Never watch this while drunk, incidentally. It is bad for oneís mental health in all sorts of ways). Other interesting things about these fascinating fish include the facts that they can move their eyes independently of one another, something that can make you feel distinctly uncomfortable as it watches you with one eye and its tankmates with the other; that there are 35 species, ranging in size from about 3 centimetres to over 35 centimetres; that as members of the family Syngnathidae they are closely related to pipefish and the absurdly improbable leafy sea dragon; and, sadly, that the Chinese believe them to cure everything from impotence to asthma. (In case you are afflicted with either or both of these unfortunate conditions, let me assure you that the Chinese are wrong about this, as about so many other things regarding our wildlife).
But hereís something that most people donít know about these apparently mild, passive creatures. They are fierce predators, as ruthless and careful in their choice of food as a tiger. The fact that the things they eat are tiny shrimps rather than doe-eyed Bambi lookalikes in no way diminishes their viciousness; drop a pipetteful of brine shrimps into a seahorse tank, and that apparently innocuous crunchy shell bristles into life, pursuing its targets with amazing precision and breathtaking speed of inhalation. And boy, are they fussy about what they eat. Most insist that their food is alive, and that it meets whatever stringent syngnathid health and safety regulations exist; you wonít dummy a Hippocampus with some frozen approximation of the real thing.
Watching all this taught me some important things about fish in general. The difference between a fish just hanging around and one that is feeding is enormous; especially in a species as expressive in its features as a seahorse, but in more or less any other kind of fish too. There is a moment when a fish suddenly decides that it is dinnertime, and everything about it changes in a way that is almost imperceptible and yet utterly obvious at the same time; the fins take on a bristling life of their own, the body assumes a sort of tension previously lacking. And there is an equivalent moment when it decides that dinnertime is definitely over, and it no longer matters what you put in front of it; however delicious your menu, the fish has moved onto the sub-aquatic equivalents of brandy and cigars.
I donít think we spend nearly enough time watching fish or the things they eat. For most people nowadays time spent at the waterside is so valuable, and so short, that we become obsessed with getting a fly onto the water as fast as possible, rather than working out what we might best do with it once we get it there. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but something in me knows that ten minutes spent watching can be worth ten hours fishing. I was reminded of this last week, when I finally got my hands on a book Iíve been trying to find for five or six years. Itís called Where The Bright Waters Meet, by Harry Plunket Greene, and itís rightly regarded as a classic work of flyfishing literature; even though the world is hardly short of tales of fishy bravado on the trout streams of southern England, it holds its own as a warm, passionate and funny account of a manís obsession with a river, in his case the still lovely river Bourne in Hampshire.
There are many remarkable things in this book, not least the fact that he virtually restricted himself to six flies Ė red, olive and ginger quills, pale watery dun, dry hareís ear and, above all, the iron blue dun, which he valued more highly than the others combined. Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that he was a fanatical watcher of the fish he chased, and knew that exactly where you put the fly, and when, was often more important than what it actually was; he knew that a fish that one day wanted the fly right on its nose might only want it a foot to its right the next; and he knew that sometimes, no fly would catch a trout that had its fill, no matter how well it was presented. Harry would have been a fine seahorse-watcher, I am sure; and he has inspired me to return to one of the things I once took for granted in my days as a seahorse stable-boy. Next year, I plan to spend a lot more time looking and a little less time fishing; and Iím sure that I, like him, will be a lot more successful and a lot happier as a result.