September 14th, 2002
Last night, I played poker for only the third or fourth time in my life. This is a relatively new discovery of mine, but one that I already find quite compelling for reasons that have nothing to do with gambling or money; it is, I think, the abstract complexities of the game that I enjoy, despite the fact that I have yet to master or even properly understand any of them. I’ve played a small handful of games with my old mate Oliver, his wife and their extremely affable friends, and I have floundered hopelessly on every previous occasion that I’ve been invited to join their circle; like most enthusiastic beginners, I stomped into the games full of hapless bravado and got cheerfully fleeced by a bunch of people who actually knew what they were doing.
Last night, however, I got a small glimpse of how this poker thing actually works. I won a few hands early on, felt suitably smug as my small pile of coins turned into a satisfyingly larger one and reflected happily on the fact that a few hours online research had actually made a difference to my understanding of the game. And then, of course, I blew it – more or less all of it, in fact – when someone introduced a variant of the game that, in my self-congratulatory haze, I completely forgot I knew nothing about before I started stacking my coins up on the table.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. It is, I’m afraid, a version of that hoary old columnist’s standby: in this case, a variant on the ‘why flyfishing is a bit like something else’ theme. I make no apologies for this. If I have learned anything at all about flyfishing, it is that the study of its absurd number of variables and their near-incomprehensibility does actually mirror many of the other learning processes in my life to date. And in the same way that I conned myself that I had suddenly turned myself into a poker player last night, I keep somehow managing to convince myself that the mere act of picking up a rod somehow turns me into a proper fisherman.
Two things this week reminded me that this is not actually the case. The first involved a discussion with my friend Tom about his forthcoming trip to New Zealand. I heard myself telling him stories about how wonderful it all is, conveniently forgetting that actually, the trip had been less than a complete success as far as the fishing was concerned. I caught some fish, to be sure, but I failed to catch a lot more of them; that fluffed strike on the lower Waiau that failed to catch me a very big brown trout, a day of sheer hell on the Whitestone culminating in me throwing all my toys out of the pram, my discovery that if you want to catch anything on the Eglinton, you need to be able to manage substantially more than a simple overhead cast. And in this way, I began to discover where my limitations as a fisherman really lie. Like all good educations, I remembered, this one is shaping up to be a lot tougher than I was really hoping or expecting.
The second thing that happened was that I went for a long walk in Richmond Park. I’ve been doing this for nearly all my life, and I thought I was pretty good at this walking business, especially on such familiar ground. There’s not really much you can tell me about putting one foot in front of the other, I thought – you’re talking to a man who’s walked pilgrim routes in France, trekked in the Himalayan foothills, strolled along parts of the Appalachian trail, staggered the entire length of the Pennine Way. I dwelt on these achievements as I ambled past the herds of deer (pausing only to wonder if they’d mind sharing some of their hair with me, as I really need to get some more muddlers tied) and thinking about how lucky I was to live so near a place where I could indulge my favourite form of exercise so pleasurably.
And then I hit the tussocks.
I feel pretty much the same about tussocks as Titanic survivors must have felt about icebergs. I’m sure that in their own way, they are truly wondrous things; that somewhere in that lethally opaque jungle of grass and lumps is a fragile ecosystem which we should cherish and protect, in the same way we do our rivers and lakes. But I would happily flatten every last one of them in revenge for what they and their evil brethren have done to me on fishing trips all over the world. One of the things that nobody ever tells you about fishing in the world’s remoter places is how hard the walking is. Sure, they’ll give you plenty of good advice on wading across raging torrents and avoiding bears and even how to land your self-piloted Alaskan sea-plane in a remote estuary. But even the dodderiest of fishing writers, casually describing their five-mile hike to that favourite spot, conveniently forget to tell you that anywhere worth actually getting to will be guarded by a series of impediments that would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie.
And so I realised, as I stumbled and cursed across ground that from a distance looks perfectly flat, that here was something else I needed to learn if I was to become a good or even a happy fisherman; and I learned it again last night, as I was slowly but surely strangled by the Anaconda. You can’t just turn up and expect to win, or even play properly, unless you’ve properly mapped the terrain – as Oliver, for one, knows better than anyone I know. And on that note, I’m off to work on my tussocking skills. If you see any on your travels, give them hell for me…