April 26th, 2003
It is, I think, in the nature of fishermen to subject themselves to indignities. However glamorous and idyllic it may look in the books and catalogues that characterise our pursuit, fly-fishing is not without its discomforts – leaking waders, drenching by unannounced storms, involuntary body piercings, blisters, sunburn and insect bites are all pretty much part of the scenery for people who like chasing fish around, no matter where or how they choose to do it. And they are all the sorts of things that Leopold von Sacher-Masoch might not have found entirely unwelcome. Famous principally for his semantic legacy – the word 'masochist' and its derivatives – Leo was one of those interesting people for whom pain and degradation represent about as much fun as one can have without one's clothes on. While the rest of his pals were singing folk songs or reading poetry to one another, he was generally to be found tied to a four-poster somewhere and begging someone to thrash him – his own version, perhaps, of the whip finish.
I can find no evidence that Leo was a fly-tier or even a fisherman at all, but I bet he would have made a good one. I have just been listening to The Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs (and how's that URL for synchronicity), a song inspired by one of his works and one that easily lends itself to fishy metaphors. For shiny boots of leather, substitute thigh-length boots of rubber; for ermine furs, substitute mink. And to really understand the sorts of humiliation that this fine song describes, just imagine that the whole thing is about fly-fishing.
For Sacher-Masoch and his contemporary fans, the physical manifestation of their desires is really just a symbol of a much deeper psychological condition, in which one craves subjugation for reasons that I have only recently begun to understand. In less than two weeks, I will once again head for a location that is right at the centre of one of my greatest fishing humiliations. Last year's trip to Lough Corrib, on Ireland's west coast, was the inspiration for the very first of these columns; a week in which I really began to understand the sorry depths of my addiction to fly-fishing. There was, in retrospect, a distinct kind of pleasure to be had from being whipped by the fish and the elements; after four or five days, the end goal – that of actually catching a trout – had long since been subsumed into a kind of general acceptance of my fate, and a liberating realisation that I was utterly powerless to change it.
Saner people than I have questioned exactly why this is a good thing, and why I might want to repeat it. As with better-understood forms of masochism, the answer to that question is difficult to understand unless you have actually done it; all I can really tell you is that in my case, at least (I really cannot speak for people who enjoy other more esoteric pursuits) I found that I could, instead of worrying about fish, just drown myself in the beauty of the waterscape and truly forget about anything beyond the boundaries of the lough. I suspect that this is the sort of thing that has drawn Paul back to Denmark this week – as he will undoubtedly tell us shortly, it's certainly nothing to do with the bounteous sea-trout population of the Baltic.
But it is about more than that, too. This year, I am determined to catch some fish, because I am determined to solve the puzzle. And a complicated one it is, too. What, exactly, are these beautiful fish eating to keep themselves in such spectacular condition? Why, when the water was thick with mayfly and olive nymphs and duns, could I only catch fish on emerging midge lookalikes? How on earth do you find fish on a lake of 41,600 acres (that's 65 square miles)? Why do I keep grounding the boat on sub-surface rocks in the middle of this lake? Has Paul overdosed on Guinness and red wine, and will he be coming fishing anyway?
One could (and people do) spend a lifetime trying to sort this sort of stuff out – so the chances of me doing so in a week seem slim, I agree. But this year, I am ready – indeed, I am almost hoping – for the inevitable beating that Corrib and its trout will administer. I took much pleasure this week in a chapter on the western Irish lakes in A. A Luce's excellent book Fishing and Thinking, in which he describes an international competition day on Corrib's neighbour Mask in June 1957; a day on which 94 anglers caught only 56 fish. These places, it seems, have always been a lot harder than they look.
I will spend my spare time in the next couple of weeks tying flies that stand some sort of chance of catching these elusive fish. I have no ideas what these will be yet, so if anyone has any good ideas – or even any bad ones – drop me a line. In the meantime, I'm going back to read up on more of this masochism stuff. If I'm going to get thrashed, I might as well get into the right frame of mind first.