One of my most pleasurable experiences had come while staring down the neck end of competitive sports fishing. It played out like this:
Aged 22 I had entered my local club’s fly fishing competition – The NALGO shield. National Association of Local Government Officers – in case you were wondering. Placed three miles from my home as the crow flew there was a small three acre lake named Jeffery Pond in the middle of Woodfold Country Estate. The lake was fun to fish, well stocked with rainbows, fictional massive browns and although not far from the reaches of the town, it was absolutely rural.
Sixteen rods entered and two heats of eight went at it over four hours. Best weight won, top two went through to a semi final draw to fish the same rules head to head after drawing pegs. The winners of the semis faced each other on a Saturday morning July final.
In those days I liked to think of myself as the fly fishing outsider, a northern Huck Finn. I had a black brand-less carbon ten foot blank that I had whipped Fuji eyes on, it owned the subtle grace and action of a concrete lintel – one intrepid Rimfly reel and a wet cell two line with a knot in the end to attach 5lb Maxima line. One of my favourite things was my hand turned weighted wooden priest that could have dropped a charging bull with one shot. This lot was kept in my Mum’s woven shoulder beach bag along with about twenty lures and nymphs, a motley crew of black dog nobblers, white dog nobblers, orange fritzs, Montanas and weighted caddis kept snug in my Loch Leven fly tin. I had a four foot aluminium landing net pole and bright blue micro mesh round twenty two inch coarse landing net head, which I used for landing everything. I was so proud to own fuck all, not to have any choices to make other than to fish hard until it clicked.
I breezed through my round by fishing out an evening rise using a slow retrieve as soon as my line hit the water, letting my black dog nobbler sink and hypnotise the gormless rainbows. The grey tide that represented the rest of the competitors fumbled with dainty dry flys in an effort to match the hatch.
Tale of the tape
Blackburns: outlaw gunslinger, beach bag/George Best/Huck Finn – 8 rainbows for 15lb
Entire cast of the Last of the Summer Wine – 1 rainbow for 2lb
The result of the other round, one week later really made my senses detonate – there was only one other young buck in this club – Mick Crook – six feet tall, jet black hair, brown eyes, lethal kidney punch, legendary head butt, athletic centre half, film star looks – all the girls loved him. Six days older than me, gifted natural caster and brutally competitive, he had also spent the last twelve years fishing for everything that swam within a ten mile radius of Blackburn with one of his best friends; me.
We drew each other to fish in the semis to take place one week later on a Friday evening. Everyone in our local pubs at the time – The Woodlands and The Clog and Billycock – knew what it meant. Mick was the current champ and was as ruthless as a viral infection – after a hapless stocking, all the trout had died within a few hours and needed fishing out, Mick turned up with face mask, snorkel, flippers and in an afternoon filled his mums chest freezer.
I was on his freckle though and he knew it. He said that my line, which I bought for five pounds after fishing it out of a bargain bin at a game fair, was lucky as it possessed an unclassified sink rate. The build-up banter was merciless and friends quickly began to speculate who would win. My preparation was to watch ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ every night until the semi. I felt this film would teach me a great deal – mainly give everyone an unfair advantage then come out confident and shooting.
On the night we travelled down together – tossing a coin for who had to open the two gates and run the gauntlet of the mad farmer’s mad dog, Ming. I had the honour of pegging it, shouting fuck off Ming for a heart thumping one hundred and twenty metres. Mick watched, amused, from the safety of his blue Escort mark two.
Mick went big when he drew a jetty peg, ruled by the mythical splashes of one of the supposed resident browns. Nobody could ignore those splashes for long. Crooky knew… land Nessy and he would have been water tight. His casting was so elegant that his own narcissism was his undoing. He would watch his line cast down to the backing and land so straight and perfectly that he would shout across, “did you see that, brings a tear to the eye.” This vanity made him fish the dry fly more than he should. By contrast I looked like a navvy digging a hole with a mallet, you could hear me ripping curtains as the line was dragged double handed off the water and launched back until I got the desired distance. It was agricultural to say the least – Ming probably would have been more graceful.
After four hours we weighed in. Mick knew he had been blown apart by a peasant ditch digger with a combination of Black Nobblers and caddis cunningly dragged across the bottom. Postcards of this flogging could have been made and stamps should have been issued. The super natural ghost brown hadn’t massacred his surface Muddler or fallen for a buzzer attack, he had more chance of contacting the dead.
Clint Eastwood: Four rainbows for 7lb
Eli Wallach: Nil
We went to The Woodlands to share the news and a few beers about our contest. We discussed our upcoming Sunday League football match for the Clog and Billycock (I was centre forward – I once won an award in the shape of a Clog nailed to a plank – brass inscription read – Miss of the season, for a breathless two foot toe poke that went wide of an open net), and where we should go fly fishing on the Sunday after playing in the footy match. That’s how free we were. Can you remember how that felt – take five minutes and ponder – make a brew and take yourself back to being twenty two – wasn’t it a peach?
The final would prove to be a very different psychedelic kettle of fish…. Libérer le mental.
My four mile walk to the lake on that Saturday July morning remains a fragmented memory – I had spent from 2.30am restless in my bedroom in my parents’ house accompanied only by a head full of acid, Shaun Ryder and sixty zillion flashing thoughts, unbridled chains of images, rhythms, beats, words, colours and sounds. Horizontal on my bed reminding myself to breathe as though I had escaped after being submerged under water …huurrgghh, in, out, in, out – that’s the ticket, breathing – why didn’t I think of that earlier.
Friday evenings usually started like this –ten of us in the Woodlands pub at 7pm, Blakey’s bar in Blackburn town 8pm, call in the Swan to score some acid, drop half a trip and smoke some herb. Proceed to laugh our bollocks off all the way round town feeling disengaged from your own self but also so aware of every conversation, linear – and able to join the strands no matter how tenuous and more importantly understand the game, to revel in it. To feel linked by those close friends who inhabited the same universe in a packed town centre. Two am, twenty bensons, ten pints later and feeling like the starring role in your own movie, it was home time – I had a big day tomorrow, I could win a prize… Despatched in a taxi looking out the window marvelling at the rolling images, the night sky and noticing the contrast of EVERYTHING, mesmerised by the contours of a curb as you flowed along at thirty mph.
Home – tip toes to my room trying not to laugh – my Mum’s an anaesthetic nurse – so one proceeded with extreme caution. Bedroom = safety and sanctuary. Now the smart money is on the casual acid taker being just sensible enough to have a stock of Temazepam or Valium to turn off this terrible drug. Not me, all I had was a massive six foot by three foot poster of Shaun William Ryder’s face on the cover of Bummed, the Mondays finest LP, looking back at me while I led on my bed in my poster lined shrine to music trying to stay positive, think happy thoughts, obviously so very awake. All I could hear was Shaun singing Wrote For Luck (they sent me you) round and round for three and a half hours. Magic moments of self induced dementia.
In those days I was bullet proof, not like now – one string left to snap, five pints can leave me shaking like a shitting dog the morning after. By 6am the acid was clearing and I was entering the quiet calm stage – I still felt disconnected from my normal self but I could function to a point. I jumped out of bed, threw on my red Kicker pumps and consumed, what I considered the antidote to a complete night of carnage – a banana and drank a pint of water, collected my beach bag, net and rod and set off up the yellow brick road.
My eyesight was being streamed directly through a fish eye lens, the colours where switched on, nature had plugged itself in just for me and seemingly placed fairy lights in every leaf. I walked along the quiet main road, as though I was pacing through the pages of a distorted fairy tale pop-up book and turned into the opulent and majestic tree lined Meins Road. The sun was just warming up and it was clear that it was going to be a scorcher. No wind, no cloud, just sunshine. I felt completely confident and at ease. The entire world was beautiful and I was just a mere insignificant spec. I knew my place… Glad to be alive, pleased to be aware of other perceptions and boggling at the mind’s power and those fine academics who invented LSD.
Dog walkers, joggers, milk men, paper boys, and cars all gave me a wave, nod and a wink as I ambled with my rod on my shoulder returning their greetings – wow Blackburn was a friendly place. Then I remembered Ming. My own personal Cerberus lived at the end of Meins Road and probably hated Woodstock and peace. I was out of his reach today – nothing could penetrate my glow, nature had no need to be nervous of me. Once at the end of the road, I reached a cattle grid that signified the start of Ming’s dynasty. The road became a ruptured farm track that led to the farm and the first of Ming’s gates and one hundred and twenty yards of no-man’s-land. This track was our only access. Ming lived for us fisherman to pass through – he was an utterly ferox Viet Cong border collie with a cunning urban outlook, I doubt he had ever been indoors – matted rasta coat, not an ounce of fat and always bad tempered – we represented his Babylon. The farm yard was a quiet dry dust bowl as I arrived at the gate – mother earth’s vibrations told me I was safe. Open the gate and pick up speed and trot-on – head swivelling waiting to hear him scrambling for another young dead man. No sign and only twenty metres from the freedom of the second gate – karma shattered as the spicy bastard rounds the corner of the milking shed. Holy shit he looks amplified – I explode into a full blown sprint and clear the fence with a quantum leap, just two metres to spare of Ming’s flaring jaws. After a few disappointed huffs and puffs, he turns and resumes his position in an open drain next to the milking barn, troll-like – waiting for his next course of entertainment. I give him a quick cocky flick of the V’s and call him a twat.
Descending down the track I’m flanked by neon turbo green fields, which spread out down the Ribble Valley towards Houghton and Preston. Directly on my right shoulder is a dark lurching twisted broadleaf wood that evoked the fear as I walked by it. I hear a car behind me and see that it’s my opponent and two of his fellow NALGO committee members all attired with burgundy faces and broad grins as they see me. With my heightened senses I could hear what they were wearing before they disembarked from their motor, the muffled rustle of a wool cotton blend jumper, a flurry of corduroy and the clank of several pairs of Hush Puppies. As they get out of the car, one of the committee men was examining his jumbo cords trouser leg six inches above his ankle – he is cursing Ming and muttering that it’s a bloody menace. His interests soon return to me though as they ask me what I’ve come as…
For the first time that morning I take a close look at myself – red kicker pumps, black cotton knee length cut off chinos and a black cotton Paul Smith shirt that had the largest and brightest floral repeat pattern of red, blue and yellow roses all over it. This was my Friday night going out shirt which I considered a sure fire bated honey trap, a conversation starter, an in. Thanks to my tattered state of mind I hadn’t even noticed that it was still on my back. I flashed back to all those smirking bastard joggers, paperboys, milkmen, dog walkers and drivers all giving me the nod and the thumbs up… Wow, wasn’t Blackburn full of funny bastards?
Thanks to the glory of the acid I had managed to bypass any kind of fashion filter. I stood before these NALGO committee men like a black haired, ten bob eyed tourist, complete with beach bag and homemade rod. Hugh Falkus I was not, more like an overblown cartoon character than a traditional vision of a fly fisherman.
I remember while waiting for the draw and during awkward conversation, very distinctly the heavy feeling of thirst and of the bright hot sunshine. The acid wave had got me this far but it was about to break and leave me high and dry. The first feelings of mild discomfort were circling around my head like giant condors. I needed to be in my own space, by myself, just the two of us, one doing the fishing and the other providing a running commentary of all proceedings, future, past and present.
The draw for pegs was finally made – my competitor drew the best peg on the lake, while I drew an overgrown peg at the opposite end. Lilies twenty five feet in front of me that narrowed thirty feet to my left until they met the bank, creating a forty five degree wedge shaped channel. Any way you wanted to slice it – it was a dog day to fish for trout, hot, bright and still. I had no reason to be confident, however this information hadn’t punctured into my own psyche – my mind had swirled back into optimism mode and was now doing handstands wondering how much a tin of Brasso was for polishing the trophy. I opened my fly box, at eight inches away the colours leapt out. I laughed as I tied on an orange fritz and cast out down the Lily lined margins. The morning was full of internal and external chuckling. Before eleven o’clock I had caught three two pound rainbows. My blanking opponent conceded with thirty minutes still remaining.
We shook hands and concluded our business; I was the NALGO champ and would receive my trophy at the AGM. I declined a lift in favour of walking up a path through the woods towards Pleasington and the Clog and Billycock that avoided Ming’s grasp. By now I was urgently in need of a drink and someone I could talk to who was on my level. A few of my mates would be in the Clog for our regular blissful Saturday afternoon of killer pool, darts, three card brag and banter.
I opened the door and instantly was greeted by friends, lent on the bar reloading and by Jimmy Hendrix singing Voodoo Chile – I stand up next to a mountain… Beautiful soul filling noise, the shirt and rod cocktail had thrown them… “Did you fish or what?”… I pause, lean my rod on the bar and for one of the only times in my life I happily reply … I won. For the next eight hours I retold the encounter to a backdrop of much laughter, beer and amazing music. Youth wasted on the young? Well George, it certainly didn’t feel like it… which I guess is its essence.
Boo Gilbraith – NALGO fly fishing Champ 1990, King Kipper* 1998/99, self appointed life president of The Guild Of Reason – club motto Be Reasonable
George Bernard Shaw – Nobel prize for literature 1925
Since this foray into the world of club contests we decided to create our own closed competitions between ourselves, a group of about eight to twelve fly fishing friends to ensure that one of us wins something while receiving just the right amount of needle.
*The King Kipper shield is a biannual fly fishing match on day ticket waters – heaviest bag wins. Mick Crook has been crowned KK three times. Win it five times and he gets to keep the trophy. It’s a horrible thought.