The old man was there when we arrived. Crouched down behind a tussock a few rod lengths from the bank. His quarry soon became apparent. Just a few feet from the shore, a dorsal fin and then a tail broke the surface. The old mans attention was totally focussed on the fish. Not once did his gaze wander as we made our way past, well away from the water to avoid interrupting either him or the fish. Finally, he made a cast. The fish ignored his offering and continued to show itself as it continued on its beat. He carefully picked his fly line from the water and once again waited. Soon he made another cast. Same result. Again he carefully picked his fly line off the water. He was more confident now. Intimately in touch with the fish and its movements. He made another cast and soon after another. Each time the result was the same. Then he dropped back a few feet. Beaten but not defeated. He took out his clippers and clipped off his old fly and carefully placed it on his fly patch before taking out his fly box. He inspected his fly box for what seemed like an age, before finally selecting a new fly to tie on. The fish kept tailing in front of him. Doing a consistent circuit, its appearance almost like clockwork at certain parts of the beat.
We continued to watched him from further up bank. We were on our own tailers now. We were not so patient. We watched, we waited, we cast, we changed flies. When we spooked a fish we simply moved onto another. There were plenty of tailing fish all along the bank. We did not possess the patience of the old man.
Throughout, the old man stayed put. He only had eyes for this one fish. This fish was all there was. It was the only fish that counted. He changed flies half a dozen times before we got around the corner where the old man was lost from view. All this time the old man was methodical. He was never rushed. He never made a bad presentation. He was careful. The fish never caught on to his presence. Sometimes he would make 10-15 casts with the same fly. Sometimes only 3 or 4. Every time his fly was rejected, he would drop back, take his time, pore over his fly box, pick out a new fly and then try again.
We fished up around the bend for an hour and a half. We found plenty of tailing fish, but the bright calm conditions made them very hard to tempt. We didn’t manage to tempt one. We decided to head back to the bay where we had left the old man. The sun was lower in the sky, maybe as the light left us the fish in the bay would be easier to tempt. Maybe this time we would fool one.
The old man was still there when we returned. Nothing had changed. He was still going through the process. The fish was still tailing. Still consistently doing its beat. Once again we each set up on tailing fish and watched. We tried to be patient. We waited, got into the rhythm of the beat and finally started presenting a flies to our fish. We had as much success as the old man.
Still, the old man persevered.
Almost suddenly the old man dropped back from the bank and started winding in his line. The fish was still tailing, but the old man had had enough. He clipped off his fly and placed it on his fly patch. He picked up his backpack, put it on his back and promptly began walking back to the car park. He had been defeated. For today anyway.
The old man had spent three hours fishing to the one fish. Just one fish, despite the bay being full of other tailing fish. For the old man, it hadn’t been about numbers. It had been about the challenge. For the old man, nothing could match the pleasure of catching that one fish. For him, that one fish was all there was.
Each of us had a shot at the old mans fish once he left. None of us were successful. All the time the fish continued to show itself regularly in the shallows, never missing a beat.
As the light left us we decided to call it a day. Erik was the only one of us who landed a fish that session, a lovely 3 lb brown. He had given up on chasing the tailing fish and had started stripping wets. The old mans fish was still there when we walked past. Lee turned to me “Should we scare it?”. I nodded. We needed to prove to ourselves that it was real. To prove that the fish hadn’t just been a figment of our collective imaginations. As we made our way towards the water, the fish darted off, making a huge bow wave as it made its way over the dead calm shallows in the soft twilight.
One day we might have the patience of the old man. Not today.
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