I once read that the average American big-game fisherman spends $10,000 before he hooks his first marlin, writes Paddy Heaney.
I hooked a marlin with my first cast. Not only that, but I hooked the 12-foot beast with a fly rod. The odds of that happening are astronomical.
I wasn’t overly surprised, though. The man who taught me how to cast a dry fly was an absolute master. I learned from the very best. My mentor was called Alex Woods.
Alex died last week.
A few days before I heard the news, I had been thinking about him. I always think about him in February. That’s the time of the year when Alex would start to get excited.
As a boy, if I met him as he cycled around the town, he would smile, his clear eyes would shine and the greeting was always the same: “Not long, now.”
Alex would be counting the days until March 1 — the first day of the fishing season — the date we could all return to the Moyola River.
As my father was more into horses than fish, I had to rely on the men I met at the river to show me the art and science of the rod and line.
The Moyola’s elder statesmen were usually generous with their time and advice, but Alex was my favourite. He was a kindly soul. Broadly speaking, the men who tramp the banks of a river on a daily basis fall into three categories: Some have a problem with people; some have a problem with drink; and a fair number of them have a problem with both.
Alex wasn’t a drinker, but I remember being told he could be awkward in company. He could be a bit of a twister.
That revelation shocked me. The man I knew at the river was the most serene human being you could meet.
Like a lot of Maghera’s finest individuals, Alex wasn’t burdened with an industrial work ethic. He was more of an aristocrat. The only difference between Alex and the landed gentry was about 50,000 acres of land.
A solitary man, he enjoyed the very noble hobbies of fishing and reading. Neither pursuit was very costly. He got his books in the local library and he was reading until the day he died.
Watching Alex at the river also taught me that great craftsmen don’t require expensive tools. Alex fished with a Shakespeare Black Gnat. It cost £10 in Hugo O’Kane’s. The best fisherman on the Moyola had the cheapest fly rod in the shop.
Another quirk about Alex was that he kept his rods at the river. Everyone knew that Alex kept them hidden in box that was buried in a hole. But no-one ever found out where the box was located.
Alex’s economic circumstances also meant that he was forced to improvise with his equipment. Even with homemade hooks and flies, he could out-fish every man at the river.
I remember one night after I had drawn yet another blank, Alex presented me with two brown trout. This act of charity happened more often than I’d care to admit. Alex and I had a routine. Alex caught the fish and I took them home, pretending they were mine. As he slipped the two fish out of the bag, Alex informed me that I should thank “the Queen’s head”. When I enquired what he meant, Alex showed me the contraption that had caught the fish. He had made a spinner out of a two pence coin.
It was Alex’s forensic knowledge of the river which made him such a fantastic fisherman. He knew every weed, rock and hole on the Moyola.
I once saw him catch a dozen fish during a huge flood and he didn’t even cast a line. He just stood above a small drain where the fish were taking refuge.
Unlike some experts, Alex willingly shared his knowledge and he was a mine of information. Apart from teaching me how to fish, he taught me when to fish. If there were grey clouds over the Sperrins, Alex’s advice was to go to the river about four hours later, when the water from the mountains would reach our stretch of the Moyola. Once the water levels rose, there would be a ‘fresh’ and the fish would start taking.
Like all true aristocrats, Alex veered towards the more refined form of his sport. He once confided in me that he thought spinning was “a bit of a ploughman’s game”. Alex preferred dry fly-fishing. To the uninitiated, dry fly-fishing involves presenting an imitation fly on the surface of the water. It’s quite technical because the artificial fly must mimic exactly what happens in nature. If the current catches the bow of the line, and the fly moves too quickly, even small fish won’t touch it.
Hooking the fish is also difficult. It requires ice-cold nerves. The intuitive reaction is to lift the rod immediately. But that impulse only succeeds in pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth. Alex’s rule of thumb was to count: one Mississippi, two Mississippi. Then, and only then, do you strike. (That’s how I hooked the marlin).
It’s perhaps no coincidence that I was with Alex the day I caught my biggest ever fish on the Moyola. It was summertime. As we walked under the bridge at Tobermore, both of saw a fish rising for a fly on the opposite bank. Judging by the ripples that had been created, we both knew it could be a big one.
This can be an awkward moment for even the closest fishing companions, as only one man can be afforded the chance of casting his fly. There was a brief silence. Then Alex suggested that I should try firstly (the ultimate act of kindness). As I moved towards the edge of the gravel bank, Alex carefully nestled himself into a dense thicket of foliage. Once seated, he started rolling a cigarette.
Before I could make my first cast, Alex called me over. “Smell that fresh mint,” he said, as he offered me a stalk. I will never forget that moment. As he drew the green leaf across his nose and inhaled deeply, he was intoxicated with happiness. A few minutes later, a huge trout was also lying on the bank and the atmosphere had turned to euphoria.
A dollaghan trout (the native species of Lough Neagh) had fallen for a creation tied by Alex. He had made an Elk Hair dry fly from the bristles of his toilet brush.
That was Alex. And that was a great day.
Now, when I think about Alex Woods, I picture him lying on that sun-drenched riverbank, smiling to himself as he smells the fresh green mint and smokes his cigarette.
Alex Woods... Lord Moyola... may you rest in peace.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved