He seemed like a ‘big boy’ to us at the time although,of course, looking back now, he was just a kid. Thirteen or fourteen. Wearing one of those green farmy jumpers with patches at the shoulders and elbows. How he cried. My little brother and I had come along the bank of the river Irvine, in Ayrshire, thirty miles south of Glasgow. We’d been spinning for sea trout up at the weir. The serious fisherman went for the salmon with flies further up river, in the shadows of the great Victorian railway bridge. I remember it being a cold spring morning, incredibly sunny, maybe the Easter holidays then. When we came around the bend towards the bridge, there was already a good crowd there, maybe a dozen or so fishermen, old boys and some kids our own age, just, or not quite, into their teens. They were all watching as this kid – his rod bowed into an upturned ‘U’ – did battle with something huge. There was an air of real excitement, and you got the feeling that this had been going on for a while.
The kid was flanked by a couple of the men, both giving him advice – when to play out some line and let the fish run, when to lock the reel – but neither touching the rod or interfering too much. They were going to let him catch it himself. I remember his trainers slipping and skidding on the greasy boulders of the bank, the great anxiety and fierce determination on his face. The fight went on for a long time, an hour or so, and for a long time nothing seemed to happen, no one seemed to be winning, and then one of the old guys said ‘Christ’ and everyone was piling up behind the kid, straining to see down into the water. We got a glimpse of white belly as something turned fast a few feet from the surface. The kid saw it too and suddenly he looked scared, as though he knew for sure now that he had the fish of a lifetime on the hook. His legs were shaking, his hands trembling as they changed position on the rod.
Then, suddenly, with a rush of foam, it broke the surface,leaping clear of the black water. A great gasp went up. A big salmon, plump and perfect in the Scottish sunlight, the proud hook of its lower jaw. More people gathered – other kids fishing nearby, people walking past, a crowd maybe thirty strong watching now as the battle went on. There were many moments where it seemed certain the line was simply going to break and it would all be over. But it didn’t. The kid was good. Patient. The fish was tiring.
Finally one of the old guys clambered down into the water with a green net. There was a terrible moment as he tried to get the net under the fish, one hand on the twanging line – taut as piano wire – where we were sure the line was going to snap. Another man scrambled down there and it took two of them to swing the fish up onto the concrete wall. Everyone jostled to look. The salmon lay quite still. The enormous swell of its milk white belly, the iridescent perfection of its colour – blue and silver and flecks of rose and pink, the great head the size of a man’s fist and almost black.
For a long time nothing seemed to happen, no one seemed to be winning, and then one of the old guys said ‘Christ’
The kid leant down over his prize, exhausted and triumphant. The salmon was almost as big as he was, over three feet long. Maybe thirty pounds. Worth fifteen or twenty quid easy at the fishmongers: an unthinkable sum for a teenage boy in a recession-hit, early ’80s Scottish town. (I remember vicariously picturing the looks on my parent’s faces if I had staggered in the door holding such a prize.) And there, in its jaw, was the boy’s red and gold spinner. In the outside of its jaw. Everyone saw it. The kid looked up hopefully at one of the old guys who had helped him land the fish. ‘Snagged it,’ the old boy said sadly. The fish had not taken the bait. It had been hooked illegally. It had to go back. The kid looked at the salmon. He looked at the old guy. The old guy put his hand on the kid’s shoulder as he leaned in with the pliers.
It took two of them to lift it back into the river. It didn’t swim off right away. It turned slowly in a figure of eight in the shallow pool for a moment – as though showing the kid all that he had lost, all he would never have. Then, with a nonchalant flick of its great tail, it vanished into the depths. The kid – physically exhausted, emotionally destroyed – burst into tears.
The old guy folded him into his arms and held him while he sobbed. ‘C’mon son,’ he said. ‘There’ll be other fish. ’We all stared at the river in silence. Finally someone said ‘Whit a boot in the fucken baws,’ and you were powerfully reminded that you were in Ayrshire, where bad is expected, where defeat is met with cheerful understatement, and where tragedy is routinely rebuffed with humour.
A fine part of the world.
John Niven is a novelist and journalist. He recently published his second novel, The Amateurs.