Beneath the Black Water – Jon Berry – An Extract

The arrival of a new angling book means so much to all who are involved, from the author who burns the midnight oil, reveals his soul and then prays the critics will be kind, to the publisher who stakes his reputation and funds the whole indulgence. And let’s not forget the customer who, for his £25 or whatever has high expectations of being enthralled, entertained and educated.

Is there any wonder so many authors go down the safe route of ‘how-to’ books? Very few take risks or even get a chance to, but when an author decides he’s going to write about the pursuit of a species as rare and enigmatic as the ferox trout, you know you have a maverick on your hands. Hats off to Jon Berry for tackling this project and the same to The History Press for indulging in his whim, for few anglers have ever fished for ferox and even fewer have actually seen one, let alone caught one.

Here’s a short extract from Beneath The Black Water that Jon Berry has been kind enough to share with us all…

The Kildermorie Trout

When we were boys my brother and I fished the loch below Kildermorie Lodge every summer. If we suspended worms beneath plastic bubble floats and cast as far as we were able, small trout would seize the bait and come cart-wheeling to the shore as we wound in our lines. Cousin Ricky – our older, wiser guide on these holiday adventures – was always on hand to untangle knots or keep the midgies away with clouds of cigarette smoke. When spared these duties, he caught the most trout and usually the biggest too. The three of us fished and camped and built fires, revelling in the knowledge that our parents were ten miles away down a slow road. It was the kind of freedom that only young boys could fully understand.

The fish we caught were magnificent and, at ten inches or less, were perfect for the blackened frying pan that came with us. On the back of our permits, somewhere in the small print, it said that no trout of less than twelve inches was to be taken, but local size limits don’t apply when you are still some distance from your ‘teens and we were green enough to believe that trout grew no bigger.

One afternoon, as we sheltered in the boat house from the rain, Ricky told us about the old fishing lodge further down the valley, beyond the point where the loch became the River Averon, which had a stuffed fish in the entrance hall. This giant brown trout, heavily-spotted with a hooked ‘kypey’ jaw and black head, weighed close to fifteen pounds and was nearer three feet in length than two. It was almost too spectacular to believe. Trout were small, something we held in one hand, but Ricky had been to the lodge once, and had seen the monster for himself. He told us it was a ferox trout, a rare survivor from the ice age – primitive, predatory and almost uncatchable. When the weather relented we left the sanctuary of the boat house and fished on, catching more small trout, but I was distracted. A bigger fish had swum into my head.

It left as suddenly as it had arrived. We were young and lived in Hampshire; giant Scottish trout – and ancient ones at that – had no legitimate place in the imagination. They may as well have been dinosaurs. Eels and perch and tench were real and could be caught from the farm ponds near home and my brother and I pursued them with vigour. Family holidays still took us to Scotland and to Cousin Ricky, but rarely back to the old Boathouse at Kildermorie. The story of the stuffed fish in the Lodge was never repeated.

Inevitably the time came when Chris and I began to stay at home and our parents drove north to Alness without us; we were teenagers now and there were other adventures to be enjoyed. Some of these involved chasing large carp in an old monastery pond. Others took place away from the water in another reality populated by girls, guitars and cars. At sixteen and seventeen the visceral present was everything and we found little that resonated in unlikely monster stories. Life found its momentum in the next fish, the next chord and the next Youth Club fumble. Northern Soul, crafty fags and the onerous demands of O Levels were real and could not easily be ignored. The old Ferox Trout and its Victorian captor were forgotten and a decade would pass before I would think of them again.

In the 1997, I had to return to Scotland. My friend Martin, a London cameraman who spent much of his working life making pop videos, was with me. My own circumstances then were less glamorous; I was Head of History at an unremarkable comprehensive school, a fanatical carp angler and an unreliable boyfriend to Roo.

The road trip with Martin, above all else, was an attempt to put some space between me and an increasingly fractured relationship. Roo and I had been together for over four years and until that summer it had been special and tender, the best either of us had known. We had fished together, drunk together, grown in to our twenties together. We shared a love of the same music and films, of the countryside and its wildlife, but busy lives had led us to take each other for granted and our relationship evolved in to a friendship, and a sometimes distant one at that.

I was working too hard and escaping to the pond in every spare moment and our lives had marched on separately. Roo had friends whose names I barely knew; I had debts of which she was blissfully unaware. We shared a bed and an old VW Beetle, but little else of substance. Tellingly, when I’d suggested that Martin and I might head north for a while, she had helped me pack and hadn’t asked how long I would be gone.

Martin collected me late on a May evening, in a newly-acquired but much-abused Honda saloon. It was cream with coarse tweed upholstery, high mileage and a capricious cruise control system that seemed to function entirely of its own accord. However, the stereo worked well and the road north was empty and we took turns at driving and sleeping. My partner had brought a few worries of his own and neither of us glanced in the rear view mirror until we were well past the Scottish border. By sunrise we were pulling over for breakfast in Aviemore. Roo and work were hundreds of miles away – and so were our problems.

It felt good to be with Ricky again. Much had happened since we had last fished together; diabetes had claimed his sight and necessitated a kidney transplant. He had married and become a father and acquired a reputation as the best ghillie on the river. The skinny teenager in the boat house had become a thick-set man with full beard and sanguine complexion, but was still unmistakably my favourite cousin. His fly-casting was as effortless as I remembered it and it was only when the light fell each evening that Martin or I would need to take his arm and guide him from pool to pool. He didn’t ask why I had left it so long to come back – he just led me to the fish, as he always had.

Ricky’s home town – Alness, half an hour north of Inverness on the Cromarty Firth between Dingwall and Invergordon – looked like I remembered. No neon signs or architectural behemoths had sprung up in my absence. The River Averon still ran through the heart of the town and the two-room Butt and Ben cottage where my mother had been born was still at the bottom of Coul Hill; fishing tackle and permits came from Patterson’s Hardware as they always had, the Academy kids still got their ice-cream from Italian Tony and the highlands of Easter Ross and the Black Isle owned the horizon. Martin loved the place immediately.

Not everything in Alness was the same and to most of its people I was now a stranger. As boys, my brother and I had often been accosted by aging spinsters as we walked down the high street. They would pinch our cheeks and squawk about us being Val Fraser’s boys whilst stuffing coins in our pockets for sweets and chip suppers. Some would shuffle off recalling the handsome man in uniform who’d whisked our mother away.

This no longer happened. Few locals could now remember the pretty young woman who had moved south with her twin boys and sailor husband all those years ago and I could walk anonymously from one end of the town to the other. But it still felt like home.

On the first evening, we walked down to the river as the light faded. It was late but the sun hung low in the west for an age. I had forgotten how long spring days could linger in the Highlands. We sat overlooking the Stick Pool – a deep, fifty-yard hollow in the riverbed in the shadow of a Victorian flood wall – listening to sea trout and a few early salmon work their way up the river. We smoked and talked and plotted the days ahead. Martin was keen to catch wild brown trout with a fly rod. I looked forward to wading in clear water and feeling the pulse of the current. I knew Ricky would put us on to a few fish and looked forward to that too.

For three full days we explored the Averon’s estuary catching small trout and salmon parr, or wandered the tributary streams taking an occasional fish from the pockets of deeper water. The trout were small and wild, heavily-spotted in reds and purples. Most were released gently back in to the flow, but a few were cooked and eaten by the river on an open fire, their white flesh seasoned with garlic butter and whatever wild herbs could be gathered. One morning I walked with Martin up to Bodle’s Burn, the stream running past the Manse and through the graveyard where half my family were buried. It was also where I had once caught my first fish – a finger-length brownie that took a worm beneath a bridge.

The fishing was simple and satisfying, and the world itself began to make a little more sense. My problems with Roo were no longer insurmountable; we needed to talk more. I needed to be more financially responsible. Perhaps I didn’t need to spend quite so many weekends camped on carp pools. I could even tidy up our flat once in a while. From five-hundred miles away, it looked easy.

On the fourth day, Ricky suggested we leave Alness and fish Loch Shin. His pal Gordy joined us and we took the Dornoch Firth road climbing out of Easter Ross and in to Sutherland. Tickets for the day were obtained from an old boy who sat chain-smoking in the loch-side hut belonging to Lairg Angling Club and there we chose our boat from the dozen green and white wooden clinkers that were beached nearby. No other anglers were on the water that day – it was a mid-week, the sky was cloudless and the water flat calm, and conditions not at all conducive to trout fishing. The Loch was beautiful though – still, fringed with hills of heather and thickets of broom, a nineteen-mile long glacial scar dammed at its southernmost end but otherwise as wild as the landscape around it.

We had planned to spend our day fishing in the traditional loch style. A drogue was tied to the boat and angled to enable us to drift sideways with the current, casting our teams of wet flies ahead of us. Ricky and Gordy suggested the patterns we should use – Bibios, Kate McClarens, Black Zulus and Pennels – and we set to our first drift with enthusiasm. Nothing moved on the surface or in the warm upper layers and three hours later we beached, fishless and hungry, on a small island.

It was Gordy who suggested we put away our fly rods. The warm sun and absence of wind meant that the cautious trout were refusing to come up in the water to inspect our flies and, over sandwiches and freshly-brewed coffee, we agreed to try spinning. The use of metal lures and treble hooks for trout would be anathema to a purist, but Martin and I were carp anglers on a road trip and had no time for dogma. Towing spinners behind a gently-ticking outboard lacked the artistry of a well-presented fly, but we could probe slightly deeper in the water, perhaps catch a small brownie or two, and would be free to sleep, smoke and enjoy the sun.

I chose a black, inch-long Mepps spinner with lime green spots – for no better reason than it was the first to come to hand – and tied it on. Martin opted for a large silver spoon-shaped Toby lure. These, Gordy explained, would be dragged behind the boat on fifty yards of line, weighted by lead shot to prevent them rising in the boat’s wake. We all knew that this technique – trolling – was the last resort of proper trout fishers.

Half-an-hour in to the first troll, my spinning outfit – a ten-foot bamboo carp rod that had landed a thirty-pounder the previous summer – hooped violently round, and the stillness of the afternoon was broken. Our boat was now attached by a length of taught, humming nylon to a fish that bored deep and clung to the bed of the loch. Gordy cut the engine and pulled its prop from the water. Ricky reached for the net. This was no small brown trout and for the next ten minutes we debated its identity as the creature pulled back. Could it be a pike? Too far north. A giant eel? Not a chance. A salmon? Not on such a bright day.

Eventually, the fish answered our questions for us. Quarter-of-an-hour after it had bitten, a dark, angry trout rolled on the surface and into the net. We made for shore.

This was the first living ferox trout any of us had seen and we had no scales to weigh it. Ricky suggested somewhere between six and seven pounds. Gordy agreed. I really couldn’t say, but sat on the heather marvelling at the creature’s teeth, its hooked jaw, its black head and flanks.

We fished on for an hour, but knew our allocation of miracles was used up for the day. Ricky and Gordy had heard rumours that Shin held a few ferox, but didn’t know of any ever being caught. None of their pals had ever tried for them. Now, we could be certain they were there. We were astonished and joyous. Had we been wise, we might have turned our backs to the loch and walked away, but we were not.

The boat was tied up back at Lairg by four-o-clock and we rushed to the tackle shop in the village to buy every spinner and lure they had. Our fly rods would remain in their canvas bags for the rest of the holiday. I didn’t know it at the time, but mine would be redundant for the next few years.

I rang Roo that evening. She conceded that it was strange without me in the flat and that she missed me. We laughed a little and agreed that we hadn’t done enough of that in a while. I told her about the trout and about Ricky’s Kildermorie story and about how lucky we felt to have caught one of these fish. I mentioned that Martin and I would be coming back in the summer to try for another and that fishing small ponds was beginning to pale. I would need some better rods, of course, a box full of lures, a lifejacket and perhaps an echo sounder. My now redundant carp fishing equipment could go in the Exchange and Mart to fund future ferox hunts. It needn’t cost a penny. I made promises about dusting and washing up and showing more affection and proclaimed the beginning of a new adventure.

I told Roo that I loved her, too, but she was too smart to fall for that.

Beneath The Black Water is published by The History Press, priced £13.49, and copies are now available from the web site.

If you want to learn more about the author, you’ll find his web site here.

Alternatively copies can be purchased at the Barbel Society Show this weekend.

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