Title chapter from the book of the same name;
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A MEAN-MOUTHED, HOOK-JAWED, BAD-NEWS, SON-OF-A-FISH
(ISBN 062 032 4392)
by Wolf Avni
My story starts some years back, early in August, not long after the trout had ceased their spawning run. But let me explain. We put a trap in the river above our lake every winter. Picking up gravid trout, we strip the ova and raise a crop in our hatchery. These fish go to stock many waters in the southern Drakensberg and we are pleased to share the bounty.
The trap, inspected daily, had long since ceased to hold those dark finny shadows within its pen and it was time to remove it. When we came to lift it from the river bed, quick flashes in a corner alerted us to the presence of a solitary, late-running trout. We netted out a slate-grey twelve-inch cock fish: lean and mean. His jaw had been torn. A gouge below its tip accentuated the hook, giving him a rakish, piratic leer. He slashed at the hand that lifted him to freedom, confirming, even then, that he was one cynical son-of-a-fish.
Months passed. One day, almost a year later, I was out in the estuary, fishing for cock fish. We were once again at the peak of a spawning run and the trap was full of hen trout. But, as will happen, the movement of male and female fish upriver was synchronous but not simultaneous. If the hens were to be stripped, I would need to catch a ripe fish on the fly. That is no great feat,
for before running upstream, the fish congregate around the river mouth and shoals are easily spotted in the shallow channels and open flats between the reedbeds. Good long casts that cover the fish cleanly are rewarded almost without exception. and sooner or later one has a cock fish or two. With one cock already in the live well, I threw a last cast to try for a second. The fly was picked up on the drop and I set the hook. Ahead of a hissing leader, the fish cut down channel back past the boat. I took a good look through the gin-clear water and was able to pick out, quite clearly, the form of a twenty-two-inch slate-grey cock with a mean eye and jagged jaw.
Now, egg-laden trout, no matter how well conditioned, tend to lassitude when hooked and seem not to fight as hard or as long as they might otherwise. Breeding cock fish, on the other hand, show no such inhibition. With the icy waters much to their liking, they respond with vigour and abandon when hooked. All of which not withstanding, and with my metaphoric bit between his teeth, the trout spied the boat and took off on a sustained run that left me well into the backing. He sped down channel, accelerating and somersaulting alarmingly. With passion and a commitment far beyond his twenty-two inches, he fought for freedom. Eventually, rod pressure wore him down and when he could leap no more, he bored deep, attempting every entrapment he could, diving through weed and ducking around branches.
The old drowned river channel is choked along its banks with the remains of the willow and Leucosidia that once grew there. And through that thicket he fled. Once, with the line snagged around a branch, I thought he was lost. But the line came free and as it tightened I felt again his heavy rolling and head shaking.
Finally it was over and he lay in the net. As I leaned down to free the hook I looked straight into the eye of that selfsame miserable fish that had slashed at my hand those many months past. I turned him over in the net and inspected the old injury to his jaw. It had healed cleanly, leaving him an unmistakable razor-thin profile, somewhat akin to the leer of a barracuda or a pike. But
more interesting was the manner of his hooking. The line had somehow contrived to loop around the hook's heel, lassoing the fish around its tail.
Yes indeed, that fish had a legit gripe and no doubt felt his capture to be outside the ambit of time-honoured convention. The intervening months had been kind to him and his growth had been steady. His shoulders were heavily fleshed
and his flanks were lean. His tail was broad and strong. In all respects, except for his lopsided lower lip, he cut as fine a figure of fishhood as one is likely to meet. Now, some may think I reach beyond the bounds of credulity and others may subscribe to the notion that anglers, as a type,
are wont to come home long after decent folks are in bed, smelling of strong drink and with the truth not in them. But I swear, as I looked into that fish's eyes, a shaft of mutual recognition passed between us. And though a well of affection and respect bubbled up within me, that fish lay, cold as, well, a fish, glaring at me through a baleful and accusatory eye. I unsnagged the hook and was about to transfer him to the live well, when he gave an almighty slap of his handsome tail, lifting clear of the net in a drench of spray. With crimson cheeks flaring in the wan winter sun he porpoised away at a rate of knots, and was gone.
He was seen no more that season. It seems he learnt from experience, for he took pains to avoid the trap and would never again grace its confines. Yet for all that, he maintained a high profile, the stature of which increased as he grew. Shortly after we tangled, he took up residence beneath an old log that had washed down in some flood, lodging hard against the estuarine reeds.
There, in a scourhole created by the currents, he lurked, wary and silent. The lie was well chosen, away from the commonly haunted beats and surrounded by food-rich banks. Here, undiscovered for a while, he grew prodigiously until a guest, uncommonly proficient and more adventurous than most, happened upon the scourhole behind the reeds. At dinner one evening this angler related
to a sceptical audience how a vast swirl had engulfed the dry fly he had laid against the reeds up
in the estuary. For a few eternal moments he had held the power and fury of the trout, until his line was run into structure and the fish broke free.
Our angler was no neophyte and he understood that the presence of so large a fish in that hole was not coincidental. So he returned again to the place, creeping up silently and searching the shadows around the log. Predictably, a telltale movement betrayed the position of the fish. Once again he offered a dry. The trout came up for a closer look, but could not be induced to take. He
changed flies, again and again, until he had presented every option in his box. That mean-mouthed, hook-jawed, bad-news son-of-a-fish came up from time to time for a look, but would not accept any of the proffered morsels.
By that time our fishy protagonist had reputedly grown to well over thirty inches. He had grown so wily that I doubted whether any angler would ever bag him. Word slowly spread among our guests and many a flyfisherman took himself off to do battle with old hook-jaw, who was rapidly gaining a cultist following. Tales of his size and cunning began to outgrow the fish and reports
would filter through of a yard-long trout up in the estuary. We began to feel that the fish, having carved himself a reputation, deserved a name. His individuality demanded recognition. We named him Fearless Frank, but it was soon shortened just to Frank.
Some visitors insist he answers to the name. They say that when the crowned cranes fly overhead at sunset, the echo of their plaintive cry against the reeds sets old Frank on the move. They swear he hears his name in the call. But I subscribe to a less arcane explanation. I think the wily old fish intuits that dusk brings relative safety, for anglers desert the water as night falls and Fearless Frank's hole is a long row from the boathouse. Sometimes, on windless nights when the moon is full, I take a boat and head
out past the reeds, keeping in the current until I am past the scour hole. Then pulling into slack water I drift back against the reeds. There, with the boat dead on the glassy surface, I sit and listen for the splashes of Fearless Frank as he feeds around his sand bar. He surges and splashes at unseen forms just below the surface, sending swirls of silver moonlight rippling across the bar. On occasion he passes so close to the boat that I can almost reach out and touch him. It would be a simple matter to lay a juicy green-eyed darner nymph in his path, yet I doubt that I will be the one to do it. For, though we know it not, we all have icons, and angels that protect us. And I am not yet so surly a ghillie that I would wish to end Frank's reign. But one thing is plain: he sure is one mean-mouthed, hook-jawed, bad-news son-of-a-fish.