Salmon fishing on the River Tyne peaks in October when its inky pools reflect the autumn leaves and every rise in water brings fresh fish from the sea. One October day, I arrived at Dryton, on the North Tyne, as the guest of Gordon Parnell, an old army friend. Gordon had been called away on business and I had the beat to myself so I donned my waders in anticipation as Ian, the dour and sullen gillie, put up my rod and tied on a Temple Dog, his chosen fly.
Alas, an easterly wind blew and the fish were as dour as the gillie. Donald, my little black spaniel, busily searched for riparian rodents whilst I fished seemingly barren stretches of water before reaching a rocky pool, sheltered from the cold wind. According to Ian, this pool, the Graveyard, was too high to fish so we trudged on to a featureless stretch where the wind cut through my clothes and froze my bones. Donald had some success with mice but long hours passed without any piscine interest in my fly. Cold and weary, I longed for the morning to end and was delighted when Ian eventually deposited me at the hut and said he would return in an hour.
By the time Donald and I had finished my lunch, I felt revived and, as Ian wouldn’t reappear for a while, I decided to fish on my own. I had a strong desire to investigate the Graveyard, which Ian had earlier spurned, so I walked quickly up the bank to the head of the pool and found it sheltered from the wind. The river flowed fast here but I felt that if I could hang a heavy fly over the inside of the current, there was a chance of finding a fish resting in the slacker water. I tied on a brass ‘Willie Gunn’ tube fly and made my way down the pool, covering the likely areas and gradually feeling, for the first time that day, a tinge of excitement. Half way down the pool, the solid pull of a good fish sent adrenalin racing around my body and line tore from the old Hardy reel as I slipped and tripped down the bank in pursuit, the reel singing a frantic melody.
Having found the hut empty, Ian followed the sound of the screaming reel and I was relieved to see a large net in his grasp. The battle, however, was far from over and, whilst my arms ached, the fish showed no signs of tiring. After a while, he sat immoveable in mid-stream and then, as I began to despair, he set off again. I held him back, heaving as much as I dared and the great salmon, clearly a cock, rose out of the water, revealing three long, grey scars on his flank, presumably from a seal’s claw. He thrashed his head violently from side to side, spraying water into the air and, as I lowered the rod to lessen the impact on the leader, he seized his chance and made a long run down and across the pool. I couldn’t stop him and he found refuge in a deep hole in a back eddy near the far bank. I could feel the line rubbing against something so I heaved as much as I dared but could not move him and, after a while, the rubbing stopped, leaving me with the rod bowed and the line taut. My fly was probably now stuck in a submerged log and, although my heart sank, I didn’t want to break the line in case the exhausted fish was somehow still attached. I persuaded Ian to get the boat and row us across, Donald sitting on the prow, a stick clenched between his teeth and his tail wagging dementedly. Ian managed to hold the boat near the spot where the line stood vertical in the water and, while he manoeuvred around the area, I hauled from every angle but without success. In despair, I held the reel tight, pointed the rod tip directly at the water and pulled. The nylon should have snapped, as I intended but, to my surprise, I felt something break free under water and my hopes rose as the line was pulled downstream and the reel sang once more. I could not haul this weighty adversary against the current so we used the boat to gently work it into the slacker, shallower water and, as I heaved, something slowly emerged from the water – but it was no fish. To my horror, a human hand broke the surface, followed by an arm, my fly clearly embedded in the elbow of a thick, coat sleeve. Ian gasped, one oar missed its stroke and he toppled over backwards as the boat spun out of control. The other oar hit my line, snapped the leader and sent me sprawling onto the floor, Donald landing on my chest as my rod smashed against the metal rowlock. I picked myself up as Ian brought the boat back under control. I gazed at the water but the arm had disappeared beneath the surface.
By dusk, police divers had retrieved the body and, as an officer rolled it over, the pallid face stared up with lifeless eyes. Ian turned away, colour draining from his face. “You knew the lad?” the officer said. “Aye” replied Ian “that’s Tommy….Tommy Curtis. He was my under-gillie.” I looked away from the young face, cruelly robbed of a future. Later, I heard from his employer that Tommy had been working on the river bank and had probably slipped and hit his head on a rock. He fell into the river unconscious, drowned and was swept downstream. Gordon subsequently learnt that Ian’s wife had accused him of murder after discovering that she and Tommy were having an affair. The police found no evidence against Ian but she left him and moved away.
As an amateur marine biologist, I was fascinated by the river environment so, with an open invitation to visit Dryton, I drove down one bright December morning to watch salmon spawning. The river was unusually low and clear, after a long dry spell and I didn’t have to walk far before finding shallow water full of fish, their dorsal fins etching random patterns on the surface. From the limb of an old oak, I could see hen salmon digging redds in the gravel while cocks in their tartan breeding colours, stood guard and repelled competitors. Precocious parr took advantage of the frequent skirmishes to nip in and fertilise some of the eggs while small trout darted about, feasting on dislodged tit-bits. Larger trout lay downstream, engulfing passing eggs and a dipper flitted busily between rocks as a pair of goosanders flew by, intent on some upstream mission. After a while, I wandered up the bank, passing several stinking, salmon carcases on the shingle and, as I turned a corner, a huge black-backed gull rose with an angry cry and circled above me while I went over to investigate its meal. A very large salmon kelt, not long dead, lay by the water’s edge, with flesh stripped from its side. I turned it over and there, plain to see, were three parallel scars under the dorsal fin. I had no doubt that this was the fish that I had fought in October and he would have weighed well over 40lb when fresh from the sea, the trophy of a lifetime. I left him to the gull and, as I walked to my car, I imagined his final weeks. After our first encounter, he probably lay and recovered in the Graveyard before moving up to the gravel beds where he was born. Maybe, having spawned, he drifted back, exhausted, finding refuge in the deep pool that had been his autumnal home then later, possibly craving oxygen, he expended the last of his energy to swim into the shallows, beaching himself in the process and dying on the shingle. It was a lonely end for a mighty fish but his ravaged, scavenged, rotting remains would add nutrients to the river and his progeny would replenish his species to fulfil his epic destiny. I no longer felt regret at losing him.
Several months later, I was in my London club when Gordon walked in and sat down beside me. “You won’t believe what’s happened at Dryton,” he said. “I allowed Ian to fish on summer evenings and this morning I received a call from the agent telling me that Ian went down for a cast yesterday, waded deep into the river and got his foot stuck between boulders. There was a massive thunderstorm and flash flood in the hills around Kielder, the river suddenly rose three feet and the poor chap drowned! They found him this morning.” “In the Graveyard?” I asked. “How did you guess?” He replied. I lifted my glass and offered a toast “to Tommy’s revenge.”