BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
Tom was omnipresent on the River Yealm. I often wondered whether he was real, as sometimes one imagines the dead come back to earth for the day when lookalikes of the deceased pass by in buses and cars – dead ringers, one might call these day-trippers.
Over these last years someone or something was expertly catching those brown and sea trout – and the occasional salmon. He must have been human although I rarely saw Tom’s eyes as they were almost always hidden behind Aviators. There was certainly something soldierly about his smartness and his sharpness. His clothes were top to bottom khaki, although that’s hardly an uncommon hue for the clobber found on those in and around Dartmoor’s rivers. Come to think of it, I never saw Tom munching on a sandwich or swigging from a flask. Nor did he ever show up at the river by bike or car – effortlessly materialising at the river bank or in the river from behind some bend, foliage or trunk. Our dogs never barked at him yet they do tend to bark at phantoms, unlike the cat who just freezes and glares.
The slight Scots lilt to Tom’s accent gave away some kind of travelled human past but no doubt his eloquence on fly-fishing matters was superhuman – the distillation of more than a half century of fly-fishing wisdom. He rarely talked but when he did he spoke of the trout’s senses; casting to, hooking, playing trout; where to find trout in the river. He seemed all fishing – Goddard’s Handbook personified and bettered. He never advised even when you were detaching a fly from the back of your neck, from a tree branch or an unlucky terrier, preferring to talk abstractly or from personal experience about fishing with wet flies, dry flies and nymphs. His success on the river was inspirational – he was a trout catching machine, without ever boasting about his accomplishments or trying to outdo fellow fishermen and women who interspersed the same glorious beat.
Forget the Orvis YouTube videos novices like me learned from. Watching Tom was observing fly-fishing poetry in motion. Tom fished at the high altar of fly-fishing – as test cricket is to shorter forms of the game. Snake roll, tuck, reach, double hall – he was expert at all the casts and could seemingly land on a fish whatever the conditions with a Gowerian effortlessness; an accumulation of scores of catches and glances.
After a heavy rain, the trout begin gorging themselves so say all the books – Tom would get motivated during the rain while the rest of us would scuttle back to our 4X4s with the heating on full blast just to stay warm and dry out. Other fishers talked behind Tom’s back – no one knew the first thing about him, but all demonstrated the pinnacle of respect in spite of his turning down trips to the pub and refusing to accept any gesture of sharing or giving. One old lad thought Tom might be an assassin while another thought they recognised him from the Falklands campaign.
To Tom fishing was the only reason he was there in that beautiful – yet often brutal – place. This was a serious business. To the rest of us it was a hobby or sport – a good way to get some exercise despite our creaky knees and torn rotator cuffs. To Tom fishing was his religion, in that Ted Hughes kind of way:
I thought it odd how for most of the pandemic I’d not seen Tom at the river. Then I noticed last autumn how he looked scraggier than usual. I saw him on a sunny day perched on a rock. He was staring into the murky waters of the Yealm in a favourite patch and lacked his usual killer focus. He nodded as I passed by. I nodded back. No chit-chat. Just an acknowledgement between fishermen – no talk of Covid or family or even a hello to the dogs.
I returned to the river last month and parked up in the usual place. Despite the Internet there is a trusty noticeboard there where people exchange notes or advertise equipment, trips and competitions. There was a sealed envelope pinned to the board for me, which I presumed to be something to do with subs or an invite to something or other. My hands were full with fishing gear, my phone and dog leads, so I lobbed the envelope in the car and had forgotten about it until I found it on Monday when searching for a pound for a car park. The envelope had been concealed by a pack of wipes.
Tom’s widow was still very raw when I telephoned her to give my address. When she dropped an old trunk of Tom’s rods and flies around later that day she had puffy, teary eyes and was still clearly in a state of shock a month and a half on. I offered her a cup of tea or something stronger but like her beloved husband she was quick to refuse.
“Happy fishing” she exclaimed after my son and I had unloaded her boot – she could not bring herself to look – and off she went down the country lanes and disappeared. She and her tears seemed real enough. The equipment is real, even giving away one of Tom’s secrets – a fishing priest with a whisky container in its screw handle.
Inside the trunk there was a note written on a scrap of torn paper.
“For your boy,” said the note with typical succinctness.
Thank you Tom.
Happy fishing in heaven.
Dominic Wightman is the Editor of Country Squire Magazine.