Middleton Fishery – sense of humour essential

Pressure of space and the emphasis on tips and instruction in Trout Fisherman often mean that some of the best stories from a fishery visit never get to see the light of day.

Normally, I grin and bear this but in the case of Ayrshire’s Middleton Fishery, home to a dry fly feature on page 21 of the latest issue, it would be an intolerable omission. For in terms of craic and atmosphere, this is one of the best waters I have visited. And I’m beginning to think it’s a Scottish thing.

I’ve encountered the same feeling on previous trips north of the border, at Millhall Reservoir near Falkirk and Achagour Fishery in the Highlands, to name just two: a sense more of a social club than just a trout loch. People pop in and out, even if it’s just for a chat and if a bloke wants to spend his lunch hour fishing in his work overalls, no-one gives it a second thought. As with Scottish golf, you don’t get that feeling of separation up there, the sport is woven into the fabric of everyday life rather than being some exclusive bolthole from it. So all your gear is top-of-the-range? Bully for you: no-one cares…

Not that this egalitarian mood will be everyone’s cup of tea. If the Middleton regulars are fishing the lodge end en masse, for example, fishermen with brittle egos or sensitive souls need to be fishing at the other end of the loch, for the banter – be warned – is fierce. Good-natured, just fierce…

And John Dunbar (right) waxing lyrical on dry flies in the latest TF, is the orchestrator-in-chief. In fact, phoning him up to talk fly patterns several months after I visited Middleton, I was genuinely surprised by the gentle, affable voice coming down the phone. Was this really the same man who’d  had the Tarzan cry ringtone on his mobile phone and a nice line in back-handed compliments for his fellow anglers (“He’s a miserable get but boy, can he fish…”)?

John was holding court at the time of my visit, sat on one of the tree stump seats that owner Paul Allan has installed around the loch (“I’ve got back problems,” Paul told me. “I basically design the place around myself…”). As John and his fellow Middleton regulars swapped pleasantries (“FISH YOUR OWN WATER, YOU ******!!!”) fishery manager Gary McDonald  told me how the dialogue reaches its zenith during the water’s annual Wooden Indian Memorial Match

“Everyone just shouts at each other across the loch. If you’re new here, you’d wonder what was going on,” he explained.

(The match earns its name from a former Middleton patron, apparently, whose pose and ferocious concentration while watching his line put his peers in mind of a wooden North American indian. Look, I only report this stuff.)

Not even Gary’s position of authority spares him. “The water’s so clear here, the fish can get quite picky,” he told me.

“It’s because they can see your face, Gary,” John Dunbar chimed in.

And so it went on. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at a fishery as I did that morning at Middleton but if that’s not your thing, you can easily lose yourself at the other end of the water, far enough away for the verbal jousting at the lodge end to become no more intrusive than birdsong. Neat, tidy and home to rainbows and blues, as well as some browns, tigers and golden trout, Middleton’s rectangular outline shouldn’t fool you: there is nothing humdrum about this fishery.

A former reservoir, the 19th century water is perched on the side of a valley, high above the retirement town of Largs (“Where Scotland goes to die,” I was told). Known as Brisbane Glen, both the valley and the Australian city derive their name from Sir Thomas Brisbane, who was born in the glen and went on to be Governor of New South Wales.

Joe Hayes (left) was maintaining the Australian connection at the time of my visit. He left Scotland for Perth in Western Australia, 20 years earlier but returns for three months each year, partly to renew his acquaintance with flyfishing (“Perth is too hot for trout”). This was a poignant time, however, for 2010 would see his final visit. Numerous operations, including one that involved the temporary removal of an eyeball “to clean it up a bit”, had left 76-year-old Joe feeling too weary to countenance any more reunion trips and he was planning to spend his last day at Middleton.

“I think it will break my heart, although I know how lucky I’ve been,” he said. “People in Scotland are so kind; they always get the best china out when you visit.”

At which point, with lamentable timing, another distant oath carried across the water. Joe smiled and briefly inclined his head towards the lodge. “Gentlemen anglers…,” he grinned.

Yes, but their heart is in the right place. As John Dunbar would put it, just before I left, “‘*****’ is what they call you when they like you here. Imagine what they’d call you if they didn’t…”

[pics by Peter Gathercole]
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