Nights on the beach with the wisest fisherman in Waterford

I never feel a summer is complete without at least one Atlantic bass at the end of my line
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I AM travelling in one of the world's darker corners right now but more of that another time. On this weekend, heavy with international gloom, I am taking up the editor's generous invitation to write about what I want to. And what I want to write about is hidden rivers and Atlantic beaches and the fish that haunt them - the places that Raymond Carver described as those where "water comes together with other water".

If I close my eyes right now I can shut out the night sounds of an African city - jangling guitars, shouts of joy and of violence - and imagine that I hear the water lisping on the stones of Ballyquinn on a night at the end of August. To fish is to let go of the hustle of life, it is about finding your own space and doing nothing much but watching tide and current and waiting hopefully for the magical twitch at the end of the rod.

I don't fish enough these days but I daydream about it a great deal. Living in London means a long drive to the coast, battling the motorway traffic and arriving tired and snappish and probably catching nothing.

My problem is that I don't know these English waters, the right places to fish, the proper bait to use, any of the local lore so essential to success (or so the locals always insist). Such a journey would only end up in the pub, swapping fishing stories with other bores like myself. There's nothing wrong with that, but I at least like to feel that I have had a go at hooking a fish.

This earnestness in the matter of fish is something that comes from my childhood. Back then I lived for fishing. I studied all the books I could find, spent my pocket money on angling magazines and tormented my parents to take me to the sea or the river. My first fishing memory is in County Kerry at about the age of six. I can still remember the magic of light on water on the River Feale and my father playing a small baited line back and forth in a deep pool. He told me there were huge salmon lurking below, creatures so big they could drag a man to his death in minutes.

I was suitably awed and waited... and waited. We were there for several hours and I had started to give up hope, and then my father let out a shout of joy. We had a fish. A fish! For the first time in my life a fish. My father pulled the line in with suspiciously little effort. As our catch came into the shallows he handed it over to me. With heart pounding I continued to pull. But even with a six-year-old's puny arms I had no difficulty with this specimen, a tiny brown trout that wriggled and splashed on the surface.

I think my father suggested throwing him back but I would have none of it. I wanted to take the thrawneen (an Irish word for something stunted or tiny) home for my grandmother to cook in her big kitchen on Church Street. And so we marched home through Gurtenard Wood and across the square and then up Church Street. I remember that it was not yet dark, only a few lights twinkled in the houses and shops and pubs we passed. People were standing on the street chatting, and my father stopped to talk to everyone of them. That was his style. He gave every man and woman the time of day while I displayed my fish with great pride.

That was way back in the 1960s, and I had big plans for fishing with my dad. For one reason and another they did not work out, and as I got older I attached myself to a series of patient older men who taught me the art of fishing. Two stand out in particular: John Ryan, a schoolteacher from Dublin, and Eric Malley, his friend from County Tyrone. I think the word patience understates the kindness they showed me. They steered me through the agonies of endless tangled lines and through the long nights when nothing was biting. I met them in Ardmore, where my family spent the summer holidays (I have described the delights of this County Waterford village in these pages before). They were both committed sea anglers, loving the freedom of the wide beaches and the crash of Atlantic surf.

Night after August night we would pile into John Ryan's old black Rover and head for one beach or another along the West Waterford coast; Ballyquinn, Whiting Bay, Caliso, Curragh Strand, Ardmore beach. I am sure I tormented the poor men, but only once did they try to leave me behind. It was a night they had planned to spend drinking at Fleming's bar above Ballyquinn beach (their wives having been told they were taking young Keane out to fish).

But it wasn't easy to give the slip to an obsessive like me. As the two were heading up the main street to the car, I appeared in front of them, rod in hand. With their wives watching they had no option but to bring me along. We did not fish; I was given a bottle of Powers lemonade and a bag of crisps and allowed to sit beside them as they drank Bosuns (the West Waterford name for a large bottle of Guinness) and told yarns. Through watching their skill on the beach I slowly turned into a half decent fisherman, even winning a flashlight in the Modern Kitchens annual beach competition. It was a big ignorant red flash light but I was the proudest boy in Ardmore that night.

If you fish that coast for any length of time and listen to the locals you will learn that there really is only one fish worth catching, the Atlantic bass. The toughest fighter in our coastal waters and the nicest fish to eat bar none. I never feel a summer is complete without at least one bass on the end of the line. In the old days - that's the 1970s - we hauled them in by the dozen. On one memorable night on Ballyquinn the Ryans - John and his fishing fanatic son Stan - hauled in something in the region of 30 fish... or was it 50?

At the age of 14 I discovered girls in a serious way and drifted away from fishing. But it was only a temporary parting. I came back to the beaches in my late teens. The girls could let you down but the sand and sea and the stars that frosted our late August skies... well they would last for ever. And every summer since I have made the time to fish. Last summer John Ryan, older now and not as fit as he once was, took me and Stan and his grandsons to a beach I had forgotten about, a place that could only be reached with a long climb over black and threatening rocks. John did not follow us, preferring to sit on an old stone bridge and contemplate the sea. I imagined he was thinking of those other days when he led us all across rocks and dunes, our leader and hero and the wisest fisherman in West Waterford.

I am already training my son to fish, at three years of age he is still somewhat terrified by the flapping and jumping of the landed fish. But whenever I mention fishing he wants to go with me, and I take that as an encouraging sign. Some day soon he will be tugging on my jacket, pulling me out of some soft armchair and calling out those place names; Ballyquinn, Whiting, Curragh, Ardmore, Caliso. Places a fisherman should go.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

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