Fishing Lines: Holiday guide to ghillies

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The Independent Online
Fishing in Ireland on a hot, windless day, a friend eventually caught a tiny trout. His Irish guide, who was getting nervous at his charge's lack of success, congratulated him. "Well done, sor! Those will be going about three to the pound." When it was pointed out that even at an optimistic estimate the capture was nowhere near 5oz, the ghillie replied: "Ah yes, but maybe the next two will be bigger."

Ghillies are the stuff of angling legend. Traditionally, they are meant to be creatures of small brain and low cunning. Many anglers are scathing of them, missing the obvious point that ghillies have organised their lives far better than most of us. After all, they fish every day for free. If they're so dumb, how come we're paying for the privilege of being with them? Some years ago a Harley Street doctor, James Dyce, published a book called The Ghillie. Dyce's specialty was stress. His book was subtitled A Cure for Stress, the conclusion being that living as a ghillie or fishing with them was the best way of avoiding the pressure of living with the fast-forward button jammed on.

It certainly seems to have sorted out Tom Heeps, my ghillie on the river Tay. He's a cut above your average fishing guide, who generally does not have a degree in engineering. While this helped Heeps to become the boss of a pounds 5m business, it created its own problems. He suffered "the obligatory heart attack". Mindful of God's yellow card, he gave it all up and went fishing.

Now he makes a living tying salmon flies so pretty that tourists put them in their hats and pretend they're anglers. He teaches the Spey cast, a method of throwing out a fly line when there are trees behind you. And he's so successful that he sells more pounds 400 top-of-the-range salmon rods from the nearby Daiwa factory than any tackle shop.

You need the right personality to be a successful ghillie. It helps if you're so unhurried that you can't wear a self-winding watch. Of course, it's useful to know a bit about fishing too, but smart ghillies give the impression that failure is down to an angler being incapable of catching fish, rather than the fact that there's only one salmon in the river and it's 20 miles upstream by now.

Dealing with dolts like me on a daily basis would seem a hugely stressful occupation. But Heeps has got the ghillie game down to a fine art. He's even trained his collie Broc (Gaelic for a small hill) to retrieve his landing net and wading stick. Heeps has been offered pounds 2,000 for the dog, and turned it down. After all, if he lost the dog he would have to fetch them himself.

Many ghillies have a language of monosyllabic responses. But Heeps and I have chatted for hours, sitting on a picturesque stretch called the Craggans, which is Gaelic for, er, Craggans.

My favourite yarn concerns the day he was fishing on the river Tummel at Pitlochry and saw an angler on the far bank playing a salmon. Minutes later, the angler disappeared. Heeps hurried across the river to find the angler lying dead. The excitement of hooking the salmon had prompted a heart attack. Heeps retrieved the rod and the salmon was still hooked.

He debated whether to play the fish, but decided that it might be misinterpreted as callousness, so instead he called the police. When he got back the salmon had escaped.

"But what a way to go!" I said. "Oh no," said Heeps. "After all, he didn't land the salmon."

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