As part of this year's Mayfly Festival, we spoke to two renowned and leading Fish in The Reads authors, David Profumo and Mark Wormald, about what these special aquatic insects mean to them and how they have shaped their adventures both on and off the page. Here, they share their experiences...
David Profumo, author of The Lightning Thread, reflects:
Danica time sees that semi-miraculous flowering of the air above chalk country, as the skies are illustrated with the brief, non-aquatic phase of these creatures’ lives - a byword for ephemeral delicacy and splendour. It is in some ways, fittingly, the coronation of the natural year. Even a layman will marvel at this spectacle, which is both an affirmation of the complex and precious life of our streams, but also a Dance of Death. Not that the angler - smitten with fin fever at the sight of that grandpa brownie slurping beneath the bridge - will have time to contemplate this, as he or she sifts through the fly box for that precise shape and shade of dun…Such stuff as dreams are made on!
Mark Wormald upholds this sentiment in a moving tribute to the Irish Mayfly. He writes:
For months I’ve been dreaming of it; now I’m counting the days. The English in our drily disparaging way call it Duffer’s fortnight, when rivers burst with life and the shy beauties we anglers spend so many hours coaxing to move right or left for a white flash of an open mouth deep in the current or, with luck, to come to the surface, throw caution to the gentle May winds. They seize your implausibly large fly with greedy abandon. The river bubbles and slurps with activity. I can trace several of most happily absorbed hours to that fortnight, catching fish and then just watching, feeling a part of an English spring.
But this year I won’t be in England or on a river to experience it. I’m choosing not to. What kind of madness is that?
Well, an Irish one, and a particularly wry dry phrase sums it up, and all the mysteries and rituals and water-craft and patience and luck and judgement I’ll need in my Irish May. The ‘spent gnat’, they call it, and the art of it and the obsession was developed on Lough Arrow over a century ago. On Lyttle’s Island, where the mayflies hang in great profusion from hawthorn leaves then leap and plunge and couple in a dance that brings fishermen waiting for the consequence – the females, spent, not so much gnats as pirouetting ballerinas, rising to one last dance up and out onto the water for their final flight to lay their eggs, set the whole life-cycle in renewed motion, and be consumed by those magnificent Irish trout, some butter-flanked, some marble, some dark and red-spotted, depending on the lough, – on Lyttle’s Island, where was I, there’s a cottage in the walls of which its owner, Paul Cullen, found an early pattern in a tobacco tin wedged between the bricks. Cork. It was in that cottage that, in as lyrical a hymn to the culture and religion of Irish Mayfly as I know, David Shaw-Smyth’s 1987 film, one of four devoted to The Angling Experience, Paul demonstrated his friend Barrie Cooke’s deadly copydex spent pattern, tied on light wire doubles to cope with the hard mouths of neighbouring Lough Key’s leviathans. Ted Hughes sent one to Dermot Wilson, doyen of chalk stream dry fly fishing, in admiration.
Cooke himself, the artist, fisherman and friend of poets, wrote, in the late fifties and early sixties, articles on spent gnat fishing that remain unsurpassed. He lived the life. Woe betide a gallery owner who scheduled an opening that clashed with the mayfly fortnight. He had his dentist sharpen his incisors to avoid carrying snips. For those afternoons a natural slick on the margins of a windlane didn’t materialize, he had olive oil to pour on the waters. He wrote, wonderfully, of Lurking and Pouncing, and complained that Uncle Edward (Ted), for all his gifts, didn’t have this one in his arsenal. You need the gift of companionship, too, in a drifting boat, rather than competitive one-up-manship – you need it both when the action is fierce and when you’re waiting, hope against hope, for it to come on. One of you rows or gently motors with an electric back up to the drift then uses a single oar to get the other, standing like a heron, eyes peeled, rod in one hand, fly in another, for a rise, and with only a fair idea of where the fish is headed next. My Irish friends rely on binoculars to spot a cloud of spent rising above trees, then predict where they’ll fall, and when. You need a wave, really; dapping works best with a wave, and I’ve my eye on a second-hand Shakespeare…. But I also love the calm of sunset, and after sunset, just being among the flies settling, the trout rising, the sky turning orange then red then catching fire when it has no right to.
A fortnight? Well, this year – next month! – I hope it will last a little longer, that I’ll be able to follow the fly north up the west coast, and maybe in land too: Arrow, of course, but also maybe Ree, about which Ted Hughes, frustrated in both his Mayfly fortnights, wrote the great, great mayfly poem, ‘Saint’s Island’. Find it in his Flowers and Insects (1986); of its contemporary reviewers, only David Profumo saw the heights that poem rises to and takes us with it. Corrib, yes, maybe even twice if I play my cards right. A return to Carra and its luminous green waters, its bed of shells, its trout like sea-trout. Barrie Cooke took a silver five pounder that had showed quietly once in the middle of a weedbed, then made the mistake of rising again. And a new friend who has just become a deep one, an Englishman with an Irish spirit, has offered to show me Sheelin…. You see why the count down has started. Bring the madness on.