Fly Fishers' Republic

Singing In The Rain

September 25, 2006

by Bruce Sandison

Singing In The Rain

Music is an angler’s best friend. Not many people know that, but, honestly, it is true. I discovered this fact as a youth when fishing the Tweed downstream from Manor Bridge. The river here tumbles into a deep pool, pounding a rocky outcrop on the far bank before sweeping into the gentle glides below Neidpath Castle.

Trout were rising constantly but persuading them to take my flies was beyond my skill; which was probably because at that stage in my angling life I was as skilful with rod and line as I was with a golf club. Green-keeper’s used to shudder in horror when they saw me coming, which was one of the reasons why I took up fishing.

It was raining, hard, and I fished on automatically without much hope. I began to hum an aria from George Frederic Handel’s Messiah – a work I had recently discovered and enjoyed. Nobody was about, so I burst into song: “He shall feed his flock, like a shepherd…” It suddenly occurred to me that given the number of fish I was catching I wouldn’t be able to feed anybody, let alone a flock of them.

This is when the trout ‘took’. Delighted, I began to concentrate, seriously. The trout stopped rising. I thought that I had just been lucky. I began singing again. Another trout rose and took the middle fly, a March Brown. This seemed to be too much of a coincidence, so I sang again, loudly. As long as I did, fish rose to my flies. With six in the basket I retired happy.

Years later, I gained a degree of notoriety when I used this technique filming a TV show with Paul Young. We were running out of time and the fish were refusing to cooperate. In desperation I decided to give them a bit of Handel’s Messiah.

I strode over to the producer. “Set the camera on me and I will catch a trout,” I said. “Are you sure, Bruce?” “Yup, when I start singing, you start rolling.” He gave me a strange look. “Are you feeling all right?” With the camera in action, I cast and sang, “He shall feed his flock…” The moment the flies landed, a trout rose, was hooked, played, and released.” In truth, I was surprised, but not half as much as he was.

That is exactly how it happened, neither more nor less. Nothing was ‘fixed’. To this day I still meet anglers who don’t believe it, but it is surprising how many times I hear the dulcet tones of companions having a bit of a tune when I am fishing.

Is it a load of nonsense? Well, I agree that it does sound far-fetched, but perhaps by singing we relax, and perhaps when we relax we become better anglers; less fractious and less anxious to catch fish. Sometimes the technique works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it generally does for me.

And not only me. When I was researching a book about Scottish gilles, I interviewed a wonderful man on the Island of South Uist. We sat before the peat fire in his living room at Lochboisdale and shared a dram whilst we talked. He told me that he had been out one day on Loch Bornish when the fish were ‘down’, so to pass the time his gentleman turned on a tape recorder to listen to songs sung by Callum Kennedy.

Towards the end of the tape, a trout rose and was hooked, a fish of about 2lb. They played the tape again, and, towards the end, another trout rose and was caught. When this happened for a third time, they looked at each other in amazement. Had they stumbled on the secret of angling success? Quickly, they ran the tape forward until the same tune was playing, and, again, caught another fish.

During the course of an hour or so, every time the tune was played they had sport. No other tune produced results. I poured another dram and said, “That’s a very strange story. Can you tell me the name of your gentleman so that I can speak to him about it?” He did, and soon afterwards I got in touch with Iain Christie, who was a solicitor in Portree on the Island of Skye.

Iain confirmed all the details and told me that he had designed a fly to commemorate the event and named it after his friend and gille, Charlie MacLean. Iain sent me a copy of the fly, and three other patterns which he had invented; the Solicitor, designed for sea-trout fishing on Loch Lomond, the Holy Willie, named after one of his fishing companions who was a minister on North Uist, and Wee Peter, after another one of his angling friends.

When Iain shuffled off to that great trout loch in the sky, fly-dresser extraordinaire, Robbie Danabie, sent me examples of these four patterns tied using material from Iain’s own box. It hangs proudly on my work room wall as I write.

Most of us probably could rustle up a few bars from the Messiah, if needs must, and in all fairness, I should tell you the name of the tune that was used to catch the Loch Bornish trout. It is ‘Ho ro my nut-brown maiden’; well known and most of us have probably sung it at one time or another. The bad news, however, is that it has to be sung in the Gaelic version, ‘Mo Nighean Donn Bhoidheach’. Now, there’s a challenge for the fishless winter months ahead.