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Char - the inspiration

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If you have not read The Fisherman's Bedside Book by BB, then you really should. According to the inscription in my copy, it was bought for me by my grandmother in - well, I don't know you that well so let's say when I was eleven. When she used to come to stay with us, she frequently read it to me, fittingly enough at bedtime. I can hear her sing-song voice today telling me about monster carp, salmon, pike and, above all, the char. Perhaps my favourite piece of all, then and now, is an essay by Patrick Chalmers about the fish that begins thus: "The char is of the blood royal, is of the salmonidae, and he comes from very long ago. He is Arctic in origin and his colours - his pinks, his greens, his vermilions - have been borrowed from the Northern Lights. It is said that he came with the push of the ice packs, the glacial waters of the Age of Ice. And that, when the pale blue glacial rivers, in the terrible days of the ice melt, could run no further, some of their waters remained to mingle, here and again, with lakes, tarns and lochans in the deep beds that their mother Ice made for them in her final harbour. And therein stayed the char, men say, and there he stays still." Such majesty. Such mystery. I swore to myself that as soon as I was able, I'd hunt these exquisite fish for myself.

Loch Quoich - June 1986 - 10 p.m.

The sunset seems eternal, still filling the sky with glows of gold and crimson. The mountains bask in fire. The loch is a cauldron of stillness. Apart from rises ringing its surface in vast numbers. The char are up.

I push out in a boat, paddling slowly towards the centre of the activity. Light gear and a team of tiny flies fished in the surface film. A pull. A fish of perhaps ten ounces thrashing on the surface. A male char, fiery red as the sun just sunk. Extraordinary, breath-taking beauty. That beauty that only an angler can know. I give silent thanks to my departed grandmother for a last, special gift.

West Coast Greenland. Paradise Valley - July 1996

I have just walked to Five Mile Pool - so christened by Johnny and me because it's five miles from our camp. The walk, as nearly all treks are in Greenland, was one of endless emptiness. Or was it? There were musk ox, reindeer, Arctic foxes and the elemental landscape that seems to shriek at you. It became colder as I approached the ice cap. And there, under its shadow was the pool, deep and crystal clear. Char, fresh in from the sea, lined up like soldiers. One of the biggest fish took my shrimp pattern and fought like a creature possessed. It weighed perhaps ten pounds and lay in the margins, covered by sheen after sheen of pink, purple and blue, all of shades I could never begin to describe. Of course, I flicked him free and prayed he would spawn and return safely back to the oceans, perhaps we would meet again another year.

Lake Windermere. England's Lade District - August 1998

I am privileged to be afloat with one of the last professional char fishermen. His ash pole rods, twenty feet long, bristle over the boat like legs on a beetle. His lines are festooned with droppers and tiny spoons and they're trolling behind us. There's a bell atop each pole to alert us to a snaffled fish. There's a constant tinkling and we're catching char after char. They're small, slim and most delicately-coloured. They're as different from their bruising, scarlet liveried, sea-going cousins as it is possible to be but in their Lilliputian way they're as perfect as any fish in creation.

Geiri's Secret Lake - Iceland - June 2005

It is 2.00 a.m. A white night, bright with the dawdling midnight sun. The water is endlessly, eternally clear. A char, hooked down deep comes to the surface, invisible but for the white trimmings down its pectorals. It's a fish of deep, throbbing purple that lights up against the lemon sky. Lovely as it is, and longing as we do to return it, we need it desperately for food. We cook it on the shore. A wisp of smoke trailing to the cloudless sky, the most tempting smell in the world filling the quiet air.

So, yes, gran, that little gift of yours has taken me to Switzerland, Austria, Lapland and Labrador all in search of this elusive fish. I've caught a thousand char and each has been inspiring, each unique, each giving an experience I have lived for ever. Char. The unsung heroes of the fly fisher's world.

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