My first fishing trip involved begging. I had to plead with my cousin to take me with him: I was 12, he was a bit younger. He agreed, as long as we could go after lunch, siesta time – when no one would see him fishing with a girl. He inched along, back pressed against the walls and turning corners like an assassin, to make sure the coast was clear before ushering me out into the 40C southern Italian heat. Some years later, I landed a job that involved fishing and I fished every week, quite publicly, for the best part of a decade.
But fishing was very much something I did pre-children. Although I carried on doing it while I was pregnant, a year post-partum I hung up my waders and my other fishing kit and life moved into a different stage. I stopped being a fisherwoman and became a mother of two daughters. Occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I would see my waders hanging from the rafters of the garage when I was hunting out parasols or ride-on toys for my children, reminding me of this other life, once upon a time.
Although I did a lot of fishing in a lot of places while pregnant with my first child, one place stuck in my mind – Ashford Castle on the west coast of Ireland. This was where my last big fishing trip had been, before I’d given birth to Raffaella. It had also been the first place I had become really aware of fishing with someone else – her – rather than being on my own. So it was here that I wanted to return for my first fishing trip with my daughter.
I could have taken her to the lake at Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, where I’d caught my first trout; or to my favourite river in Scotland, the Carron. I could have taken her to the river Stour, which runs near where we live, or Dartmoor where the brown trout are wild and small and I had spent many summers fishing. But Ashford was where – as I had waded into the mighty river Cong– my baby who was weeks away from being born – kicked me every time I waded deeper and I had realised that I was now, actually, two beings. This was also where Frank, the resident ghillie, had had to manoeuvre my heavily pregnant form into his beautiful little fishing boat, without my studded waders touching the wooden bottom boards, as I headed out on to the 44,000 acres of water of Lough Corrib to fish for trout.
Raffaella was now 11. Did she want to go fishing with me, I asked? Why wouldn’t she, she replied, eyes wide at the thought of it being just the two of us for three whole days. I took all my fishing stuff out of the garage and we sifted through what we would need. We would be fishing during mayfly season, which was prime dry-fly time. This was good.
I hadn’t expected to feel emotional at seeing my fishing vest again. This multipocketed waistcoat is where fly fishermen keep all their fishing bits and bobs. As I un-Velcro-ed the pockets, I found things I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. This single garment spoke more of my pre-children days than any other garment I owned. It was only a momentary pang, like when you get a whiff of perfume that takes you back. And it wasn’t to a place I particularly missed or wanted to go to again. But it was a pull, for a moment.
I showed my children my fly box and they looked at all the flies I had once hunched over and tied – I was particularly good at making daddy longlegs’ knees. My partner, an expert fisherman, gave his elder daughter some casting lessons on the lawn.
After receiving emails every day from my daughter, sometimes when she was sitting behind me: “Ten days to go, ARE YOU EXCITED MUMMY? BECAUSE I AM!!”, we were off.
On the plane over, I told her about Ireland. How it was very green and people talked a lot about the weather because every sunny day was celebrated in a land where it rained a great deal. But the rain made it so very green and beautiful. But, mostly, we just grinned a lot at being together, just the two of us.
It was less that we wanted to get away from the other two members of the family, more to have a bit of me and her time. I try, here and there, to spend time one on one with each of my children. It was blissful being really able to concentrate on Raffaella and not have to sort out sibling quarrels, or say “just a minute” for the 20th time. It was a luxury, for both of us.
At Ashford, I had little to think about except my child. We had never spent as much time alone in each other’s company. Without the rigidity of timetables and having to get people to places, I became more childlike and flexible, she became more responsible and grownup. We giggled a lot. We talked a lot. Sometimes you have to unhitch yourself from the routines of everyday life to see what people are really made of. We were both away from a to-do list and could just be. There was a calmness and that was even before we got on the water.
Frank was still there. “Do you remember my bump, Frank?” I asked. “This is her!” For some reason, we all found this really incredible. “I can’t believe,” Raffaella kept saying “that last time I was here I was in your tummy and now here I am!”
On the way out far on to the lough, in Frank’s little wooden, handmade boat, we fished for salmon on a spinning rod (a toby on the way out, a Tasmanian devil on the way back).
The thing about fishing is that it takes you right into the middle of “big nature” and you seem tiny in comparison, which seems to scrub your head clean of all thought aside from the immediate. When we got far enough out, we started fishing the dry fly. I taught Raffaella the basics of fishing and she did everything I told her to; she was utterly responsive and calm. (This isn’t always how it is back home: she is a tenacious negotiator.) She stayed calm even when her favourite hat flew off and we thought we had lost it to the 50m depths of the lough (we fished it out with the net). Without the distractions of everyday life, I was able to really look at her, almost as if she weren’t my daughter, and see the person she was becoming. And I thought how magnificent my fishing companion was.
Far out on the lough seemed very far away from everything, as if we had slipped into another world. As if you could say anything out there and it would remain there, on the water. It felt safe, removed. I would like to tell you that Raffaella and I talked about things we had never talked about before, that she shared secrets she had never been able to share before.
But that’s not what happened. We talk quite well on land. So we fished, side by side, in silence, mostly. I taught her how to present the dry fly on to the water so exactly that it would fool a fish into thinking it was a real insect. But there was no hatch of mayfly on, no fish rising and a mean and unproductive north-easterly wind, which was a shame, as catching a fish on the dry fly is really exciting.
When we did talk, it was about fishing and I realised how many parallels there were with life. We talked about the salmon, which swim out to sea but always return home to the very gravel beds – the redds – they were born in to spawn and have their young. We talked about sea trout and how they start their life as brown trout but some run away to sea as “adolescents” and become sea trout – their colouring changing according to their new diet and habitat. I told her about the mayfly – how it spends two years at the bottom of the lake or river bed, before finally hatching, rising to the surface with one purpose: to mate. But how it dies after mating and, after all that build-up, from hatch to death is just 24 hours. We talked about how the three big UK salmon records are all held by women and how, for a long time, it was explained away (once by a younger, more naive me) that this was because women had a pheremonal advantage. “That’s a bit unfair,” said Raffaella, before I’d got to the punchline. “Why couldn’t it just be because they were better?”
We came off the lough, and headed to the river Cong, which feeds into the lough. We didn’t wade this time, she and I. But we fished from the bank for a couple of hours. I taught her how to strip back the line, and recast as the current brought the fly over, before it started to drag, and how to watch your back cast so it doesn’t get caught on low hanging branches. I wondered how many more times we would go fishing, if she would want to go again. I thought about what a perfect way it was to reconnect with a child, if that was what you needed to do. Mostly, though, I wondered why more mothers don’t go fishing with their daughters.
We finally went home in a little bubble, eager to see the other half of the family, but also just a bit reluctant to let anyone else in again. It reminded me of being pregnant again, that “us against the world” feeling you get. We giggled all the way home. “We’ll always have Ashford,” whispered Raffaella.
Annalisa and her daughter fished at Ashford Castle
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 August 2015.