Its history is shot through with romance and it is hugely profitable, but fly fishing in in trouble, writes Stephen McGinty
The leather-bound fishing records of the Reay Forest Estate, a vast expanse of 100,000 acres of heathered hillsides near Cape Wrath record that this year marks the 85th anniversary of Coco Chanel's successful stitch-up of His Royal Highness the Salmon, king of fish.
The petite French designer, so it turns out, was an accomplished angler, as nimble at knotting a fly as stitching a lace trim to a rising hemline. For in the summer of 1925, she was reeled up towards Lochmore, the country home of the 2nd Duke of Westminster, the richest man who ever went by the name "Bendor". (While Coco, christened Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, adopted her nickname from one of the two songs she sang in a music hall as a young woman: Qui qu'a vu Coco?, a ditty about a girl who has lost her dog, the duke's monicker came courtesy of his grandfather's Derby-winning stallion. Is it any wonder they took against the animal kingdom with both rod and gun?)
According to Justine Picardie's new biography of Mademoiselle Chanel, the date on which she first plucked a salmon from her lover the duke's pool was 27 May, 1925, when a 9lb fish was generously liberated from his watery prison. Four days later she hauled out a 12lb salmon, half a pound heavier than her host's. According to the written records, during June, July and August, both salmon and sea trout bit repeatedly down on her hook.
Two years later, the country house party included Winston Churchill, who in early October, 1927 wrote to his wife, Clemmie: "Coco is here, she fishes from morn till night & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon. She is very agreeable really, gt & strong, being fit to rule a man or an empire." (She, of course, was well on her way to conquering the world of fashion with a little help from Scotland. While in summer residence she borrowed Bendor's tweeds, and was so taken with the fabric that she traced it down to a Scottish mill and began producing suits and soft jackets.)
Envy is an emotion I did not expect to experience while reading about the triumphs and travails of the first lady of French fashion, but fishing and I have a complicated relationship: simply put, enthusiasm carries me time and again to the river bank only to sink with the first cast. I'm deeply attracted to the idea of fishing, to be alone in the heart of nature, contemplating the ripples and eddies of the river and what lurks below, all that "fishing is zen meditation with a punchline", but no sooner do I cast out than my mind immediately turns to lunch. And yet I can't quite accept that fishing and I are not meant to be.
I tried to fish as a child, but spent more time wrestling with trees to retrieve my line than dipping the hook into the water. As an adult I was lured back by the works of Ernest Hemmingway and Norman MacLean's classic, A River Runs Through It. While fishermen flow through Hemingway's short stories, it was the deep-sea fishing section in Islands in the Stream, published posthumously after Papa played lollipop with a shotgun, that inspired my first and only deep-sea fishing expedition, off the coast of Puerta Vallarta in Mexico in 1996. In the novel, a divorced artist who has his sons for the summer nurses the youngest through a seven-hour battle with a marlin, a struggle made more poignant by the death of all three boys in a car crash come autumn. On the day there was no disappointment, as I hauled up a 30lb mahi-mahi from the depths.
So the idea of fishing is deeply appealing, even if it is carried out by other people, and it is profitable for Scotland. According to a report in 2004, angling's contribution to the economy was 113 million a year, helping to support 2,800 jobs. The Highlands, where Coco and Winston cast a line, earns 43m per annum from the sport. In 2004 the average spent on each day's fishing in the Highlands was 140, almost double the Scottish average of 81.20.
Yet there is a creeping moss in danger of clogging the line for Scotland's angling community and maybe Coco can help. At the moment, 55 per cent of Scotland's 1.39 million fishing days are accounted for by local anglers. Soon, however, this may no longer be the case, with the bulk taken up by visitors. While the economy will still benefit if more tourists come along to take up the spaces by the river bank left by those Scots who fall away, we will be losing a tradition. For today the number of Scottish anglers remains static at 35,000, with just 6 per cent of under 16-year-olds picking up a rod. Last year Ian Robertson, project manager for the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group warned that angling could go into serious decline because older anglers are failing to pass on their skills. Officers at Strathclyde Police have even started Angling for Youth Development and would like to see a fishing qualification added into the school curriculum.
To hook ladies we now have the lure of Coco Chanel, who combined elegance, style and love of the great outdoors, and should candidates be sought for a male fishing tsar, I wouldn't hesitate to nominate John Smeaton, erstwhile hero of the attempted suicide bombing of Glasgow Airport and fisherman extraordinaire. In fact, my last fishing expedition was while writing a profile of Smeato for which we tried our hand on the River Tummel, I can still see him with his 14ft fly-fishing rod, the fine white line rolling out across the river in a "snake roll" cast.
There is a childlike quality about Smeato that appeals to kids and teenagers, and while he bows to no man on his love of Halo and the X-Box games console, he can easily articulate why the eternal battle between man and fish triumphs over anything pixilated, On that golden morning by the river bank, with my minimal knowledge and a skill set below basic I lost five flies:two Green Highlanders, a Stoat's Tail, a Red Ally and a Munro Killer. I'm told it was a new course record. I would never have won the heart of Coco Chanel, but then again despite her skill with a fly, she never won the heart of Bendor.