Peter Ross: Hooked by the clyde

'SEE the Clyde?" says Tony. "It learns ye patience. At another river ye'll maybe catch fish regular. But ah've sat here for 14 hours and had nuthin'."

Tony Dickson is 39. He doesn't have a job at the moment ("No for want of tryin'") but worked previously as a removal man ("Every job was a three-up. Naeb'dy lived on the ground floor") and he spends his Thursday evenings fishing the River Clyde. He's here tonight with four pals and his daughter, Ellie, whose job it is to fetch maggots and dig for worms. Ellie has a pink rod and has already, at five years old, established a reputation as a keen and lucky angler. She gets the first fish of the night.

"There ye go," says her dad, holding up a small silver fish with orange fins. "A wee roach. Well done, hen."

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Tony takes it off the hook and throws it back in the water. "They say that women have a pheromone and that's how they're better at catching fish," he observes. "A lot of fishermen used to rub their wife's knickers on the line."

In truth, few women venture down here to the river at Dalmarnock Bridge in the east end of Glasgow. Chas Owen's mother came by once with a plate of mince and tatties for her son, a driver-labourer in his early forties, but that's about it. Thursday night fishing is a masculine ritual.

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A few miles south, at this precise moment, Benedict XVI is celebrating Mass in Bellahouston Park. The Pope is known as a fisher of men. But these men in Dalmarnock are more interested in fish. You might think that the Clyde would be too dirty for fish to survive. In fact they are thriving. It's said that there are more than 30 species in the river. Chas Owen reels some of them off: "Sea trout, brown trout, roach, dace, perch, eels, barbel. But ye cannae catch any salmon at this bit."

Catching a salmon in the Clyde, as it flows sluggishly through Glasgow, is like trying to hail a taxi on Renfield Street at 3am on Saturday. They just go speeding past. So those few souls who fish in the city are stuck with coarse breeds and the odd trout, which assumes legendary status. "My biggest fish was a five pund brownie," says Chas. "It was April Fool's Day, 2007. A Sunday. At ten to 12. I'll never forget that."

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Those most remarkable catches - their weights, species and who caught them - are commemorated by being scratched into the galvanised steel of a shelter the men have built on the broken wooden pier from which they fish. It's made from scaffolding poles and plastic tarpaulin. One side is left open so they can keep an eye on their spinning rods, leaning against the railings, line trailing in the water. They are alert to the merest twitch that might indicate a bite. "Are ye in?" they shout when a fish is hooked. Then there's a great rush to see if it can be landed.The shelter is a real boon, especially in the Glasgow rain. For ages they tried to get by with a tarpaulin arranged on branches, but neds kept setting that on fire and chucking the chairs in the water. There's no way they can burn the steel, though, and the bench, these days, is nailed down.

"Therr the Pope therr!" someone shouts as another fisherman arrives. "The only Pope we'll see the night." John Paul Clark is 36, nicknamed the Pope for obvious reasons, even though he is of the other persuasion. He's wearing a T-shirt which says "Dear God, thanks for the booze, birds, fags and football."

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The fishermen of Dalmarnock assemble here on Saturdays, too, the radio tuned to the football. It is traditional, whether gathering on an evening or weekend, to have a few drinks. Cans of lager and a bottle of Buckfast are shared round. There's Irn-Bru for those who need to be up early working. Ellie is pretty generous with her Maltesers.

There's always something going on here. Once, they prevented a woman from throwing herself into the water. That was dramatic, but mostly time passes in animated conversation. A favourite topic is whether, if they could catch enough eels, a Chinese restaurant might swap them for a free meal. The biggest thing I see them catch, though, is a passing rowing boat.

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I walked here, along the north bank of the river, passing over and under several bridges. First came Victoria Bridge, which links the Gorbals with the city centre. There's a litter of dirty syringes down by that bridge and a rusty iron hoop once used to moor boats that no longer sail. Across the road is the Briggait, the old fishmarket now home to artists' studios. On the faade, Glasgow's coat of arms - the bird, tree, fish and bell - is a reminder angling goes right back to the city's origins, when Govan was a fishing village.

These days, the Clyde is in some ways incidental to Glasgow. Though it bisects the city, it is not much used. A lot of effort and money is going into regenerating the waterfront, but I spent an hour walking along the river and hardly met another person. It's beautiful, though, especially at this time of year. Golden leaves fall twisting through the blue air. The water is brown but glitters in the sunlight, reflecting in dappled mackerel patterns on the low underside of Rutherglen Bridge. Down by the water, among the brambles and hogweed, you could almost forget you were in a city.

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There's a distant sound of sirens and ice-cream chimes. Occasional waves of stink flow from the brewery and sewage works. Further east, a long, tall concrete wall is covered in graffiti which mixes stern imperatives ("F*** the polis") with bold declarations - "Wee Mo is sexy".

Eventually, Dalmarnock Bridge comes into sight - a 19th century structure of cobwebby cast-iron. East of the bridge, you need a permit to fish. But within the city boundaries it is free.Even in those areas where a permit is required, however, it is relatively cheap. You'll pay 65 to fish salmon for a season in the Clyde. You might pay that much or more for a day's fishing on the Tay. "It's an affordable price for the working man, and the Clyde, on its day, is as good a river as any," says John Blair, 38, who runs riverclydefishing.com. The website offers information on all aspects of angling on the Clyde, but also functions as a cheerleader for a river which has plenty of detractors. "People will say, 'You got a salmon out the Clyde? That's manky. I widnae eat that.'"

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In fact, the fishermen of Dalmarnock do not eat their catch. "We know what's in the water," says Chas. The Clyde is much cleaner than it was; at one time this stretch of water was purple with chemicals and full of stolen cars. But in heavy rain it's common for a sewage pipe to overflow. So they release those fish they land.

Recently, John Blair was fishing near Uddingston and hooked a 20lb salmon "like a slab of silver". It snapped his fly line and pulled it into the water. That's a 65 line he could ill afford to lose, so he took off his waders, dived in and swam for it. "That's how daft us Clyde boys are," he says.

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The Dalmarnock men have been fishing here and hereabouts since they were children. They learned at the knee of a local fishing guru called John Flannigan, known as John Trout, in whose honour they compete each year for a memorial shield.

Twenty-five years ago, it was common for the local boys to fish and explore the countryside. Paul Smith, a 37-year-old with colourful lures stuck to his fishing hat, recalls that in his early teens he'd sit out by the river all night with a rod bought from a catalogue. There were swimming trips, too, and expeditions into a nearby area known as "the valleys", where base camp would be established at the foot of a pylon. Paul and his pals would see deer and foxes, shin up trees for birds' eggs, and plunder crab apple trees. Great bags of fruit would be brought back to the scheme and used as projectiles in mass battles. Thus, in the mid-Eighties, Dalmarnock got its five-a-day.

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It's fascinating to hear these stories. The idea of lads growing up in the east end of Glasgow being immersed in the countryside is not familiar. Paul and the others look back on it as a kind of Eden before the fall. "Drugs came in badly when we were 15, 16," he says. "Smack tore the scheme apart. Half a dozen o' yer closest crowd became junkies. It's sad tae see. They're no' like the person ye knew."

These fishing nights provide a sense of that community they knew growing up, a community that is largely gone. A number of the men talk about fishing as a kind of escape. A few hours away from wife and weans and the pressure of work or not having work.

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Dalmarnock is changing. A lot of it has been demolished to make way for the Commonwealth Games.Other areas, such as "the valleys", are being developed as part of the Clyde Gateway regeneration project. So whether you land no fish or 40 fish in one night, the point of coming here is the same - a reconnection with a place still recognisable as where you grew up. Those uncatchable salmon swimming upstream are following a similar impulse.

"It's like coming back home," says Paul, downing his beer as the moon rises, "to oor ain wee place."