A new record? Not this year
After a chance encounter with Georgina Ballantine's celebrated salmon, Marcus Janssen is left wondering what it must have been like...
There it was, right there in front of us, and it was even bigger than I had imagined. Far bigger. 'Now picture your fly in that monstrous mouth,' said Jimbo. It was difficult to believe that such a leviathan could feasibly be landed on rod and line. I pulled a measly little Cascade from my fly box, held it up against the glass display case and let out a nervous laugh. 'You'd definitely have an accident in your waders if that appeared out of the depths attached to your line,' agreed Jim.
The date was October 7, exactly 91 years since Georgina Ballantine landed her famous 64lb Tay salmon, and Jim and I were stood in front of the original cast of that incredible fish. I was the guest of Jim's parents, Peter and Angie Hart, and we were staying at John Apthorp's Summerhill House in Stanley, home to one of the finest views on Tayside and the biggest British salmon ever landed on rod and line. 'Can you imagine what it would be like to do battle with a fish like that?' I muttered as we headed out the door.
There is something indescribably magical about fishing the Tay in autumn. Not only is the scenery spectacular, the trees awash with breathtaking hues, but at the back of your mind is the knowledge that the next cast could be the one, the one that produces the fish of a lifetime, a fish that others will talk about in 91 years' time and wonder how on earth Marcus Janssen, that legendary angler of years gone by, managed to land such a beast without the aid of a harpoon. Georgina Ballantine? Never heard of her.
Ahead of us lay three uninterrupted days on the Tay, and we were, admittedly, a bit giddy. Seeing Ballantine's fish had done funny things to our heads. 'It's the best time of year for big fish,' said Jimbo as we turned off the main road. 'We're fishing one of the best big fish beats on the big fish river.' It would be fair to say that as we drove down the familiar track towards the Taymount fishing hut, where ghillies Cohn O'Dea and Michael Brown would be waiting, we had grand ideas. And who could blame us?
We've all experienced it, that feeling when you just know you are going to catch a salmon. For some inexplicable reason, you suddenly find yourself convinced that it is just a matter of time before your line will tighten up and you will feel that familiar, heart-stopping head-shake. The problem is, this wonderfully mysterious event is usually short-lived and, nine times out of 10, it passes without incident and you are left scratching your noggin, conceding that your doctorate in the mysterious ways of Salmo salar is some way from being the complete works.
But that morning, as Jim and I wished each other tight lines and parted ways with the image of that salmon fresh in our minds, not only did we both have that feeling, but we felt that this could be the year we'd spoken about so often, the year when we would make history. One of us was going to land the salmon of all salmon. It was just a matter of time...
So when my line did tighten up, my heart was already in my mouth and the headlines had already been written. 'Could this be it?' I dared to wonder as I lifted into the fish. There was no head-shake, just the solid, heavy surge of a fish heading upstream. This did little for my wracked nerves - everyone knows that really big fish don't bother with head-shaking, they just go where they please, leaving you with the sensation of being attached to a freight train. This fish felt like a freight train.
By the time Jim responded to my frantic whistling, more than 100 yards of backing had been ripped from my reel as if it was a spool of cotton. 'Could be a good fish,?' said Jim nonchalantly. 'Or you've foul-hooked a manky kipper. Probably the latter.' I couldn't muster a genuine smile for nerves, so just ignored him. Prat.
Earlier that morning, as Jim and I had made our way upstream, a fish had jumped near the far bank that had stopped us dead in our tracks. At first, neither of us said anything as we both searched through our limited vocabularies for a word that might suitably sum up what we had just witnessed. 'F@*k me,' we said in unison. And I began to wonder if, by some miracle, my fly was now embedded in that enormous fish's mouth.
Turns out it wasn't. Turns out the fish I was attached to was not only a lot smaller than the fish we'd seen, but to add insult to injury, it was also the ugliest salmon I've ever seen. Next to Miss Ballantine's magnificent specimen, mine would have looked like some kind of cruel joke. Blacker than the ace of spades and with a kype that could plough a furrow in a field, it was a monstrosity.
'Here's a thought,' said Jim as he held up the net with a lot more ease than I would have liked. 'Ballantine's fish was more than three times heavier than this manky kipper. The mind boggles. Seriously, what must it have been like?'
By: Marcus Janssen