I’VE NO idea if J. M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, ever went fishing as a lad.  With nine siblings, one of whom died in a tragic skating accident, it may be possible that the young weaver’s son from Kirriemuir might have dropped a line into the waters of Kirrie Den while wiling away a melancholy moment. Or maybe simply during an adventure with some of his brothers and sisters.

The little sandstone town at the gateway to Scotland’s Angus glens was en route to a favourite weekend and holiday destination of my parents. We had to pass Barrie’s birthplace, a house with the tiniest doll-sized window in the whitewashed gable wall, and, I was regularly lectured, the real model for “A Window in Thrums”.

Thrums, Kirriemuir, Angus
‘. . . a doll-size window in the gable wall.’

I never seemed to tire of looking out for it and its mysterious charm. Did the real Peter Pan gaze out over the Kirrie rooftops from its minute panes?

In the stoutly Victorian main square were two premises of particular interest to small boys – the first was Visocchi’s celebrated Soda Fountain, an Italian café and gelateria where achingly-desirable ice cream was regularly scooped into a large, wide-mouthed vacuum flask for onward transport to our caravan.

The second was McCallum’s, the traditional newsagent and stationers’ on the opposite corner wherein among the papers, books, magazines and postcards, lay a selection of toys and what at the time were neatly described as “fancy goods”.

Among them was my first fishing rod.

My father made the selection as fathers do, especially if they are serious anglers. In 1955 Kirriemuir the choice of  tackle for a child was perhaps limited.  And with hindsight I fully understood that this rod was, of course, just a toy rather than anything Hardy Brothers’ Alnwick workforce would have been proud to turn out.

For a start it was plastic. The rod and the reel were both moulded together in some kind of cream and brown assembly.   It possessed, well before its time, a large arbour reel with some form of ratchet mechanism which was controlled from the pistol-grip handle.

Rod handles have always puzzled me.  Down the ages, the evolution of the fishing rod has changed slowly.  The materials have matured through simple larch, willow and greenheart to bamboo, boron and carbon graphite.  Ring designs have had a couple of modifications. Handle materials have changed little too, with cork still a universal favourite.

But the rod itself has remained straight and unflinchingly true. And the grip is still remarkably elementary, just grab the rod end with one or two hands, swing it to and fro with various degrees of dexterity and hang on for dear life if that specimen salmon,  pike or tarpon takes off.  Virtually no allowance is made for the fact that a human’s hand, wrist and arm are not connected in a straight line.  Nor for the cantilever effect of elbow and shoulder when casting.

Sure, lighter, perfectly-balanced rods and reels have reduced the need to have a body-building physique to pursue a day out on the Spey with a double-handed 16- or 17-footer without suffering a severe attack of tendonitis.  Ergonomics seems to have given fishing a miss.

So my plastic pistol-grip affair though cheap and non-conformist, may well have demonstrated an advanced design worthy of further thought. And while it was never going to threaten 70+ yard casting records, it proved adept at delivering a few worms into the water without much skill, as we shall later see.

With my first rod, came the time to learn associated skills that go with being inducted into the Great Angling Fraternity.  First, the bait – and that meant a spot of gardening.   Few small boys can resist the opportunity to handle a small spade and get digging. I was no different.  Our riverside caravan in the wilds of an Angus glen, meant wandering a few fields, lifting stones, poking around in the mud and learning that the juciest morsels were very often to be uncovered beneath cowpats and similarly well-fertilised locations.

Perforating the lid of a small tin box with a hammer and nail had earlier provided another half-hour’s satisfying distraction and soon held the contents of the bait foray.  Fatherly advice decreed that the biggest, fattest worms were to be discarded in favour of a smaller, red and vigorously wriggling variety.  Grubs of all shapes and sizes were prized and an occasional furry caterpillar was secreted for good measure.

Next came hooks and knots.  A single hook with a little barb on the shank to keep the bait in place was tied direct to the line by my father whose hands and fingers wove a mysterious, mesmeric pattern in the air as he explained the mechanics of a tucked half-blood knot, a lecture he was forced to repeat several times in the future until I too mastered it.

I will leave out the attachment of bait to hook for the benefit of the squeamish.  Suffice to say that in later years, classroom biology dissections never created any revulsion.  Then, finally, with mounting anticipation it was off to the riverside.

Observational skills are best learned, well, simply by observation. With a practised eye, my father knew all the likely eddys and runs in the little river and his casting was direct and sure, even allowing for bankside trees and undergrowth.  My little rod was never going to propel a worm and weighted line very far, but that was not the point.  This was all about anticipation, the not knowing, the expectancy, the imagination, the waiting, the patience.

Within a seemingly short time, my father had a couple of trout on the bank and showed me how to differentiate between them and the salmon parr which were carefully returned.  “God’s fingerprints” stood out quite clearly on the flanks of the tiny salmon.

On that first excursion, I caught trees, bushes, heather, grass clumps and the river bottom.  But no fish.

The next afternoon while my parents were having a nap, I crept off on my own armed with rod and bait.  Warned on pain of fearsome retribution not to go near the river, I wandered into the adjoining field, where a tiny feeder burn rushed down to join the river.  It was perhaps 18in wide and just a few inches deep as it gurgled and splashed its way down the hill and into the river. But it was large enough to drop a worm into.

Like Peter Pan said: You have to believe

And it was there to my complete amazement that alone and unaided, I caught my first trout.  The excitement was indescribable as it wriggled and danced. The little rod bent and jigged.  With feverish fingers and fairly bursting with pride, I reeled in the line.  Unfortunately my success had outpaced my education.  I didn’t know quite what to do next.  I lifted the fish out on to the bank where it jumped and squirmed off the hook.  And as I tried to capture it, the trout slithered between my fingers, down the grass to the water.  And was gone.

It was a defining moment. I caught it. I held it. It was mine; a prize, a trophy to be taken home, praised and admired.  A fine trout, oh easily this big.  It was bigger than big. It was GIGANTIC.

I searched the grass and bankside feverishly again and again, but that sickening empty feeling spread quickly. Defeat plucked from the jaws of victory.  The sense of loss was bitter, and I felt  silly and stupid. But worse was to follow.

My tale of woe was greeted at home with sympathy, but  it was delivered with glances, knowing smiles and in a tone that created a quite different kind of loss, the loss of innocence.  I knew for the first time in my young life, without any doubt, that my parents didn’t really believe me.

And that was a more crushing blow than the loss of any catch, then or since.

Like Peter Pan said: you have to believe.