Yesterday, months into a rather poor fishing season, my nephew caught a trout, dapping hoppers at Cornacille on Lough Conn. His keen just-turned-nine-year-old eyes caught the fish’s mouth as it sucked the tangled insect-bundle down. A pause of three long-counted seconds, and he lifted the pole sharply to strike, driving the barb clean through the trout’s jaw. The brittle-limbed insect impaled on the lure shattered with the force of the strike. Forgotten motes drifted down through green water to rest eventually on the bottom, where once snail-shells and, increasingly, zebra mussels build up in shaley banks. Meanwhile, in the boat, coshed on the poll, the trout, dulling beneath its mucal coat, is dead. It is a present for me.
Once, it would have been brought ashore and gutted in the shallows, a knife point used to grate off its scales like shards of mica, each one reflecting the scudding sky over Nephin as it drifted on the water lapping around the boat. A fire of dried gorse and driftwood would have been lit, a black kettle filled with lake water for tea, a blacker, battered frying pan produced, and the trout sizzled in butter, its flesh transforming into rose-pink flakes, its glinting skin into a crisp, brown wrapper. Portioned out on the flat of knives, its twisted skeleton would have been thrown back into the water, its fins picked over by gulls.
But not this trout. Today, they are fewer, and the moment of triumph must be prolonged. Weighed, measured, gutted, the little headless vessel is wrapped in damp newspaper and rushed home to the freezer. Once he is in there, safe, definitely not going anywhere, his fate can be deliberated. He can be defrosted and smoked, or lined with lemon-slices and baked, served cold, his striations the ribs of a discarded feather on the plate. He can be gifted, he is an offering, a totem, a sign that all is well, that fish are caught, that people eat, that we can provide.
For most of the twentieth-century, the sister lakes of Conn and Cullin were internationally renowned trout fisheries. Up to my childhood in the 1970s, a large salmon was a trophy to be shown off in the local hotel, a specimen pike might be stuffed and mounted, but trout made a good lunch, perch a good breakfast.
Today, due to a sharp decline in fish stocks, local tourism initiatives promote golf, cycling and walking holidays rather than angling, there are fewer professional ghillies, demand for boat hire has plummeted, and of the two local fishing hotels, one is closed due to fire, the other in receivership. All evidence connects the decline in fishing stocks to human intervention: rising phosphate levels due to unregulated agricultural run-off, eutrophication caused by overloading of local sewage plants and unregulated septic tanks, and the introduction of the invasive zebra mussel in the early 1990s, a development which has fundamentally affected the ecology of the lake, and changed fish feeding patterns from taking flies on the water-surface to increased bottom feeding. As fish-takes have now been reduced to less than a third of mid-twentieth-century levels, the question arises as to whether the trout are feeding on the bottom or whether they are actually there at all.
So a Lough Conn trout is not such a common thing. In the age of the supermarket and convenience store, domestic food preservation has ceased to be a necessity, and become a symptom of a need to possess, a fear of the ephemeral. Every trout might just be the last one, and freezing in some way prolongs the appreciation of the catch, becoming another link in the chain of human intervention which simultaneously disrupts the balance of nature and tries vainly to arrest the course of change. In much the same way as I am trying to preserve something of the trout myself in writing. If you can see, or smell, or taste my trout, then these words are my salt, my ice, and the trout is swimming in a virtual lake now, a watery repository from which it can be lured over and over again.
Amanda Bell works as a freelance editor and writer, and is a doctoral candidate in UCD. Her poetry has been published in print and online journals, and in 2014 was shortlisted for the Cúirt New Writing Prize and the Strokestown International Poetry Competition.