I always loved this time of year as a child. All winter long, the three lake boats which we had on Lough Mask would lie as part of the winter furniture — a plaything for my childhood. October to February was their hibernation, a chance for them to drip dry over the dark months, to enjoy life on land. A chance for the floorboards, probably sodden in water all summer, to dry in the shed, alongside the oars. To have a timbered chat with each other about the adventures that they'd had all year, the rocks they'd have run aground, the stories they'd have heard, the secrets shared between anglers and gillies, the dying fish which breathed last on the thin ribs beneath the floorboards.
In late January, the boats would be turned over again — not named, just known as the big boat, the middle boat, and the small boat. Even though there would probably be only a few inches in the difference of each other, there was a hierarchy to them.
The small boat was the oldest of the three and looked the most feeble, so it had to be treated with care. It was one upon which we would not have climbed over the winter, lest we put a foot through it. The big boat, the boss of them all, was the newest and the toughest and could withstand anything.
Then as February came into view and you could feel the slightest squeak of a stretch in the evening, the work would begin. Handheld scrapers forced into every nook and cranny to force out the dead paint, every leaf of hardened blue taken out from the ribs of those vessels, dragging out the well-worn gloss that had served us well throughout the year, that held the timbers together, that glowed when the sun shone, that mirrored exactly the colour of the waves as the boat pushed tacross Cushlough Bay with an old Seagull outboard motor driving it along. My father leaning over it, a cigarette burning itself to extinction in his hand as he'd inhale the wonder of the lakes, and not fear at all its massive potential to do us down if the mood took it.
And when every bit of paint was taken out, and every piece of that boat was sanded by hours of back-breaking sandpaper, we'd have the job of hoovering the lot until it was spotless, until the bare timbers were there, exposed, begging for the luxurious feel of the fresh year's paint. Three coats of blue gloss, a different shade for each boat. And then the seats would be varnished, ready to bear the translucent weight of the anglers who would use it.
On the day the trailer would come for each boat, I'd bid it farewell. A holy medal would be nailed into its hull; a sprinkle of holy water across it, to remind it of its responsibilities to bring everyone home again, to come back again next October when the year would be done, and not to be seen as that boat, the one that did not bring its people back. As the boats slipped out the tight gate and onto the road to the lake, you got the sense that it got the message, as it enjoyed its on-land moment, gliding through the countryside resplendent in its new coat, on its journey to the stony shore.
The new fishing season is open this week — and many journeys like this will be taken from yards and back gardens near Mask and Carra and Conn and the other small lakes that add blue to the green of our beautiful county. Boats panting for the taste of lake water, will again be sated. Anglers with waders on will step in between those seats, roads at the ready, to challenge those who live beneath the waves.
Take care on the waters this angling season, make sure that your life jackets are working, that you have a means of raising the alarm if you need it, that you are armed with knowledge of whatever you need to maximise your safety. Respect the lake, and the lake will respect you....good fishing, tight lines....