Buller, 81 last month, is a genuine enthusiast and a natural communicator. Over the course of a three-hour interview, he explains, among many other things, that Henry I did not die from eating a surfeit of lampreys but that Henry V employed a man to source lampreys for the campaigning king and transport them to the battlefront; that almost all parish churches once featured a wall painting of St Christopher, because looking at one was deemed so lucky, and that he has recently completed a book about them.I have no experience with angling, but I like the expert knowledge aspect of this sort of writing and of course everything to do with fish and water is fairly magical (think of those wonderful pages in The Sword in the Stone).
He also shows me a poem Keats wrote about minnows; tells me how to catch pike with a long stone if I don’t have a hook; and rhapsodises over the beauty of a sturgeon, fresh from the water and glittering like jewellery. This is the kind of detail that mesmerised me when I first saw The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike. How could one not be seduced by the three-year-old who snared a 40-pounder with a croquet mallet, the 35lb tiddler who attacked a calf and failed to disengage before being dragged from the water, and the Kenmure Pike, a much-debated Loch Ken leviathan, caught by Lord Kenmure’s gamekeeper using a live duck as a lure?
The Domesday Book of Giant Salmon is a bigger, altogether more handsome volume than its pikey predecessor. It is glossy and imperious, stuffed with beautiful pictures. Some salmon gleam silver, some are hook-mouthed monstrosities, some are tired, some are rotting, some cased, some are mere outlines on walls – there is even a painting of a particularly lugubrious 62¾-pounder caught near Usk, in Wales, in 1782.
But it is not pictures that make the book magic. As with The Domesday Book of Mammoth Pike, this is a compendium of stories. They come with such tantalising headings as “The Mysterious Tale of Count Denisoff’s 68¼lb Norwegian Salmon” and “Bishop Browne’s Mythical 70-pounder”. The care and research is inspiring but even more impressive is Buller’s modesty. The biggest piece of news in the book, in terms of fishing history, is a 72lb fish taken by a member of the Athole family in the early 1800s, which would be the largest salmon ever caught on a fly. To Buller, an expert if ever there was one, the fish rings true. But he hasn’t found definitive evidence and he concludes with the hope that by bringing this salmon to notice he will stir up enough publicity to help unearth further documentation.
One of the funniest and most amazing things I remember happening when I was a child involved a fish. We used to go quite often to play in the Wissahickon--our mother would take us over there and we would gravitate to a few particularly appealing spots. And one day my brother M. (I am guessing he was seven or so?) caught a fish in the river with his bare hands! We took it home and cooked it in a frying pan (there was hardly more than a bite of flesh on it, but of course one must if possible eat the food one has caught), it was a most extraordinary day--there is a very funny photo somewhere of him holding up his catch, the allure of the "I caught it myself!" photo runs deep...