It was with great sadness that on the 4th of September I was informed of the passing from this life of John Mills. He departed this life after a short illness, having just spent three days in hospital. Prior to that he was at home in Benburb, with family and close friends.
John had only left Delphi on the 1st of August after having spent a couple of weeks here with friends and family. During this time he also had landed his 200th Delphi salmon, of which he was justifiably proud. He had been in good form as always but was noticeably more tired than usual. Needless to say he left with a few fish in the bag!!
In Delphi terms John was one of the greatest anglers to have fished here. Both staff and customers were always delighted to see John arriving. It would have been unusual if John Mills didn’t brighten your day, with his wit and wisdom. John was a regular visitor to many of the salmon and sea trout fisheries in the west. He first fished here in the 1960’s with his father primarily for sea trout in those days. My own first encounter with John would have been in July 1987 when I ghillied for him and his wife Elizabeth on Doolough. I can’t remember how many trout we caught, but I do know that Elizabeth caught her first trout on an artificial dap in Fisherman’s Bay. It was hard not to like John and his family from that first meeting.
As a man he had a great ability to talk to anyone, it didn’t matter who or what they were. He was always up for a chat. On his last visit here I saw him on one occasion in deep discussion with Noel and Laurence about the state of the world and plenty stories from bygone years. He often told us of his time in the navy and the places he had visited and of course all the pretty girls he had met, which would always put a twinkle in his eye.
One of his great non-fishing stories was of his passing out as a navy cadet where he was interviewed by three officers and they gave him a scenario where the engines on the ship failed off a rugged coastline and there was an onshore wind. The question was what do you do? John’s reply was to put out the anchor, which was of course correct. Then of course the wind increased and it started dragging the anchor so what do you do now? John’s reply was to throw out the second anchor, again the correct answer. So the officers said that the wind increased even further and it started dragging the two anchors, what do you do now Mills. John’s reply was to throw out the third anchor (but of course there are only two). The officers asked John where he was getting the third anchor and his reply to them was the same place as they were getting the wind. He passed the exam with flying colours. The stories and tales were endless and he used to love regaling customers and staff.
Since 1992 John would have spent between four and five weeks a year fishing here at Delphi and he rarely went home empty handed. In my own humble opinion John was probably one of the best anglers to have fished here. His efficiency as an angler was extreme and he would often wander down the river a couple of hours late and have a fish within minutes. One of his great sayings was “Keep your flies in the water and you’d never know the minute.” If I were asked to design a prototype of a fly fisherman for young and upcoming anglers to follow I would probably base it on John Mills. He was equally effective on river and lake. He was more the old traditional type of fly fisherman, especially on the lakes where he always used a sink tip, no false casting and quite a short line. He knew the water extremely well and had great confidence in his own ability to catch fish. In my blog of July 25th this year, I referred to John as the Old Maestro on the occasion of landing his 200th Delphi salmon of the modern era and as his son in law Eddie mentioned at his funeral that he was very proud of the fact that he was the first Irishman to achieve this accolade. As I said that day he probably had a few more to add between 1960 and 1986! His tally ended at 202 for the modern era, the last being taken off Finlough, the same day that his grandson Patrick Conroy landed his first ever salmon with John on hand to give instructions.
We have had many phone calls and emails from people who would have met John during their visits here, expressing their sadness at his passing but cherishing the many happy memories they have of him.
One such email came from Nick Roth and he said: “Not very often I met John at Delphi, but it was one of the highlights when we were there at the same time and could listen to his stories and advice. And whenever I hear or read about the Willie Gunn I’ll remember John Mills”.
It’s probably appropriate at this stage that I quote a little piece from the Complete Angler written by Isaak Walton in 1654 speaking of his friend John Offley: (It could also have been John Mills)
“You are assured (though there be ignorant men of another belief) that angling is an art: and you know that art better than others; and that this truth is demonstrated by the fruits of that pleasant labour which you enjoy, when you purpose to give rest to your mind, and divest yourself of more serious business, and (which is often) dedicate a day or two to this recreation.
At which time, if common anglers should attend you, and be eye-witnesses of the success, not of your fortune but your skill, it would doubtless beget in them an emulation to be like you, and that emulation might beget an industrious diligence to be so; but I know it is not attainable by common capacities. And there be now many men of great wisdom, learning, and experience, which love and practise this art, that know I speak the truth”.
John Mills was the complete angler and I know that some of this wisdom and knowledge has been passed on to the future Mills generation who regularly joined him here and I sincerely hope will continue to do so well into the future. It was a pleasure and an honour to have known the man and I would like to express our sincere sympathies to Alexander, Paddy, Walter and Jayne and all his extended family.
We will all miss the fisherman and most especially the friend.