Let me tell you about mud. Not ordinary mud, mind you, but mud I traveled across the Atlantic to stand in; mud I drove to a tiny village in Scotland to slog through; mud I sought beyond all other mud so that I might catch a fish with my feet.
That's right: mud, fish, feet. Those are the basic ingredients of the ancient sport of flounder tramping. And the fantastic mud in the estuary of Scotland's Urr River near the town of Palnackie (pop. 300) is the best mud on the planet to sink into up to your stomach and feel around in for flounder.
Palnackie does not look as if it should be known for its mud. Rather, it's one of the cleanest places I have ever seen. The entire town consists of two narrow streets lined with crooked stone row houses, some more than 200 years old, none more than two stories high. Palnackie sits in the southwest corner of Scotland, a rural area where most two-way roads are one lane wide. Here it is not unusual to come across a small herd of sheep resting contentedly in the middle of the street.
Life in Palnackie revolves around the Glen Isle Inn, the area's one bar-restaurant. When I arrived in town last October, I stopped at the inn and met John Kirk, a tramping legend. We ordered pints of McEwan's lager with a splash of lime juice and began to talk tramping. Kirk, a 48-year-old carpenter and third-generation Palnackieite, explained that flounder—flat, oval-shaped fish with the chameleon-like ability to blend in with their surroundings—live in muddy estuaries, where they feed on crabs and worms. When the tide goes out and the water is shallow, flounder settle into the mud and camouflage themselves. A flounder tramper walks around barefoot in the mud until he or she steps on a flounder, whereupon the tramper stops, reaches down and grabs the fish. Tramping requires no boat, no tools, no bait; it is the simplest of all fishing methods.
Only it's not so simple. Successful flounder tramping demands that your stride in the mud—your tramp—be flawless. Shuffle your feet, step off-balance or walk too quickly, and the fish is gone. "Fifty percent of the time you step on a fish—aye, maybe more—it gets away," said Kirk, chopping and twisting his vowels with a Scottish burr as thick as porridge. Most difficult of all, however, is to step barefoot on a fish and overcome the reflex to leap away.
"The first time I stood on a fish, I jumped sky high," said Kirk. "It felt dreadful. And if it's a big fish and you're standing on the middle of it, its tail goes right up the back of your leg and gives you quite a scare. You have to psych yourself up to stand on a fish. Some people go years without catching one."
For centuries, tramping in coastal Scotland was strictly a pastime and a way of getting something to eat. Then, in 1973, Kirk and his friends dreamed up the Grande Internationale World Championships of Flounder Tramping. The idea was hatched at the Glen Isle Inn. "One Sunday," recalled Kirk, "I said to the boys in the pub, "Let's tramp flounders for a bit of fun.' We decided to see who could get the biggest fish, and we bet a glass of whisky on it." The idea quickly evolved into an organized competition—the only one of its kind in the world—with all proceeds going to the Royal Naval Lifeboat Institution, which provides emergency assistance to local fishermen. The first champion was Kirk himself.
The contest has been held every summer for the last 22 years, drawing between 100 and 300 competitors from as far away as Russia, China, Japan and the U.S. The champion—the person catching the heaviest fish—now receives 150 pounds sterling and a three-liter bottle of Scotch. The top prize is almost always grabbed by a local, and it has twice been won by a woman and once by an eight-year-old boy. Kirk, however, has only one win: He retired after the first competition and served as the event's organizer for the next six years.
Since 1979 Harry Ellis has been the championship's coordinator. Ellis, 45, is a highway engineer who hails from Glasgow. When he moved to Palnackie 15 years ago, he had never heard of tramping, but once he discovered it, he became a tireless advocate. "Tramping is more exciting than football," said Ellis. That claim seemed a bit of a stretch, even if he was referring to soccer. When he heard I wanted to try it, Ellis promptly rounded up local trampers Carol Glendinning, 27, and Debbie Clanahan, 30, and the three of them escorted me to the mud.
To get from town to the famous mud of Palnackie, we headed south through rolling pastureland for about a mile. Everything was green and lush until we crested a small hill and saw the estuary of the Urr River. It was low tide, and the expanse of mud was astonishing: It appeared as if someone had drained an enormous lake and filled the bottom with brown goo.