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.
We removed our shoes and socks, put on shorts and waded in. The mud was surprisingly cold and quite firm, like wet cement. There were piles of worms everywhere, and white gulls circled about, occasionally plucking out a worm. The mud itself, which appeared nearly black from a distance, was actually copper-colored and streaked with yellow and green. And it was not silent: The mud groaned and gurgled like an empty stomach, and whenever you lifted your foot, the loss of suction created an amusing flatulent noise. It was a quarter-mile slog to the river channel, and we each left a line of sunken, distorted footprints.
We waded into the water until it was about waist deep and officially began the tramp. I clasped my hands behind my back and made small, distinct strides—"soft steps" Kirk had called them—lifting my foot a few inches and moving it forward a few inches, trying to disturb the mud as little as possible.
Tramping is done entirely by feel; the water is so dark that you can't see more than an inch below its surface. As we walked—side by side, a few feet apart—Ellis described what to do if I actually stepped on a flounder: "If you feel a fish, put your foot down firmly. It'll squiggle for a few moments, but as soon as it realizes it can't escape, it freezes. Then reach down, hook your fingers through its gills and pull up the flounder." During the championship each fish is weighed and then released, unharmed.
I was not informed about the dangers of tramping until I was actually in the mud. It turns out that flounder aren't the only creatures living in the estuary. There are scores of jellyfish, stingers at the ready. There are millions of crabs, pincers poised. "If you tramp often," Ellis told me, "crab-bite scars on your toes are inevitable." There are sharp rocks and pointy shells and slithering eels and myriad UFOs—unidentified floating objects. And because the water is opaque, there is no way to predict what surprise each step will bring. For all I knew, there were giant sharks lurking in the mud, ready to swallow me whole.
It quickly dawned on me that I did not want to step on anything—not a crab, not a jellyfish, not even a flounder. Why would anyone want to step on a flounder, I thought, when they were for sale at the local market for about a pound and a half? And if I did happen to step on a flounder, how would I know it?
"You'll know," said Clanahan, a preacher of tramping Zen. "Standing on a fish feels like standing on a fish."
"But I've never stood on a fish."
Sure enough, Clanahan was right. It wasn't long before I stepped directly on top of one, and instantly I knew it was a flounder. It felt like a sponge, a thick, heavy, slimy bathroom sponge, and I pressed my left foot upon it. I felt a wiggle, tentative at first, more like an exasperated shudder. Then the fish began to thrash violently. It was the single most ticklish moment of my life: Every receptor in my brain urged me to lift my foot. I held out for a moment, though, tensing the muscles in my legs. Then suddenly, with a loud shriek, I jumped as high as I could, both feet clearing the water. By the time I landed, creating a tremendous muddy splash, the fish—the only flounder I would ever stand on—was long gone.
Michael Finkel roams the world in search of bizarre sports. He spent the summer traveling in Africa.