A Dilemma

I have fishing history in my hands. A beautiful, museum-quality artifact from 1955 that has never seen the banks of a river. Preserved, kept well away from careless anglers, protected from overhanging branches, mud and water.

The label on the silk bag proudly displays the crest of the late King George and the Prince of Wales. The rod was made at Alnwick in 1955 about the time I took my first steps. We both came into the world not long after the death of King George V. Although the rod has remained in pristine condition, sadly I have not. The reel fitting is engraved with the royal coat of arms of both the King and the Prince of Wales.

The reel fitting is unmarked and the handle carries traces of cork dust from the factory. Grubby, slimy fishing-hands have never held this rod. It was taken from the rod builder and hung on peg 55 in the Hardy archive at Alnwick.

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The provenance of the rod is well documented. Hardy kept an archive of every rod they made. The ‘Pattern’ rods were archived to ensure consistency for the 248 variations built between 1874 and 2005. In 2004 Hardy merged with Greys and in January 2005 the entire Hardy rod archive was sold. That was a tragedy. The archive was dispersed all over the world for a few pounds to prop up a failing business. A short term approach which, when applied to their manufacturing strategy, saw the rapid decline in the quality of their rods and reels. ‘Made in Korea’ was not popular. Production is gradually returning to Alnwick and things are improving. However, the archive cannot be reformed and the iconic brand is now owned by a private equity firm in New York. How sad.

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I bought my rod, ‘The Itchen‘ H 1914, on an impulse. A once in a lifetime opportunity that couldn’t be turned down. The purchase was made furtively in a side road, just off the M3, like a county lines drug deal. No cocaine was involved although the residents have probably given the car registration number to the drug squad. I also bought a second, equally rare rod but that is another story.

I bought the rod for several reasons. Mainly because I loved the quality and history. Secondly, next season I have a rod on the Itchen and the co-incidence was a sign. Lastly, as the L’Oreal advert says . . .  “because I’m worth it“.

Q. What dilemma ?

A. Should I use the rod next season ? It’s unused only until it’s used. The reel seat would become scratched, the cork handle would get grubby and a branch might creep up behind me and snick the tip.  On the other hand, what could be better than a treasured Hardy rod and reel on the Itchen during a mayfly hatch ?

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Many years ago I was given a bottle of vintage red wine. It came in a lovely leather box with a certificate of authenticity from the cellar of a well known actress. I decided to keep the bottle for a special birthday. It was stored carefully until the big day arrived, 1954 was not a good year. I’d had better from the local garage. I still have the empty bottle and use the box for my fishing tackle but the magic, the anticipation, has gone.

Perhaps I should preserve ‘The Itchen’ for future generations ?

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Ebisu

Heavy rain all month had kept me away from the river. After a very dry summer, which saw only a third of the long term average rainfall, the Autumn had been very wet. Nearly every day had seen rain. A visit to the lakes at Little Bognor was in order. I’d checked the lower lake last week. The water was a little coloured and there was quite a lot of leaf debris on the surface of the water. The springs at the top of the lake were flowing well and water poured through the overflow grill.

My un-christened Ebisu rod beckoned to me from under the bed. The wooden box looked like it should contain a snooker cue but had protected the rod for over fifty years. The rod was probably made in the 1960s by the Ebisu Company Ltd. which was established on 10 August 1954 in Japan. In Japanese mythology Ebisu is one of the seven Gods of Fortune. He is said to be the God of fishermen, working men and good luck, a great combination. Ebisu’s festival is celebrated each year on 20 October and it seemed fitting to use the rod rather than the Hardy.

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The North wind had blown the leaf debris towards the overflow and most of the lake surface was clear. No fish were rising, the prospects looked bleak. I decided to use the 3# Rio line because I didn’t want to overload the old cane. The rod worked well with about ten yards of line outside the tip ring. It came to life when loaded and I confidently side-cast through the slot between the marginal ferns and the drooping branches of the Beech trees.

I started with a black spider, visible to cruising fish, under the branches to my left. I concentrated for about thirty minutes and then lost the plot during a series of hooked twigs, tangles and poor casts. Time to move on.

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I crept along the bank towards the dead Chestnut tree and flicked the fly into the margins in preparation for a roll cast. A big fish swirled but I was so surprised I froze in disbelief. I rolled the fly out expecting an immediate take. A sunken branch grabbed the fly and put up a good fight. Time to move again.

I leant against the trunk of a tree, backcast into a holly bush, kicked the landing net over and flicked the fly into a particularly tough fern frond in the margin. Hilarious laughter followed and I moved to the open bank and deep water. Trout were cruising along the line of the leaf debris taking buzzers but they were not tempted by my offerings.

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I moved around the lake looking for feeding fish and ended up where I’d started, under the big Beech trees. A deep sunk red and black spider was ignored and my casting deteriorated, tiredness was a distraction. I swapped my fly for a black Neoprene Buzzer with white Neoprene breathers, it was a last ditch attempt at deceiving a fish. I suspected that the tiny fly would be invisible in the coloured water. As the leader drifted in a curve from right to left it appeared to stop, a possible sign of a fish disturbing the water around the buzzer. Not enough to lift into. Several casts later the leader dipped gently no more than an inch and I instinctively lifted the rod. The fish fought long and hard, I couldn’t revive it in the landing net and took it home for dinner.

The rod was a revelation, the slow action threw tight loops to a maximum of fifteen yards. I couldn’t push it further. It will be great for buzzers and fine tippets next season. I hadn’t been particularly lucky but I had worked hard and caught a fish. Two out of three Gods were with me.

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8 October – Great Springs

The Autumn gales and heavy rain had subsided and the countryside looked beautiful, clean and uplifting. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn and there was a liberal scattering of acorns and conkers everywhere. The North River was high and coloured, there was no point in visiting the Rother, it would be unfishable.

I was hoping for a peaceful day in the sunshine, a leisurely lunch and not too many showers. The freshly washed sheep at Stag Park were nibbling the close cropped grass and hundreds of crows tumbled in the breeze as the Defender rolled down the track towards Great Springs. I’d forgotten about the Tuesday Club, a long line of parked cars and a smoking barbeque changed my expectations. I toured the lakes looking for signs of fish but although the distant lakes offered peace and quiet, they looked barren.

After a cup of tea, a chat and a hot sausage sandwich, it was time to wet a fly. The wind was flukey and a bank of clouds in the south west threatened rain. A few fish were moving in the corner of Great Springs, I expected great things. Twenty minutes later, working a nymph around the edges of the weed beds, I was just going-through-the-motions. Another cuppa and a biscuit renewed my enthusiasm and I returned to the lake. Around the corner, beside a recently toppled Willow Tree, I found a group of Trout aimlessly finning about.

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A roll cast or two moved the fish further out into the lake. The overhanging Oak tree claimed three flies before I rested the fish. A little later the shoal moved closer and I finally had a chasing take. The line screeched off the reel and then stopped, I assumed the turns were jammed. Not so, I had chosen my Hardy Duchess with the ‘Weight Backward’ river line. It was only fifteen yards long, I’d run out of line. One more worrying tug and the fish came towards me, knocking the tippet. A sure sign of a foul hooked fish. The hook had pulled and re-hooked near the Trouts tail.

A shower of rain and a rest on the bench interrupted the afternoon. I renewed the tippet and presented a black spider to several fish in the opposite corner of the lake by the big fir tree. I hooked two fish, briefly. The Trout wandered around, ignoring my offering, not even glancing at the fly.

A heavy shower was the last straw and I drove away. I’d caught a fish in difficult circumstances but I felt that I hadn’t made the most of the day.

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23 September – Rotherbridge

The tail of a hurricane was forecast to arrive for the Autumn equinox. Wet and windy weather would colour the water and make it impossible to fish the river. The landscape in the north of the Estate was complemented by a spectacular cloudscape and I paused at Stag Park to admire the scenery. Two Red Kites were messing about in the thermals, their flight was erratic and unbalanced by the wind. The fields had been shorn by the combine and as the shafts of sunlight moved across the slopes, the fields looked like camel coloured corduroy.

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I visited the lakes and took the water temperature which had stabilised at 17 degrees, quite warm for late September. I drove to Rotherbridge and spent a while peering into the water upstream of the bridge. I couldn’t see much until the sun broke through the clouds and cast fishy shadows on the sandy bottom. A shoal of fish hung in the current below clumps of streamer weed. I studied them for a few minutes, undecided whether they were Chub or Trout. Eventually one of the fish rolled over and confirmed its identity. They were Trout. Their position was tricky, below the weeds and close to the overhanging branches of an Alder. Accurate casting would be essential.

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The group of fish would react to my fly either by competing for it or by bolting downstream en masse. I used a long tippet and a size 12 parachute Pheasant Tail. The fly landed softly just upstream of the shoal and within seconds, a good Trout smashed into it and dived into a weed bed. I bent the rod to the butt and forced the fish into midstream. It dashed upstream through several weed beds and fought the rod and a big clump of weed, at my feet. I dragged the fish and the weed into my landing net. Success on the first cast.

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I rested the fish while I changed the fly and took stock. I assumed the shoal had dispersed and was about to move to the New Riffle when a Trout rose further downstream. I floated the fly over the fish which swirled but refused. I recalled the reaction of the Itchen fish and knew I would need to change the pattern. I chose a Quality Street sedge which produced a violent reaction from a Trout but I lifted too soon.

I changed to a size 14 parachute Adams and launched it between the clumps of weed, as far as I could, wind assisted. It floated under the bridge and was taken confidently. I put a lot of pressure on the fish and the small hook pulled out.

Dark clouds gathered over the South Downs and the wind increased. I went to the New Riffle and tried an Adams and a Daddy but I withdrew as the rain made its way up the valley towards Petworth. I sat in the Defender and energised myself with a Red Bull, I wondered if the wipers would work all the way home.

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