Actually it wasn’t quite the parcel I had expected. I opened the front door to a young lady who handed me a fishing rod. In a canvas rod bag. No tube. No wrapping paper. No… More
The river looked lovely. The caramel brown colour of the water, caused by fine sediment from run off, had been replaced with a green tinge. The streamer weed was just visible but was not fully developed, it’s growth had been suppressed by the cold Spring and muddy water. There were good channels between the immature weed beds which I wanted to explore with a nymph. I only had a couple of hours before a meeting at Great Springs and I therefore decided to focus my attention on the stretch above Keepers Bridge. Just as I arrived at the waters edge I saw a fish rise in midstream under the Alder tree. It was the type of rise that gives me confidence, not the splashy rise of a Sea Trout. It was a little swirl with a soft pop as the Trout took a fly. The fish did not rise again but I resolved to stay at the pool until I caught it, there was no point in moving.
I used a lightly weighted Black Spider as I felt that the fish would be fairly deep. I worked the fly down and across, covering the water methodically. After half an hour I was starting to lose confidence so I shuffled along the bank a couple of yards and started another pattern of casting, covering water slightly further downstream. The take was very positive, the fish was strong and it was quite a while before I could draw it over the net. It was hooked in the scissors and weighed 2lb, a plump well conditioned Trout.
I ran the fly down the channels in the streamer weed growing on the shallows opposite the footpath. There is always a fish there and I was surprised not to get a take. The position of the sun was awkward, over my left shoulder. The blustery wind was downstream which didn’t help but at least the ripples hid the leader. I explored the shadows under several trees but the Trout were not interested. I was content with one fish and left the river to attend the Committee meeting. It was a short session but rewarding, the river was in good shape and had been kind to me.
While having lunch at the clubhouse I chatted to another member about the fish in Little Springs and how to catch them. The Trout were no longer gulping down Mayflies, they were patrolling the margins looking for buzzers and emerging damsel flies. Yesterday I saw a small wild Trout leap vertically out of the water and snap at a hovering damsel fly. It missed. The fish was waiting close to the bank and jumped for another damsel a few minutes later. It missed again. My advice was to approach the water quietly, stay hidden and target passing fish with a small dry fly or black nymph. Continual casting scares the fish and they move away into the centre of the lake.
While drinking a cup of tea and munching on chocolate biscuits, I sat in the sunshine and thought about what I had said. I’d described a method of fishing which I had used to catch a few fish from several lakes. It worked for me. It’s easy to give advice but I thought I should validate my suggestions.
I started with a long leader and a size 14 black spider and sat on the newly mown grass behind a screen of cow parsley and rushes. Several fish were cruising around the shallows on my left but the wind was blustery and it was difficult to see through the ripples even with polaroids. A Trout about 2lbs swam past and I dropped the fly about a yard upwind. It was ignored. I sat quietly and fish came close every few minutes. Some reacted to the fly by changing direction towards it but they all refused. I swapped to a lightly weighted black spider with a red hackle. That produced a response, the fish departed.
I moved around the lake to the opposite corner and found several large fish. They moved towards a size 14 Black and Peacock Spider and followed it but turned away at the last moment. I crept along the bank and sat down well back from the water. I watched a procession of fish swimming past about a yard from the bank. Some showed interest in the fly, most ignored my offering. I crouched behind some tall rushes and looked along the margin, a fast moving fish was swimming straight towards me. I flicked the fly ahead of the fish and it was taken without hesitation.
After a short but frantic tussle I netted the fish and returned to the clubhouse satisfied that my advice was valid. The wind was getting stronger, rain threatened and I decided to leave. It had been a pleasure to fish open water without overhanging trees.
The composer Sir Edward Elgar fished at Little Bognor. He rented a nearby cottage called ‘Brinkwells’ from May 1917 to August 1921. In June 1918 he wrote “plundered three decent fish, 2 1/2lbs the three” and at the end of his diary for 1918 he recorded in his ‘Fish Account’ for Little Bognor a total of “12 (large and small) and two returned“. During the summers of 1918 and 1919 while staying at Brinkwells, Elgar wrote four major works. It was his last creative surge and some of the music he composed was influenced by the magic of the woods and the Sussex countryside.
During the last few months of WW I Elgar could hear the heavy guns in northern France from his cottage. A few days before his fishing trip the German advance along the Matz River and subsequent counter attack at Compiegne, resulted in 65,000 deaths. Elgar was appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the War and during the twelve months from August 1918, he expressed those feelings in his music. Elgar’s last major work, the cello concerto, was a lament for a lost world. Europe had changed forever. The cello concerto had an underlying tone of sadness and sorrow. The Armistice, which ended the fighting, was signed at 11:00am on 11 November 1918 at Compiegne. The final battles were therefore raging while Elgar strolled in the woods and fished.
In June 1918 Sir Edward Elgar wrote to Lady Alice Stuart Wortley, the daughter of John Millais, to tell her about his fishing trip on Saturday 15 June. It had been his first visit to the pond at Little Bognor with a fishing rod. I thought it would be good to mark the centenary of his visit by reconstructing the day.
Elgar was a keen fisherman who loved the countryside, particularly the woods around Bedham and Fittleworth. In 1918 there was only one lake at Little Bognor, to call it a pond is an injustice. A pond is something found in a suburban garden, it conjures up visions of gnomes and goldfish. Curiously, Little Bognor has two ancient stone gnomes, hidden memorials to Sir Edward and his wife. Moreover, Little Bognor was built to provide a constant flow of water to the Upper Mill. It was therefore a millpond. Nevertheless, I prefer to call it a lake.
Elgar had ordered his fishing tackle from The Army and Navy Stores and Lady Alice Stuart Wortley, his muse, sent him “a cheap knife with scissors (fisherman’s)“… “a bit of tying silk and some India rubber float caps“. An odd assortment of tackle. Was he fly fishing ? I doubt it, he refers to ‘this rough fishing‘ which implies coarse fishing with a float and worms from his garden.
Sir Edward and his wife, also Lady Alice, rose at dawn and walked to Little Bognor through the woods and across the fields. It was less than a mile, mostly downhill. He was aged 61 and Lady Alice was 70. Quite a walk at their age.
I listened to Elgar’s cello concerto as I drove towards Riverhill. I planned to walk from Brinkwells to Little Bognor but not at dawn, that would be taking things too far. There would be no float fishing or worms. Lady Alice helped with the landing net but I had no ghillie. It would be nice to catch three Trout but it was not essential, one fish would suffice.
The footpath from Brinkwells runs in a straight line towards Little Bognor through coppiced Chestnut and along the headland of a wheat field. The South Downs were shrouded in low cloud but it was hot, too hot for walking weighed down by fishing tackle. I followed the footpath south west towards the lake, relying on the landscape and GPS to find my way through the maze of modern fire breaks. Yesterday I had an excellent day at Little Bognor and I hoped that it wouldn’t overshadow the main event.
When I arrived at the lake I was disappointed to see another angler. The lake was covered in leaf debris and grass cuttings. Perhaps I should have arrived earlier. I used the same fly as yesterday and crept along the little path under the trees to a mossy hump where I could wait for the fish in comfort. The fish were active and after casting a couple of flies into the trees, I managed to connect with a small Trout just under the bank. I was a bit tense and the fish escaped. The pressure built. I lost more flies and had a couple of takes both of which I missed. I was spooking the fish so I returned to the car for a banana. The other angler departed having frightened all the Trout, causing them to take refuge under the trees on my side of the lake.
I returned to the lake and lowered a dry fly onto a cruising fish which threw the hook after a few seconds. It felt very small, probably a wild trout. I swapped the Neoprene Spider for an Iron Blue nymph which sank very slowly. I twitched it on a short line close to the bank and had a take from a sunken twig. On the next attempt a fish swirled at the fly just as I lifted it out of the water. I put the fly back and the fish swirled again but did not take. Several minutes later I saw the leader twitch and start to move so I lifted into the fish very gently. It was only ten feet away and as it took line I thought the tippet would snap. The Trout raced for the centre of the lake then dashed up and down under the trees. I tangled the rod in the bushes, got pointed several times and allowed the fish to wrap the leader around some twigs in the margin. Despite my incompetence the fish eventually slid into the net. I was surprised how small it was, I thought I had caught a three pounder but it was only half that weight. I released the fish, retrieved a previously snagged fly from the marginal ferns and moved further along the bank.
The fish had moved away from the disturbances to the shallow water in the corner of the lake. They were very spooky and disappeared after a few casts. I left the lake and drove home, content with one fish. That fish and the two I caught yesterday, replicated Sir Edward’s achievements exactly a hundred years ago.
It was a dress rehearsal for the big day, nothing could be left to chance. I arrived at Little Bognor at 1:00pm and was relieved to see that I had the lakes to myself. The grey, miserable morning had developed into a bright afternoon with a gentle breeze. There was a bit of leaf debris on the surface of the lake and the swirling breeze moved it around which must have been very confusing for surface feeding fish. There were a couple of fish rising close to the west bank. Very close, less than a foot from the rushes. I crept around the Yew tree and sat on the grass, well back from the water. I could see a good fish in the margins but it was not interested in a dry fly. After twenty minutes I gave up on that fish and moved to the opposite side of the lake. I sat on the crunchy Beech mast under the trees in the dappled sunlight. The bank was warm, dry and comfortable. Very relaxing. Several fish were moving under the trees, cruising along the margins feeding on buzzers.
I flicked a Neoprene Spider under the trees near the little seat, a bow and arrow cast dropped the fly about a yard from the bank. I was patient but the Trout were rising further along the bank. I shuffled further along the bank towards the stone steps and found a comfy patch of moss. A Trout swirled under the Chestnut tree. I catapulted the fly under the branches and it was taken immediately. The fish went on several long runs but eventually found the back of the net. It was exhausted so I kept it for dinner. I moved along the bank and sat straddling the trunk of a Chestnut tree. It was a very comfortable seat and I was in no hurry to catch another fish. I watched the midges buzzing around just above the water. A fish took a fly as it swam past me. It was patrolling under the branches. I dropped a fly in it’s path and it took but I was too heavy handed and it escaped. I was surprised to see it rise again and take another buzzer.
Once more I moved along the bank towards the shallow corner of the lake. I sat high up on the bank, hiding behind the leaning trunk of another Chestnut tree. There wasn’t much room for casting so I trimmed a few sprigs of Holly and moved the dead twigs. There was a thin slot in the branches above me alongside an overhanging bough. A roll cast from the hand put the fly where I wanted. A big fish cruised past taking a couple of buzzers, turned around and returned to the debris in the corner of the lake. I positioned the fly under the branches and waited for it to return. The Trout came back and gulped the fly down. I lifted the rod gently and the fish protested. I played it gently on a 2lb bs tippet and the fish didn’t get too excited. Then it went on a long deep run into the corner of the lake stirring up the mud and leaving a trail of large bubbles. I slid down the bank and put a good bend in the rod. That made the Trout angry and it screamed out into the middle of the lake. I didn’t panic and after a long tussle it was ready for the landing net. The net was leaning against the Chestnut tree, up the bank behind me. The Trout was exhausted and bleeding and if I had returned it, would not have survived. It weighed 4lb 8ozs on the scales in the hut. It will be tough to better my day.
I started my day at the garage, handing over the keys to the broken Land Rover. Somehow it was not the same driving to Petworth in a normal car. There was no sense of adventure and I arrived without any excitement, unlike Saturday. Little Bognor was pretty but the surface of both lakes was unbroken, the Trout had retired to deep water for the rest of the day.
I visited the lower beats of the river, unable to venture off road. The water was a little coloured but I could see the streamer weed and dark gravel on the river bed at Rotherbridge. There were no fish rising. Little Springs looked lovely and the marginal plants gave me good cover as I crept around the lake watching the feeding fish. I saw several Trout that looked about 2lbs, feeding confidently on buzzers. They couldn’t see me hiding behind the cow parsley and rushes. I was tempted to stay and catch a couple of the better fish.
The river was calling, the Mayfly would soon be over and the fish at Little Springs could wait. The air was crystal clear and the BBC were warning about very high levels of UV. The skimpy clouds were high and the breeze warm. As I left the estate to drive south, I paused and looked back down the Rother valley. The side of the road was decorated with poppies and daisies and on the crest of the hill, where the wind was stronger, I had a panoramic view of the South Downs. Beautiful.
I parked at Keeper’s Bridge which was as far as I could go without the Land Rover. I tackled up and signed in to fish Beat C, upstream towards Perryfields. It was very hot and humid under the trees and swarms of Horse Flies were attacking in formation. Two coats of Jungle Formula kept them at bay.
I walked slowly upstream looking for any signs of a fish. The sun seemed to bounce back off the caramel coloured water. I floated a Mayfly imitation under the branches of an Alder tree. It looked convincing but nothing rose to inspect the fly. As I was walking upstream a huge Cormorant flapped down the Sandy Pool, too heavy with fish to take off. It disappeared into the bankside vegetation. That encounter was a major blow to my confidence. I knew that I would have to walk upstream quite a long way to ensure that I was covering pools that hadn’t been visited by the black death.
I paused above the old riffle, looking for a rising fish. I thought that the fast shallow water would not have suited the winged predator and that I might get a fish from under the trees. I fished all the usual pools on the way to Perryfields. I used a Mayfly on the way upstream and a Black Spider on the way back. Nothing.
I was hot, tired and frustrated by the blustery downstream wind which made accurate casting impossible. I decided to return to the comfortable, air conditioned luxury of the car and head for home. I should have stayed at Little Springs. I must spend an evening on the river soon.