18 May – Rotherbridge

A cool breeze, baby blue sky and thin wispy clouds produced a light as intense as St Ives or St Tropez. Not ideal for trout fishing although it might encourage the Mayfly to hatch. I am usually so keen to get to the river that I am exhausted before the evening rise starts. To pass the afternoon away I messed about with an old telescopic landing net handle that I had found in a junk shop. I’d bought it for pennies because it was identical to the Efgeeco handle that I used as a boy. It was bent, not as telescopic as it used to be.

I arrived at Rotherbridge at 5:30pm and was immediately struck by the lack of any wildlife. It was quiet, no birds or insects and no rising fish. I ambled upstream, keeping well back from the river, looking for any signs. The river looked very tidy. The winter floods had washed the debris out of the low hanging branches and had scoured the margins. The water had a dark green tint and looked sterile.

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A flow deflector had been built in the New Riffle and a couple of members were fishing from the opposite bank so I moved upstream, pausing on the bends to observe the longer stretches of water. The fields to the north of the river had been wrapped in countryside-cling-film and the irrigation machines were spurting water on multi coloured salad crops. Madness.

I paid particular attention to my favourite fish holding places, the familiar Alder trees and back eddies where the sandy bank had collapsed. I stood beside the Overhanging Tree where I had always managed to winkle out a fish. After a few minutes a fish rose in the usual place, in the fast water along the far bank, under the lowest branch. It rose a couple of times, small splashy rises, it looked like a wild fish taking duns. My first couple of side casts were amateurish, I fired the detached body Mayfly low and hard and it landed heavily. Not a good start. I rested the fish then flicked the fly across the pool, close to the far bank. The fish rose, I lifted too quickly and cursed. My first take of the season botched.

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I walked back downstream and sat on the sand opposite another Alder at the head of a long pool. I had forgotten the toffees. As I was resting a spinner fell and perched on the electric fence behind me. While I was taking its portrait a fish rose at the end of a trailing branch. It took three Mayflies in quick succession and looked like a good prospect. I took much too long tying on a small spinner imitation and by the time I presented the fly the fish had stopped rising.

I waited patiently, occasionally drying the fly on my trousers, drifting it down the far bank but either the fish had swapped lies or I had put it down. I walked back to the bridge very slowly expecting to find a rising fish under the trees but the sun was low and the evening rise had finished. The evening had shown me that I needed to up my game for my first visit to the Itchen on Thursday. Basic errors would not be tolerated by the shy chalk stream brownies.

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14 May – Beat A and Little Bognor

I listened to a Ludwig van cello concerto with Jacqueline Du Pre during the drive to the river. I could listen to the music in the hushed cabin of the motorway-cruiser, chosen in order to boost the battery charge. The soft leather and air conditioning were a change from the noisy, drafty Defender. Normal noisy, drafty service would be resumed on Friday.

I was relaxed and hungry when I arrived at Ladymead. I had lunch on the tailgate in the bright sunshine. It was 1:00pm before I filled my pocket with toffees and wandered around the headland to the river. The water looked perfect and I stood on the bridge scanning the tail end of the skimpy weedbeds for signs of Trout. There were none. A kingfisher arrowed underneath me. The river was deserted, only the wind broke the silence.

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The pool at Ladymead had been rebuilt during the winter floods. A huge sandbank had appeared along the north bank and a sheer cliff scoured out on the opposite side. Hundreds of tons of sand had been moved about. The main current had increased in speed and a bar with a steep drop-off, ran the entire length of the pool. It looked like a good place for trout and chub. I worked a black spider down the pool and explored the upslope of the sandbank. I was tense, expecting a thump on the rod. Nothing. I wandered upstream and explored a few pools before deciding to spend the rest of the afternoon at Little Bognor.

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Southwell II, the ‘Chew Valley’, continued my #caneonly approach to slow fishing. The rod is lighter than its length would suggest. I don’t like short rods. It has a compound taper which gives a nice flick at the end of the cast and suits a light line. The lower lake at Little Bognor looked stunning and the tall trees reduced the strong wind to a flukey breeze. Perfect.

I sat in my usual place under the beeches and watched a couple of nice trout cruise along the margin sipping down midges. A few fish flashed under the surface, turning a golden brown as they rolled over an ascending buzzer. The fly choice was obvious. I slumped into the new ferns and flicked a slow sinking buzzer under a bush to my left. I was happy to wait for a cruising fish to return. Eventually a good fish took a buzzer close to my imitation. It looked at my fly, sneered and drifted away. The sunlight and ripples prevented me from seeing the leader at any distance from the bank. Fish were rising along the shaded west bank and the water was calm, it was time to move.

I crept along the bank and sat on the bone dry grass behind a clump of ferns. I drifted the buzzer from left to right in an arc about ten yards from the bank. Fish were moving but the leader remained slack. I swapped to a lighter tippet and almost immediately the leader slid under the surface. It was a dark overwintered fish about a pound which I returned. Presentation is everything.

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13 May – Unlocked

I was not prepared. I remained in grass cutting mode, a gardening zombie. My mind was locked down. Although the rods and reels were super clean I’d forgotten how to fish. Opening Day II felt strange, the cold North wind was in stark contrast to the May bank holiday heat wave. At 5:00am the air was chilled, the sky was completely void of clouds and vapour trails. The Defender shone in the early morning sun, it had been washed and serviced ready for action.

Last year on 13 May I’d spent the day at the lakes experimenting with Mayfly patterns. This year, although I’d had months to tie new flies, I hadn’t been in the mood and I felt under-gunned. I have hundreds of flies but when I look in the boxes I can never find what I want.

Where to fish? I would let the Mayfly decide. There would be a hatch at the lakes around noon. I might then spend the evening at the river, the top Beat was calling, nobody would have fished that beat for over six months.

I arrived at the lakes at lunchtime and spent too long chatting. The cold North wind swept down Little Springs funneled by the tall trees. The few Mayfly that were hatching tumbled along the surface of the water and as they became airborne, were snatched away.

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Southwell III needed christening. I planned to explore the shallows and the edges of the weed beds with a Mayfly nymph. I started between the two Alder trees at the top of the lake but the water was coloured and there were no signs of fish. I sat on the grass beside the first point and flicked a nymph over the Potamogeton natans. The fly line occasionally slipped under a leaf but I was confident that I would get a take and the odd snag was a minor inconvenience.

The rod was more powerful than I had imagined, it had the tell-tale, crisp, steely feel of all Southwell rods and handled the #4 Cortland with ease. I had a tap on the line after thirty minutes working the fly around the weedbed but failed to connect. I was cold and found it difficult to concentrate. An hour later the line slid away and I lifted into a good fish which thrashed on the surface for a few seconds before escaping.

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I sat in the Defender, had a toffee and warmed up. After a walk around Great Springs I sat on the bench and worked a weighted nymph alongside the brickwork. I saw a fish rise on my left and dropped the nymph in that direction. A few seconds later I lifted into what felt like a small trout. It burst into life when I put a bit of pressure on. The blue trout swam a figure-of-eight around the swimming ladder, rested while I untangled the line and then dived deep into a weed bed. It was about three pounds but I’ll never know the exact weight.

The wind dropped a bit and the sun came out. I walked around Little Springs and decided not to wait until the evening, I was too tired and cold. The south east corner of the lake was Mayfly soup, the margins were full of nymph shucks, crippled duns and emergers.

It had been a great afternoon. I hadn’t made it to the river but I had christened the rod.

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Fly Culture – Fantasy Fishing

My trout fishing season is over and five months of impending boredom threaten my sanity. I’ve read a few old fishing books, cleaned my reels several times and tied hundreds of flies. I still have flies that I tied over forty years ago. The rows of Peter Ross, Dunkeld and Invicta look lovely in my classic Wheatley fly box. Works of art that have never caught a trout. They never will. It’s the scruffy nymphs in the tiny plastic hook box that catch the trout.

Buying another rod interrupts the monotony of winter. The heart-pounding guilt as I click on the ‘Confirm Payment’ button. Waiting for the postman. Wondering if I can sneak the rod tube into the corner of the study without being caught. The excitement is short lived. The rod arrives and I practice casting at the windfall apples on the lawn. They ignore my offering. It’s not as satisfying as a chalk stream. Winter drags and my impatience grows. Grayling fishing is an option but it’s just an excuse to catch trout out of season and not for me, I’d rather wait until April.

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As a nipper I kept a fishing diary in a school exercise book. I drew secret maps and noted the weights of all my record fish. I vaguely recall some of the entries, days spent carp fishing beside the lake in the forest when my monsters weighed 3lbs not 30. I wish I hadn’t thrown it in the bin, de-cluttering is not always a good thing. A belated pang of conscience and the boredom of early retirement, prompted me to start another diary which has added the fourth dimension to my fishing. Time. I am more observant, always looking for photo opportunities and making mental notes about the wildlife. I sit beside the river watching the water, in no hurry to cast a line. Slow Fishing.

Each year I battle with Microsoft Word and transform the text into a format fit for the book binders. While editing my 2019 diary I recalled the long hot summer, the beautiful scenery, wild trout and sunsets. Three hundred pages and forty thousand words of memories to browse while the rivers are out of bounds and the lakes frozen over.
My old fishing books take me to rivers and lakes but the memories are not mine. The authors and some of the rivers are long gone. The fishing classics are a pleasant distraction but nostalgia is a form of neurosis that I can do without. I search for something to occupy my thoughts, something I can look forward to. Something to dream about. Nevermind the past, what about the future ?

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A bottle of single malt is the answer. A comfy armchair, two fingers of scotch and I settle down and begin my dream. I have chosen my fantasy destination, the River Derwent in Cumbria. I packed my bag and left the house before dawn. Pure fantasy. The car doesn’t break down, the three hundred mile journey on the deserted M6 only takes a few minutes and I’m there in time to see the sun rise over Skiddaw. The river looks beautiful and I have miles of the swiftest flowing river in the country all to myself. The Herdwick sheep ignore me unlike the bolshy heifers down South. They stand and stare. They intimidate me into moving on. There are no cattle here to bully me.

I nervously thread the fly line through the rings of the Sage 10′ 6″ 3# that I found in Oxfam for £5 and walk downstream through the morning mist. The trout are rising, I knew they would be. A few upwing flies are hatching and I catch several beautiful wild fish on a dry fly before adjourning to the pub for lunch. After a long siesta in the afternoon sun, the evening rise produces a few more trout. The journey home is brief and uneventful, a lorry driver smiles and waves as I hurtle past. There are no muddy boots to clean or nets to dry. As I relax with another scotch, I recall a memorable day. The difficult fish behind a rock, the Osprey drifting overhead and the distillery just across the field. I threw perfect loops all day, hooked no trees and only lost a couple of trout. A perfect day.

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I might go to the Derwent again tomorrow evening and try for a sea trout. Alternatively, I’ll hunt barracuda with a fly rod on a sandy beach in Barbados. I might see you there, I’m the guy effortlessly casting to the edge of the reef some fifty yards offshore. On the other hand I might drive to Cornwall in the Defender and fish for trout on Bodmin Moor. No, that’s stretching my imagination too far, I’d only get as far as Winchester before I had to call the RAC.

I am spoilt for choice. I can flick through the volumes of my diary and recall the memories of seasons past, or close my eyes and transport myself into the future beside the river of dreams. The fantasies are so real I become confused, my memories and dreams merge. It’s a long winter, I’ll need a case of scotch.

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This diary entry was published in the Winter 2019 edition of Fly Culture magazine, probably the best fly fishing magazine in the world ! While we are ‘locked down‘ and unable to fish, I have more time for memories and dreams.

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Devon – Opening Week

15 March – Heavy overnight rain drifted upcountry leaving Devon drizzle hanging in the trees. It was a perfect trout fishing morning, time to explore a river. In February I had walked miles along the banks of several rivers on the western edge of Dartmoor. Fast flowing, peaty torrents in wooded valleys. Each river had it’s own character.

The top beat of the Walkham hurried along between stunted Oaks, their branches wrapped in bright green lichen. The surrounding moor was a uniform beige, the aftermath of a cold wet winter. The Walkham river valley broke the monotony of the barren landscape, a green artery winding it’s way around the base of Great Mis Tor. Each pool and back eddy probably held a small brownie.

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In contrast, the grander Tavy thundered around rocks the size of a mini and swept past a cliff face below the dark entrance to a mine shaft. The steep sides of the valley were covered in mature pine trees and Buzzards circled the tree line on the updraft. It was a harsh, unforgiving riverscape, not for the faint hearted. Salmon and sea trout would rest in the deep pools later in the year. The Tavy scenery looked more like Scotland than Devon.

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I put my reel, a spool of Stroft ABR and a tiny box of nymphs in my jacket pocket and walked away from the village, upstream on the Walkham. I left the lane and walked down a bridle path beside an old mining leat towards the weir. I saw the weir through the trees long after I’d heard the water crashing into the pool. It was a washing machine, unfishable. The rod was redundant but I walked the river bank, looking into the eddies, noting the deep runs and watching the birds. A tiny tree creeper inched it’s way up an oak, picking at the lichen, working it’s way up the trunk in a spiral. Each time it’s foraging took it behind the tree I stepped forward and waited for it to reappear. I got quite close before it noticed me

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The overnight rain had run off the saturated moor and filled the river but the water level would drop as quickly as it had risen. I realised that timing is everything on these spate rivers. I returned to the cottage without wetting a line and had a couple of pints in the Leaping Salmon while planning my next trip.

16 March – In contrast to yesterday the morning was bright following an overnight frost. From the cottage I could hear the weir but the roar of the water had subsided to a murmur. I decided to visit the Walkham again, a stretch I had explored in February. The extra foot of caramel coloured water passing over the weir sill had reduced to a few inches and there was a chance the lower, broader reaches of the river would be fishable.

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I was relieved to see the river was in good condition. It had a slight honey colour but I could see the river bed in the deep runs and pools. Most of the holding areas were on my side, the left bank. I started exploring the water with a black spider, working it down and across and holding the fly over the deeper water with a mend in the line. I expected a tug on the line every drift but although I saw a couple of golden flashes near the fly, it was probably just the shafts of sunlight catching the white stones.

I fished a long pool on the far bank, running the fly under the leafless tree branches and gradually extending the cast to cover every lie. I lost a couple of flies and moved downstream. A kingfisher whizzed past and returned a few minutes later, a good omen. A badly fenced mine shaft distracted me for a few minutes and I wondered about the working conditions and the devastation that would have been caused by the heavy metals and arsenic.

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I experimented with heavier flies, different sizes and colours but couldn’t get a take. I fell over while clambering around a rock pile, then encountered a dog walker along the river’s edge. It was a sign to turn back. I’d fished for three hours and not reached the end of the Beat. The walk to the car was longer than I expected, I must remember to stop fishing before I’m exhausted. Although I had not caught a trout or even come close, it had been good to flick a fly around and walk beside the river in the spring sunshine. A great improvement on yesterday.

17 March – In contrast to yesterday the still grey morning was warm and compelling, there are no better conditions for fly fishing. Later in the day the southwesterly would be upstream, ideal for presenting a tiny fly to the moorland brownies. It had to be done. The walk to the Beat was daunting, two kilometers over broken ground on the flanks of Great Mis Tor. The OS map and a compass would take some of the risk out of the trek, contouring around the tor would avoid a steep climb.

On the moor freezing fog cut visibility to fifty yards. I filled my pocket with toffees, essential energy boosters, slung the rod over my shoulders and set off at a steady pace. I walked about five hundred meters before I turned around and headed back to the car. Frozen and soaked. A lesson forgotten, it can be sunny in the village and a ‘white-out’ on the moor.

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19 March – A memorable day, it wasn’t raining. The high moor was shrouded in mist but I hoped the hazy overcast would blow away or burn off as predicted by the BBC. I chose the River Cad for several reasons, access to the river was easy, visibility on the lower moor was good and the open moorland would not restrict my backcast.

The wind was downstream but as I would be fishing a nymph down-and-across that was not a problem. I fished the pool at Cadover Bridge, confident of a take. After changing the size and weight of the fly a few times I left the pool, slightly puzzled by my lack of success, to continue my walk upstream. Each riffle had a slow glide above and deep channels below. None of the glides or channels produced a take. They looked so inviting, there must have been trout hiding beside the rocks.

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At about midday upwing flies started to hatch. The were small, pale olives with blue wings. Blue Winged Olives? I had never seen the flies before and made a mental note to check the reference books to confirm my identification. I changed to a heavily weighted size 14 GRHE nymph and concentrated on a long far-bank run. The water was crystal clear, I could see the rocks on the bottom clearly in four feet of water. The east wind cooled me and helped with casting, the sun was warm in the shelter of the gorse bushes. I fished a pool where a brook entered the river via a three foot high waterfall but snagged a rock and lost another fly.

During the long walk back to the car I wondered if the water temperature had been a factor. Perhaps the icy cold water had deactivated the trout. I shall take a thermometer next time.

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It had been a strange week, I felt out of control. Different rivers and weather conditions contributed to my confusion. With so many moorland rivers to fish, it will be a long time before I can catch trout consistently. There’s lots to learn, starting all over again is a great feeling.

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