Devon – February

Spring arrives early in the West Country. I felt warm in the bright sunshine but in the shade of the steep river valley, the cold north wind made me shiver and pull up the zip on my Barbour. The trees were bare, only wisps of bright green lichen on the branches and moss on the sunny side of the trunks, brought splashes of colour to an otherwise monotone underwood.

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My first sight of the river was a shock. The crystal clear water raced along, washing over rocks, cleansing every pebble. There were no floating twigs or leaves, no rafts of flotsam. The floods in late January had removed all foreign bodies from the river’s course. Small streams and leats tumbled down each side of the valley and bubbled into the river. The sphagnum moss on Dartmoor had filtered the water and made it slightly acid, suppressing the growth of weed.

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A thousand feet above sea level Dartmoor looked intimidating, dangerous. The grass had been shorn and looked like an uneven lawn dotted with stunted gorse bushes. It was squelchy underfoot, the turf saturated by the winter rain. The moorland pools were full, overflowing into tiny streams which fought their way between granite boulders towards Plymouth Sound. The weather changes quickly on the moor and looking west towards Bodmin, I could see Storm Ciara approaching. Heavy rain and gale force winds had been forecast. The big Atlantic storm darkened the horizon and I left the moor to seek shelter in another river valley.

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A kingfisher zoomed between the arches of the 13th century bridge barely a foot above the water. The cutwaters carefully separated the flow, diverting the water between the granite pillars, sliding it over the ancient bridge’s foundations. Below the bridge the water swirled into a deep holding pool, the floor of which had been swept clean to expose the bedrock. Further downstream there was a fast run over multi coloured shale. I leant over the bridge parapet but saw no fish, they reveal themselves only when they change position.

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I’d fished on Dartmoor and in it’s valleys more than forty years ago, catching a few fish but not consistently. Spate river fishing is different, it’s way outside my recent experience. The river was reminiscent of the Derwent but not as wide. It would be a challenge. I would have to use natural imitations, small heavily weighted flies that would sink quickly. Definitely no beads, just lead wire. Upstream nymphing might be the answer. The water was too fast and clear for ‘down and across’, the trout would see me before they saw the fly. A Devon fly box will need filling before the season opens in March.

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Storm Ciara arrived in the village that evening at opening time. I had a pint, a nice steak and a glass of Shiraz before falling asleep infront of the wood burner. The following morning the river was in full spate. There should be plenty of water in the rivers throughout the summer.

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2020 Plans

The first day of a new decade is a good time to make plans. Not resolutions, they can be negative. Holidays, fishing trips and other positive stuff needs careful thought.

I have a couple of months to edit my 2019 diary, print each section and take it to Otter Bookbinding in Midhurst. I like to read each entry as I format the text, it sets the scene for the new season.

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My fishing was reduced by a third last season. The heavy rain kept me away from the Rother and the extreme summer heat limited my time on the lakes. Nevertheless, 2019 was an eventful year and I plan to make 2020 even more memorable.

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The season opens in mid March. It will be good to wander around the Estate lakes and see how the winter has changed my favourite places. The Rother opens in early April and the constant flooding of the last three months will have changed the contours of the river bed. Last years debris will have been washed away only to be replaced by this winters fallen trees.

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I am excited about my first season as a Rod on the Itchen. It will be a new world to explore even in the most extreme weather conditions. It will be interesting to see how the Mayfly season varies across a chalk stream, a lowland river and the lakes.

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Dartmoor beckons. I plan to explore some of my old haunts on the moor and in the steep wooded valleys along its western edge.

I will take more time, slow fishing is best. There will be more cane, less carbon.

It’s time to clean my fly line, oil the reel and tie a few more flies, only ten weeks to wait.

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Southwell III

I had been searching for a Bob Southwell rod called the ‘Blagdon‘ since discovering a 2014 auction photo. A proper auction, not online. The fuzzy shot revealed a long rod with green whippings and the correct period fittings. I left a random note online asking for information about Southwell rods and after several months, up popped an email offering me a ‘Blagdon‘. I bought it the next day.

This was not the auction rod, the inscription was different. There’s another one still to find. My initial impression was that the rod I had bought would need a light refurbishment. I always start with preservation in mind, it never works out that way. Horrors are invariably discovered under the magnifying glass and so it turned out.

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Unlike the other Southwell rods I have, this one had been fished-to-death. The rings were worn out. Expensive fly line destroying half moon bites inside each of the full open bridge rings consigned them to the bin. Why didn’t Southwell use snake rings? Even the Agate butt ring had several grooves and was bent. The cork handle was chipped, the tip section had lost a few inches and the cane had a slight set.

The many scars in the varnish were witness to a hard life. Definitely not a collectors piece. My biggest concern was a suspicious looking whipping near the tip, was it concealing a fracture? The marks in the varnish, the mangled tip ring and missing cane suggested that the rod tip had probably been trodden on. Unlike my other Southwell rods this would need a full refurbishment, it could not be used otherwise.

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I repurposed a natural cork from a traditional bottle of wine. It matched the old cork handle very well. I was given an original black button from the Southwell era. I found a gem of a butt ring that had been crafted from real Agate and looked more like designer jewellery than a rod fitting. It cost as much. I even found some Pearsalls silk of the correct colour.

The handle restoration is complete but the full restoration is a winter long project. It’s fiddly and time consuming. The intermediate whippings are widely spaced but need good light and a steady hand. The rod will be ready in the Spring. Probably.

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Season Summary

I usually summarise the season in one word. This year choosing one word was tricky but I settled on ‘eventful‘. I experienced so many new things that warranted a diary entry. Events that might otherwise be overlooked in later years when recalling the blur of 2019.

In April I visited the Derwent in Cumbria to celebrate my 65th birthday. The scenery, weather and fishing were fabulous and the rented farmhouse beside the river was a warm and comfortable lodging. I am tempted to return but it was such a magical week that it can never be repeated.

I was invited to fish the River Wey during the mayfly season and although I let a monster escape, I had a great time exploring a bigger version of the Rother. I also visited the River Itchen in early September and had the entire fishery to myself. My beat was spectacular and I learnt a lot about upstream dry fly on a chalk stream. I have taken a rod on the Itchen next season.

2019 was the ‘Year of The Cane Rod’. I christened the Farlows ‘Holdfast – New Zealand’, the Sharpes ‘Aberdeen’ and bought several other cane rods.

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Although I have an inventory of my cane collection, it has become difficult to choose a rod for a days fishing. I have my favourites but I will ensure that the majority get used next year.

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Bob Southwell

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Fly Culture magazine

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River Derwent, Cumbria

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Little Springs

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River Rother

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The New Riffle

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Mayfly Spinner

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Mayfly Dun

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Below Keepers Bridge

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Riverhill

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Weirwood Reservoir 1975

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River Itchen

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New Hat

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Ebisu Day

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October

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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