Magic Water

The toddler knelt on the narrow wooden bridge and watched the magic water trickle across the field along a seam between the sandstone and clay. The cool water felt good on his podgy little hand. It was comforting and connected him to another world. He watched the droplets fall from his fingers to rejoin the young river on its journey to the sea. He stretched out his arm and tried to catch the little silver fish but they were too quick for him.

His mother gently pulled him away from the stream where, two thousand years earlier, a roman legionnaire had drunk before continuing his march north. The stream had grown up over two million years. It had provided the farms and hilltop villages of the High Weald with drinking water. Further down the valley it had fed the ponds and mill leats that drove the furnaces, bellows and hammers of the iron works. The stream was the giver of life and the villagers were its guardians. The little boy knew nothing about history and The Old Ways, he was too young for such things but he remembered the cool water and the fish.

The boy stood on the bridge and watched the bus grind through the gears up the hill towards the village. He looked over the red brick parapet and watched a trout sheltering beside a clump of watercress. He’d bunked off school to catch a trout. It was not the first time he had swapped double-physics for fishing. Hidden in the bushes, he threaded the line up the cane rod, fixed the float and examined his tin of worms. He crept along the hedgerow on all fours, under the hazel and alder bushes, until he reached the weir pool.

The garden of the Waterfall Tea Room was busy with bored housewives but he slid down the high bank unnoticed and sat, hidden from view, at the water’s edge. He’d heard tales of enormous trout being fed on cake and sandwiches. The roar of the waterfall dropping four feet into the pool blotted out the gentle laughter and the chink of bone china. He chose a worm and cast upstream into the foaming water. The float shot under, the reel screeched and a monster trout jumped several times. The old lady proprietor heard the commotion, saw the boy and shouted threats of “poacher” and “police” at him from the opposite side of the weir pool. He grabbed the beautiful fish and waded downstream, the cold water above his waist, until he reached the arch of the bridge where he hid waiting for the bus home. He knew they wouldn’t follow him, they were scared of the water.  His heart was thumping and he was shivering with cold but he felt safe beside the river, sheltered under the red brickwork. The trout, a two-pounder, was admired by the family and cooked for tea. The boy was worried about the old lady’s threats. He didn’t fancy being arrested for poaching. He stayed well away from the little river and the tea room.

~

The seaside town grew thirsty for water. A new water treatment works with large steam driven pumps and a pipeline six miles long, delivered millions of gallons of drinking water every day and the river shrunk. Downstream on the flood plain, barges could only deliver coal at high tide. A lock was built, the flood plain was drained and after only thirty years, the river was shallow and silted up.

The man parked the shiny new BMW in the layby and walked towards the bridge. Revisiting childhood haunts brought back memories but sometimes those memories were best remembered not relived. The Waterfall Tea Room had been demolished and the weir pool filled with the rubble. The lottery funded village tennis court had replaced the tea garden and a secondhand car lot covered the weir pool. The old bridge had been widened with concrete and steel, the red brick had gone. So had most of the water.

The river downstream was covered in thick weed, only the centre channel was clear. The man fixed the expensive reel to the even more expensive high-tech carbon fibre fly rod. He was not a member of the club but it was not really poaching. Nobody would see him. He worked his way downstream, pausing to drop his nymph into every run devoid of weed. Eventually he saw a movement in the water about fifty yards away and detoured into the field to avoid being seen. He knelt beside the river and cast towards the deeper water on the outside of the bend. There was an explosion in the water and a giant black cormorant took to the air. He shouldered his rod, swung it to lead the rapidly departing bird and squeezed the imaginary trigger. Twice. He missed with both barrels. The black-death circled around the valley in search of another stretch of river. He cursed the bird, withdrew to the pub and consoled himself over a pint. He was angry with the bird but was glad to have reconnected with the river. He smiled as he remembered the monster trout and the old lady from the tea room.

~

The Water Authority had few responsibilities and lots of cash.  The river was dredged and forced into uniform channels running in nice straight lines across the fields. High bunds were formed to prevent the river escaping onto the flood plain. Each winter the river took its revenge, washing fence posts, wheely bins and even cars into the estuary. Each summer the river shrunk and the farmers were forced to irrigate their potatoes with water from boreholes. The seaside-townies complained about the hosepipe bans and the queues for bottled water.

The old man stood on the bridge, hunched over the steel railing, buffeted by the wash from the articulated lorries hurtling towards the cross-channel ferry terminal. He squinted through the tangle of blackthorn hoping for a glimpse of sparkling water. Upstream, the riverbed was stained orange by the outflow from the village’s new sewage works. The air was musty and the trout had long gone, banished by many years of abstraction and pollution. The tennis court had been reclaimed by nature; the rusty fencing enclosed a strangely rectangular collection of saplings and blackberry bushes. The skeleton of a vandalized Ford sat in the middle of the abandoned car lot. Downstream looked more promising. He shuffled along the riverside footpath, pausing to look through small gaps in the hedgerow, hoping to see the glint of sunlight on water and signs of life. He was too old to fish but he loved to be close to the water.

He stood and looked around the river valley, soon to disappear under thousands of acres of water. The tidal barrier had been built and in a couple of years, the new reservoir would provide drinking water for the seaside town. Around a bend he saw a small boy peering into the trickle of water. The woman shouted at her young son to come away from the river. “You’ll catch something if you touch that water”, she grabbed his arm and yanked him back onto the footpath. As she dragged him away the old man saw the boy look back over his shoulder. The youngster smiled at him, he’d seen the magic.

This is a true story. It was published in the Autumn edition of Fly Culture Magazine 2020.

2020 Season Summary

In late 2019 I decided to broaden my fly fishing horizons. I took a Rod on the River Itchen and joined the Tavy Walkham and Plym Fishing Club. I renewed my longstanding membership of the Leconfield Fly Fishing Club and therefore had three venues stretched across the width of the South of England. Across two hundred and fifty five miles to be precise from Sussex, through Hampshire to West Devon.

Lockdown looked like a barrier to my widespread and expensive plans. However, we were released just as the Trout season got underway and the impact on my travels was minimal. My summer revolved around regular visits to the Itchen, fitting in other fishing trips according to the weather. For once rain was not a problem. If the Rother was coloured, the spate rivers on Dartmoor were filled with hungry Trout.

I didn’t visit the River Rother as much as I had in previous seasons, mainly because I was in a different County. The water level varied a lot and good river conditions never seemed to align with my availability. The lack of flying insects and water coloured by run-off, resulted in deep feeding fish. The deep sunk nymph accounted for more Trout than the dry fly. It was scary to get a big thump on the rod as a 2-3lb brownie seized the fly unseen. I didn’t see any Sea Trout smolts and only a couple of adults were caught by club members. Global warming, pollution and abstraction seem to have effected this lowland river more than most.

The River Itchen was very kind to me, both the fishing and the scenery were spectacular. I’d fished there once before, late in the 2019 season, when I had the entire fishery to myself and caught several good fish. I repeated my initial success on a couple of occasions in 2020. There were many heart-stopping moments as big Trout rose to the dry fly only to turn away.

As the season progressed the Trout became very wary and I had to raise my game to get any interest in the various fly patterns I presented. After each trip I felt that I’d cracked the secret but the next visit always knocked me back. In the deep swirling pools I learnt to distinguish between brownies and Sea Trout. I also came to recognise the difference between giant Chub and small Salmon which saved many a frustrating hour. The Itchen Trout were easy to find but difficult to catch.

Dartmoor memories from the early ’70s came flooding back during my first visits to the high moor. The landscape was both beautiful and dangerous. I had to abandon a couple of visits because of fog and faulty map reading.

Each time I ventured into the deep valleys on the western edge of Dartmoor I was in awe of the power of the rivers and the primeval forests. It looked like the Alaskan wilderness and I found myself spending more time admiring the scenery than fishing. It was a privilege to be allowed access to such an unspoilt environment. The Dartmoor Trout were hard to find but easy to catch.

It was a good season, the fishing was demanding, often hard work. If I had to sum up the season in one word, it would be ‘varied’. I’ve never driven as many fishing miles or fished so many miles of river. Will I do the same again next season? Probably not, the travelling was too much, I’ll adopt a more relaxed approach in 2021.

In the autumn of 2020 I bought a 300 year old farm cottage on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park, not far from the River Walkham, which will ensure a much more relaxed lifestyle.

29 September – River Rother

It was a miserable, drizzly morning but by lunch time the weather had changed and a bright, warm afternoon with a gentle breeze summoned me to Petworth. I sat beside the lake, chatted for a couple of hours and saw a few fish but they were not feeding. Petworth was deserted but the river was not. By 3:00pm several members had already visited Rotherbridge. I stood in the middle of the bridge and watched the water flowing gently over the sand. I saw three good Trout under a Willow tree just above the bridge. They were cruising, feeding fish and I decided to focus on them.

I sat on the long, warm dry grass about twenty yards above the bridge and methodically worked the near margin, then explored midstream around the clumps of weed. I was surprised not to get a take and changed the fly to a leaded size 14 GRHE nymph. I extended the line to cover the far bank run anticipating immediate success. Nothing. I assumed that I had spooked the fish and moved upstream resolving to return later.

I flicked the fly under the far bank trees and bushes, letting the leader swing round so that the fly searched under the branches. I became a little frustrated at the lack of response but remained calm, confident that the rod would slam over sooner or later.

As I worked the fly under the far bank there was a big splash about fifty yards downstream. I thought it was a Sea Trout and walked downstream to check it out. I sat behind the rushes and watched as the big fish launched itself into the air twice. It was only twenty feet away and although I was sure it was a Sea Trout, I flicked the nymph into the ripples. On the second cast the fish swirled as I lifted the fly off. On the third cast the fish thumped into the fly and went on a long run downstream. Throughout the battle the fish seemed to grow in size. It was a struggle to land and I had to nurse it for ten minutes before it swam away. Wow, what a fantastic Trout, 4lbs of angry brownie. I didn’t want to continue fishing but another splashy Trout below the bridge distracted me on the way back to the Defender. Only for a couple of minutes.

I leant on the gate and watched the river, sipping a Red Bull and nibbling chocolate. The Rother season continues into October but I would be in Devon and unlikely to visit Petworth again before the end of the season. It was good to end on a high note.

24 September – River Itchen

My final trip of the season to the Itchen came round quicker than I had expected. The Summer weather had been kind, I was only rained-off once. Generally the water and weather conditions had been excellent and I’d had the opportunity to learn a lot about chalkstream fishing. I only missed one day at the very start of the season and I had been invited to swap beats on a couple of days to take full advantage of the fishery. The crystal clear water and water meadows were uplifting, an insight into how fishing must have been on many other rivers during the early 20th Century.

Autumn arrived on 24 September. The chill wind turned the willow leaves over and the trees looked silver, a sure sign of rain. The rain arrived as I stood behind the car setting up my rod. The strong upstream wind soon blew the rain away and I could see the Trout. The water was slightly cloudy but I counted about a dozen good fish in the top pool. Quite a few looked like Sea Trout, the lighter coloured fish were active, taking the occasional sedge. For two hours I watched, selected feeding fish and offered the usual patterns. Mild interest was shown in sedge and Daddy-Long-Legs but none of the fish bothered to take close look. I switched to a Black Gnat and immediately hooked a good fish. It took a lot of line and nearly reached the pile of debris trapped below the footbridge. Thirty minutes later I had caught another two Trout about 2lbs each, both on the same fly.

I wandered down the right bank, under the trees, looking for feeding fish on the patches of gravel but the sky was grey and in the poor light it was difficult to see a target.  I found a good fish in the edge near the end of the Beat and detoured around the marginal plants to get below it. I flicked the fly into the run several times anticipating a take but when I peeped around the rushes, the Trout had gone.

I crossed to the left bank and found three fish on gravel above the big hatch pool. They were rising near a Willow tree and several of my flies were sacrificed in attempts to reach them. One fish reacted to a sedge and a Daddy, turning and following the flies downstream but veered away on closer inspection. I returned to the top pool and soon had another beautifully marked fish in the landing net, the best of the day. My self-imposed four fish limit had been hard work but when I had presented the right fly without lining the fish, they had responded well.

It was good to end my season on the Itchen with such an enjoyable day. I will be able to relive the memories during the winter months.

21 September – River Plym

It was my last chance to fish on Dartmoor before the end of the season. The dog walkers were out in force but I climbed over the fence into the privacy of the wood. I’d seen a black shadow in the pool under the bridge and the fish was feeding. I sat on a log covered with soft green lichen and threaded the line through the rod rings. I used a short tippet and a size 14 nymph. The dark shadow shot across the pool, grabbed the fly and raced under the arch of the bridge. It was my biggest Dartmoor brownie, about 8ozs.

Each pool contained a Trout and I either landed it or lost it. I caught about five fish and in some pools I had several takes. I realised that I had to anticipate the take and be ready to tap home the hook. Concentration was required. A couple of the takes, fishing downstream, were just slow draws, easily mistaken for weed or an Autumn leaf.

The sun was warm and bright, it illuminated the Hazel and Oak leaves. Acorns dropped into the pools from the centuries old trees. The foam in the throat of the pools glowed white and the various coloured rocks on the river bed looked like a tartan rug. The landscape looked like Spring except for the bracken which showed rusty brown under the tree canopy.

The trip was a fitting end to my season on Dartmoor. I’d not seen anyone, I’d caught a few beautiful fish and had spent three hours in unspoilt Devon countryside. It doesn’t get any better than that.