Farlows ‘Holdfast’

I had a tip off. There would be vintage fly rods and reels for sale at the village Christmas fayre. I would launch a preemptive strike and come home with arms full of rare goodies. That was the plan.

On a wet, grey miserable Saturday morning I was excited and nervously fiddled about until the car key turned in the ignition and I was off, speeding through the misty Sussex countryside with a bulging wallet. I was confident that my arrival, ten minutes before the village hall opened, would see me at the fishing tackle table before the enemy. It was a shock to see parked cars clogging the centre of the village and a queue infront of the village hall. I wiggled the car into a space, partly blocking a cottage door and joined the untidy thread of people milling around in the drizzle.

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While queueing I stood under a gazebo covering a stall selling hot bacon rolls. It was torture. I had missed breakfast but resisted the temptation incase the doors suddenly opened mid-transaction. I examined the handful of people ahead of me in the queue. Mainly women buying Christmas presents, antique dealers looking for sleepers and no fishermen in Barbour jackets and floppy hats. Excellent.

Eventually, I shuffled through the door and got another shock. The hall was full. How did that happen ? At the fishing table, obvious from the forest of rods stacked in the window recess, I asked about the antique fly reels. The stall holder told me a lady had just bought it. Bother. I rapidly scanned the room looking for a lady clutching a Hardy Perfect or suchlike, but the enemy had departed.

Ignoring the forest of fibreglass, I clutched two tatty old canvas rod bags, anxious to retain possession until I could examine the contents. The Sharpes bag contained a vintage split cane salmon rod but most of the cork handle had been eaten by mice. The Farlows bag revealed a badly restored fly rod with rusty rings and a split ferrule. The cane was good. I knocked it down a fiver and left the scrum. I retrieved my badly parked car and drove home in the rain, keen to examine my prize.

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My last restoration project went way over budget and resulted in a rod that looked nice but wouldn’t be used. It had a steel centre and was too heavy. The new rod was light and lithe. Farlows records were destroyed during WWII but a 1938 catalogue identified the rod as the ‘New Zealand’, 10’ 6” cost £9 12s 6d. A very expensive rod for loch fishing. The patent on the Holdfast device was taken out in 1926 and the later models had tapered ferrules so the rod was nearly a hundred years old.

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I planned to lightly restore the rod using appropriate rings and retaining the Holdfast ferrules which gave the rod its name. The rod weighed 9 ½ ozs mainly due to the mahogany reel seat and brass fittings. It had a special magic feel. I could imagine the rod bending and shaking as a loch trout became airborne.

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The restoration went smoothly, there were no unexpected setbacks. Even the varnishing was without incident or dust. I’ll test the rod on the lawn trout in a couple of days. Now that I have two excellent split cane rods perhaps next season should be ‘cane only’. That would slow me down. I would have to rest my arm every five minutes. Something to ponder over Christmas.

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2018 Season Summary

The 2018 season was eventful and if I had to sum it up with one word, I would say it was ‘memorable’. The extreme weather was frustrating but I particularly enjoyed fishing at Little Bognor and the river. The “Beast from the East” delayed the start of river fishing and the long, hot dry summer ruined the trout fishing on most of the lakes but despite the weather, I had many enjoyable moments.

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At the start of the season I had several objectives in mind. I planned to reduce the wear and tear on my right arm by learning to cast with my left. After 40 years of casting badly I would have an opportunity to correct my wayward style. How hard could it be ? I used the first few weeks of the season to practice casting with my left arm and became quite proficient. As the season progressed I became ambidextrous but continued to use my right arm for tricky casts around bushes or under trees. It was probably just a lack of confidence.

I used the new Hardy Duchess reel that I bought from Peter Cockwill. I matched it with a cut-down Cortland 444 and it was excellent. I loaded the line onto the reel for right hand wind  and reversed both ratchet pawls so it didn’t make a noise. I used it mainly on the river and it quickly became my favourite reel.

The catch and release experiment at Little Bognor enabled me to fish frequently without the embarrassment of dead but unwanted trout. I used March and April to learn new casting skills, test leader and tippet combinations and to experiment with new flies ready for the river which eventually became fishable in mid May.

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The Mayfly hatch was interrupted by heavy rain at the end of May and dwindled away during June. I will always remember June 2018. I had a potentially fatal experience in the Land Rover when a wheel bearing seized on the way to the Orvis Day. Which I missed. June 15 was the centenary of Elgar’s first fishing trip to Little Bognor and I caught a brownie of 4lb 8ozs while rehearsing for the big day.

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In July I christened my Bob Southwell cane rod which was immediately reserved for special occasions. The July temperature reached 35 degrees. I spent a memorable holiday in Rye, staying for a week at the Mermaid Inn, visiting the beach and some of my boyhood haunts. I was relieved when it rained at the end of the month and the Sea Trout started to run.

In August the river was refreshed by heavy rain and I enjoyed a memorable day on the top beat which had remained unfished since April. I didn’t catch anything but I deceived and hooked a good fish, in a difficult lie, with an upstream dry fly. It snagged me and got off but finding, stalking and hooking the Trout was extremely satisfying.

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September was a productive month, the Autumn Equinox brought gales and heavy rain but earlier in the month the river had been in perfect condition. The mornings were chilly and the House Martins left for warmer climes. I had great sport with copper nymphs and dry flies, particularly a small sedge pattern. Quite a few Sea Trout were caught but I had resolved, at the start of the season, not to fish for them. Fishing a deep sunk lure would be hard work and boring. Moreover, I wasn’t comfortable trying to catch a fish that had survived a long journey to the sea and back.

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In October I visited Little Bognor, Great Springs and the river. I caught fish from both the lakes and the river. It was a final tour of the Estate before the trip to Dartmoor and before the bad weather set in. October is usually the best month on the river and I had an excellent day at the start of the month, netting a big resident brown that had evaded capture. I finished the river season in the wooded section below Keepers Bridge where I caught one of the Impossible Trout. A great way to end my year on the Rother.

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In early November a holiday on Dartmoor had interrupted fishing. The week away had enabled me to walk along the banks of the rivers Meavy, Blackbrook, Walkham and several tiny moorland streams. I didn’t see a single fish. Not even a minnow. Dartmoor in November is an evil place, devoid of tourists, dark and threatening. The rivers were fast and crystal clear unlike the Rother. I hung over the parapet of a tiny stone bridge contemplating a game of Pooh Sticks. Early next April I will fish the Derwent for the first time and in my mind, I practiced running a weighted nymph through the turbulent pools below the bridge. I didn’t get a take.

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In Sussex the late November weather was cold, wet and windy. I cleared the outflow on the lakes at Little Bognor a couple of times each week but the Chestnut and Beech trees shed their leaves faster than they were swept downstream. Each time I visited the lakes during November I saw fish moving but the frozen water troughs and the biting wind meant that the rod stayed in its tube. My season had ended on 25 October, the earliest ending for years.

Although I caught fewer fish than last year, I had more enjoyment. The catch and release experiment at Little Bognor meant that I didn’t have to worry about killing the fish and I also had the pleasure of seeing them swim away. Finding a rare pristine Southwell fly rod and celebrating the Elgar centenary were the high points of a very memorable season.

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25 October – Keepers Bridge

I walked part of each Beat trying to assess my chances on what might be my last visit to the river until next season. The sun was warm and I took my time strolling along the river bank waiting for a fish to show. The weir pool was full of turbulent grey water and looked dead. I was not impressed. At Rotherbridge the water was a lot clearer but there were no signs of life. I walked downstream to investigate what looked like a rise but it turned out to be a Little Grebe. A few fish had been caught at Keeper’s Bridge but although I stood and willed a fish to move, the water was flat calm. I remembered the Impossible Trout in the wooded area below Keeper’s Bridge and decided to spend a leisurely afternoon trying to winkle one out from under the trees. I visited Taylor’s Bridge and walked down to the Shallow Pool but saw no signs of fish. I was confident that Keeper’s Bridge was the correct choice.

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I was comfy in a big Musto coat and walked slowly across the bridge and downstream towards the pair of Alder trees that would hide me from the fussy Trout. The warm Autumn sun was on my right and as I leant against the tree trunks, I cast no shadow. A fish rose under a low hanging branch which was encouraging. I chose a lightly weighted Black and Copper Spider which sunk slowly, dragging the leader through the surface film. I cast through a letter box formed by rushes and Alder branches. The fly landed close to the trees on the far bank and drifted down and across. I worked the tree line for about thirty minutes them moved to the other side of the tree trunks. After a couple of casts the line felt heavy and I lifted into a fish that stayed deep. It was a long, lean hungry-looking Trout that glowed gold in the low Autumn sun. I was relieved to have caught a fish, I wanted to end the season on a high.

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After returning the Trout I went upstream and spent a few minutes exploring the pool below the Alder tree where, on a previous visit, I’d lost a good fish in the roots. I saw a fish rise about fifty yards upstream in the shadow of another Alder. I knelt above the rise and was careful to work the fly gradually down the far bank, I didn’t want to line the Trout. It came up in a big swirl and took the fly. It was a plump fish and in great condition.

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Content with two fish, I wandered back to the bridge, stopping occasionally for a few half-hearted casts under likely looking bushes. I wanted to stay at the river and take a few photos of the sunset but a big grey cloud built up above the tree line and obscured the sun. There would be no sunset. Cold weather with Arctic winds had been forecast overnight and the angry evening sky looked wintery. I had an urge to fish the riffle but as I got there I saw another member on the opposite bank. I retreated downstream to give him room.

As I wandered towards the broken gate I heard a fish rise behind me. I turned and saw a small circular ripple near the far bank at the end of the Sandy Pool.  I thought a vole had dived into the remains of the streamer weed but went back to make sure. A small Trout seized the fly on the third cast and immediately jumped. It tangled the fly line and dived into a snag on my side of the river. I twitched the fly line loose and bent the rod from the butt to bully the fish into open water. It was a wild fish that nearly sneaked out of the hole in my landing net. It was very silver, a stark contrast to the stocked fish.

I had been in a relaxed mood all afternoon and was happy to have caught three fish. The river looked beautiful and I had ended the season well, the trip would remain in my memory until next April.

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20 October – Autumn Wood Magic

The river level had dropped but it was a little coloured and out of bounds because the pheasant shooting had started. As I drove into the top of the Estate I noticed that the fields were devoid of any bird life. No pheasants, kites, pigeons or crows. There were no cormorants at the lakes. I hoped that the regular shooting throughout the winter would keep them away. The sky was blue and cloudless. There was no wind, a ridge of high pressure had settled over the south of England. The river would be perfect on Monday.

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I decided to fish at Little Bognor, the woods looked lovely in the soft Autumn sunshine and it was quiet. I had both lakes to myself. A couple of large Trout were cruising on the surface in the shallows, occasionally swirling at buzzers. They looked about 3lbs. I crept across the grass towards the fish but they moved away, very spooky fish.

I sat on the mossy bank behind the ferns. The crunchy Beech mast was a bit uncomfortable but it kept me off the damp soil. Fish cruised past and I tried all the usual patterns without success. Several fish saw the flies but rejected them, leaving a swirl or bump in the water to register their distaste.

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I moved towards the shallows and hid beside the trunk of a Beech tree. The two big fish were exploring the shallow water, probably feeding on bloodworm in the mud or buzzers as they rose to the surface. Casting was awkward and the fish avoided various flies. An exceptional cast dropped a lightly weighted fly just behind one of the monsters. It’s reaction took me by surprise, the fish turned on the fly and I lifted too soon. The two big shadows moved up the lake and I followed along the opposite bank.

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At about 3:00pm as the sun sank and the shadows stretched across the entire lake, the surface came alive with feeding Trout. They were swirling and delicately sipping buzzers. I tried a black buzzer, a Neoprene Buzzer and finally a size 14 Adams. Fish swirled very close to the fly, taking naturals, but were not fooled by my imitation. A few fish boiled immediately underneath the dry fly and had obviously seen it but as usual the tippet was visible. I cast to a rising fish which immediately took the Adams. It wasn’t a monster. While landing and releasing the little Trout the rise continued. I cleaned the fly, dried it and quickly recast. As soon as the fly landed a fish rose but my enthusiasm resulted in another early lift of the rod.

The rise ended after forty five minutes and as the air was cooling, I decided to leave. The fishing had been difficult but the Autumn colours reflected in the lake and the magic of the old Beech trees had eased my frustration with the Trout. There is a mystical atmosphere at Little Bognor that is not found at the other lakes. I nodded goodbye to the gnomes as I drove away.

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13 October – Great Springs

After the storm I thought the river would be high and dirty but peering through the railings at Rotherbridge, I could see the last fragments of weed and a few Dace flashing on the sandy bottom. I even saw a Trout rise upstream of the bridge.

Great Springs looked great. The water was crystal clear and the marginal weed had shrunk in sync with the shorter daylight hours. The weather was weird. A hot southerly wind blew from the Sahara, drawn up by a dip in the Jetstream. The sky was grey and threatened rain.

I was in two minds about fishing the emerald green lake. It reminded me of the old brick works except for the scenery, no sunken cars or rusty rail tracks. The dappled sky and Autumn colours made up my mind, I would catch a few rainbows. The cold grey river could wait until next week.

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The strong wind swirled around, disturbed by the tall trees so I started at the southern end of the lake. I rolled out a black fly with my left arm and with considerable wind assistance, was able to work the edges of several small weed beds. I expected a tight line every cast but after thirty minutes I hadn’t had a take. I walked around the eastern edge of the lake and sat on the little wooden seat. I let the wind do the work. The fly drifted in an arc along the edge of a big weed bed where, several years ago, I’d caught my biggest brownie. There was a bang on the rod but it was far to quick for me to react.

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I felt the presence of Trout and saw a big shadow drift past but the line remained slack. All the experts advise fishing into the wind but it’s hard work with a long, light rod. I moved to the point and sat facing the wind with deep water only a few yards away. I fired a small black spider under the wind, fan casting around the point. There was a lull in the wind and I cast South to where a fish had swirled. As soon as the fly landed there was a very confusing, splashy take and the rod bent. I imagined a foul hooked fish but after a long spirited fight, I landed the smallest Trout in the lake. The tiny hook dropped out of it’s mouth into the landing net.

A few minutes later I cast towards a pale shadow and hooked another fish but it wriggled free after a few seconds. Although the wind was easing my aching arm became a problem and I retired to the fishing hut for tea and biscuits. Just two biscuits. The Trout was a perfect size for eating and tasted lovely. Poached, with a little lemon juice, brown bread and butter plus a chilled glass of white wine. Perfect.

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