26 April – Little Bognor

The south westerly breeze spread the orange bud scales over the surface of the lake. The Trout were cruising just underneath the debris looking for pond skaters and the occasional Olive. There were lots of Alder flies hatching from the grass but the breeze was not strong enough to knock them down onto the water. Fortunately there was a clear stretch of water under the high bank on the east side of the lake.

I had tied some imitations of the pond skaters that the fish were feeding on. I had confidence in the pattern. It would be great to get a couple of the fussy Trout on a custom designed fly.

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I crept over the wet moss on my knees until I was beside the little seat. I used the Rio line and a twelve foot leader ending in a 2lb bs tippet. Good presentation was essential. Several fish were feeding close to me. I fired the pond skater imitation onto the water with a bow-and-arrow cast. I twitched the fly to mimic the real thing but although I thought it looked genuine, the Trout did not.

I swapped the fly for a Black Neoprene Spider and after several casts changed that for a palmered dry fly. As I sat watching, a natural Olive fluttered across the surface towards me and was immediately snatched by a good fish. I dragged my fly into the widening ripples but the Trout had moved away. I lost the fly on a branch and moved down the bank to the steps.

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Two good fish were patrolling under the branches only ten feet from me. There was enough room for a side cast. I offered the fish a selection of flies but they just swirled underneath the fly and disappeared. I moved further down and stood next to the trunk of a big Beech tree.

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I was close enough to the water to be able to dap the fly and shake the rod to give it a realistic buzz. A big fish took a natural less than a foot from my imitation, I twitched the fly to induce a take. There was another swirl but it didn’t convert into the thump on the rod that I expected. The wind suddenly increased and a hail storm forced me to shelter in the hut.

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The storm moved away but I was cold and wet. I didn’t want to crawl around on the ground under the trees anymore. I went to the top lake and presented a variety of dry flies to the Trout. They were not impressed. Black clouds were building and another storm loomed over the woods. I signed out and left the lakes. Early morning or late evening is probably the only time I’m going to catch a spooky Trout at Little Bognor.

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Sir Edward Elgar

What has Elgar to do with my fishing diary ? He was a keen fisherman and fished at Little Bognor while living at Brinkwells, a cottage less than a mile from the lakes through the woods and across the fields. Brinkwells is just north of Fittleworth with a view of the Arun valley and the South Downs. On my many visits to Little Bognor I have often wondered if the mature Beech woods and the sheltered lakes inspired his music.

Edward Elgar was born on 2 June 1857. He married Alice on 8 May 1889 and their only child, Carice, was born on 14 August 1890. On 2 May 1917 Alice and Carice went to Fittleworth to see a cottage. They walked to the cottage from the Inn. Alice recorded in her diary “Lovely place, sat in lovely wood and heard a nightingale, turtle doves and many other birds. Saw lizards and heard Cuckoo first time. Also saw swallows, lovely hot day. Much perplexed as cottage is so very cottagy but large studio and lovely view and woods, dear place. Finally took it for June. Lovely walk through woods and by primroses to Station”. At the time Fittleworth had its own railway station on the line from Petworth to Midhurst.

In May 1918, the Elgar family returned to Brinkwells. Edward was recovering from having his tonsils removed. In August, he had one of his pianos installed at Brinkwells. The day after the piano arrived, he set to work on a sonata for violin and piano. Alice noticed at once that it was different from anything he had written before. She called it “wood magic … so delicate and elusive.” Elgar completed the sonata within weeks and in Adrian Boult’s words, “a new note of fantasy, of freedom and of economy” had come into Elgar’s music.

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While living at Brinkwells Elgar recovered his strength and in 1918 and 1919 he produced four large-scale works. The first three of these were chamber pieces: the Violin Sonata in E minor, the Piano Quintet in A minor and the String Quartet in E minor. On hearing the work in progress, Alice Elgar wrote in her diary, “E. writing wonderful new music“. After the Premieres of the three pieces in the Spring of 1919, he began to write a cello concerto. His Cello Concerto in E Minor, Opus 85, is a sombre work, reflecting the sorrows faced by England at the end of World War I. It had its Première on 27 October 1919 with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was a disaster because Elgar and the performers had been deprived of adequate rehearsal time. The critics trashed it, politely. His music went out of fashion and wasn’t revived until the 1960’s.

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Elgar’s map of Brinkwells

Elgar’s greatest music is regarded as quintessentially English. That is not surprising. He was an English country gentleman with appropriate hobbies. He was a cyclist, nature lover, fisherman, golfer and was keen on horse racing. Betting not riding. He fished in his native Herefordshire and Sussex. One of his favourite spots was close to Mordiford Bridge on the River Lugg. He fished on the River Teme where he gained inspiration for The Music Makers and other sections of his symphonies. In one of his notebooks he wrote “Mem: four trout (decent) three (small) put back”. It’s good to know he released fish, he was ahead of his time as most fish were killed for the table. Elgar left Brinkwells in August 1921.

Elgar loved the countryside and the rural surroundings helped his recovery. I am convinced that some of his music was inspired by the woods, birds and animals that he saw while walking his dog or fishing at Little Bognor.

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23 April – Little Bognor

The weather had cooled slightly after last nights thunderstorms. The wind had a slight chill and the air was clean. Everything looked set for a great day in deepest Sussex.

After a bit of a delay I eased the Land Rover through the gates at Little Bognor and looked through the trees to see if anyone was fishing. It was deserted, no trout were rising and the surface of the lake was covered with the orange debris from the Beech tree buds. I lifted the metal grid on the outflow and thousands of tiny leaves were drawn from the margins, down the outflow stream. The surface of the top lake was clear and a couple of fish rose as I was wandering around. It was quiet and had a relaxing atmosphere.

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I visited all the Beats on the river and all the lakes, to collect the catch returns. It had been a good week. Two over-wintered fish had been caught at Rotherbridge. I was tempted to fish at Lower Figgs where there were no trees to snag my flies. On balance I thought a peaceful afternoon on the top lake at Little Bognor was a better option. I remembered from my last visit that the Trout were feeding on Pond Skaters in the margins. There were lots of the fast moving creatures by the outflow stream. I chose a size 14 black Neoprene Spider with Partridge hackles. It looked similar to the skaters and would float indefinitely.

I sat on a large lump of stone in the corner of the lake and worked the fly close to the bank. As usual several fish were rising close to the weeping Willow tree. I covered the water towards the feeding fish without response. A fish rose close to a lily pad and I put the fly in the ring of ripples at the first attempt. The Trout took the fly immediately and got hung up on the lily pad. The only lily pad in the entire lake ! I had a 4lb bs tippet as I’d run out of lighter nylon, so I bullied the fish into open water. I netted the fish which looked pristine, possibly a wild trout. It flicked its tail and darted out of the net none the worse for being caught.

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That corner of the lake was trashed so I crept around to the other side of the Willow tree and sat on the grass about fifteen feet back from the water. I curled a cast around the tree but the fly was ignored. Several times. I tied on a small dry fly with a pale ginger palmered hackle and a tag of white Neoprene. That was also ignored. I trimmed the tag and recast. The fly sat lower in the surface film. A Trout took the fly and shot into the trailing Willow fronds. It wriggled off the hook, leaving it stuck in a branch. I netted the branch and trimmed it to avoid a repeat performance. I cast to several rising fish on my left but they were put off by the heavy tippet. I moved to the overflow and cast to a rising fish which took confidently. It dived into the lily pad but I dragged it out. Then it came off !

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The big Chestnut tree kept the sun off me and I was getting cold. I walked to the bottom lake and sat in the sun among the Beech trees. I had approached carefully and the fish were only a rod length away. They were taking Pond Skaters so I switched back to a black Neoprene spider. I cast sideways and managed to position the fly under the branches, close to the bank, without snagging the leader. Consistently. A fish followed the spider along the margin and swirled but didn’t connect. It might have seen me. The wind was kind, it blew the debris away from the bank leaving a stretch of clear water for me to explore. Trout were rising under my rod tip but they were leader shy and I had no takes. I replaced the metal screen on the outflow and left the lakes. I need some lighter leader material and a more convincing imitation of Pond Skaters. It was a great day, very relaxing.

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21 April – Little Bognor

The hot sunny weather had persisted. The combination of Spring shoots, birdsong, flowers and the hot Summer sun felt strange. The context was wrong. I wandered around the lower lake at Little Bognor. The sun slanting down through the Beech trees was magical and I paused to admire the grand old trees. Beech are my favourite trees after Oak, perhaps it’s because the two woods are so hard and beautifully marked. I sat on the moss which was crunchy with Beech mast and watched the fish, they were very close to the bank. The top lake looks like a scene from a postcard but it is more open and doesn’t have the same mysterious atmosphere as its companion. Perhaps that’s why Sir Edward Elgar was attracted to the little lake under the trees.

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I made my way through the centre of Petworth to Great Springs. The mustard plants were patchy but the bright yellow was in stark contrast to the very heavy blue haze that obscured the South Downs. The air was thick and sultry, it felt thundery. As I drove along the Estate road a Kestrel whizzed across the front of the Land Rover and dived into the grass verge. There was a bit of a scuffle and the bird emerged without anything in its talons. A bit further along the road a Skylark rose from the edge of the field and fluttered into the air. Do Kestrels eat Skylarks ?

I made a cup of tea and walked around Little Springs. There was nothing much to see, the Trout were not very active. However, I had a surprise while wandering along the top end of Great Springs. A massive shoal of Roach fry were sunning themselves. They must have been washed into the lake from the silt trap. They were being harried by several fast swimming Trout. I went to Lower Figgs and found another surprise. A sprig of Canadian Pondweed, Elodea Canadensis, which had floated down the feeder stream. Within a few weeks of the lakes being dredged and refilled, fish and plant species were re-colonizing the water. Alder flies were hatching and crawling over everything. The fish were rising and the lake looked lovely. The restoration had been a great success.

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Later, at the Keepers cottage, I had a coffee and biscuits over a chat about fish, the environment and licences. Two EA bailiffs were not surprised to learn that in nearly 60 years of fishing I had never been asked to produce my licence. I had hoped to fish the river and after coffee, I visited every Beat. I found the river low but coloured. I decided that a relaxing afternoon at Little Bognor was preferable to a hot fishless session on the river. I returned to the cool, peaceful woods and had a proper lunch. Beer and an ‘All Day Breakfast’ sandwich. Excellent.

 

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As usual I had a cunning plan. I had tied a size 20 Adams with a 2lb bs tippet incorporated in the dressing. This removed the need for a hook knot and could not fail to impress a fussy Trout. What could possibly go wrong ? A wind knot developed in the tippet, just above the fly, before I had a chance to cast. On the first cast I lost the fly in a tree behind me.

Plan B was a size 14 Neoprene Black Buzzer. I lost several in various trees. Eventually a fish rose close to me, I flicked a buzzer at it and the first Trout was hooked. The rises stopped and I rested the fish. Sitting in a convenient mossy hollow was very relaxing. For the next episode I chose a size 20 hatching midge imitation. I had three good takes but missed them all. The short stiff hackle shielded the hook.

 

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The fish were searching the bankside debris for food. I sat and waited until a fish came within range. It took a buzzer without hesitation and Trout number two was netted and returned to the lake. It had a mark on its nose which looked like a scar from a tippet. It had been caught before. I cast a buzzer to a couple of fish rising close to the South bank. One of the fish swirled at the buzzer but I failed to connect. While walking back around the lake towards the Land Rover I studied the fish feeding in the weeds. I realized that they were taking water skaters not buzzers. I must tie some imitations.

It had been a great day, more walking and chatting than fishing, but very enjoyable.

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19 April – Taylors Bridge

Spring lasted about a week. Summer had arrived. Yesterday was a scorcher, temperatures in the low seventies and a clear blue sky. Our English climate is now more continental than maritime. I’d watched the river level drop to 0.110m yesterday. No rain was forecast for at least a week. There would be a few days to catch over-wintered and wild Trout before the river was stocked.

On 18 April last year the river was at 0.032m following a very dry winter. A lot of over-wintered fish were caught plus several good Sea Trout. Last April the oil seed was in full bloom and the water flowing through the Fish Pass was crystal clear. A year later the level was 0.96m and the water was coloured.

I looked at the Fish Pass but the water was turbulent and too coloured so I drove to Rotherbridge. Somebody had caught ‘my’ Trout the day before. I was disappointed not to have made its acquaintance. I checked the catch returns at Keepers Bridge and wandered down through the woods to look at the river. The scent of the bluebells was strong with just a hint of crushed wild garlic. The bankside grass was being cut so I decided to spend the morning on the Beat below Taylor’s Bridge.

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The wind was from the South and it was quite hot as I stood beside the Land Rover and set up my rod. The clouds were high and wispy, they looked like the remnants of vapour trails from aircraft heading towards Europe. Although it was mid-morning the temperature was already in the mid seventies. I fished the first pool below the bridge thoroughly for about thirty minutes and was surprised not to get a take. The fly was working well and the marginal weed looked very fishy. I swapped the fly and tried again to no avail. I walked slowly to the Shallow Pool, it was too hot for striding out. I sat on the grass and watched the pool. I saw a young mink on a raft of rubbish, it was scratching itself and enjoying the sunshine. It didn’t take any notice of me and eventually disappeared into the bushes. I spent an hour covering the pool but the heat got the better of me and I returned to the Land Rover via Ladymead. It was lunchtime.

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I had lunch from the back of the Land Rover in the shade under the trees at Keepers Bridge. Very civilized. After lunch I drove to Lavington and had a walk in the woods. That was not a good idea. I got overheated and dehydrated. I later learnt that it had been the hottest April day since 1949, I should have gone to the pub. I called in at Little Bognor on the return journey, the fish were rising in the shallow corner under the old Yew tree and all along that bank. I was exhausted, too tired to cast a line. After a brief rest under the trees I drove away. Hopefully, next time the river will be clearer and the Trout will be easier to find.

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