Three of my most treasured joys all came together one glorious summer‘s day in June, with the sun splattering through the beech trees and dancing on the bonnet of the little Morris convertible as we drove from the cottage in Sussex down to a riverbank, some 40 miles away. With the three girls in the back, wearing boaters, Lizzie in the passenger seat and a hamper groaning with goodies and lashings of pop in the boot; it must have looked like a outing of the Enid Blyton Five Go Fishing Society. The car purred along the dappled back-lanes of Sussex and Hampshire, with the girls playing a game involving the number of legs on pub signs, called ‘pub cricket.’ After just under an hour, we turned into the village of Sherfield on Loddon, where we parked outside the only shop, called, imaginatively, The Shop, where the girls were allowed to ransack the place for sweets and crisps to eat after lunch and on the way home. Next door to The Shop, was a Hair Salon, called The Salon, and next to that was a garage, called The Garage. Somewhat surprisingly, the pub was not called The Pub, but The Four Horseshoes, but there were no points for that. ‘Are we there yet?’came the all-too-familiar cry as they piled into the back and we were off with a promise of ‘no more than 5-minutes’. We turned off the main road again, and down a brambling lane to a little car-park, next to a field shooting up with young green wheat, with a mass of unripe blackberries in the hedgerows and an apple-tree that produced enough cookers for a thousand blackberry and apple crumbles later in the year. A short walk down a leafy path brought us to the river and a few hundred yards along it to a weatherbeaten wooden hut, smelling faintly of varnish, creosote and sun-dried clumps of grass. This was our home for the next few hours. Everyone helped by laying the table-cloth, spreading tartan travelling rugs in the shade of a cherry tree outside, and unloading the hamper. I indulged in a cold beer, with some nuts and olives, while the girls preferred their crisps and fizzy drinks.
The picnic proper was an open-air open-ended affair with the children grazing all afternoon, dipping in and out of the spread. Meanwhile, I assembled my Hardy Smuggler and ‘strung up’, as they say in the US, and wandered upstream with Lizzie, Georgia and Florence, while Poppy sat on the bench, reading a book. Without being too schoolmasterly, I talked them through what I was doing and why. How all fish face upstream, so one is able to stealthily creep up behind them without ‘spooking’ them with heavy footsteps or casting a shadow. The expression ‘going with the flow’ means accepting the prevailing trend, but it should be pointed out that only dead fish go with the flow. The fish we were after would be generally holding their position, forever swimming against the stream. I had the advantage of polarised sunglasses, and was able to spot fish lying over a bed of gravel or within the swaying streamers of ranunculus, or water crowfoot, which is a species of buttercup. Ahead of us, reed bunting and wheatears would dart from one bank to the other catching mayfly on the wing, while overhead house-martins and swifts spiralled, swooped and squaked. The wheatear has a white rump, which is a clue to its nomenclature; it has nothing to do with wheat or ears, but is a corruption of ‘white arse.’ Suddenly, there was flash of electric blue and rusty-orange, and a kingfisher, a few inches from the water, whizzed past. By the time one has said ‘Look, a kingf . . . ‘, it was long gone. Seeing a kingfisher on the riverbank is, to me, more important, than catching a fish myself, and seeing a kingfisher actually dive in and take a fish himself is as close as one can get to ornithological ecstasy
The river was sparkling in a shell-burst of colour and sunlight in the open stream, dark-green and slow-moving under the cool trees on the opposite bank, trailing their long fingers in the water. This was usually where the fish were hiding. There is a perfume called L’Ombre Dans L’Eau by Diptyque, whose name exactly describes the moment one sees a fish; the shadow in the water. Brown trout tend to hold in dark, secluded spots, inconveniently inaccessible to the angler’s line, close to the far bank, and rarely move off their patch, except to slurp a delicious insect off the surface, if it looks juicy enough. Then back down he goes to wait for the next morsel to float by. If there is a pattern in his feeding habits, then one is in with a chance. Back in those days, I used to cast my fly almost at random in a speculative way, but now I only cast a dry fly to a rising fish upstream, which is a little old-fashioned, I confess, but it is one of the objectives of the Piscatorial Society, formed in 1837. Some days, if there were few or no rises, I would go home empty-handed.
There was a rise a few yards upstream, and then another, so I explained what I was going to do. Being an opsimath, I had not been fishing that long myself, but still knew a few rudimentary rules about how to land a fish. I cast a few yards above where the fish had been feeding, to give him a chance to clock my tempting fly. I saw him turn and look at it, but he didn’t take it. I waited, and tried again. Again, he had a look, but was not fooled. As soon as the third cast hit the water, he struck, took the fly and was off into the depths, pulling the line out in a high-pitched shriek, which made the girls jump. He was in danger of taking all my line, so I gently lured him back to where we were standing on the bank, pulling him back foot by foot, then letting him go when he pulled too hard, letting the bend of the rod and the clutch on the reel do most of the work. After fifteen minutes, the fish began to tire, and I was was able to coax it towards the bank and into my net, followed by a graceful scoop onto the grass. I explained that this two-and-a half-pound brownie would make an excellent supper, but I had to dispatch it first, by giving it last rites with my?? priest. The children shuddered as much as the fish, as I whacked him a couple of times quickly over the back of the head. They all scampered back to the hut for more scoff, while I did a quick watercolour, using water from the stream. When I wandered back, Florence was already swimming in one of the deeper pools downstream from the hut. It was a glorious English summer’s afternoon, hot, but not too hot in the sun, with not a cloud in the sky. I went down from the hut with Georgia and Florence and, to get them more involved, asked them to spot any movement, ripples or a splash on the surface that I might have missed. After a few minutes, Georgia said ‘there’s one’, pointing across the river at a spot right under a willow. Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was a swell, then a big fish slurped a fat May-fly right off the water. Casting was extremely tricky, but I had an audience now, and did not want to make a fool of myself in front of my children by tangling with the overhead branches or even on the back-cast, and trying to say that was all part of the cast. It took one marker to get the distance, and then a second to drop the fly a few feet upstream, then Wallop! A truly big rainbow took my fly and decided that was not for him, trying in vain to to get rid of my ersatz fly or break my line. When we finally bagged it with Georgia’s help with the landing net, we saw that it really was a monster, at least six pounds and certainly the biggest trout I have ever landed, before or since. It was not exactly pretty, being a bit ‘blousy’, and if a fish were to wear clothes, this one would have been in a shell-suit. No matter, another one for the pot, or, at least, the smoker.
Afternoon was drifting into evening when we packed up and headed back to the car. It was still just about warm enough to drive back with the roof down, with the girls fighting over the travelling rugs, just as my brother, sister and I used to do in the back seat of dad’s car all those years before.