A six month season seems like a reasonable span, stretching from around Easter to the end of September, but it just whistled past, and as the days get shorter and autumn turns to winter, one is immediately thinking about next Spring. Having well-defined seasons is one of the joys of living in England. This past summer was one of the hottest ‘since records began’, with day after day of cerulean skies and not a drop of rain, but not once did I feel like Sarah Miles, at the end of the film White Mischief, about a murder amongst white colonials living in East Africa, upon opening the shutters on a Kenyan morning, saying wearily, ‘Oh, God. Not another fucking beautiful day’. Every day on the riverbank is a beautiful day, whether blustery, drizzling or just plain overcast. Actually, that is not strictly true. Heavy rain or high winds can get in the way of an enjoyable days fishing. We have little huts in which to shelter, dry off, prepare and eat food, open bottles of wine and cans of beer, drink coffee and munch chocolate. Only once did I pack up and go home after a morning of unrelenting stair-rods, bashing the water like ten thousand little hammers. I sat in the hut sketching the view outside, framed through the open doorway, but there were only vertical lines like one of those aluminium chain-link fly-curtains in an Italian deli, blocking out any other detail. No self-respecting fish would poke his head out from the relative calm under the surface and into the purling maelstrom, but one did, to slurp a sodden cranefly off the surface. I tied on a large daddy-long-legs dry-fly, gave it a liberal coating of floatant Gunk, put on my rainproof jacket, pulling the hood up, and ventured the few yards to the river, where the fish had risen. Two casts a few yards above him and he came again for my mid-day snack, taking the fly down to the depths and he was off, the reel screaming as he headed for some reeds on the other bank, no doubt cursing his bad luck or stupidity. I am not sure who was more surprised, him or me, when I landed and dispatched him with my priest. Judging from the look he gave me, I think he was.
As I have intimated before, fishing is not about catching fish. I was quite prepared to go home without a fish in the creel, so this one was a bonus and one that I was happy to take. The American stand-up one-line comedian Steven Wright said, ‘There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.’ He also said that last year he went fishing with Salvador Dali. ‘He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish’. There is an old adage about ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will stand on the riverbank drinking beer all day.’ The last day of September heralds the end of the trout season on my river. On the Test, one can fish for grayling from mid-October until the end of January, while the Itchen has an open season from the beginning of October until the end of the year, with other chalk streams having grayling beats until the middle of March. Grayling are now considered to be the fourth game fish, for many an equal to the salmon, brown trout and sea trout., having been considered a coarse fish for many years. The grayling is a member of the salmon family and this is noticeable from the adipose fin on its back above the tail and it also has a large distinctive orange-tipped dorsal fin, like a sail-fish. I have never eaten grayling but some people say that it tastes of the herb thyme, which would make sense, as its Latin name is “Thymallus thymallus”. It is also said that smelt smell and taste of cucumber. The Environment Agency states that on any given day, an angler, providing he has the water owner’s permission, and a license, may remove 15 small (up to 20cm) native species including barbel, chub, common bream, common carp, crucian carp, dace, grayling, perch, pike, roach, rudd, silver bream, smelt, tench and zander. Of all those, I have only eaten pike, in France, as quenelles de brochet, which, apart from the crayfish sauce, was mightily bland. Eastern europeans seem to have a liking for freshwater fish, even carp, which they regard as a delicacy. While freshwater fish such as perch, roach and bream are considered inedible by most of us, in many central and eastern European countries they are regarded as delicacies. In Poland, carp is the main ingredient of the traditional meal eaten on Christmas Eve, called the wigilia. The starter is a soup called siemieniuk, with stock made from the fish-head and fins, with crushed flax seed, ground millet and buckwheat groats, followed by the carp itself, ryba wigilijna, fried and served with potatoes and vegetables. A few years ago Hertfordshire police arrested and questioned four eastern Europeans seen with snorkels and a spear gun near a lake stocked with protected carp.
I have tried cooking trout in a variety of ways, including pan-frying smaller ones, baking, barbecuing, and poaching. One recipe involved wrapping the fish in wet newspapers and putting it on the barbie until the paper had burnt, and voilà!, there inside was a perfectly-cooked trout. I am not sure who was more surprised, him or me. I have a borrowed hot smoker, which I charge with a variety of wood chips I buy from a place in Somerset. I have tried a number of different flavours, including alder, apple, beech, cherry, hickory, maple and oak, and have tried apple and hickory mixed together, which produces a wonderfully infused subtle taste. One simply lights a bowl of meths under the sealed stainless steel chamber and leaves it for a couple of hours. If one tires of smoked fish, then one can always make a smoked trout pâté, blending the fish with horseradish, crème fraîche and lemon juice until smooth, adding black pepper and chives. One could take a disposable barbecue down to the river and cook one’s catch right there and then. There is rather a superfluous sign in the huts, which reads ‘No cooking in the hut.’ As if one would, although a bunch of chavs apparently fetched up at Glyndebourne one year with their B&Q Ready-to-Lite Barbecue and got out the six-pack and the sausages. As the smoke billowed across the ha-ha, Vince, its resident fireman, took great delight in extinguishing the flames.