It’s been a six month since I last cast a fly on the river, six long months of feeling the autumnal chill enfolding the evenings and penetrating one’s very bones, russet and parchment leaves cracking underfoot, shortening days shuffling into night, a white confetti shower on scrunching grass, ponds freezing over, and then, suddenly, magical galanthus bowing their little white heads as we pass, followed by crocuses, hellebores and daffodils. Spring is a-coming. There was a mad rush of show-off magnolia, candy-floss cherry, lesser celandine and splashes of cadmium yellow forsythia. A month before the Spring equinox on 20 March, it was time to get one’s fishing kit out to give it a good clean, most importantly, the line, which has spent half the year tightly wound round the reel, with no chance of unwinding, or even relaxing. With the vernal equinox past, the summer solstice seemed a long way off until 21 June, when the days will get shorter again, although it doesn‘t feel like that then.
In the current issue of Trout & Salmon (porn for consenting fishermen), there is an article about the new season entitled Fools Rush In, which lists the 12 biggest mistakes in early-season river fishing. First on the agenda is all about one’s tackle, and keeping it maintained and clean. I can tick that box, rather than take out one’s rod and reel on the first day, after six months in a fishing bag, and find that the fly-line has rotted to buggery. Numbers two, three and four are all about Over-enthusiasm, Avoiding Routine and Impatience, all of which I have been guilty. The rest are all nots, including not changing one’s fly so often, not lifting too soon, not thumping about up and down the riverbank, not fishing in the same place particularly if one has experienced success or seen a rise and not over-excitedly rushing to fish in bright, sunny spots, following the dark days of winter. All these may sound like stating the bleedin’ obvious, but it easy to forget basic page one rules in the heat of the first day’s fishing.
Good Friday dawned bright, egg-shell blue, with a promise of high pressure and warmth being funnelled up from mainland Europe. We just about kept in front of the head of traffic building up on all the main arteries pumping holiday-makers out of London, guaranteed to clog up by the middle of the day, causing overheating, breakdowns, both mental and physical, and other kinds of high pressure. By noon, we were on the riverbank, ‘strung up’, as the Americans say, with a Grey Wulff dry-fly already on my line, and a glass of champagne to toast the new season and signal the end of Lent. The Easter weekend was three weeks later than last year, but nature had already got her boots on, with May beginning to blossom in April, which does not necessarily mean that the mayfly will follow. I shall adhere to the post-Piscatorial Society 1836 prescript of only ‘casting upstream to observed fish using dry or unweighted nymph fly patterns’ with Episcopalian zeal.
There then followed a peaceful interlude of sitting on the sturdy bench, listening to the birdsong, the river cascading over the little waterfall into the large pool in front of the hut, with a glass in one hand and a hot sausage bun in the other, musing about how dam’d lucky and privileged we were. The momentary respite was broken by an impertinent trout rising in a stretch of calm water upstream from the pool, to take a fly off the water. ‘Oh, for god’s sake, is there no peace?’ My fellow-fisherman, Robert, trolled off downstream to fish with a wet-fly, while I cast upstream of the rising fish. We agreed to meet up again in about an hour for some snacks, a cold beer, possibly, and compare notes. In spite of some supremely accurate casting, it yielded nothing resembling a fish. Robert came back with two handsome 3-lb rainbows, and we agreed to have something to eat while the trout were patently not interested in what I had been offering them. We tucked into a few little light nibbles, like quail’s eggs with celery salt, Palma ham, cashew nuts, olives, roasted guinea fowl thighs and breasts, plum tomatoes, Adriatic anchovies fillets in a parsley, garlic, lemon and orange marinade, salad, guacamole dip with cheese and poppy seed twists, sluiced down a nicely-rounded ‘Guignel Côtes du Rhône’, followed by English Cheddar, biscuits, and onion and garlic chutney.
Robert laid out his tartan travelling-rug, and, with his fishing bag as a pillow, went to sleep in the dappled shade of a willow, dreaming, no doubt, he was on the banks of the Rhône. I walked up to the top of the beat, where there were signs of action, but, infuriatingly, the rises were a couple of yards upstream on the next beat, separated by an oak tree and a little wooden notice hammered into the riverbank. Tempting, but there are some things a fisherman really cannot do. As I walked back, I passed the spot where the earlier rise had been, and, blow me, there he was again, bold as bass (sic). I changed my fly to a sedge, which I promptly lost in a hawthorn tree on the back-cast. I reminded myself of two of the 12 biggest mistakes in early-season river fishing, tied on another sedge and calmed down, with the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ rules ringing in my ears. The second cast had the desired effect, hooking a 2½lb fish, which shot up like a torpedo from the depths to take my fly. All the splashing and commotion woke my pal, who ambled over to help net the beauty. It was now late afternoon, and Robert, the Wise Virgin, had bagged a couple early on in the day, thus avoiding the stress of not catching one later. I carried on being the Foolish Virgin, by insisting on the self-imposed dry-fly only rule, but my stubbornness was rewarded less than half an hour later, when a dark brown head appeared to slurp a fly off the surface. I gave the same sedge the benefit of a bit of a clean-up, cast a few feet above the rising fish, with the same result as before; this time a sleek 2lb brownie took my sedge down to the bottom and made the reel shriek. At that moment, a handful of pale mayfly struggled into the air, which bodes well for the next few weeks. We packed up as the sun set at about eight o’clock, just before a stunning orange full moon rose over the fields in the south, and accompanied us back to London. The only slight regret is that we did not see a kingfisher. Next week, for sure. It was a glorious day, and the perfect way to start a new season, with a very good Friday.