It was a glorious return to the riverbank, after weeks of banishment and then, uncertainty. England has never looked more verdant, with a thousand shades of green – sap, viridian, permanent, cobalt, olive, Windsor, helio, phthalo, olive, May, Perylene, Hooker’s, all the colours in my paintbox, and many, many more. A touch of chrome yellow here, and smudge of cerulean blue there, and the landscape fills out with a coloured symphony of nature. The word green has the same Germanic root as the words for grass and grow. It is the colour of hope, life, youth, health, and Spring. It also has a long historical tradition as the color of Ireland and of Gaelic culture. It is the historic color of Islam representing the lush vegetation of Paradise. It was the color of the banner of Muhammad, and is found in the flags of nearly all Islamic countries. Even in the same tree, there are countless shades of green, and May is the best time to see England in its annual, Sunday-best, party frock.
Proud yellow Iris standing to attention at the water’s edge. A line of poplars move gently in the breeze like a slow-motion Mexican wave. Sturdy, two hundred year old elm, oak and plane trees undulate and shiver in the wind. Fragile willows move where the wind takes them, with their light and fluffy seeds being blown in their millions into the air. Birdsong is even more apparent, without the background noise of helicopters and aeroplanes, particularly the rising and falling sound of the annoying single-engined aerobatic plane, as it stalls two thousand feet above the otherwise tranquil Hampshire countryside, only to restart its engine and power dive once more. I heard my first cuckoo half a mile away in a copse, and the shriek of swifts spiralling overhead and a pair of buzzards patrolling a thousand acres of the surrounding woodland and pasture.
Although there were mayfly emerging from late morning, no fish at all were coming to the surface to take them. My socially-distanced friend Robert and I worked out that two outstretched arms, one with a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace, and the other with a long-stemmed wine glass, would barely flaunt the 2m recommended distance, so we saluted the day with a toast to river, and each other. We had a late breakfast, followed an hour later by some canapés and an aperitif, with no action at all on the water. I only cast twice in two hours, and both times, there was no result, so it was time for lunch and a welcome catch-up chat. Mr Penny, the river keeper, came by to say that there would most likely be a hatch around six, and we should both be in the brace brace position.
At around six o’clock, there was a light flutter of mayfly, which soon developed into a blizzard, as though an unseen hand had shaken an apple tree in blossom, with hundreds of thousand of insects touching down on the water to lay their eggs in a hurry, before the greedy trout surfaced to slurp them down. Male mayflies had formed a swarm just above the water earlier, and the females fly into the swarm, dancing their way to a great height above the water to mate. After mating in flight the female falls onto the surface of the water and lays her eggs. The male goes off nearby to die, either on the water or on land. Mayflies are amongst the most ancient type of insect still alive today, of which there are over 3,000 species. They were here about 100 million years before the dinosaurs. Mayflies are so primitive that they are the only insect still around today that has two stages to the adult part of its life cycle, called sub-imago and imago. They can take up to 2 years as a nymph to mature to adulthood and the process of emerging from the surface of the water, shedding its skin, drying off, finding a mate, and, in the case of the female, laying her eggs, and dying, can take all of 5 minutes. The eggs sink to the bottom of the river where they stick to plants and stones, and they take between a few days and a number of weeks to hatch as nymphs, and the story starts again.
Once the trout have locked onto them, they will binge themselves in a feeding frenzy until the hatch ceases, or they explode. The mayfly season can last for a couple of weeks, when the water conditions and temperature are just right, and has been called ‘duffer’s fortnight,’ but why would a trout choose one’s own man-made dry fly over the genuine article? Nobody really knows, other than sheer greed. The week before the lockdown, I went to the press view at the National Gallery to see the Titian exhibition called ‘Love, Desire, Death’, and prior to entering, I took my Hardy reel to Farlow’s in Pall Mall to have a new line wound on it. It is such a delightful shop, with helpful and knowledgeable staff, who are all keen fishermen themselves. It all worked seamlessly, and I picked it up after the Titian, thinking I only had a month until the season opened, the week after Easter. What a wise virgin. The following week, all was in shutdown, and fishing was on the back burner anyway. As every year, I give up booze for Lent, but after three weeks, and the promise of a possible twelve weeks in isolation, I broke the self-imposed rules, and had a stiff drink. Imagine that sniff of freedom on the riverbank, having been cooped up for at least ten weeks! It was the best of days, with enough sleek, brown, over-wintered and wild fish in the bag to feed us all. What a treat.