Committing one’s self to print sometimes requires a bit of courage. Once it’s down there, it’s there for good, to be read and re-read for as long as the magazine remains whole or the website remains active – which could be forever.
With angling, it’s all too easy to sound pretentious, but to give a faithful account of your feelings for our wonderful way of life you must take this risk. Already I have chickened-out, changing ‘one’ to ‘you’.
I don’t know…perhaps I think too much and that it is, actually, the case that some anglers really don’t possess the same passion for angling that I do; that those people simply don’t have the capacity to appreciate atmosphere, the extremes of weather, the light, the intensity of loneliness as wind-blown darkness creeps ever-closer at the end of an Autumn day…maybe they actually do feel less than I, and that an attempt to manifest these feelings and emotions through the written word is welcomed by the less sensitive as well as those whose life-traumas, childhood memories, successes, failures and fears coalesce at times of vulnerable solitude.
In angling terms – and only in angling terms I assure you – I consider myself special, and so should you if, between earning a living and, perhaps, raising a family, your time is spent largely alone in search of fish in wild, wild places – from a mountain tarn to a deserted town stretch where big, late-evening roach rise to leave a single bubble by the drifting burger-boxes. When I fish such places there’s something that gives me a nudge now and then, a reminder that I’m utterly alone and unknown to the world…that I could die here, in the Fens or on a Cumbrian hillside, and lay undiscovered for months or even years. This is why I feel special. It’s not conceit for I know I could come a cropper; it’s the self-awareness that what I’m doing is way beyond the experience and even the imagination of most.
All of these inner feelings came together last Monday evening as my battle with a big salmon went past the hour. At five-fifteen I’d made a cast from above the rapids and I knew that it was a good one, the double-hooked cascade swinging into the riffle mid-river, the line straightening and pulling nicely in the current. Suddenly the reel was rasping shrilly and I was into a fish – a big one.
I am an Essex man, raised on rudd and crucians from dump-side gravel pits but given the good gift of aspiration by Venables. Salmon fishing is still very much an adventure for me; salmon fishing was something only other, wealthy people did on some unpronounceable river in West Wales or Scotland and certainly not for the likes of me. My angling memories are of Sludge-Gulpers, Doxodec trucks, bulldozers and the permanent sickly-sweet fug of May & Baker’s chemical waste. I once fell into a pool of their toxic broth and spent three months laid-up, waiting for the burns to heal. It was that irrepressible piker, Tony Corless, who had pulled me to safety and laughed like a drain until he realised I was being eaten alive. He ran with me, all the way home to where my wonderful mother calmly took control and bathed my legs in warm water and Savlon before the ambulance arrived. I thank my own, personal atheist Lord for Lyle & Scott, makers of fine underpants.
With only one fish of ten and a half pounds to my name at the time of hooking this beastie, ‘excited’ is a woefully inadequate word to describe how I felt. So too is ‘alone’. It simply cannot express that profound sense of exclusion from the world and the introspection it foments. I badly needed someone to see what I was seeing and to share the fireworks of this battle with a bewildered, frenzied animal. With every violent downstream run I flicked around in search of a fellow angler or even a farmer to witness this awesome spectacle – but I was utterly alone and committed to landing and safely returning this wondrous thing I’d hooked.
With all the caution I could muster in the circumstances, I felt my way over the stones and the greasy boulders to dry land and less turbulent water; there, my opponent surfaced, pondered the situation and thrashed a long and spumy path across the main flow. The hook held and for the next forty minutes it played with me, exploiting its shape, its bulk and its weight to power up and down the pool then to lie doggo on the riverbed pretending to be a bedstead or a waterlogged tree-trunk; it certainly had me fooled the first time but I learned to lean downstream and to lift its chin into the current to resume the fight.
Heartbreaks from the past tend not to re-surface at times like these and it’s just as well. As a teenager on my South Ockendon club water I’d stupidly dismissed the fiddly take I’d had on a sprat as the work of a ‘ratter’ – only to be pulled in knee-deep by a huge pike and left holding a lifeless fibre-glass stick; and in the 80s I had a one hour and twenty minute night-time dispute with a very large carp at Johnson’s Lakes before it shed the hook just yards from home and left me almost in tears.
At no time had this fish been close to netting; the slate-grey of evening was rolling over the valley and the familiar sounds of roosting pheasants and blackbirds brought on an urgency to get the job done – but the fish was nowhere near beaten, thumping and dragging the rod over to raucously rip my line back toward the rapids. The majority of salmon I’d seen landed here over the previous five years had been in the ten-to-fifteen pound bracket so I was mentally geared-up to expect something similar, but on managing to bring this one to the surface I was shown a tail of spade-like proportions and an erect dorsal fin some four to five inches high. I looked down on myself from the oak behind and saw a desperate, lonely figure in need of assistance – this was a big fish.
That sense of foreboding pressed heavily once more. Were the darkening of the sky; my solitude within the deadened greens of the hills and the fear of failure some kind of message…my conscience made real…a conspiratorial metaphor for my very life? The divorce… the missed opportunities…the loss of my mum in ’82? A prolonged battle of attrition with a big and stubborn fish can bring forth the deepest emotions which subsume the job in hand; your mind drifts and you’re somewhere else in a different time then, suddenly, you find yourself back in the river with freezing legs and an enchanted pole in your hands.
The fish sank again so I took the opportunity to take out ye olde Android and drag a friend away from his evening meal a ten minute drive away in Hay. That the fish would still be battling away by the time he arrived seemed unlikely and the consequences of failure did, in fact, begin to haunt me: the devastation of a slack line wafting limply in the breeze…the breathlessness of sheer disbelief…the certainty of never getting another chance…
I could not have expected my friend’s arrival any sooner but it had seemed a thick novel away as I fought the fish further into the evening. He rustled through the reeds and scrunched onto the gravel to witness a further 15 minutes of anxious combat before the fish started to tire and finally roll onto its side.
‘Be prepared to get those moccasins wet!’ I told him.
At my learned friend’s behest, I walked it back into the shallows, but was this really what salmon anglers do? It was! I’d read about it often enough…’Beaching a Salmon’, but it didn’t seem right to me. Nonetheless, it worked well until a bush prevented my walking back any further and I was compelled to drag it toward the net. It felt so heavy on the end of a 14ft rod – and oh, so wrong…it went against my every instinct but there was little else to do. Almost dark now and with my slipper-shod friend extending the net from dry shingle, I reflected on the previous 80 minutes and prayed that this awkward, alien, seemingly amateur tactic could actually succeed, but the fish was coming…
‘Get your feet wet!’ I implored him with the fish no more than 18 inches from the rim, ‘Go in! Net it!’
But well, he didn’t. The hook pinged-out with the fish beaten and wallowing in shin-deep water, there to right itself and push back into the current.
Beat-owner, Geoff Maynard, and the good people of Hay to the east and Glasbury to the west, not to mention every sheep on the Radnor Hills and the Black Mountains, would have heard my cry of anguish and sensed a trace of my heartbreak leaking into the river.
*This article first appeared in Trout & Salmon magazine, Jan.2018, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its editor.