It was late September 1993, just a year or so after the salmon ladders were installed on the Thames weirs, that I made a pilgrimage from Essex to Romney weir at Windsor. This was where I had learned to fish in the 60s and caught my first barbel in late summer 1970. I fished that day in the weir-pool where I had succeeded twenty-three years earlier, using luncheon meat and casting into the weir gates and into the main pool from the high concrete bank between the lasher and the huge horse chestnut tree. The day evolved into one of those lazy Indian Summer afternoons, pleasantly warm and soporific. The barbel were not obliging but several chub graced the net and took up residence in an old cavernous blue keep-net that I had once purchased with more imagination than was ever warranted.
In mid afternoon I was startled to see a fish jump from the weir-pool and attempt to swim up the lasher before being washed back down. Later, when it made a second jump, I walked downstream to the only other angler on the fishery, in peg 6.
“I’ve just seen a salmon try to jump the weir” I told him, excitedly.
“Oh, you quite often see them these days” was his blasé reply.
“Well, it’s a first for me… I’ve never seen one before in all my life,” I said, “we don’t get them in the River Roding in Essex!”
I returned to my fruitless quest for barbel and every now and then I saw the salmon attempt the enormous leap from weir-pool to lock cut. Each time I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t it just do the easy thing and swim up that fish ladder next to the lasher?”
Then I became aware that the fish was not just jumping every now and then, but rather it was jumping at fifteen minute intervals. Not only that, but it was jumping only on the quarter hours. When the wind is gently in the west, the sound of Eton College’s clock bell can be heard on Romney Island…. many a time in my teenage years it rang to remind me that I was already due home and I had not even left yet.
On that September afternoon in 1993 the bell could be heard even by the weir and it was when the bell struck that the fish jumped. I could hardly believe it, but there it was, every time.
Late in the afternoon, I began to contemplate the long journey home round the M25, to the Rodings in Essex… the vicar’s day off was coming to an end. I lifted the thick, knitted, micro-mesh keep-net and tipped back four chub of about two pounds apiece (a good catch for me!) The net weighed vastly more than the catch and the long walk back to the car-park in Home Park promised to be an arm-stretcher, so I resolved to sit awhile and enjoy the evening sun shining across the weir from Eton while the net was stretched out to dry and lighten the load.
It was 5 pm and suddenly, as the clock struck the hour, the water erupted and the salmon once more leapt abortively upon the lasher, a jump of about four or five feet vertically, but with insufficient water for it then to swim up the long ramp to the lock cut. The thought then struck me: Why don’t I help it on its way?
I stationed my chair on the very corner of the weir, extended my landing net handle to its full eight foot and placed it beside me, thus affording the other net fifteen minutes more to dry. Then I nodded off.
Suddenly, at twelve minutes past five, I woke with a start, looked at my watch and thought time to get ready. As the clock stuck 5.15, the waters parted, a bar of silver flashed past, way out of reach, flapped about on the sill and was washed back to disappear once more. What a ridiculous idea I thought to myself, but since it was so warm and comfortable in my chair and the keep-net still so wet and heavy, I decided to postpone my home-going for a further fifteen minutes…then promptly dozed off again! (It had been a very early start. Back in those days, if I were buying a day ticket I wanted a full day’s fishing from it!)
I awoke with a start and looked at my watch. I could hardly believe it! It was 5.28 so I reached for the landing net and was soon poised for the clock to strike 5.30. Out came Salmo Salar on my side of the lasher as if aiming for my net – and it was plucked from the air! More accurately, I was plucked from my fishing chair as this piscine missile passed from right to left at high speed, its momentum jerking me from my seat! I ended up on my stomach with a net full of writhing salmon that was washed past me from left to right and over the weir with me hanging onto the net handle and desperately trying to keep the net clear of the water.
As I struggled to my feet I realised I had caught not only my first salmon but also one of the very few to have been caught from the Thames – admittedly not by rod and line but by even less likely means. The angler at peg 6 was still there and obligingly came to take a photo. The original print and negative are now goodness knows where and all I have left is the memory and a printed copy of a scanned image of the photo – not great considering the camera was also pointing into the sun, but it does show salmon and self with chair and fish ladder behind and weir in background.
Some years later when I had moved back to Buckinghamshire and made the acquaintance of a certain Frank Guttfield, I told him the story. Frank repeated it to Chris Tarrant who used quite flowery language to declare that he didn’t believe a word of that ‘lying so and so vicar’ so I printed the photo on a card and over-printed it with the words ‘Dear Chris, Happy Christmas, and may the Bird of Paradise fly up your nose in 1999 and may you think of salmon on the air every fifteen minutes’
Six months later I met Tarrant on the riverbank and said “Did you get my Christmas card Chris?”
“Yes I did, thank you very much”
“I caught your show (Tarrant on TV) last night, Chris”
“Yes, and it gave me great pleasure to suppose that you thought of salmon at least twice while I was watching it!”
“A good deal more than that!” was his gracious reply.
Essential footnote: the salmon was placed back in the river above the weir after the photo was taken. It weighed 5 ½ lbs. I hope its great grandchildren are still jumping at Romney or, better still, have learned from their ancestor and now use the fish ladder.
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