Words and pictures: Malcolm Anderson.
It’s seven in the morning and I’m walking along the edge of a field full of early season corn, vibrant green shoots emerging from the heavy soil, stretching like a sleeper woken early from slumber, reaching for the light after a long winter. I’ve joined Luke Kozak, Somerset based river restoration guru and all round jolly decent chap, to explore our secret river.
Overlooked, uncared for and unfished the secret river for much of its length trundles unnoticed under the noses of slowly munching dairy herds and train borne commuters chained to ipods and laptops. Through an alder and blackthorn choked tunnel it slides past ancient market towns, only popping into the local populations consciousness during winter spates when it rises, tsunami like and threatens to sweep the day to day of human existence away in a chocolate torrent. It’s lower reaches are coarse fish heaven, but up in its infancy just off the hills where it learns to laugh, the river is more playful and fast paced. In the springtime it’s these youthful reaches of the river that call to me, from its faltering toddling first steps through to it’s teenage swagger it exudes energy and unrealised potential; it is trouty water.
It’s been a hard winter in one way or another for both Luke & I so we spent last night tying a few flies, watching an early 90’s fishing DVD called a river somewhere, tying a few flies and chatting over mugs of tea; anticipating how the river will be looking after so many months away. Will there be any trout this year? Will the big logjam be in the same place?
I drift off; dreaming of holding perfectly finned, butter bellied jewels. Jewels that disappear with a flick of a paintbrush tail, leaving nothing but a ripple on the waters dark surface.
The mist is just clearing from the valley ahead of us as we follow the field edge towards the unruly line of alder in the distance, leaving a high thin cloud cover like white pain skimmed across a blue wall. Spring has promised us that she will arrive a little later in the day but for now it’s pretty chilly out here, winter has not yet given up entirely. I pull myself further into my fleece despite there being nothing but a faint breath of breeze.
Picking a point at random along the tunnel of trees we slide, more than a little uncontrollably into the inky darkness below. Banks are ten to fifteen feet high and we arrive in the river with two loud splashes, disrupting the stillness of the morning and scattering a number of the rivers spotty residents to the four corners of the compass.
The stillness slips back in around us as we stand still, our sunglasses misting up like a passion filled Ford Fiesta in a remote night time lay-by. Heavy silence descends, practically a physical presence in the mornings cool humid air. Sunglasses slowly unfog and we start to notice the slight flashes of fish feeding sub-surface, the short lived glint of a white mouth against the gravel. The subtle shifting of a shadow, drifting across the rivers bed to intercept a particularly tasty morsel.
One shadow detaches itself from the darkness under the alder roots opposite and drifts back lazily towards us, taking up position around ten feet from Luke’s boots and begins to feed, unconcerned by the wader clad legs that have appeared in it’s world. A short cast and Luke drifts a size sixteen pheasant tail nymph past the fish. Nothing. The nymph goes past the fish five or six times yet the fish continues feeding on something else. A closer inspection and we both think it’s chomping on caddis cases, something I’ve never seen a fish do that close up, masticating like it’s gotten into a piece of juicy fruit gum. A quick change of fly, a hurried cast that falls a foot short, literally under the tip of seven feet of slender tapered graphite and to both of our complete surprise the fish turns, dashes across the sun dappled gravel and nails the fly. Turning back for its lie the fish hooks itself neatly in the scissors and explodes into a million disconnected water drops, a blur of copper coloured spots and a flash of tail. In the stillness of the secret river time slows to a crawl, a scene from the Matrix. “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability” The explosion seems to hang in the air, natures very own glitter ball. Fishing and disco, who knew?
Released back after a quick careful photo the fish eases back to the same lie near the opposite bank and after a short time we can see him feeding again, ignoring both of our stupid grins. What a perfect way to start the day.
Slowly we wade up through the tunnel, careful with each step, heron-like, desperate to avoid sending a bow wave up ahead of us. It seems that on the secret river there is a pool on every corner. Dark cornered, deep and mysterious. Food lanes criss cross a surface made up of a patchwork quilt of darkness and light. Rocks and branches morph into graceful spotty denizens before our eyes. It’s not easy fishing by any means. Each cast has to be thought through. We have to wade into just the right position each time. Flies are constantly being caught in branches and waders and hands are filthy from crawling in the mud but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I live about seventy-five meters from a chalkstream, a river that people pay a lot of money to fish. A river that I love dearly but that somehow seems less after fishing this infuriating, beguiling, enchanting river. Our secret river.
As we walk back up across the fields at one o’clock, heading for a much needed breakfast, we talk about the other secret rivers we’ve noticed as we drive around the SW of England. The thin blue lines we’ve spotted on maps, the veins of a country shaped by it’s rivers and streams. We talk about who knows which farmer, who knows which fishing club. Luke tells me about a river in the next valley, a river that’s never fished and contains fantastic hidden trout, a river that ends at a thatched pub that serves great bacon sandwiches. However, we both know that, stealing from the antipodean equivalent of a Passion For Angling that we watched last night “There’s always a river somewhere”.