Caught by the River

Don't Judge A Brook By It's Cover

3rd May 2008

Chris Yates learns that big fish can lurk in the most unexpected places (from today’s Telegraph)

After a few seasons watching the habits of freshwater fish, it becomes less of a puzzle guessing where a particular species might lie on a given day.

I find that wild fish move in mysterious ways. If I’m looking for perch, for instance, and the river is running high, I will fish the quiet, deep pools on the inside of bends or below sunken trees. When the river is low and clear and I am hoping for a chub, I’ll look for a steady, streamy run between reed or weed beds, where small groups of these black-tailed fish are often visible, holding station, just under the surface. Big, powerful barbel prefer strong, deepish runs, especially if there is a roof over their heads in the form of an overhanging willow. Like roach, dace and bream, these are shoal fish, which makes them easier to locate than the more solitary trout and pike; but whatever species I’m after, if I start hankering after a monster, I have to remind myself that monsters move in mysterious ways. Furthermore, they often inhabit places where even the most experienced angler would never think to look.

I had my eyes opened when I went for a walk along a tiny tributary of the River Loddon – which is a small stream, anyway – looking for wild brown trout. My companion, Edward Barder, who had been exploring the water over the previous few years, pointed out a little scoop in a very ordinary stretch of shallows where, not long previously, he had seen a fish that looked, in that bath-sized pool, like a salmon.

Apart from the overhanging trees, which gave a bit of cover, I would never have imagined it as a likely spot for a big fish. Yet the “salmon” proved to be a tremendous trout. On a mayfly of his own tying, Edward hooked it. After a spectacular battle, he landed it: a wild fish of 5lb 4oz, the sort of creature that most fly-fishers can only dream about.

On the day we were hunting for big fish, we didn’t see anything monstrous, but I watched Edward stalk a canny three-pounder, which looked enormous in a bottleneck of a glide beneath an old footbridge. The bridge seemed superfluous, as I could almost have stepped across to the far bank, but the fish obviously appreciated it and would not venture out of its shadow, even when a fat, juicy mayfly floated the merest tail flick away in the sunlight. Edward had to cast his artificial fly from below, trying to get it through the bridge so that it landed lightly on the surface before drifting back downstream.

This may sound straight forward; but the wooden crossbeam was only about two feet above the water and he was up to his armpits in reeds, 30 feet along the bank. It was amazing that he managed it several times – and at each attempt the trout ignored him. Edward gave up in the end and we went on upstream until we came to a little hollow of a pool below a leaning willow. Nothing was visible when we crept up to it, but Edward spotted something beneath the surface just upstream of the tree. It was another good fish, which swayed in the current, showing its neb (its nose) every time it rose to take a mayfly.
Generous as ever, Edward said it was my turn for a cast, even though he had seen the trout first. I crawled through the long grass, but could not get too close because the fish was in a little open glide between reeds, and if I could see him, he could see me. I was using my featherweight cane seven-footer, which has a lovely action, even if I don’t. As I extended the line, I realised this was a tricky cast – not as tricky as Edward’s under-the-bridge effort, but tricky enough for someone who fishes the fly for only a few days each year. My first attempt sent my fly into the reeds; the next put it into the trailing bough of an alder, upstream of the fish. Finally I got the thing to land almost perfectly. It floated down over the quivering greyish shape in midstream – which didn’t rise for it. I was wondering whether I could ever repeat such a good throw, when the fish turned and snatched the fly just before it swept under the willow. The line tightened. I’d got him!

The rod went into a sharp curve as my trout dived, circled and buried itself beneath the leaning tree. I presumed the game was over as soon as it had begun, but steady pressure gradually brought a response and, to my relief, the fish came free, dropping down into the deep pool next to us. I was convinced it was going to launch itself into the dense reeds downstream, but as it circled the pool, Edward said I should keep the pressure as steady as possible while he waited with the net. After a minute or two, as the trout made a slightly slower pass, close to the surface, my gillie leaned forward and scooped him expertly out.
It was a lovely golden 2½lb wildie, with just a few speckles and a broad square tail. He went back in the stream to grow into a five-pounder.