Wild West Greybacks by Richard Worthy
Charlie Bettinson. Golitha Falls, 28th Nov 1974. 24lbs 38”
Fast moving water crashes onto granite as its spume is thrown into the dull winter’s light, expressed by the gullies, cuts and crevices through which this relentless flow presses and thunders. December lies heavy at Golitha Falls on the Fowey River in East Cornwall. It’s one of the wild places of Bodmin Moor and holds a special significance for salmon anglers.
The Fowey is a spate river and back in the 1970s and 80s, given sufficient rain in the winter months, it would bring up the greybacks – the winter and early spring salmon whose size and strength far outweigh the width of this river. Fish of over thirty pounds were caught here then – in a river that’s between only twenty and thirty feet wide in most places. Tales of a forty pound salmon taken here long ago are not hard to verify. Sadly they have all but disappeared now and only a few are seen in the lower reaches where they quickly spawn and return to the sea.
“It’s not the hooking’em, it’s the getting them out that’s hard” – so say the men who know this place. Imagine then, that we are back there, forty years ago, at the roaring Golitha Falls, a wild secluded cathedral, full of mist and noise.
The fish are tenacious and tough. Seeing one of these greybacks is an education in game fishing. They look violent and strong with large powerful backs to give them extra speed . They are gnarled and scarred, broader and thicker than other fish, with a distinct hump back. Unlike the film star salmon that are found in the tender and civilized waters of the Tamar or Torridge in Devon, these are tough guys, commando fish, warriors with enormous strength and the ability to swim faster than a man can run. They can break twenty, thirty or even forty pound line with the flash of a tail and disappear without trace.
The banks here are treacherous, steep and slippery -one false move and you’re in. This is not angling for the faint hearted. Pastoral pleasures are far from this battlefield. No-one with a large social sweep would choose to be here. This is for the dedicated. The noise of the water is deafening and other than sign language, shouting into another’s ear is the only sure way to communicate. These anglers often go it alone though. The prize is too great to be shared. A wild fish weighing above twenty pounds and taken under these conditions, is a great prize and can enhance a man’s standing on the river. This is the Wild West and the men who fish here reflect that.
Golitha Falls is the major obstacle on the Fowey that salmon must overcome to reach the relative calm of the Draynes Valley and spawn in safety. On a “big” day it is impassable, so fish can be seen attempting to jump it only to be thrown back into the Falls Pool. Hooking one of these commandos is not so hard. Perseverance, patience and excellent eyesight will do the trick together with a spinning rod and 25lbs line. But after the hooking – that’s when the trouble starts. There is no room to manoeuvre. A winter fish will often go straight out of the back of the pool into the lower Bathing Pool. He may wait up there; he may keep rushing fifty, a hundred or even two hundred yards down river and hide up under some wild cover until you find him, if you still have him “on”. The worst obstacle of all is the nervy fumbling and clumsy loss of tenacity and confidence in the man who is trying to hang on and somehow land his prize.
Let’s imagine that after being hooked, a fish has gone back out of the Falls Pool and a hundred yards down river. He’s stopped under a large fallen tree that is impassable. The technique for overcoming this problem is to let the fish settle, then very gently, while the torrent is raging beneath your feet, find a suitable place to tie the line off to a branch, then cut it upstream of the knot, clamber around the fallen tree – rod in hand -and with a deep breath cut the line now downstream of the tree and for a moment have a wild powerful salmon on a piece of nylon held in your hand while you retie the two bits of line together with a double grinner knot and then gently wind in to put pressure on the fish again. The reel takes up the slack and -there he is – tugging madly at your rod-tip. You try to ascertain where he is now and how’s he’s placed for the next manoeuvre. Often you can’t see for overgrown trees or the steep banks winding away in a curve below you. You hang on.
The fish has decided to go beneath another fallen tree with scattered branches and into the back of a bramble strewn boulder ten feet wide. It’s the tie and cut procedure again. Settle, tie off, clamber around, cut the line with the fish on the end, and persuade your cold tired fingers to tie another double grinner in the fading half light and then – off once more.
This time though he’s desperate. After twenty minutes of scrambling he knows there’s definitely something up and he doesn’t like it at all. He takes off. Line flies off the reel faster now and you are forced to open the bale arm and hope for salvation somehow. The line runs out, just as you hoped it wouldn’t. The fish has more than enough strength, helped by the pull of a fast winter river, to shatter your line, reel and rod. This is now the last throw of the dice. You hurl the rod into the river after the fish as a javelin thrower might do and run. You run, you clamber, you slip, breaking your foothold and crashing your shin into unforgiving granite. Deal with that later you tell yourself.
A fellow fisherman has watched all this drama unfold and has arrived in the nick to assist. Another hundred yards further downstream he searches with you for the thrown rod. Can’t see it. He casts a spinner into the water and hooks a line. Your line! Backing up he drags the rod to the surface and you gratefully collect it. Line now goes back onto the spool. More than would be guessed at. In fact so much that either the fish is gone or he’s very close. You are in an easier place now, a wide pool with earth banks and no fallen trees. You wind and there he is. Twenty yards downstream- he surfaces and for all the world, looks a beaten fish. But not yet.
He’s fighting for his life and having swum two thousand miles from the Arctic Circle back to the place where he was born he’s not about to surrender his life without a final declaration of intent. He dives. He will not come up. You wind and lift – wind and lift. He will not be moved. It’s his last refuge and he’s put five feet of cold winter water between you and him.
Now comes the last act of this drama. You take off your coat, remove all valuables, car keys, spinners, angling licence and anything else that you feel you will need to get home, give the rod to your accomplice and slip gently into the water upstream of him. It’s a shade warmer than you would have predicted but deeper too-up to your armpits. You can see him now. Solid and dark, but he’s immovable on the bottom. Moving behind him you slowly sink a tailer – a kind of strong snare on a long handle- into position. If you miss him now with the tailer he could easily run again and being in the water, you would have no chance to control him, neither would anyone else – even from the bank. He would be lost. After all this, it’s unthinkable. You wait until he rises slightly and with all the concentration you have, in one confident movement, you slip the snare over his tail and wrench it upwards. The snare closes and he flaps, but to no avail. Unless something drastically stupid happens, he’s your fish now. It’s been forty-eight minutes since you hooked him and in that time he’s travelled four hundred and fifty yards downstream.
Handing the tailer’s end to your fellow angler on the bank, you clamber out. But with the added weight of water in your clothes you suddenly realise that you are shattered. A combination of mental and physical exhaustion overcomes your previously alert state and you sink to the ground in a wet heap. The giant silver prize is taken a safe distance from the flow and dispatched, assuming it is not a red spawning fish which must then be returned. The river needs a regular supply of eggs and milt.
Lifting him by the tail, the greyback weighs in at over twenty pounds and a gradual warming sensation grows into your tired, cold, wet body. You have the prize. You have outwitted nature -this time- and against many odds survived and taken a fantastic fish from this roaring river and now you can carry him home. The news will spread. No need to tell your friends on the river-they’ll know by night fall anyway. You collect up your belongings before starting the long damp trudge back to civilisation. But if you are wise you’ll find a silver coin and with a short silent prayer, toss it into the river with a numbed shaky hand. Silver out- silver in. That’s the way of it at Golitha.