Caught by the River

River Respite

18th February 2012

by Ben Potts

Once more I was awake before the alarm, however my head felt strangely refreshed and alert in spite of the fact that outside it was still dark. Once downstairs, after demolishing a cup of strong black coffee and gathering together all my rods, bags and other paraphernalia that I consider fishing essentials, I opened the front door and nearly fell out of it. The smell of fresh dew on grass combined with clear, cold air somehow made me feel excited and full of nervous tension. After the usual hurried, multiple final checks to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I drove over to my friend Richard’s house on the edge of the Peak District. When I arrived, I was delighted when he immediately thrust a bacon sandwich in my direction. I remember the sensation of crisp bacon, soft granary bread and HP sauce all combining on that particular day into a winning concoction that stands out above many other similar occasions. The clink of real china and the sight of rising steam from scalding mugs of tea probably added to it all as well. We made good time once we eventually left Macclesfield and we suddenly found ourselves crossing the Welsh border. The other cars we had been travelling with steadily peeled away down myriad small country roads and we were suddenly on our own. We took a short break in order to rest the tired engine of my shattered, battered Renault Clio in Llangollen. That morning the town really was a joy to behold, just as it was waking up and we had a smoke on the bridge that crosses the River Dee in the town centre. Corwen and Bala were then glimpsed only in fragmentary, impressionistic detail as we drove through them, although Llyn Tegid was a diversion. We set up camp above Dolgellau, right next to the River Wnion. We were already beyond knowing, or caring for that matter, whether it was breakfast or lunch that we ate before we headed off downstream. When we reached the lower river, we saw a couple of men fishing quietly on a corner pool. One of them, an old man named Harold, came over and talked to us for a while. All the while, the imposing mountains of Cader Idris, Felin Moel and The Saddle hovered at the edge of my field of vision. He was a wealth of wisdom and experience and a real character and at the mention of Sea Trout, the fish I had driven so far to find, he drew nearer to us and adopted a conspiratorial air.

“Are you fly-fishing, lads?”

“Yes, kind of. We’re new to it, though”.

This was true and although we had read up on how to catch Sea Trout beforehand, we were, if we were honest, still without any real clue as how best to proceed. One thing about fishing is that you can read as many books about technique and instruction as you like, but if you don’t actually put time into being on the river and get to know it’s character and quirks for yourself you are at a major disadvantage. Each river is different, each one a unique micro-climate that is determined by lots of geographical factors.

“You need to cast quietly as you can downstream and across and then retrieve very slowly. What flies were you using?”

We showed him our fly boxes. He walked back over to his tackle and reappeared a minute later with an upturned flat cap in his hand and a sparkle in his clear blue eyes. “Here, try these, lads. They have a bit of colour to them and they are as small as you need them, about a number fourteen or sixteen.” He handed out several flies to both of us, an Alexandra, a Falkus Medicine and a couple of other flies whose names escape me. Harold could definitely talk a great deal, but it was enjoyable listening to him. Most memorably, he described the time a nearby lake had somehow sprung a leak and had reduced down to nothing but a puddle, a puddle that was chock full with fish. “Blimey, when we found the lake as it was, being so very low, everyone in town seemed to rush down to the water’s edge. You couldn’t move for fisherman crowding the bank. We had an absolute dream of a day and we all went home with bagfuls of fish.” He said, beaming. “It was quite a while before the baliff cottoned on to what was happening.” (I don’t know if Harold is still alive today, but he was memorable in his generosity and liveliness of spirit. He mentioned he had been Dolgellau’s main postman for years and was known as ‘Harold the Post’, which is a usual naming habit throughout Wales). Eventually we said goodbye to Harold and we started fishing a deep run right underneath our feet, just upstream of Bontywernddu Bridge. There was a large shoal of maybe twenty or thirty fish clearly visible and the banks were relatively clear and easy to cast from. We had found our spot. The only problem was the amount of light still in the day, and we knew we would need to wait until it grew darker to be in with a chance. Cue coffee and cigarettes, at least a couple of hours worth. As night began to creep in, the temperature dropped sharply, the river steamed and fish began to leap. Bats flew low swooping loops around our heads. When it was truly dark something took over and I somehow switched my brain onto autopilot. I fished quietly and slowly, just as Harold had said and cast lightly downstream and let the fly swing across. The sensitivity of such fishing was almost heartbreaking, as I could feel the slightest tremble or shiver of the line as it passed through the water. Several times I felt distinct bites and struck into thin air, each time nearly passing out as I did so, as I sometimes almost forgot to breathe.

At about Eleven ‘o’ clock Richard was rewarded with his first Sea Trout. I suddenly heard a fierce and continuous splashing directly in front of Richard and moved along the bank to offer assistance if needed. Richard, who seemed in a state of disbelief, managed to quite quickly land the fish. It was a stunning little thing, around a pound in weight, twelve or thirteen inches long and fresh in from the sea. In the light of our head torches, the metallic skin and the dark, black spots on the flanks made it look brand new. The fish was returned immediately although we did not start fishing again. We had a cigarette, more coffee and listened to more fish jumping. We returned to the campsite later on having had no more fish but being content to have landed just the one. A bottle of red wine was opened and I looked up at an unbelievable night sky that yielded grand views of the International Space Station orbiting far above and a bright and very red looking Mars. We had another bottle, after all we were enjoying ourselves taking the piss out of each other, sky-watching and talking about friends, politics, food, the milky way and of course the mysterious habits of the Sea Trout. These migratory cousins of the naturalised Brown Trout make a very high frequency buzzing noise when they jump out of the water. With the fish sounding like small jumping fridges, and with the odd one or two sounding like massive American-style fridge freezers, the atmosphere had been almost literally electric. The River Wnion was only twenty or so feet away from our tent and the combination of the wine and the sound of the river meant instant slumber when the time came to call it a night, or rather morning. We knew though, without a shadow of a doubt, that we would have to be back on the river again first thing the following evening.

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