Words and pictures: Malcolm Anderson
April the first has been celebrated as a day of pranks and tricks for centuries. It appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1392, and some claim it goes back much, much further than that. On the rivers around Salisbury that are managed by the Salisbury & District Angling Club however, April Fools’ Day has other connotations.
Mike Locke, who was chairman of the club but sadly passed away in 2008, saw fit to negotiate changing the opening day of the trout fishing season from the fifteenth to the first. Ostensibly this was done so that anglers could benefit from the heavy hatches of grannom, the earliest sedge of note to fly fishers, which occur on early April days. Having known Mike’s sense of humour, I get the feeling that some years he’s having a bloody good laugh at those of us foolish enough to venture out onto the rivers.
Some years there’s been snow on the windswept chalk backs above the Ebble valley, some years it’s been twenty-one degrees. One year I distinctly remember going out in a t-shirt, only to have to run back to the car when a big wedge-of-cheese-shaped weather front that wasn’t in any of the forecasts appeared from the East.
This year, conditions weren’t looking promising as we headed towards the weekend.
Thursday had been clear and bright. I’d sat outside the house working in the sunshine in the afternoon. A day made for walking over lawns barefoot and cups of tea on the bench, nineteen degrees and not a breath of wind; almost summer.
Friday, however, dawned to a sky the grey of an asbestos roof, accompanied by a cold, knife-edged, ornery wind that tugged at the corners of the house with intent. A thick-hooded jumper kind of day; an ice cream headache while walking dog on open hilltops kind of day.
Saturday I woke expecting the worst, but a crisp and sunny (if cold) morning greeted me as I stepped outside. A stiff breeze was making the cherry tree in the wilderness dance, champagne white petals fluttering to the grass like snow. As I walked Mungo down the lane, sending pheasants careening off into the fields, I was mentally adding layers of clothing for the day’s fishing ahead.
So far, I’ve been exploring the top end of the Avon in these pieces of writing. Today I’m heading south to where the river spreads and settles; to where the main stem and countless smaller back channels and carriers dominate the flood plain as they create a serpentine watery warp and weft, through the rough grazing of the valley floor. By the time I’d driven down to Fordingbridge and crossed the suspension bridge at Fold’s Farm, the day had warmed considerably.
This is the same suspension bridge where on June the sixteenth last year I wrote about watching Chub play in the shadows amongst a blanket of dancing ranunculus. This early in the year, however, the weed is nothing but a faint green smudge on the riverbed; yet to grow and flourish fully in the spring sunshine. The current pushes through hard, its surface rippled by the wind. From the bridge, my shadow dances across the water to a song only it can translate. A murmuring song of gurgles, plops and splashes that coalesce into an impatient stuttering purl.
The river is carrying a tinge of milky colour again; it seems to do so increasingly in early spring as the years go by. Changing land management practices and poorly managed sewage treatment systems have increased the amounts of nitrates and phosphates flowing into these once clear rivers, and early algal blooms are causing concern amongst those who love and look after them.
Walking downstream along the true left bank, a stoat swims across the river in front of me, while a kestrel hovers — finger-feathers splayed in the wind — above the watermeadows to my left. To the south the woodlands between the Sandy Balls Holiday Resort (yes really) and the steep sided Iron Age ramparts of Frankenbury Camp are a dark reminder of winter against the blue of the sky of spring.
A few grannom are fluttering amongst the vegetation on the edges but there’s no significant hatch and I can’t see a single rising fish, so I sit down to watch and wait.
While the river passes, as it always has and I hope always will, I light the Kelly Kettle and get some water boiling. As the water steams and adds its own bubbling song to the day, Mark wanders out of the distance; the good news is he has cake. So we sit, watch, sup tea and eat apple crumble cake.
Mark and I continue to the bottom of the stretch, all the way down to where the water abuts the land owned by Sandy Balls. Nothing. Not even a knock. So after a bit of a conflab over more tea back at the cars we decide to head back upstream to Salisbury in the hope of catching a better hatch of flies on the meadows behind the cathedral.
Slinging the dregs from the bottom of the tin mugs into the nettles we head up the valley, through Breamore and Downton. Past hedgerows of neon early spring green and hillsides of eye-wateringly yellow rapeseed.
Crossing the water meadows, having parked in Harnham, we scatter sheep ahead of us before we slip into the waist deep depths of the Avon and work our way slowly upstream, casting to rising fish.
Mark catches fish after fish.
I concentrate instead on catching nettles, last year’s poison hemlock stems, tree branches, sticks floating down the current, my rod tip and at one point even my waders. But in my defense, I’m distracted by the peregrines arcing across the sky; by the way the shadow of the cathedral buckles and kicks across the water’s surface, by the sounds of children playing in Lizzie gardens. I’m also distracted by the way the clouds are thickening noticeably on a strengthening breeze, throwing shadows dark as soot across the water.
I’m in the middle of undoing another windknot from my leader when we lurch from day to night. A shower passes through, heading somewhere in a hurry. The water’s surface turns silvery for a short moment and my jacket darkens as it’s soaked. As quickly as it came, however, the darkness recedes, replaced by clear sky.
With the sun come the grannom — the sunshine triggering the pupae to hatch — and with the grannom come the fish. We are surrounded by slowly spreading concentric rings as fish break the surface in their eagerness to hunt, and this time I catch fish too.
Once more the sun turns off, leaving us standing in wavering shadows that lengthen and deepen. The wind drops off entirely and an unsettling silence slides across the watermeadows like fog.
I look downstream to Mark; he looks up from releasing a fish back into the water and shrugs his shoulders.
There is a pause. The river sings to itself, its voice low and soft. A pigeon clatters from the alder tree to my left and a siren sounds off in the distance somewhere across the city.
The stillness bursts with a bestial roar and rain axes across the landscape like a guillotine. Big fat raindrops fall with such force that they send corresponding drops of river water skywards, the river’s surface merging into the bituminous sky.
After five minutes of deluge the dark is banished by sunshine once more and as I start fishing again. My clothing steams like soggy cattle in the warmth of the sun.
Mark keeps catching fish but my heart just isn’t in it. As we wade the last stretch up towards Crane Street Bridge I disentangle another wind knot and decide to call it a day. I join the Saturday shoppers and walk along the town path, attracting a few odd looks for wearing squelching waders amongst a sea of Marks & Sparks and Boots bag-carrying public.
Now, I can’t walk past any bridge without stopping to look, and this is trebly true if that bridge crosses the river Nadder. What’s even worse is the compulsion I feel when walking past the Old Mill at Harnham. I have to cast a fly into the smaller of the two mill pools. It’s an itch I struggle not to scratch.
I’m weak. OK?
I tie on a heavily-weighted fly and wade in carefully, approaching from the right of the main tumbling, jumbling flow of the river as it cascades from under the mill. Loosening some fly line from the reel I carelessly flick the fly out into the flow.
The sky darkens again.
I cast properly and the fly bounces off the moss-covered red bricks and falls into the heavily oxygenated jade water.
If I pay out just a little more line, experience has taught me that the heavy fly will feed into the slack water beneath the concrete sill, and there in the still depths be monsters.
There’s a crack of thunder that sets the smokers outside the Old Mill running for the doorway, and the heavens open. Hailstones sting my hands and rat-tat-tat off my jacket.
Given my experience in the past with holding fishing rods in thunderstorms, I feel very nervous and start to wind my line back onto the reel. But as I start reeling, there is a distinct thump, and the rod bends over: a fish has decided that now is the perfect time for a meal.
The hail continues to hammer down and I can’t see what I’m doing properly for the spray. There’s another crack of thunder, followed by a flash of light that freeze-frames the world for a millisecond, and all the while I’m stood almost chest deep in turbulent water, my rod bent double with a large fish on the end of my line who is determined to take off downstream.
I take a step and the water slops over the top of my waders and I catch my breath as the cold water washes downwards.
Slowly I manage to steer the fish out of the main current and off into the slack water at the side of the pool.
The hail stops, the sun weakly appears through the lightening cloud. My heart beat slows with the fish as it relents in its dogged fight and slowly circles in the shallow water.
The fish is too big for my scoop net so I hold the narrow waist just above its tail, slip the hook out of the corner of its mouth, and then gently support it, face into the current.
This moment, where you support the weight of a wild creature; where you feel physically connected to something bigger and older than human history. This is the bit that you can’t put into words. Can’t truly understand, let alone explain. There, for a moment, you and the natural world share a fleeting connection and nothing else exists.
Then, with a flick of a paintbrush tail, the connection is broken, and the deep-backed shape slides off with a splash. Back to its watery home.
I’m cold, and I’ve got a wet crotch from crappy leaking waders and walking too deep, but I’ve handled living gold. Fool’s Gold.
I don’t take photos of my own fish these days. I don’t like corny grip-and-grin photos, and I don’t want to increase the chances of damaging the fish. Frankly, I just don’t feel the need to present the fish I catch like a preening peacock. For me, the moment of connection and the feeling of the fish returning back safely is enough. I’m confident and happy enough in my fishing not to need other people’s congratulations. I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone.
I smile to myself. Job well done Malcolm, time for a quiet exit, a short drive home and a cup of tea.
Then I notice a round of applause coming from the pub doorway and look up to see the smokers clapping.
I try nonchalantly to reel in my line and wander off, but the squelch coming from inside my waders as I walk past them makes it rather hard to be cool.
In my head, however, I’m Steve McQueen.