Not that I for one minute expected a bite. The deep cavernous banks of the river Teme had almost disappeared; drowned by the water from 3 days of continuous rain as the water raced from the Welsh hills towards Worcester.
In Worcester an hour before, I had purchased a day ticket for the river. I had burst into the shop dripping wet from a 50 yard dash from the car. Behind the counter stood two men, silenced in mid conversation by my sudden arrival. My enquiries about day tickets for the river resulted in the proprietor looking to his younger assistant with raised eyebrows. He was probably right to question the sanity of someone who chose to venture out on a such a day - I myself had. In response to my doubting thoughts I had spun weak stock answers in an attempt to establish self belief: "You are here now," "You never know until you try," … " and besides it is my birthday." They were phrases I repeated frequently, yet however many times I uttered these words I could not say them with conviction.
I had vowed to fish this day more than six months ago when my first 2 entries in my diary had been on June 16th and June 27th, both filled by a single large word, ‘FISHING’. When writing such entries in the depth of winter, I had pictured sunshine and clear waters. Even if forced to pause and be more realistic about the English summer, after 3 consecutive years of drought, a record flood in June would have seemed less likely than an English rout of the Australians in the summer test series.
I had originally planned to fish near to where the Teme joined the Severn, on meadows I had visited a month before with my wife Helen. The visit was our first to the river since we had picnicked, bathed and fished here as carefree students 10 years before. And, if the river Teme and its valley had a special place in my heart for its memories of carefree days, sunshine and barbel when an undergraduate, after our return, the symbolism extended to our future; as a new being we were due to meet in eight months was created. Today, those meadows were underwater, recognisable only by the hedgerows and trees defining their outlines. My fishing reunion with the river was certainly not possible here and an alternative plan was required.
The owner of the fishing tackle shop offered me morsels of hope, suggesting some anglers have been known to try and even succeed in such conditions. He suggested a stretch to fish further upstream where the banks may have just avoided being swamped. I departed from his shop with a day ticket for Knightwick, a small bag bulging with large flat leads - seemingly better suited for wreck fishing than river fishing, but with little in the way of hope.
The rain had eased by the time I left the shop. It was now only torrential, so it was still necessary to use the plastic bag as a makeshift umbrella to protect my already sodden head. Deep down I feared that the bag might prove to be the most useful of the items purchased today.
On the journey to the river it occurred to me that I actually enjoyed the act of fishing in conditions as extreme as these. If I was lucky I would catch a gudgeon and get home without having fallen in. People would think me mad to even step out of the door on such a day, yet they would also be interested to find out what it was about angling that drives a reasonably sane person to undertake such questionable activities. The most delectable prospect however was that today not only did I travel without expectations of what I might find, I journeyed unburdened by the expectation of catching fish. My intentions were for once uncomplicated by hope. I was not out to catch, only to fish.
I have often wondered why people bother to fish for salmon in all but perfect conditions at the right time of the year; at other times their pursuit seems futile. Today it occurred to me that perhaps there was a point after all. Salmon fishing enables the angler to stand in the middle of the most beautiful scenery, untroubled by how and when they are going to connect themselves with a fish. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this that is applicable to life in general.
After about 10 minutes in my swim the dismal prophesies of the Met. Office – rain, rain and more rain proved (for now at least) inaccurate. For the first time in what seemed like a month the precipitation had ceased.
The slack I had chosen to fish, although hardly a perfect Crabtree swim, did have more appeal than all the rest of the torrent I had seen so far. The water just below the steep bank before me slowed where a ditch entered the river before flowing into a second slack behind an alder to my right. The submerged branches of the tree were wrenched downstream by the current. To call this a slack, was only to speak relatively of the whole river; the water merely flowed less quickly and more smoothly. Even in this quieter water rolling eruptions of boiling water appeared with frequency if not with a discernible regularity. The choosing the swim was like choosing between walking against a storm or a hurricane, neither were desirable though the preferable option was obvious. I hoped the fish were guided by similar logic.
My first cast swung quickly round on the flow until weight and bacon grill bounced on the surface next to the branches. One and a half ounces of flattened lead was replaced by two and a half, and this time the bait at least remained underwater if not static. The weight swung back into the bank and under the part submerged tree. This would do - at least I was now fishing. I sat back into my chair and relaxed.
I had only ever driven through this part of the Teme valley a few times before. The valley was more delightful than I had remembered despite the passing of time which invariably re-architects the images in the head into more aesthetic visions. I wondered whether a landscape is only fully appreciated when I am part of the scene.
Over the towering river cliffs hung a buzzard. The cloud appeared so low and the bird so high I expected its outline to fade into the vapour. Beneath the buzzard’s motionless wings, gnarled ancient oaks clung to the rocky outcrop. The trees gravity-defying achievement’s seemed every bit as remarkable as the bird’s. On the far side of the river both the geology and the flora were a stark contrast to the jagged precipice. Here was flat land tamed by man. Order and symmetry dominated the scene where neatly planted lines of young fruit trees rested amongst hop growing frames on fertile pastures. I felt privileged to be in such a place - and without the expected rain. Colleagues would be sitting on tube trains on the way to their desks or meetings. The only meeting I had in mind, was the vague hope of an impromptu face to face with something far more comprehensible than another NHS manager.
The line between my fingers occasionally transmitted a change in resistance and the rod tip swayed with the passing flood debris and the boils in the sediment filled water, yet there was nothing to indicate the presence of a living force in the muddied water. After a few casts to different parts of the swim (and a few lost weights and hooks) I cast further downstream, placed the rod in the rest and poured a cup of tea.
Although often reported as the bringer of bites, the cup of tea has not noticeably worked for me in the past. Today there was no hidden agenda, the only purpose of the tea was to refresh. As I sipped the brew, the top of the rod transmitted a message that changed the whole perspective of the day. The tip moved quickly over towards the river, my arm shot towards the handle, my tea fell into the grass and the only resistance on the other end was from the push of the current. Normally such events would trouble me. Today this was a revelation, not an opportunity (and a beverage) lost.
I repeated the cast. The addition of expectation to the equation had me sitting far nearer the edge of my seat than before. Soon came another bite, and this time a fish was on - for a while at least. The line came back fishless, weightless and hookless. The force applied hadn’t seemed excessive but none the less the line had broken. I reasoned the current had tangled the weight around the line as had happened on a previous cast. I swapped the weight clipped on a link for a simple straight running lead, as it had less chance of tangling.
If the outcome of the last cast had produced a result that seemed impossible, the conclusion of the next now seemed inevitable. When the fish signalled its presence, I responded accordingly and contact was made. To my mind river Teme barbel fight harder than those I have caught from other English and French rivers. In today’s spate the fight was magnified and I realised 8 pound line and an Avon rod were not the ideal tools for the job but eventually the my opponent tired. My greatest problem arose whilst trying to bring the fight to an end. Netting a fish was something I had not considered when setting up, for the simple reason I had not conceived I might catch. The net lay in the grass unextended and the bank before me was wet and slippery. Despite the presence of a self inflating life preserver strapped to my chest, the consequences of a slip of the foot today still seemed grim. Eventually I managed to edge up to the water on my belly. One arm stretched to the river, the other to the sky - and the fight was ended.
This was only the beginning. Over the next hour - despite a few alarming moments with fish and line in the submerged branches of the flooded tree - I admired 3 barbel, weighing between 3.5 and 6 pounds. Success is relative: the peaks are higher when the expectation level from where you begin is low. My achievements left me with vertigo. Although supplies of bait and weights were far from critical, I re-visited the tackle shop, "just in case". I was driven by a shameful need to tell the proprietor of my achievements and indicate how little he knew of summer flood barbel fishing (I was hardly an expert).
Whilst on the road I telephoned my regular fishing companion, Stuart, to tell him of my success. I knew how phoning him at work with tales from the riverbank left him unable to concentrate on his work. His reaction made the passing on of the news all the more pleasurable. Besides, today was Stuart’s missed opportunity. The trip was planned months before but after a week of indecision about whether to fish, two days before this trip, Stuart finally announced he was "unable to get the time off." Without the rains I suspected his decision may have been different.
My jubilation about the morning’s events was immense. I may as well have just caught my first double figure barbel. I had been victorious, despite odds which I felt (quite wrongly in retrospect) were stacked against me.
Back at the river four other anglers had arrived, though that hardly would result in crowding as there were now seven, on a mile and a half of water. After consuming a special birthday lunch lovingly prepared by Helen and St Michael, I wandered contentedly back to the river. I was happy with what I had already achieved. Though as often happens in fishing and in life, the rewards do not come at a steady rate. Throughout the rest of the afternoon everything I touched continued to turn to gold - white gold, as the barbel possessed the almost ghostly appearance, which is typical of barbel in coloured water. The first swim I tried resulted in 6 more successes. All caught in 2 feet of water and within a foot or two of the bank. After this initial surge the sport was slower elsewhere though I still continued to catch.
A few hours later after loosing the fish that would have been the 13th of the day I decided to stop. The rewards from each subsequent capture were diminishing rapidly, and to leave early - normally an inconceivable act - today seemed attractive. Additionally the symmetry in the only escapees being the first and the last appealed to the side of me that seeks to find order.
Driving home I recalled the 12 barbel up to 8 pounds that I had landed, on a day when I had expected none and it occurred to me that if there are fishing Gods, then perhaps they know your date of birth. After my long absence from the Teme and my 2 recent memorable returns, I had began to think of the river and its valley as more than just the interaction between geology, hydrology and ecology. In my mind the river was an old friend, and it had welcomed me back with open arms.