That one was caught by accident from the Royalty fishery of the Hampshire Avon. I was trotting bread-flake for roach at the time, amassing a good bag and almost got caught unawares by the rising of the river as the tide came in, a phenomenon quite new to me when coarse fishing. The sea-trout weighed a pound and a quarter, a pretty bar of spotted silver. It was returned to fight another day. I used to see plenty of sea-trout, salmon too, in those days on the Royalty. They would suddenly appear in your swim, under the rod set for barbel, clearly visible in the gin-clear water. They would linger for a while, keeping, it seemed, a wary eye on you, before swimming slowly on upstream to find their spawning grounds. Huge fish some of them were too, well over twenty pounds, though most of the largest were probably salmon. Most of those fish are gone now. Many Avon salmon and sea-trout beats are becoming coarse fisheries as, for whatever reason, the big migratory fish have disappeared. It would be a few more years after I stopped fishing the Royalty before I would see either sea-trout or salmon again.
I did attempt to catch them now and then, usually mixing fishing with a West Country holiday on some caravan site that optimistically advertised salmon and sea-trout fishing within the grounds. What a joke that was! I don't think I saw either at any of the places I stayed. The rivers were usually a few feet wide and a few inches deep, very minor tributaries and many miles from the sea, their status as migratory fish rivers barely authenticated by the fact that long long ago in the distant mists of time, the village postman had caught a ten pound salmon from a deep pool which apparently no longer existed. I could never find them anyway. I did catch a few brown trout though, tiny but beautiful speckled fish, two or three to the pound, usually on a coch-y-bondhu or some other coachman variant.
It was many years later that I encountered another sea-trout. I had been fly-fishing for trout for several years, having been completely cured of my previous summer addictions to carp and tench - or so I thought! Travelling further afield in search of salmon and sea-trout was a natural extension to fishing for trout. It wasn't of course easy - I was living in Buckinghamshire at the time, and as you will no doubt realise, there are not that many salmon in that area. Not outside the fishmongers anyway. Salmon fishing was reserved for once or twice a year trips to Scotland, but sea-trout could be found more reliably closer to home.
In the mid-seventies, a few friends and I joined the Testwood fishery, a tidal stretch right at the bottom end of the famous river Test. Being so far down the river the fishery didn't have the appeal of other beats on this wonderful river, but at least it was affordable; and more importantly, available. It is the closest I ever got to fishing the Test proper, and evocative names such as Wherwell, Leckford and Mottisfont are still, and probably always will be, exactly that - evocative names.
The trips we had to the Testwood were totally mad. We would leave work at around 4pm in the afternoon, drive down, fish all through the hours of darkness, returning home at first light, maybe to grab a couple of hours sleep before going to work again. Often the fish didn't turn up, leaving us to drag our weary way home disappointed, but on the nights the fish ran up on the tide you could have some excellent sport. One such night I remember clearly. We had been told by the syndicate leader that we should only fish at night, and with the fly. We turned up about two hours before dusk to find him legering worm in the main pool! But all he had caught were eels - serves him right!
We set up our fly-rods with slow sinking lines and flies according to our personal preferences. I was very much a Hugh Falkus fan, and among others had tied some big tandem lures with a painted silver body, blue hackle and wing. As darkness fell we took our respective positions. I remember that I had a high bank behind me, and all through the night had to steeple-cast to avoid getting caught up on the back-cast. I must have been quite good then, for I never lost a single fly. I doubt I could do that now, especially with the problems tennis elbow has been giving me.
It was a lovely warm August night, and as the tide began to turn and run up the river, so the fish came with it. That's one thing about sea-trout, especially freshly run fish - they certainly let you know when they arrive in a pool. Sometimes there are so many fish leaping and crashing about it seems impossible not to at least foul-hook one as your fly travels down and across. I never have though - they are obviously quite adept at moving out of the way. Thank-you very much, but no!
The first hour was quiet at my end of the rod, but fish were jumping regularly. Around 11pm I began to get plucks on the big fly but could not hook the fish. I changed over to another Falkus fly, the Secret Weapon. This is a motley brown creation tied on a single hook, but with a small treble tied in at the tail. The body is of plain dark silk, and a sparse wing of bronze mallard is tied in over a soft brown hen hackle. Tying instructions are that it should not be tied neatly, but rather to resemble a "straggly brown creature". Well, a straggly brown creature was what the fish wanted that night, and although I was still getting little plucks at the fly, and plenty of them, occasionally a fish would attach itself properly and go tearing off around the pool in the darkness.
They came in fits and starts, going quiet for an hour, then coming on for a while. There were some spectacular shooting stars that night and I lost count of how many I saw as I stood guiding my fly around the dark water in front of me. I can hardly begin to describe how exciting it is to cast a fly out into the darkness, a darkness that is alive with jumping fish, then feel the line slowly swinging around, waiting for that heart-stopping tug from a fish, a tug that you feel all at once both on your rod, and your fingers. By the time light began to show from the east, and the sea-trout had gone down, I had 6 fish on the bank. I say on the bank, but that was figuratively speaking, as all but two had been returned. The best two, fish of two-and-a-half, and four-and-a-quarter pounds I kept. All the others had weighed between one-and-a-half and two pounds - a terrific night's sport. I photographed the biggest fish in my back garden when I got home. Then I went to work! The things a man with a mortgage must do to get some sport!
The next summer I again attempted to combine some sea-trout fishing with a family holiday. We stayed on a farm in north Devon that had a stretch of the river Torridge running through it, but we were soon to find that we were too high up, and that this part of the river didn't hold many fish. Some time before I had read a wonderful book, The Torridge Fishery, written by L.R.N. (Lemon) Grey in the 1950's and one of the best instructive books on sea-trout I have ever read, by the way. He had at that time owned a small hotel at Iddesleigh, the Devon Lodge, and with this went some very good sea-trout and salmon fishing. After making enquires locally we found that if we approached the farmer, then he might give us permission to fish that very stretch. That was very exciting - I already felt as if I knew it intimately.
Negotiations were completed successfully with the farmer, and it was two very excited anglers who eventually found themselves looking down the Brimblecombe run, the Three Buttresses and then coming upon, among others, the Monument pool, so named from the monument on the far bank, near to where the Okement enters the Torridge. I was told that this was erected in memory of a salmon angler who had been found drowned there, apparently with two salmon on the bank and another on the end of his line. Well, if an angler has to go some time, then I guess that is as good a way as any.
We spent several very dark nights fishing the pools and runs. The river was quite high and ran red from the surrounding farm land; it was a wet holiday! Sea-trout crashed all around us, sometimes so close you could clearly hear their fins rattle, and got splashed by them as you waded. But we failed to hook a single one. It was a big disappointment. Maybe we needed a clearer river. Maybe we just weren't experienced enough to catch these fish. Grey would have known, but we had no-one to ask.
Before we left for home I set out to find the Devon Lodge. Eventually I did, dutifully carrying Lemon Grey's book with me to match up the photo of the hotel and to see how much things had changed. They had changed very much. The old hotel had been knocked down, and the stable block at the rear had been converted into what was now a private dwelling that had no association with the fishing. Apparently the Lodge had fallen into such a bad state that it would have been too costly to repair. Grey hadn't had the money and had long since returned to Ireland, where he had died. It all felt so sad - for some reason I had felt a strong affinity with the man, and now almost everything was gone, the fish and the fishing hotel.
The fishing had been very good in those days - there must have been some great times at the Devon Lodge. I wondered how Grey had felt when he took his last fish from the river. How he had felt when for the last time he closed the door on Devon Lodge and walked away. I imagine there were many looks over his shoulder, and no doubt a lump in his throat; perhaps even a tear in his eye. An angler can't own a place like that without leaving something of his soul there. I stood for a while on the grassed over foundations, searching for something inside. But nothing came. It was just an empty space. Not even bricks and mortar to record or retain the emotions of long gone anglers. I wondered what happy ghosts might have walked that place were it still there.
I did return to the Torridge a couple of years later. It was in early spring, a glorious time to be on a Devonshire river. We had booked a long weekend on a salmon beat, a beat further down from the "Torridge Fishery". It was lovely water too, superb pools and runs. But despite the best efforts of (by then) three fairly experienced fly-fishers, we failed to catch a single fish. We never even saw one. I don't know if things have improved or not, whether the salmon and sea-trout once again run there. But our time was not wasted, for wading slowly down a beautiful river with a fly-rod seldom is. But I do remember that I left with the impression that such a lovely river should not be left empty, and that if the salmon and sea-trout were unlikely to return, then perhaps someone should stock it with barbel and chub…