Bear with me, do. There are so many writers talking about bagging-up, donkey sized fish, and ‘seriously wicked’ rods, that I feel it’s necessary to offer a bit of balance.
Just yesterday, I walked down the lane leading to the river, with a very nice middle-aged chap, balding (like me) who was intrigued by my minimalist lack of tackle paraphernalia. ‘What are you after?’ he asked. ‘Chub, and whatever,’ said I. ‘Me too,’ he replied. And there the similarity ended. Neil (as I discovered his name to be) sported a full Fox backpack, a very comfortable-looking chair, a quiver of made-up duplon-handled rods with baitrunners, and a net big enough to accommodate ‘Jaws’. I had a Allcocks 10_’ cane rod with a little centre-pin, a smallish landing net, and a nearly empty shoulder bag. You don’t need to be a timber-clad traditionalist to travel light. I might just have easily used a carbon wand, and a telescopic modern net. All the same, I think a little centre-pin of whatever vintage is probably the right thing for the job.
We wasted half an hour talking through our different approaches, and Neil eventually went off admitting that he might have allowed the techno-world to encroach too deeply into the natural ambit of fishing. He disappeared in a metronomic rustle of blue storm-proof nylon, looking to all the world like a rear view of the Starship Enterprise.
Eschewing the main river, I turned through the woods to its tributary, a stream that sometimes is a mere trickle, and sometimes a raging brown river. Here it’s 12" deep, and there a full 8’. There’s even talk of a ‘bomb-hole’ that’s full of bream and giant eels, but I’ve never actually found that. Anyway, every water worth the mentioning has a bomb hole. There are so many of these mythical holes in rivers and lakes, you have to wonder how the Germans ever managed to land any bombs at all on London.
This little stream is one of 356 ‘best places in the world’ that I have positively identified, so far. I wouldn’t want to try to jump across it anywhere, but it is very narrow in parts, and there are places where the overhanging alders and hazels meet to form a delicious watery bower, through which the stream gurgles, and the kingfishers arrow with sound effects towards the distant circle of sunlight.
Approach this stream with a clunking load of tackle, a squeaky tackle trolley, or a heavy footfall from your size twelves, and you might just as well fish down a drain-hole, for all the good you’ll do. There are plenty of fish, but they are used to a quiet life, and they fade from view and possibility as soon as anything spoils their peaceful regime. Steal up to such a stream with lightness of foot, and it becomes a cornucopia of fish.
Of course, the catching and landing of a fish also disturbs the stream. Although, by staying out of sight when fishing and landing fish, it is possible to extract more than one fish from each glide or hole, it’s much more productive and infinitely more interesting to move on to the next swim.
I tackle-up very simply for this game. The 10_’ Allcocks I mentioned is an Eclipse, which I just love, and am trying to wear out with over-use. The pre-war Aerial 3_" fits it to perfection, and I have about 60 yards of 4 lb line on that. A little balsa chub float supports the equivalent of a single swan shot, and I generally use a barbless size 12 forged hook. I carry a few slices of bread and some sweetcorn in my swinging bait-bag. Odds and sods, terminal tackle spares, a sandwich, a small bottle of water, and camera, go into my superannuated shoulder bag. And off I go on the only really successful way to fish such a small water: a roving quest.
And so it was yesterday. I started just below the bridge where the stream is spanned by a footpath. Village boys still dangle illegal hand-lines for minnows here, and to the romantic sound of running water, pubescent lovers extract favours by making promises they’ll never keep.
The bridge swim is all of six yards long, and I used to pass it by. Then, a couple of years ago Billy Hill hooked a chub there that winked at him, before breaking his unwisely lightweight line on some uncharitable barbed wire. Bill said at the time that it might have been eight pounds. Mutual acquaintances of lesser conviction have suggested it might have been a carp, but Bill’s not that daft, and as wise anglers know well, carp only stare, they never wink. Anyway, prompted by Bill’s glorious defeat, I’ve since that time made a point of swimming through the Bridge swim with a fingernail of flake, but have caught only the great-grand-children of that Billy fish. Today, there was nothing.
Below was the Bush swim. I know it’s really stupid to call it that, because practically every swim on the stream has its own over-hanging bush; but there it is. The Bush swim has to be fished up-stream with two extra swan-shot to keep the bait under the bush, laying-on, as it were. Bites are usually indicated by the leaning float suddenly shooting upright. The usual bankside cover is a bit sparse this year, after all the winter floods, so I may have scared the resident chubs. So nothing doing there either.
The ‘Before the Bend’ swim is lovely, but a swine to fish well. The chub sit under the alder on the right bank, and you have to get your bait well over to the far bank to prevent the current from pulling the tackle to the fishless near bank. But, there’s a ruddy great bush just where you’d like to cast. The only possibility is a very accurate cast between the bush and the tree. I’ve blessed and cursed this swim, but it’s given me dozens of chub over the years. Not today though.
And so to the ‘Bend’ swim. If you catch a chub in ‘Before the Bend’ you just walk straight past, because all the fish will have fled. Today, I was in with a chance. It’s deep here, and unless they’re sunning themselves on the shallows opposite, the fish all lie under the nearside bank, down as far as the ash tree.
I swam through several times with the usual splodge of flake. There’s a nasty beam of wood underwater, but I knew from bitter experience to avoid that. Nothing under the bank, which was unusual. Then something substantial surged at my bait as I was retrieving, so I gave it a second chance, which it took with a whoosh. The little Allcocks rod bent hard, and the old Aerial sang as the fish surged off downstream. Oh dear, the sunken log! Somehow it got under that, and a few yards beyond. By this time I guessed it wasn’t a chub, which would have dived straight into the roots. A few spectacular minutes later it came up all covered in spots: a brownie. You never know what’s going to turn up in this stream.
The ‘Straight’ swim looks almost the same as the river for fifty yards up, and fifty yards down. The thing is, the tiny declivity in the far bank is just enough to attract fish. For some reason, even though the swim is only a couple of feet deep, it often holds upwards of a dozen good chub. When the water is really clear they can be seen holding in the current, with the sun glinting off their bronze backs. Picking the one you want is nigh-on impossible. I’ve never caught one of the four or five pounders, but free-lined flake has accounted for many a sturdy three pounder from the shoal. On this occasion I could see nothing in the coloured water, and there seemed to be no-one at home. The stream was being less bountiful than usual.
I got a nice little grayling out of the ‘Alder’ swim: just the one. Grayling are less fearful than chub, so on good days it’s possible to take three or four out of this very shallow, gravelly run. Later in the season those alders can be a great thief of tackle, but they were still thin, as I fished. As usual, the grayling bumped and twisted; and when I lifted it out, it just wouldn’t stay still to be unhooked and released. I purposely tossed the fish back with a bit of a splash. Grayling can get themselves into a terrible pickle about being caught, and they tend to belly-up if they’re out of water for more than a few seconds; especially in the summer. Tossing them back wakes them up, and they swish off quite happily. It was Dave Steuart who taught me that trick.
And so down to the ‘Log’ swim. Along the nearside there are often perch under the weed tresses, but if ever a swim shouts ‘chub’ it’s this one. They’re there alright, but goodness they’re a blighter to catch, and I’ve never taken one on the float. To catch these chub you have to freeline a bait under the tree that spans the river, and right into the brushwood pile beyond. It’s a hairy old business, and often-times I’ve hooked and lost chub within the space of a heartbeat. I’ve tried the heavy line and pull like hell approach, but the chub seem to be wise to that game: they just don’t bite. All the fish I’ve landed from the ‘Log’ swim have been less than three pounds, but it’s tremendous fun.
So in the approved way, I slipped off the shot and float, and pinched on a good chub-mouthful of white flake. A gentle Wallis underhand cast plopped the bait by the log, and it wafted under. Tap, tap, pull, and I was in. It felt like a good fish, strong, and dogged. Once again though, it felt a bit unchub-like. An unchub it turned out to be too: still I was delighted to put the net under a lovely rainbow trout of about 2_ pounds.
I’d only been on the river for a couple of hours. I could have gone on downriver, picking up fish here and there, but somehow I felt as though I’d had my due, and the lawnmower beckoned. Brownie points need to be accumulated.
On other, perhaps greedier days, I’ve had thirty or forty fish, over a few hours. It was unusual not to include half a dozen chub, some roach, and a nice dace or two, but it didn’t really matter. It was Sunday, and they may have been at church. The nice thing about the simple way is that you can pick it up and put it down as you fancy. Settling into a swim is nice too, especially on rainy days, but once I’ve set up with all the kit around me I never feel much like moving.
Neil was walking back from the main river too. ‘Any good,’ I asked. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘One knock that came to nothing. Lots of weed coming down. What about you.’ ‘A few small ones,’ I said, not wanting to sound too clever. Swish, swish, went his crinkly blue over-trousers, and to relieve his creased shoulders he hoiked-up his heavy load a couple of times on the way back to the cars. He talked meaningfully of diamond-hard HNV boilies, bites that take the rod out of the rest, and chub’s throat teeth.
I know there’s more than one way through life, and more than one way of catching fish: each to his own, and all that. All things considered though, I rather thought I’d had the best of it.