August on the Itchen
A Difficult Month - The Bank to Oneself - Sedge Fly Stalking - The Keeper - The Best Trout of the Season.Pages: <1> 2
The day is dying. I shall see him die,
Pessimism must he kept far removed from anything to do with angling Otherwise, I should be thinking of the cynical proverb quoted to me by a fly-fishing schoolmaster, 'God sends nuts to those who have no teeth to crack them.' He was answering the congratulation of some City men who envied him his three months' holiday a year. He wanted to exchange January for May - very naturally - and the first half of August for the first half of June. The three weeks at Easter, he conceded, were sometimes well timed; but cited, as a leaden lining to the silver cloud, that hotels were crowded and prices advanced, that full trains meant empty creels, and that hoys with their rat-sniffing terriers were too much in evidence along the river banks.
Now as regards the space of time occupied by the Public School summer holidays, I have always been on duty: having already by that date enjoyed to the full the long days of June and early July which are gilded by the midging trout of sultry afternoons, as well as by the true evening rise that plays the prelude to summer nights. Yet August week-ends have always kindly allowed many of us to snatch a fearful joy, when able to leave the City, in a fast train for Salisbury or Stockbridge after 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon, knowing that before six o'clock we can exchange, our London clothes for the old flannel suit, as well as the grit of the baked pavement for the cool squelch of the water meadow.
No one who can enjoy this can truthfully deny the patent fact that his lines are cast in pleasant places. The walk to the station, at seven o'clock on a lovely morning with a brace of good trout ensconced in wet rushes, knowing that a few hours will again bring the pleasure of the westward journey in ample time for the evening fishing, is crowded not only with a general feeling of thankfulness, but also with the plans for the capture of the specimen trout which has for years past been before one's eyes.
The chaos again at Waterloo at two o'clock on an August Saturday, in the days of old 'Number one main line,' was in itself an experience. A company of Territorials, and a batch of Swedish emigrants behind a barricade of luggage, a couple of frightened horses and a brace of coffins, were common objects of the platform. To book to Clapham and be carried to Winchester without a stop, after having escaped from a corridor boat train for Southampton, has befallen a belated traveller whose trustfulness in hurried porters has made him take his seat in a crowded carriage.
Almost everything has its compensation. Saturday evening, which brings such a turmoil even to Hampshire stations, draws nearly everyone away from the river bank. Luckily for anglers, people on holiday like each other's company better than the silence of the river side. They prefer the band to the bank, and the cinemas to the sedges. Consequently, by the time one passes through the village with rod and creel raincoat and larding net, after a peaceful tea at the cottage, and a desultory- chat with the two patient mill pool anglers who fish with wasp grub, and who so often catch a two pounder only a few minutes after you leave them - which you hear about with chastened envy the following week - the prospect of the cool evening is everything that can be desired.
On the hatch stile are urchins, either running about in wet nudity or dressing hurriedly after their swim, each one telling the other how he - the other one - will catch it from his father or mother for being so late. Above them again draggling home are more children, two little girls of eight and nine, each in charge of a diminutive brother, who has taken to their boots, carrying the pickle bottle known so well to minnows by a string round its neck. You watch them cross the slimy plank bridge; the river on one side; a ditch quite deep enough to drown all four on the other, if they chanced to trip on it.
Beyond that is the now deserted bank; the sun low in the heavens on the left, the terraced garden with its discordant peacocks on the right. Sedge flies are crawling about the rushes and fluttering between them. The surface of the stream is unbroken by any trout rise, though in certain shallows small grayling pop up at intervals. You are too abstracted, too magnanimous, or too magnificent to cast for them. Your plan is to move up to the peninsula under whose heavy fringe of rushes there were two trout this time last year whose places you know to a foot. Their time is not due for an hour or more, so you pass up, after depositing some of your kit on the rail of the plank bridge where you so well remember a sovereign dropping out of your pocket into the ditch as you stooped to pick a dock leaf.
The keeper comes down the meadow with his handsome setter, and sees you looking at the place. No, he never found it: although he had a try one winter's day. Perhaps one of the ditchers will years hence. There was no other rod out. The Captain he had ketched a good trout last week, about a pound and three quarters - over there below the rhododendron bush. He had had his eye on him and tried all the previous evening, so was very pleased when he got him. Nothing was moving above, but it was early yet and promised to be a good evening. There was a good trout just below the lock, and ought to be there still on the far side just by the moorhen's nest.
There was another tine trout right down the water by the boat house - so the Captain had told him - but of course he might have got it and said nothing. The Captain didn't always show him his fish. He had sent the photograph you took of him to his married daughter in Toronto. No, she didn't like the place much: she bad always lived on these meadows: she would give a year of her life, so she wrote to the missus, to walk up the river with him now and mind the hatches. But he was sixty five and his asthma troubled him a good bit now, so probably he would not be seeing her again. Well, it sounded a great country and her husband was getting on well but they never seemed to put nothing by. Yes, there were boys bathing above, but they would be gone soon he expected.
I can see the photo now, although it is mislaid, and wish I could reproduce it here; the kindly figure in gaiters who had never been photographed before in his life (he told me) standing against a background of bullrushes with my rod in his hand. It is pleasant to think that he is still at his post, and will I trust remain there to the end of his days in the pretty cottage on the other bank of a side stream - the ' keeper's stream ' - with its wicket gate leading over the wooden bridge. How long his vocation will last, how long the trout in the river will last, are thoughts that must not be allowed to cross one's mind.
The boys had left their bathing place before I crossed to the upper meadows, so 1 wandered down the peninsula to its extreme lower end until I came right over the moorhen's nest he had alluded to. Its eight hot eggs were almost pulsating with life, and the mother with expectancy, as she jerked about uneasily among the rushes. I moved twenty yards away to leave her in peace, faced upstream, and sat down on a tussock to light a pipe. There was a small open space between a tangled weed bed and the bank, in which a trout ought to be content to feed on sedge flies.
As there was nothing to be gained by walking about I might just as well wait for the mountain to come to Mahomet. The cinnamon sedge fly I had mounted was a pattern calculated to appeal to the most capricious appetite. I dared rot even allow it to wave in the air lest a swift should take it, so it was impaled on a rush ready for immediate action.
Beyond the weed bed a rise occurred -a rise which said as plainly as facts can speak ' if you throw for me you will be hitched up at the very first cast.' 1 did not do it but puffed away discontentedly. Another ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, and then patience was rewarded. In the deep run close under the bank there was a quiet rise. What was more it was repeated at quick intervals. It was beyond all doubt a trout that had just begun to feed.
My cast w as made; it was taken down: it was taken further down as I struck - and there the situation ended. The line was firm and fast into something; but that something was itself equally firm and fast, well under an overhanging ridge of mud bank or rock, apparently wedged in. Nothing would stir it. The fly might as well have been in a sunken log as a sulky trout. Hand lining would not move it. A long rest did not alter matters. In spite of all the expedients tried the inevitable break came at last.
Another story of a lost three pounder. One's estimate, I notice, is in such cases always just fifty per cent, beyond one's best fish. He was an old campaigner no doubt and had his holt adorned like a wigwam with the relics of past escapes, artificial sedges and mayflies - perhaps even a contraband minnow - being the scalps he affixed to its walls. Trout such as these remind one of thieves who never move far from the alleys or courts up which they can escape the moment they have snatched a watch or purse. They do not intend to venture into the open King's way: they know their business and their danger too well for that.
A three pounder - yes, perhaps he was a four pounder. Ali sorts of foolish thoughts are driven through your mind from sheer exasperation. Visions of the specimen trout of the river set up in a glass case over your office desk with your prowess and skill set out in pounds and ounces for friends to admire, doubt, or envy.
By the time I had growled over my bad management and sulkily affixed another sedge, I moved up the bank, saw the back fin of a large grayling appear in a shallow and refused to throw for it. To-night trout was my game. A good one might easily be got, though of course nothing approaching one half of that lost five pounder.
Above the shallow is another deep run under my own bank, so I knelt down where 1 could obtain n clear view of the twenty yard curve which had so often yielded up its monsters of the deep, determined to wait for something. All sorts of plans were laid as to how I would manage the next fish which was hooked. He should at least bring about the break in open water whatever happened. I would let him pull me in rather than give way a single inch.
After so long a pause that the water began to ooze through the grass over my knee pad the coveted moment came. A rise ahead, which must be crawled to carefully as there was very little cover. It was a curious rise, recurring at short intervals, just as though an acorn had dropped into the water. It might of course be a tiny fish, though I did not think so. It might of course decline the sedge altogether. At any rate I warned myself not to make a mistake in the opposite extreme by pulling the fly out of his mouth before he had time to take it.
In spite of a state of breathless excitement the fly pitched fairly well: and, as it came over the place, disappeared. As I rose from my knees I struck firmly, held the line in my left hard and backed downstream. There was a splendid resistance, a case of rod versus fish which lasted for a few seconds. Then he moved away from the bonk as though making for the weed-beds of mid stream. He had lost several yards in doing so. The bank was high but not overhanging. Below us was a channel of deep but open water into which he was free to dive and disport himself until exhausted. After a further struggle I caught sight of him and got the net out for action.
The first time I reached him the rim of the net only touched his middle. I was afraid of the bank giving way by venturing a foot closer. Each time the net touched him he dived down with his head upstream. Had he only behaved like a graving and run down there was a weed bed below that could have spelt disaster to the gut. Three times he had the edge of the net nearly up to his gills, but he managed to slip over "t. The fourth time he fell inside and the next moment we were both in the meadow quivering with excitement.
I got out my spring balance. lie ran the index to its full limit of two pounds and asked for more. Weighed later, on cold butcher's scales, he was two pounds two ounces and a fraction - the best trout of my season, much admired by myself on the bankside, by the habitués of the bar side where he was exhibited, as well as the next evening at the home supper table.
Well, sedge fly fishing is often like this. You may wander about the banks, spot various fish and capture two brace on an August evening. Or you may do the wandering without this result. Or, without any result. I have however always found it best to roam as little as possible after seven o'clock; but to choose a place which offers say a hundred yards of promising bank above you. Then take your stand - or your seat - at the lower end and slowly work it up. On good evenings the plan turns out well. If four fish are hooked, with only one lost, you have been dealt a fine hand. If three are hooked, with two lost, you have had good sport.
As already remarked, there is something very luxurious in finding yourself alone upon the water for three consecutive evenings. To know that a fish you have tried for, and failed to attract, will be in his place twenty four hours later, gives you a quickening step and an object in life as you rear the place. One feels almost inclined to say ' good evening ' to a trout with whom you have been on terms of such intimacy. You have offered 1;m your wares, while he on his parr has given you the pleasure of his company, although accepting no favours.
It reminds you of dances where you looked out to see the same pretty girl in the room although you had not been introduced to her. It was enough to know she - or the trout - was there. An introduction, even an attachment, might come later on.
That the sedge fly is the only one to use on such occasions must not be supposed for a moment. A large Wickham or a Silver Twist will attract feeding trout often quite as well, sometimes indeed better. Very small flies on fine gut are frequently a mistake, even as regards rising the fish in fast moving water. There are times when they like, a mouthful, or think they do, take it with considerable precision, and on a short line nearly hook themselves as they turn down.
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