I stopped on the bridge, as always, to peer into the river below. The sun shone and the water took on that blue green translucence typical of springtime. A few martins and swallows swooped, seeking nourishment following their long flight from far off lands and, after a brief survey of the pool, I moved on and came to the old gate that leads to the river bank.
The gate hung partly unhinged, it’s fastening broken, a few bits of litter caught my eye, probably discarded by some ignorant motorist, a problem that blights our country’s hedgerows. Continuing down the steps I glanced at the old fishing sign, rusting and grimy, the club’s name still present above the words, “Private Fishing Club Members only”. The pathway beside the river had always been well trodden at this time of year (early April) yet now it was partly grown over. Celandine flowers brightened the waterside meadow with their yellow hues. It felt good to be walking the river bank again but strange, melancholy feelings drifted into my being. I glanced at the old corrugated fishing hut. It's door was open, someone was about I thought, tidying up or fishing somewhere downstream.
My club membership had long since lapsed and I was heading to fish the free water a hundred yards or more downstream. I had fished this section of river heavily twenty five years ago hoping for a silver spring salmon but had returned rarely over recent seasons. However a river is like a long lost friend, familiarity returns quickly and certain things retain a core character. The constant flow of a river towards the sea has always given me an almost spiritual, reassuring sense of stability. A feeling I had always treasured each spring as I trod the banks rod in hand hopeful of one of anglings greatest prizes, a fresh run silver salmon. The grass flourishing, buds bursting into life on riverside trees and spring birds filling the air with song, a sign of the coming warmth of summer.
I had very little time today just a stolen moment from life’s busy schedule, no time to fish methodically, just a few random casts into favourite lies. I remember long ago seeking my first salmon, a prize that seemed unattainable. Eventually after many days by the river I tempted a fish and what had seemed so difficult I realised was really quite easy. You just had to be in the right place at the right time and have a little good fortune. Salmon are a perplexing fish, totally ignoring all offerings one minute then suddenly erupting from the water to seize your bait, lure or fly with an unbelievable determination. After catching that first salmon an angler will always be able to cast in hope for he believes in the impossible. This faith remains forever, fuelling the desire for cast after cast.
I climbed down the river bank, entering the water above a sweeping bend in the river. An old tree stood, its roots exposed from the annual attack of winter floods. Beneath the tree was a favourite lie that had held many salmon and sea trout over the years. I waded out into the river, relishing the feel as the cool water pushed against my legs. I extended my fly line above the water and dropped a bright orange Ally’s Shrimp fly near the far bank. I allowed the fly to swing tantalizingly across the flow, took a step downstream and repeated the process. Many times in the past I had seen salmon and sea trout leap from the water at this spot. I hoped to see one now.
Strange really, since the introduction of catch and release in the early season I have lost much of my determination to seek salmon. I always used to relish taking that first fresh Springer home to enjoy with new potatoes and lashings of butter. I regularly fish for a wide range of species and return ninety percent of the fish I catch. I have no problem returning a coloured salmon in the autumn but I somehow struggle with returning a bar of silver sea liced salmon.
I often think of Hugh Falkus’s comments on catch and release and his view that it was somehow wrong. Somehow I feel he had a point there is something undignified in toying with a fish so magnificent as the Atlantic salmon. Perhaps I just don’t like being told I have to return the fish, I remember catching a well mended Kelt several years ago. It had inhaled the Mepps spinner to the back of its throat and was bleeding profusely. I gently returned it to the river, to my horror it keeled over and drifted away to die. How would I feel if this happened to a prime fresh run fish?
I continued to fish on downstream, ice cold water started to seep into my chest waders. I realised that my repairs to the holes had failed and a new pair would be needed before my next trip.
It was soon time to leave as I had to collect my young son form his cricket coaching. I climbed from the river, my boots squelching as I retraced my steps along the riverside path. I came again to the old fishermen’s hut. The door was still open, inquisitive I strolled over and peered inside. The door had been broken from its hinges, the old leather seat was torn, old mugs stood in an old wooden cabinet where mice had made their home and the old hut was damp and derelict. A feeling of sadness came upon me. I immediately understood the melancholy feeling I earlier sensed. Twenty odd years ago I had spent many hours beside this river and talked with the club anglers of the day. They were generally anglers in their fifties or sixties who had fished the river for many years. They generally had a tale to tell of the good old days, of encounters with huge spring salmon, some won some lost. They had intimate knowledge of the river and a deep respect and love for the salmon. Each year working parties would trim troublesome branches and carry out repairs to gates and stiles. The fisherman’s hut was a meeting place where tales were swapped over cups of hot tea. Fishing magazines sat on the table to provide inspiration during break in fishing or tending to the river bank. There was always a rod leaning against the old rails that segregated the front of the hut from the bank side. A bench dedicated to an angler invited one to, “rest here and find pleasure”.
It dawned upon me that a generation of anglers had passed away. Few anglers now trod these banks in search of spring salmon. Upriver on prime beats people still pay large sums to fish, but here on the club and free water few bother to cast a line. Perhaps restrictions have taken away the motivation for these anglers to fish or perhaps people no longer have the patience to chase dreams. I realise that back then we seemed to have time to talk, time to fish, time to dream.
The faces of a host of anglers fill my minds eye as I walk away from the river and the derelict old fisherman’s’ hut. I realise that whilst the river flows relentlessly on we anglers are just passing spirits. The comfort of the rivers immortality is temporarily shadowed by the realisation of our own fleeting visit to its banks.
As I walk across the bridge I again pause as always for one last look at the river. A car races past, a train thunders along the nearby track I re-enter the modern world and walk back to the car. On getting home I think back to the old fishing hut and vow to jot down my thoughts before they get lost and drift away like the old anglers who once fished the river.