It seems to me that no matter how bad the weather may be during a fishing season, those who stick at it will be rewarded with an exceptionally good, but totally unexpected day. In my case it came after hope had died away. You see, I am writing this on the 11th of November (which is Remembrance Sunday), a long time after the salmon season finished on the last day of October and light years since the brown trout season closed on the last day of September. So, it isn’t surprising that expectations over the past week were at an all season low, to say the least.
Fortunately, in my part of the world the grayling fills the winter void and as no one has yet found a way of telling the trout about the closed season, all fish are to be returned to the water, which is a very good reason for using barbless hooks. Despite the foul weather at the beginning of the week, the forecasters got it right for a change and a window of opportunity appeared later on, so I set off to annoy the Lady of the stream. This name for the grayling has been generally adopted but I have always thought that Girl of the stream, or perhaps Maid of the stream is more fitting, as a trout of 13 inches may weigh a pound but most grayling of that length are only three quarters of the weight.
A stand of eastward facing beech trees that had become copper in the morning sun made a joyful sight and increased my pleasure as I drove along. The total length of the roots of one tree may stretch to five miles but, unlike other trees, the mycelia (which is the name given to the white fungal threads that are the food factory for a beech tree) could circle the world. By tackling up behind a wall fifteen feet above the stream, I could keep an eye on the pool that I hoped to fish without disturbing it, and a rising fish made up my mind as to which style to use. At the meeting on Monday night I overheard our secretary say that he had caught a lot of fish in autumn and was surprised when most of them came to the dry fly. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I followed suit and tied on a #14 floating imitation of an olive dun. It was tied in the old fashioned parachute style by a friend of mine instead of in the more modern Klinkhammer fashion, which no doubt would have done the job just as well. To get to the pool I had to negotiate a style which incorporated an alder tree that stretched out over the water. These trees grow well on river banks and the timber was often used in days gone by for the soles of clogs, which was common footwear for workers in the cotton and woolen mills. In fact, these trees are something of a nuisance on rivers where they were planted and now, of course, are no longer harvested. And I doubt very much whether more than a handful of people know how the alders come to be there.
I cast the fly diagonally upstream and started to fish but there was no response. For ten minutes or more the fly sailed along merrily, quite unmolested by anything other than the downstream breeze and then, at precisely eleven o’clock, I caught the first fish of the day. It was a brown trout of about nine inches. Not quite what I had been hoping for, but it was soon followed by a “proper fish” of the same size and not more than a yard from the first (at this time of the year a “proper fish” is, of course, a grayling). Obviously the trout, which spawn in November, had not yet got into that mode. Once that happens all grayling are chased off the spawning areas and the male trout fight each other for the privilege of fertilising eggs laid by the hen fish in a shallow depression. She does this by turning on her side and moving the gravel beneath her by vigorously thrashing her body and tail up and down until, by the displacement of water, a hollow depression has been formed. This activity cleans the algae from the gravel and the redds, as they are called, stand out like sore thumbs on the river bed. Downstream of the redds I once saw a grayling feeding on eggs that had been washed downstream (In the rivers that I fish, you are lucky to see a fish at all) and no doubt the trout reciprocate when the grayling spawn during the spring.
The next fish is a trout of ten inches or so and that is followed by a grayling of similar size, which means that it is now four to Jim and none to the fish. As I am feeling very pleased with myself, I accept the challenge of the rising fish downstream of me and cast to where I think they might be. To get a drag free drift I get my elbow up, the tip of the rod down and waggle it from side to side so that slack line travels downstream with the current. The first fish comes up and takes the fly no trouble at all. I feel for the fish by lifting the rod tip, feel the weight, and lose it. I cast again where I think a fish has risen and do exactly the same. When I am fishing alone I do a lot of talking to myself and quite often say some pretty clever things in the form of good advice for myself. This time I muttered, “OK, OK. Take it more slowly, Jim. You’re striking too soon.” Unfortunately, it made no difference whatsoever. Then I got really clever and suggested that I didn’t strike at all but then I never even felt the fish, and so it went on. If I had still been smoking, then this was the time that I would have eaten a cigarette. It’s a good job that I was on my own or seven years of abstinence would have gone down the pan! Four to Jim and five to the fish. The only rational thing to do under these circumstances is to rest the pool and walk up to the next one.
Cramp was also beginning to trouble me after standing in one spot for too long, despite taking a quinine sulphate tablet each night as prescribed by the doctor. When I was a teenager cramp was a slight inconvenience, but over the years it has become a serious handicap that is never far away. As I turned away from the water, there before me spread-eagled on a chestnut tree so as to soak up the sun and not more than thirty yards away, was a painted lady. And before you get any lewd thoughts, let me explain that this painted lady was in fact a butterfly, so called because of the white markings on its wings. Even so, it shouldn’t have been there at this time of the year. All part of global warming, I suppose. Come to think of it, the blackbirds were eating the red holly berries this morning and they are usually connected with Christmas decorations (Holly berries, I mean, not blackbirds)!
Grayling are well known for moving from one part of a stream to another but the pool that I was going to fish next is noted for holding these fish for most of the year, which is why I made a stealthy approach although there were no rises to be seen. No response came from the tail end but there was a dimple in the surface as I approached the middle of the pool. “Oh yes,” I said aloud with much satisfaction, “A typical grayling rise,” and cast upstream of it. The fish rose to the fly as softly as a kiss. The fly disappeared, the rod went up before bowing to the stream and the adrenalin flowed because I knew it was well above average. Its large dorsal fin, which is so prettily marked with red finger prints, enabled it to give a good account of itself before I could net it, which in turn allowed me to measure it. At 16+ inches it was a good fish for this stream and the best of the day.
From the top of the swim I was able to catch two more grayling of about a pound apiece and on returning to the first pool had two more trout of similar size. Five proper fish and four trout in a morning is exceptionally good fishing in anyone’s book.
Now was the time for a well deserved leisurely lunch and another quinine sulphate tablet to keep the cramp at bay. It was also a time to enjoy the beauty of the river, something that my friend Denis and I had enjoyed for a long time. Many years ago we had fished the same river at Bolton Abbey until it became far too busy for sensitive souls like us and so we moved upstream to fish at Burnsall where tickets are issued to fish on the footpath side only. I have often said, quite openly, that Denis was born a hundred years too late because he is definitely an empire builder and would have fit very nicely into the Cecil Jon Rhodes era. And on one particular summer’s day, whilst fishing at Burnsall, he proved me right.
Denis was fishing the pool about seventy yards upstream of me when I heard a commotion in the water and when I looked up there he was striding across the shallow water, obviously intent on making the opposite bank. Everyone and his dog knew that bank was private and I passed some comment like “What’s that clown doing now?” This remark might have been brought on by the fact that he had caught one trout more than I had, but on the other hand it was not the first time, nor even the second or third time that we had fished there so perhaps my out burst was justified. From my position I could see the farmer hastening down the track to cross swords with the trespasser before he could become a poacher by fishing from private land. I also moved surreptitiously upstream to get a ringside seat for the imminent fracas, but in this respect I was bitterly disappointed because the first words that I heard clearly, came from Denis. He was apologising profusely for the error of his ways and stressing that he had no idea that his day ticket did not cover the bank on which he was standing. In fact, even to this day he claims that he had failed to read the directions correctly, which must mean that although he can catch trout, when it comes to reading maps, he’s a washout!
Most honest anglers, and I include myself in this group, would have retreated to the designated bank. But Denis, being the empire builder that he is, and having great skill and flair in diplomacy, turned a setback into a success. For as many years as I can remember, Boxing Day has been a traditional grayling outing for Denis and I but this year we were to meet the farmer, Mr. Herd, after he had discussed with his family the renting of fishing rights to our club. The rain on that particular Boxing Day flew horizontally down the dale and hardly touched the sides. “I reckon you two must be serious to turn up in this weather,” said Mr. Herd as the three of us sheltered behind a barn, “but seeing that you have, I can tell you that the family has decided that you can rent the fishing on probation and we will see how you go on.” Perhaps it was just as well that the rain was perishing cold or our delight at the outcome might have increased the rent!
Let’s get back to the fishing, I thought, moving upstream once more to the run where I had caught the grayling in the morning. What little sun there was that had briefly touched the pool had now gone but there was still the odd dun, needle fly and sedge in the air so all was not lost when I started to fish again. Contrary to popular belief, I caught and returned a trout that often lies in front of a large stone and then, further up the pool, had another grayling. But pride comes before a fall, so they say, and the next fish took me by surprise. It came straight at me when hooked, veered across to the opposite side of the pool and continued downstream until the hook pulled out. Whatever the cynics may say, I’ll swear that it was the best fish of the day!
At that point I was quite happy with the results of the day but greed overtook both fish and angler when I returned to the alder tree to collect my fishing bag. They rose like fools and I took advantage of the frenzy to catch another four trout before the exercise became futile. I was completely fished out and chatted thoughtfully to myself about the day as I drove home. “Some of the fish were silver, some of the fish were gold but all of the fish were beautiful. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen one that wasn’t.” “The purple patch was a long time coming this year but it was well worth the wait.” “But then again,” I mused, “if Denis hadn’t waded onto the opposite bank twenty years ago, none of this would have happened.” Perhaps that was the real “Purple Patch” of all the fishing rented by the club that we two founded forty years ago.
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