‘The highlight on the fishing front has been watching a salmon heave itself fully clear of the water; a good twenty pounds of silver-clad muscle. My inbuilt ‘shutter’ clicked, whilst the great creature was mid-air, and the image is now wonderfully frozen in my mind’s eye (just as it would appear, when turning the pages of a favourite book).’
It is mid-morning and I’m sat very still, cross-legged, atop a steep sandy bank on the middle Wye. To the occasional canoeist passing below I must appear in deep meditative contemplation. They’d be correct. My hat is tight over my forehead and with ‘wrap-around’ Polaroids covering my eyes, I am Buddha-like waiting for a patch of blue sky to reveal great bronze-sided barbel in the water beneath.
I have been constantly surrounded by a cacophony of birdsong. Particularly, and somewhere above the vastness of all these buttercups, there is a skylark, and it has barely stopped singing since dawn. It reminds me of my childhood, laying still as a stone in the long meadow grass at Bedfords Park. Zeth, the border collie, is quite maniacal, chasing rabbits and anything else that moves. In this memory, the skylark is directly above me in the open sky, unmoving from its position but wings beating in a blur. A memory that will last forever.
Upstream on the shallows I have an egret, and in front of me the sand martins are busy catching flies on the wing for their nearby young. They’ve been a constant here at springtime for as long as I recall, albeit having moved a few hundred yards downstream this year since a large chunk of the bank collapsed in last winter’s floods. I ponder whether their intricate nests, built year after year into the sandy bank has contributed to Denis losing a chunk of his field.
The river moves around and already I can see a new island appearing out of the riverbed as willow, alder, and other vegetation grip into the gravel and beyond. A single willow stands out alone below the main thicket, defying all the odds, and despite being eighteen feet underwater a few months ago. I hope that will become a great beast of a tree, with trailing fronds dipping into the current at the end of a new island. Rob and I were only lamenting the disappearance of ‘Peruvian’s Island,’ where once we caught barbel before breakfast, but new islands appear as old ones are lost. Such is the life of a great river.
Dark cloud has dominated the vista so far, but I can feel the heat building on my back and I know that the patch of blue sky I have been waiting for will arrive soon. I’m not always right. Sometimes that promising skyline on the horizon fades and collapses as faster moving clouds close in and fill the gap, but this is very promising. May is a spectacular time to be here, everything is just so alive. I have been hoping for a trout, but if I’m honest, I’m not really that bothered.
The highlight on the fishing front has been watching a salmon heave itself fully clear of the water; a good twenty pounds of silver-clad muscle. My inbuilt ‘shutter’ clicked, whilst the great creature was mid-air, and the image is now wonderfully frozen in my mind’s eye (just as it would appear, when turning the pages of a favourite book).
Fish are incredibly sociable creatures when left to their own devices. Just like us, they relish the warmth and security of their brethren. Below me, beneath the surface, and even though I cannot see them yet, I know that the great flanks of the barbel shoal are coming together, weaving in the current, tactile, and reassuring each other. They too are waiting for the sun. They know that patch of blue sky is coming, to enjoy the heat on their backs, and they’ll soon come high up in the water.
The neurotic behaviour most anglers witness of fish is purely of our own making. If they could just sit here with me for a morning they’d see how things really should be.
The cloud and the breeze on the water, dropping out the final passing clouds, is still making fish-spotting difficult but, just then, a great fish broadsides in the ripple and a terrific bronze flash appears four or five feet down in the water, timed perfectly to keep me rooted to my spot.
I can just make out the shape of a substantial fish, hanging mid-water. If you didn’t know, you would think it is a part of the sunken tree, a branch (and that is what most people would see), but I know it isn’t. I have spent most of my life looking at fish in water. First, I can see its pectoral fin, and even from here I can make out the peachy – orange in contrast to its surroundings. Its flank is broad, strong, and bright, like a freshly varnished clinker boat. The anal fin and darker tail are easily made out also, as they move to the beat of the flow.
People think that a current in a river is a constant, and only changes gradually, but that is far from the case. Find yourself a boulder or some similar underwater obstruction, and watch it carefully. Then you’ll see how it ebbs and flows constantly, like the tide on a beach and, just as a bather in the sea, you’ll notice the fish rising, falling, and moving side to side in time with the swell. These fish seem to be head down, but not quite at forty-five degrees. I’d love to know how many there are. Just as the fish tilted then I could also make out the dorsal. It’s a big fish!
I can feel that heat on my back now, and it’s making my insides shiver! Three canoes went past just then, but the fish were completely untroubled. A primeval instinct tempts me to fish. I have a seven-weight in the car, and I must admit it is calling me, a nymph or a stonefly might work? I once saw barbel taking mayfly as they emerged, so it isn’t impossible. These are natural fish in their natural habitat, but it is a few weeks still before the coarse season begins, so I quickly discard the thought.
Oyster catcher! On its own. There were three yesterday, bickering like crazy, so I’d say this is the one that was driven away. It seems purposeful as it heads upstream making that unique call. Perhaps it is seeking out the friends that spurned it yesterday, to apologise maybe and seek forgiveness for whatever feathered misdemeanours it was admonished for.
A heron just appeared also, and then a second came in to land. But the first took off momentarily, and aggressively flapped its wings, to send the intruder on its way, “find your own patch!” it was saying. Well, that’s my interpretation anyhow.
I saw an exceptionally large fish chasing a dace or chublet first thing this morning. It didn’t have the sharp acceleration of a pike (and I saw it clearly enough anyhow to know it wasn’t). My best guess is a large trout, or a chub, but at a solid five pounds or more, it was a fabulous specimen either way. The sharpness to its head leans me toward the former. It must be a harrowing experience to be a small fish in a water like this, with all these predators. The chances of reaching the size of the barbel, or that great salmon, are a million to one I’d say.
A lone shad just went passed, heading upstream. It is late now for the shad so it must be ‘bringing up the rear.’ Most should be in the headwaters, with their final act of procreation in play to assure the river of its future run.
Now it arrives, the clouds of the last hour are beyond me, and the majestic horizon opens in great glorious sunshine and blue sky. Four leviathans tilt upwards together, they could be competing in the swimming pool, in absolute synchronicity. Just like the crowd at an Olympic event my heart lifts in sheer wonderment and I gasp as the moment I have waited for is here. Inside, I break into spontaneous applause. Quite balletic! And so, the show is delivered, and I beam as time freezes, and I revel in the acrobatic underwater performance.
What a privilege it is to be here. There must be a dozen or more great barbel as they rise and show their backs, greeting the sun, connecting with this other world. They touch each other momentarily, swaying in unison.
But my little window doesn’t last long. The patch of blue sky closes and, as it does, the barbel disappear. The curtain falls. I haven’t a clue whether it is still morning or afternoon such has been my trance-like state. I stand, bones creaking and muscles aching from being sat in one place for so long. One last look.
Upstream now on the gravel spit, three terns have settled and one more bird that I can’t quite make out. The oyster catcher has just gone overhead again. I try to capture memories that will see me through the darker days to come; my life is in the city. You just never know for sure if you’ll ever get back, when it might be the last time. I thank the gods for that patch of blue sky and pray that there will be more ahead.
Writing & Photography – Tengisgol, Herefordshire, May 2022