The highs of summer
Laurence Catlow tells stories of beauty and wonder in the Welsh hills and Yorkshire dales
Laurence Catlow’s stories of the Welsh hills and Yorkshire Dales
AT THE BEGINNING of last August I asked myself whether I was, as I have occasionally heard it said, fishedout: not of course permanently, which would be a fate too dreadful to contemplate (especially as it was a fate that for something like three seasons I thought had actually befallen me): not permanently to be sure but just for a week or two or perhaps for no more than a few days. And if, just for the time being, I had lost my hunger for trout, then in search of the reason for this very serious but almost certainly temporary disorder I needed to look back no further than July. For in turning the pages of my fishing diary I found that the month before August had given me, it is true, only seven days on the Wharfe, which was two or three days too few, but in addition to those inadequate seven days on my favourite river there were three days on the Tees, four days on the East Yorkshire chalk streams, an evening on the Teme, two long days on the Rea Brook and six whole days in Wales, which all added up to 23 fishing days, with only eight days in the month when I had never cast a fly. Most of those fishing days, moreover, had put at least a few trout in my net, some of them had managed double figures and among all these fish there had been some large and memorable ones. There had even been a grayling. And so, when, at the beginning of last August, I consulted my diary for July, I no longer felt surprised that, for the time being at least, I felt disinclined to climb into the Land Rover and head off in search of more trout. It was then that I thought of the Eden and how shamefully I had neglected her since the earliest days of the season; immediately I vowed that I should spend as much of August as possible making amends. In fact, as soon as I thought of the Eden I was eager to be fishing again. I had to restrain myself; I had to remind myself that in August my chief concern was looking after pheasant poults in preparation for winter sport through those dark months when my fishing rods would have gone up to roost on their hooks in the spare bedroom. In thinking of the Eden and in thinking of my young pheasants I found that I was torn by conflicting duties and desires. There was my duty to a great trout stream, telling me to fish her with devotion and diligence, to catch some of her wonderful wild trout and then to reward her with pious thanksgiving and praise. This was a duty that would be more easily fulfilled if August gave me some rain, whereas my duties as a keeper of young pheasants told me to pray for long hot days, for whole weeks without a drop of wetness so that my poults would be less prone to disease and would soak up the sun, growing healthy and happy and strong. I managed to solve this dilemma by leaving the weather to the weather gods and telling myself that I – and my poults and the trout of the Eden – would have to put up with whatever came
our way. I shall tell you what came our way very soon, but first I am going to take a liberty by telling you just a little about Wales. Wales, of course, belonged properly to July but I know that August will be happy to surrender a couple of paragraphs to the principality; I cannot leave my week in Wales unmentioned. We spent two days fishing the upper Irfon above Llanwrtyd Wells, fishing within walking distance of our cottage at Cwm Irfon Lodge. I have rarely fished in a valley so filled with the spirit of place. All over the country the weather was stinking hot, but down there by the river, between those steepsided hills dotted with the shapes of ancient oaks, down there by the winding water it seemed that the heat and the swelter were an exhalation from these hills alone and from this river and this valley, it seemed that the high blue sky and the sunshine on the water and on those shimmering green slopes belonged only to the deep cleft where the Irfon flowed and to the air above it; and the circling kites and the mewing buzzards and the harsh croaking of the ravens somehow sealed the enchantment, for I fancied they were warning away any alien or intrusive presence, any influence that was not of the valley’s making. I was almost surprised that I had been let in and could only assume that it was because I was a fisher. And, although I was in my holiday frame of mind and was not too bothered about catching sackfuls of fish, Dry Simon seemed to have learned the language of Welsh trout and to be telling them that he was good to eat. He even persuaded that since another fisher had felt the urge to climb up there with a rod in his hand. The wagtails and the wheatears, at any rate, together with the ravens and the kites, all seemed surprised to see me. I caught seven trout from this tiny stream; one of them was a whole 10 in long and gave me as much pleasure as a two-pounder from my home rivers. It must have been some property of the Welsh air, or some power seeping out of the Welsh earth or drifting up from the Welsh water, but for six days I was happy with small trout and thrilled with 12-ouncers. I was even happy with catch-and-release and my single grayling was a very deep delight. My week in Wales was wonderful and, God willing, I shall return to the valley of the Irfon next year. Back in August I was, as you know, determined to fish the Eden, but as things turned out it never happened. The thought of the Eden had made a temporarily jaded fisher eager to be out on the water again, and I did go
fishing just as often as pheasant care allowed, which meant about twice a week. The trouble was that the river where I kept finding myself was never the Eden, although I kept insisting, as I climbed into the Land Rover at the beginning of a fishing day, that I was Edenbound, but only to find an hour or two later that I was on the Wharfe. I kept telling myself that it was ridiculous to ignore a wonderful river flowing less than ten minutes from my front door and I kept ignoring my own advice and driving more than 30 miles over the hills. After this had happened four or five times I stopped trying to persuade myself to fish the Eden, acknowledging that my inability to keep away from the Wharfe had grown out of illness and subsequent recovery; for when depression kept me from my rivers for the best part of three years it was separation from the Wharfe that hurt most deeply, feeling almost like a bereavement; and when the light began to find its way back into my life it was on the banks of the Wharfe that I became a fisher again; it was there that I found my way back to happiness, and this, I think, was the reason why the Wharfe came to exercise an irresistible sway over my fisher’s heart; it was as though piety demanded that, except when on holiday, I should devote myself to the river that had brought me hope and healing. Last summer I was not yet ready for the Eden. By the time you read these words I shall surely be properly back on the river where I once spent almost half my fishing days. My virtual absence from the Eden has, by the way, had nothing to do with the river itself. Go there yourself, go to Kirkby Stephen and fish a very beautiful river with good hatches of fly and a healthy stock of wild trout, many of them big. Meanwhile you will have to fish the Wharfe with me; I am going to take you right to the top of the river, where the river and its surroundings are at their loveliest and where, late last summer, I spent a day of the sort that comes to us all from time to time: a day when flowing water and the trout that swim in them hold us most happily spellbound and most gratefully bewitched, the thankful and contented thralls of rivers and fish. It was the last week of August and I was at Deepdale, no more than half a mile from the union of the two becks that make the Wharfe. The river was up and running; it was also very beautiful and the sun was on the water and the breeze was drifting warmly upstream. It was a perfect day for a fisher and there I was, standing by the river as it flowed on its shining way between those steep-sided fields, standing there and wondering whether I was in the right place. The
water was undoubtedly a good fly-water, but there was still rather less of it than I had been expecting and, seeing this, part of me wanted to be further down the valley on either side of Spout Dub. Half an hour later, when Simple Simon and my hackle Coachman had both failed to stir a fin, almost all of me was yearning for the pool that of all pools I most love. The harebells and the scabious, those lovely emblems of late summer, were no comfort to me; the infinite variety of light in the water offered no consolation to a fisher without any fish. Sitting there surrounded by beauty on every side I refused to acknowledge it, telling myself that, if no trout came along in the next half hour, I would get in the Land Rover and head downstream to Spout Dub. And then I tied on Dry Simon. There were no fish rising but, while riding a lively run beneath a little cliff, Dry Simon disappeared and soon I had netted and killed a fish just under the pound. It was a fish that opened my eyes to the beauty of the late summer light and the loveliness of those late summer flowers. There were no fish rising but five minutes later, from a smooth glide beneath a willow with just yellowing leaves, Dry Simon was suddenly no longer to be seen. This time the trout was an indisputable pounder and made the brace and the brace, of course, meant fulfilment; I laid both my trout in the grass and drank in the sight of them, for they were both shining up at me with the incomparable beauty of wild trout. There were no fish rising but within a cast or two Dry Simon had caught me a third very beautiful trout and, as soon as this fish had been returned, it was time for lunch and two slow glasses of red wine, while I sat on the grass by the side of the river, sitting at a spot where I could marvel how the river gushed and foamed over a smooth and deeply channelled shelf of white limestone, at the same time filling my now receptive ears with the wonderful music of flowing water. There was no longing for Spout Dub; Deepdale had brought perfect contentment and my wine, by the way, tasted like the favourite tipple of the angels in Heaven. The afternoon was like the morning, at least it was like the morning’s second half. Never a rise broke the surface, except when a nose stuck itself out of the water as the mouth beneath it absorbed Dry Simon. I told myself that I was in danger of turning into a one-fly fisher, a condition that misses half the point of fishing with artificial flies, but just for the time being I scarcely cared. For the river was flowing full and the sun was bright on the water and the breeze was warm and there was a slow drift of lovely white clouds. There were no fish rising but Dry Simon kept working his magic by somehow charming another trout on to the hook. All the fish of the afternoon were returned; there were nine of them and there were 12-ouncers and pounders among them and they all shone with the glorious, redspotted beauty of wild trout. It was one of those days when I could scarcely bring myself to stop fishing, when it seemed that all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was to catch trout from flowing water. But it could not be. I came to the first pool of the river and caught a small fish there; thinking of my dogs at home, I somehow forced myself to reel in and turn around. Then, as I walked back to the Land Rover and fought off the temptation to start fishing again, I remembered my early August feeling that I had fished too much and needed a rest. And here I was, barely able to tear myself away from the river and filled with regret that the next few days would belong to pheasants rather than to the River Wharfe. And so it was that I drove home almost unwillingly over the hills, loving my favourite river more than ever, impatient to be back on her banks and knowing beyond doubt that to be a fisher is one of the best blessings in this imperfect but very beautiful old world.
“Deepdale had brought perfect contentment and my wine, by the way, tasted like the favourite tipple of the angels in Heaven”
should he fish or prepare pheasant poults for winter?
A familiar presence above our roads, kites look more fitting in a wild valley. ABOVE
flowers on the Wharfe. Laurence at Deepdale on the Wharfe. The low water and lack of rising fish made him doubtful, but there was still a chance.
One of the lovely red-spotted pounders that rose to the Dry Simon on that splendid afternoon, revitalising Laurence’s fishing.