ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
The course of true fishing does not run smoothly, as Jon Beer demonstrates on the lovely River Arrow in Herefordshire
IT WAS A sunny day in the first week of April. I have been bitten by a sunny day in the first week of April so often and so thoroughly that you might think I’d learn. But I don’t. Besides, I had a Wye and Usk Wild Stream season permit burning a hole in my waders. Do you know how that feels? The Wye & Usk Fishing Passport now has 280 beats on its books, from salmon and sea-trout on the Western Cleddau in the west, to the mountain llyns of Snowdonia in the north and, in the south-east, some little streams that thread the Forest of Dean. None of which, you’ll have spotted, flow into or out of the Wye or the Usk. Which is why, I suppose, it is now just called The Fishing Passport. But it all began with a few small streams, unregarded tributaries of the Wye and the Usk, where fishermen who liked that sort of thing could fetch up, post a couple of paper vouchers into a box tacked to a tree, and go fishing. They are still there, those lowly little streams, scattered among the lordlier beats of The Fishing Passport like commoners at a royal wedding. These are the W&U “Wild Streams”: there are 64 of them and any – or all – that have not been pre-booked by 6 pm can be fished, the next day, by the happy holder of a W&U Wild Stream season permit. Like me. So there we were, on a sunny day in the first week of April, with a smorgasbord of 60 beats to choose from. We headed for the Monnow – for no better reason than the memory of a sausage supper. Some years ago, Philip and I had fished the Lower Longtown beat of the Monnow, followed by supper in a local pub. On a plate overflowing with mash and onion gravy were three of the fattest, juiciest sausages I’d come across in a long life. We would return to the Monnow, find that pub and get outside another sausage supper, then fish our way up half a dozen wild stream beats above Longtown the next day. We arrived beside the Monnow in the late afternoon. The sun still shone from a cloudless sky and there was time for a first fish. Putting together the tackle, climbing into waders, for the first time of a new trout season is a time of tingling anticipation. Reason and experience tell you that not much will happen in the first week in April.
But hope and blind optimism aren’t listening. And so we set off up the Upper Longtown beat. Nothing rose on that pleasant little stream, lacing its gravelly way between wooded banks. We worked upstream in the dappled light, casting small dry-flies into likely spots. My back-cast caught fast in a tree. Not for the first time. I thought I might rescue the fly if Philip could grab a nearby branch and pull it down. He pulled with both hands and I could just reach the twig with the fly. I looked down. I was standing on the tip section of Philip’s rod. Look, gentle reader, it may appear that the blokes who regularly fill these pages with advice, instruction and tales of derring-do, know what they’re doing. Perhaps some do. But for the most part, in fishing as in life, this is an illusion. This is not mendacity. If it is a sin, it’s one of omission. We write of the days when we caught fish: we don’t write of the days when we didn’t. We take photographs when the sun shines: we don’t when the rain lashes down. It’s better for the camera. And so you, dear reader, get stories of fish caught amid pictures of fine weather. And not the other sort. But from time to time, perhaps once a decade or so, it behoves us to tell the other sort. Here’s one. The rod was broken three rings down from the tip. So we went back to the camper and I fetched out the spare rod I carry for such occasions. But some of the bubble had gone out of the afternoon. We trod the length of the Lower Longtown beat, casting occasionally without success. And then called it a day. What we needed, we said, was that sausage supper, a good night’s sleep in the camper and we’d be raring to go next morning. We couldn’t remember the name of the pub or the village. But we had a clue: Philip had taken a photograph on that night a dozen years before. Behind a mountain of sausage, mash and gravy, I am sitting by a window on a seat of buttoned brown velvet. And so we called at every pub for miles that evening, searching for the place. We never found it. And by the time we gave up most had stopped serving food. At the Dog in Ewyas Harold they rustled up an over-spiced beef and black bean stir-fry. But it wasn’t quite the same. The temperature plummeted that night under the clear sky. There was a hard frost outside the van. And
“I could just reach the twig with the fly. I looked down. I was standing on Philip’s rod”
something similar inside. Philip, in the raised roof of the camper, had the worst of it: he needing chipping out of his sleeping bag at dawn. We needed the heater, which meant driving the van, and so we drove. And we just kept driving: by the time we’d thawed out sufficiently for rational thought, we were 30 miles from the Monnow and its tributaries, in the valley of the River Arrow. The Arrow valley is the quintessence of rural England, a pastoral idyll, the very stuff of jigsaws and the fancier sort of chocolate box. Pembridge is the monochrome, double-choc truffle at its heart. We warmed up over full English in the Café on Bridge Street and then made our way to the river. There are nine “Wild Stream” beats on the River Arrow, almost nine miles of fishing on this lovely tributary of the Lugg. We sank down a narrow lane between hedges bejewelled with spring flowers to the Titley beat. We had fished here before. The soothing balm of familiarity and memories of a glorious day of trout in warm sunshine was just what we needed. We were still a little fragile after a shaky start with a broken rod and a freezing night. The Titley beat was as lovely as ever on that April morning. The pastures along the river were bright with new growth and lambs gambolled in the sunshine. The water was high but clear. I put on a goldhead nymph in the absence of any rising fish. Philip, ever optimistic, stuck on a dry-fly, casting his way up the runs, hoping to drag something to the surface. I worked my way slowly upstream behind him, swimming the heavy nymph down the deeper pools. And after some time at this the leader veered sideways and I struck into a fish. There is something magical about the first fish of a new season. And the trout of the Arrow have a subtle magic of their own. Not the bold-spotted, butter-bellied beauty of other streams, these are silver-white and dusted with black and red speckles as from some exotic blend of peppercorns. I admired it in the margins then fished on upstream. It was noon and warm in the sunshine. But not warm enough to explain the appearance of Philip, striding across the meadow, topless above his waders. There’d been an incident, a full Hancock with double twist into the chilly waters of the Arrow in April. So we went back to the camper and I fetched out the spare clothes I carry for such occasions. I rummaged in my bag for a small black tube I always carry. This is Loon’s UV Wader Repair. The incident had torn a half-inch tear in Philip’s waders at the knee. With my back to the sun I squirted a bead of the clear liquid down the tear. I stepped away, exposing the stuff to the sunlight: within a few seconds this miraculous gloop had cured to a waterproof repair. But there wasn’t a lot I could do for his camera. We fished on for a while but the day seemed doomed and long before dusk we headed for home. I felt bad about that rod tip. The bits were sitting on my desk at home. It wouldn’t be a difficult thing to repair if I could find a carbon-fibre spigot to insert in the broken ends. The rod was tiny, a 6½ ft wand throwing a 3 wt line. The internal diameter at the break was something under 2 mm. I gave the problem to Google, who turned up a bloke on ebay selling carbon-fibre “push rods” in various lengths and diameters. I ordered one – 10 cm long, 1.8 mm diameter – for pennies. It arrived three days later. It was a perfect fit, just sliding into the broken ends. I posted Araldite down each broken end with a needle, coating the inside. I cut the push rod down to 5 cm, smeared half of this length with Araldite and pushed that into one of the broken ends. I smeared the other half and pushed it into the other broken end. The section of rod looked good as new. When the glue had set the next day, I covered the break with an inch or so of whipping before finishing the whole thing off with a coat of epoxy varnish. A month to the day after that first bungling visit, Philip and I returned to the Arrow. A month older, a month wiser: we’d brought our own sausages. Spring had arrived in deepest Herefordshire. New leaf tinged the tallest trees, the orchards were flushed with blossom, the lanes bright with bluebells and red campion. We pulled in at Manor Farm, the lowest beat on the Arrow. We tackled up with new hope in our hearts. Philip was trying out the repaired rod. He waggled it about as we made our way to the water: it seemed fine. Down here the Arrow runs between high banks, lush with new growth and nettles. Lush enough, in fact, to hide a fallen tree – which Philip fell over into a bed of nettles. And broke the rod again. This time it had snapped clean, just above the handle. I’d be getting out the Araldite and epoxy once more that evening but now we trudged back to the camper for spares and repairs. We made our way to Monkland, the next beat upstream. And there, in a tunnel of trees shielding the stream from a stiff north-east breeze, a fish rose to Philip’s Klinkhamer. Nothing broke. Or fell in the water or otherwise screwed up. We had our first fish of the day, the second from the waters of the Arrow. A few minutes later we had the third. And, as it turned out, the last. That afternoon we explored the beats of the lovely Arrow valley without seeing a fish rise. Three small trout over two and a half days, two broken rods, torn waders and a ducking. The camera, miraculously, came back to life after a lengthy sojourn on the radiator. Hardly an edifying tale. But it all depends how you measure these things. We’d spent two and a half days in the loveliest of English valleys at the loveliest time of the year. The sun shone. Lambs gambolled. Kingfishers were everywhere. For five minutes at Mowley Wood I watched in fascination as a damsel fly ate a pale olive dun. The wooded banks were laced with bluebells and the heady scent of wild garlic. On the Whittern beat we watched a squirrel stuffing its face with samaras, the fruit of the wych elm. And on a shingle beach by the river we did much the same – with sausages grilled over a wood fire. Perfick.
“There’d been an incident, a full Hancock with double twist into the chilly waters of the Arrow”