Away with the fairies

Jon Beer and friends have com­pany be­side a North Wales lake

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JON BEER

IWISH I KNEW MORE ABOUT birds. I’ve got a fair arm­lock on the ones that fetch up in my gar­den: it’s all the oth­ers that elude me from time to time – the var­i­ous big black jobs, scores of small brown jobs and half-a-dozen more-or-less white seag­ulls. Only they’re not called seag­ulls, ap­par­ently: to blokes who know about birds, they’re “gulls”. Brian knows about birds. He’s a wildlife and fish­ing guide in the cor­ner of north Wales be­tween the Rhinog Moun­tains and the sea. On Sat­ur­day morn­ings he guides a wildlife walk in the fields and fore­shore around the sea­side ham­let of Llan­danwg. On the last walk he’d no­ticed a scat­ter of large birds work­ing across the fields be­hind the dunes. Jack­daws, her­ring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, he said, were dili­gently pick­ing their way through the grasses. The gar­den chafer, Phyl­lop­ertha hor­ti­cola, is unloved by gar­den­ers and farm­ers be­cause its larva feasts for most of its life on the roots of grasses and ce­re­als. But around June it emerges as a charm­ing jewel of a bee­tle with a bot­tle-green head and bronze wing-cases – which isn’t the best look if you’re tasty. The gar­den chafers’ so­lu­tion to tasti­ness is to time their hatch­ing into a few days, giv­ing their preda­tors a feast but en­sur­ing that enough sur­vive to mate. It’s the same tac­tic adopted by the tasty mayfly – and with much the same ef­fect on any trout in the vicin­ity. Phyl­lop­ertha hor­ti­cola is beloved by the larger sort of bird and by the lucky fish­er­man who finds him­self amid a thor­ough-go­ing hatch of th­ese coch-y-bonddu [their Welsh name]. It was just such a prospect that had lured us into the hills above Har­lech, to the lit­tle Llyn y Fedw, a cou­ple of days ago. There Brian and I had fished all morn­ing for a few small trout. No fish rose on that sunny day in June and no coch-y-bonddu were to be seen on the sur­face. A sin­gle coch-y-bonddu ar­rived on my waders early in the pro­ceed­ings but whether that was the first of the hatch – or the last – we couldn’t tell. In a nor­mal sea­son, Brian said, the coch-y-bonddu hatch starts in the lower pas­tures be­hind the dunes and moves up to the cooler heights of the Rhinogs in the fol­low­ing days and weeks. This had been any­thing but a nor­mal

sea­son: we’d had trop­i­cal tem­per­a­tures and wall-towall sun­shine ev­ery day of our hol­i­day in Wales. But still, there was a chance the bee­tle bo­nanza had yet to get go­ing up in the hills. It seemed a shame to hog it all to our­selves. I hap­pened to know that Digby Lewis was hol­i­day­ing on the Lleyn penin­sula, just around the cor­ner from Llanbedr where we’d rented a cot­tage for the week. Digby was lately back from a hol­i­day in Greece, catch­ing large trout in the hills of the Pelo­pon­nese – but not, ap­par­ently, as large or as many as he’d ex­pected from pre­vi­ous vis­its, poor chap. He needed cheer­ing up. And so it was that the three of us set off for the Llawl­lech hills and Llyn Erd­dyn. Or Ird­dyn – de­pend­ing on which map you hap­pen to be look­ing at. Ei­ther way, this is the “Priests’ Lake”, de­scribed in Frank Ward’s The Lakes of Wales in 1931 as “tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with Druids”. I wasn’t sur­prised. This cor­ner of north Wales, as Judi and I had dis­cov­ered in the first days of our hols, has more an­cient his­tory than it knows what to do with. The pre­vi­ous day we’d vis­ited a cou­ple of ne­olithic burial cham­bers, be­hind the school in Dyf­fryn Ar­dudwy. The in­for­ma­tion board de­scribed them as “por­tal dol­mens” – that is, capped with a dirty great slab of stone. And lo! here was an­other one, un­her­alded, be­side the path to Llyn Ird­dyn. We crossed the lit­tle River Ys­gethin on an old pack­horse bridge and climbed gen­tly along a pleas­ant grassy track with a panorama of sea and the Lleyn penin­sula open­ing be­hind us. Digby, it turns out, knows a thing or two about birds him­self and our way to the lake was en­livened with some po­lite birdy armwrestling as Brian and Digby traded ever more es­o­teric in­for­ma­tion on ring ouzels, mis­tle

thrushes and sim­i­lar mat­ters. And so the three of us ar­rived at Llyn Ird­dyn. It was mid-morn­ing and noth­ing was ris­ing. As we tack­led up, a coch-y-bonddu bee­tle landed on Digby. The same thing had oc­curred when we fished Llyn y Fedw. The Welsh tourist board, I sus­pect, have a few spe­cially trained coch-y-bonddu to en­cour­age the vis­it­ing an­gler. We were en­cour­aged. Brian tied on a tra­di­tional im­i­ta­tion with its pea­cock herl body and fur­nace hackle. I went for a foam bee­tle: the nat­u­rals float when they fall on to the wa­ter and a foam bee­tle will float for­ever. Frank Ward again: “It is fairly deep, though shal­low near shore, and holds many trout of ex­cep­tion­ally fine qual­ity, av­er­ag­ing about ½ lb. This the only lake of the group on which there are boats.” The boats are long gone and those shal­lows “near shore” are crowded with large, ir­reg­u­lar boul­ders which make for in­ter­est­ing wad­ing. I could see Brian tee­ter­ing out from the shore. Boul­ders lit­tered the wind­ward end of Llyn Ird­dyn: Digby was pick­ing his way across th­ese ir­reg­u­lar step­ping stones to cast into deeper wa­ter. I was con­tem­plat­ing my own way out when Brian’s rod bent, just a lit­tle. He had found our first fish. It was not a large fish. No mat­ter. If the fish are go­ing to av­er­age half a pound then for ev­ery tid­dler there must ob­vi­ously be a near-pounder round the cor­ner. Trust me: I once wrote a book on sta­tis­tics. Digby was next into a fish. It was slightly smaller than Brian’s: clearly the next fish was go­ing to be well over a pound. I needed to make my way out to the deeper wa­ter if I was go­ing to catch it. I was plan­ning a route across the boul­ders and look­ing care­fully at the one near­est the shore when I no­ticed the bright bronze back of a coch-y-bonddu in a fold of the rock. And then half-a-dozen more. And once I’d seen th­ese, I looked around: there were bee­tles ev­ery­where on the rocks – thou­sands of them. But they were de­cid­edly de­funct. The ones that had first caught my eye were in­tact, rec­og­niz­ably coch-y-bonddu with bronze wing case and emer­ald head. But when I looked around and looked closer there were other re­mains, heaps of small coch-y-bonddu parts: legs, frag­ments of shell and as­sorted bee­tle bits all jum­bled to­gether. Th­ese were on the larger rocks of the mar­gins, rocks streaked with guano. A flock of seag­ulls squat­ted on the rocks fur­ther down the shore. It didn’t take Tonto to work out what had hap­pened here. Some time ago there’d been a prodi­gious hatch of coch-ybonddu. Bee­tles that had fallen on the wa­ter had drifted among the rocks. Some may have crawled out or col­lected in drifts and been washed up by waves. Th­ese stayed in­tact. Oth­ers were eaten by the gulls – picked from the grass or the rocks, who knows? The breaker’s-yards of small bee­tle parts were the pel­lets

“There were bee­tles ev­ery­where on the rocks … but they were de­cid­edly de­funct”

of in­di­gestible bits that gulls col­lect in their giz­zards and hoof up from time to time. The more di­gestible bits of a bee­tle emerge from a seag­ull as those white streaks on the rocks. I could see tiny coch-y-bonddu frag­ments in that as well. We were a week too late: the hatch had been and gone. We fished on, catch­ing the smaller sort of trout while the larger sort slept off their coch-y-bonddu feast. And so to lunch, loung­ing on the grass while the steak and sausages bar­be­cued on the rocks of the shore. “At Ird­dyn,” says Frank Ward, “there is a tra­di­tion that it is wise to shun the edge of the lake and walk on grass in or­der to avoid cer­tain mis­chievous fairies, the old be­lief be­ing that no fairy could mo­lest any­one while touch­ing grass.” Now, of course it is easy to dis­miss th­ese old be­liefs as so much tara­did­dle. I’m not so sure: as we be­gan fish­ing after lunch, there was a re­sound­ing “badoosh” off to my left. I turned to see Digby rise, drip­ping, from the wa­ter. He said he’d just slipped on one of the un­der­wa­ter boul­ders. I’m not so sure: he had the for­lorn look of a man who’d been mo­lested by a fairy. And with that we re­treated in dis­or­der from Llyn Ird­dyn. Digby re­tired to change be­fore chaf­ing set in: Brian and I had one last lit­tle item to ex­plore. The hol­i­day cot­tage Judi and I had rented for our week in Wales came with fresh cream cakes on ar­rival and a mile of fish­ing on the Afon Cwm­nant­col. We’d eaten the cakes. I had yet to try the river. The Afon Cwm­nant­col is the prin­ci­pal tributary of the Afon Artro, a small spate river that runs to the sea at Llan­danwg beach where Brian and I had fished for bass at the be­gin­ning of my hol­i­day. Sea-trout run the Artro in a spate but few, if any, climb the Cwm­nant­col be­cause a few hun­dred yards above the con­flu­ence a dam holds back a small reser­voir. And half a mile above that be­gins a se­ries of for­mi­da­ble plunges – the spec­tac­u­lar Nant­col Wa­ter­falls. They were not as spec­tac­u­lar as maybe at the minute. A month with­out rain and a week of sun­shine had re­duced them some­what – but I’d trade a spec­tac­u­lar wa­ter­fall for a week of sun­shine on my hols any time. And so, I fancy, would the folk in the pleas­ant camp­site just below the falls. Which is where our fish­ing be­gan. Place any child – or idle adult – in a rocky stream and they will build a dam. We have an urge to har­ness na­ture. Or per­haps we just like play­ing about in wa­ter. Just such a makeshift dam had cre­ated a splen­did pool in the mid­dle of the camp­site. It was early evening and the pool was lately empty of chil­dren. Also, I sus­pected, of trout – but Brian had spot­ted a small rise where the stream trick­led in. He missed the first light­ning rise at the fly. But not the sec­ond. A small trout, exquisitely spot­ted, came to hand. We worked our way up the rocky lit­tle river, ris­ing dash­ing lit­tle trout in the pools and runs and oc­ca­sion­ally hook­ing them. A river­side walk and na­ture trail fol­low the river to the first se­ries of falls. There are deep plunge pools be­neath each spout, deep enough to hide the larger sort of trout, but the larger sort of trout stayed hid­den as we cherry-picked our way from pool to pool. Half a mile above the camp­site, the river slips and slides down the face of a high rock ledge. And at the top we dis­cov­ered a very dif­fer­ent Afon Cwm­nant­col. This ledge of hard rock once held back a lake. Over the years the lake had filled with silt, leav­ing a plateau of marshy pas­ture. And through th­ese damp acres a reed-fringed river winds slow, wide and very deep. It looks like Nor­folk – half­way up a Welsh moun­tain. It is mys­te­ri­ous and very in­trigu­ing. It looks like the haunt of very large trout: I can’t wait to see it in a hatch of coch-y-bonddu. And there’s an­other mile of it beyond the old bridge and lane that Brian and I took back to the cot­tage. But that must wait for an­other hol­i­day.

“Place any child in a rocky stream … and they will build a dam”

A Ne­olithic por­tal dol­men (burial cham­ber) be­side the track to Llyn Ird­dyn.

JON BEER

is the pres­i­dent of the Wild Trout Trust. He fishes all over the world and is the au­thor of three books: Gone Fish­ing, The Trout and I, and Not all Beer and Bezencenet.

RIGHT Brian next to the guano-strewn rocks.

ABOVE The coch-y-bonddu bee­tle that landed on Digby.

RIGHT Brian fish­ing beyond the boul­der­strewn mar­gins.

RIGHT A scat­ter of dead – but in­tact – coch-ybonddu on a rock at the edge of Llyn Ird­dyn. One of hun­dreds.

ABOVE Digby en­sconced on his rock at the edge of deeper wa­ter.

ABOVE Carved stone (1762) on the pack­horse bridge over Afon Ys­gethin.

ABOVE A shrunken Cwm­nant­col cas­cades down the Nant­col wa­ter­falls.

LEFT Brian with a nice Ird­dyn trout.

RIGHT The band of hard rock at the top of the falls that once held back a lake.

LEFT Digby after mo­lesta­tion by fairy folk.

ABOVE Re­lax­ing while lunch cooks on the bar­be­cue.

ABOVE A speck­led trout of the Cwm­nant­col.

The pools be­neath the old bridge on Cwm­nant­col There's an­other mile of slow, deep wa­ter up­stream – to be ex­plored next visit.

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