Thursday, 28 August 2008

Underneath the Arches

After success with the cyprinids and failure with the large chevins I was really after on the Avon, I felt I had to get out to somewhere guaranteed not to hold that very species that I had spent so much of my youth pursuing
. Carp can cope with flowing water I guess but I thought that the Severn might be a little too much for them and so I found a day ticket stretch conveniently flowing past a pub, and campsite, and arranged an expedition.

We arrived at Montford Bridge, west of Shrewsbury, in late afternoon and sorted ourselves out while I had good look at the bridge itself. This impressive edifice was Thomas Telford's first bridge design. It was built in 1792 to carry Watling Street over the Severn and is constructed from massive blocks of local red sandstone. The bridge cost the princely sum of £5,800, which sounds not a lot but you must consider that an 18th century penny was roughly equivilant in purchasing power to our current pound.

I then took a walk upstream to view the possible swims. Molly was ecstatic, finding herself off-lead and free to explore a new and (for a pup perhaps even more than a fisherman) very exciting environment. I enquired into a few likely swims, amazed at the power and mesmerizing swift flow of this big river. It all looked very beautiful despite the noise of new Watling Street crossing the river, via a newer and uglier bridge, mid beat.

We went to the pub when camp was pitched to Judy's satisfaction and bought a day ticket and a couple of pints. Molly as usual was centre of attention with everybody present fawning over her. When we got back to the bank I elected for convenience to fish the easiest swim I could find. The one right next to the tent and under the arches of Montford Bridge. I am not averse to comfortable fishing once in a while as I seem to endure more than my fair share of discomforts in pursuit of fish. This swim also seemed perfect really, as it was the only one not already occupied that had a reasonable bank to sit on, all the rest were muddy patches at the bottom of steep and treacherous looking inclines and for my first go at the Severn I did not want to play that kind of game. And besides, I'd just witnessed the guy in the next peg upstream bring a large barbel to the net. On meat, which I did not have with me.

I used the usual tactics I'd adopted on the Avon and the same bait. Sure enough the response was identical. Pat, pat, pat went the rod tip as small fry pecked at the bait. I made a cast over to a sunken tree and by the angle of the line thought it must be quite shallow. No bites this time and ten minutes later I retrieved only to find that I'd been hooked up on a sunken branch. However, it looked a fishy place and so I cast a little shorter and this time hit the riverbed. More nudges of the rod tip and more casts to the same area baiting the swim all the time.

When I least expected it to happen the rod tip banged over and I was into a fish which felt strong at first but then just gave up the fight. As its head appeared I was surprised to see a pretty good sized chub with its mouth agape. I landed the fish and unhooked it on the grass at the top of the bank. It still had its mouth wide open and would not, or could not close it. After weighing and a photo or two it went back into the water mouth still fully agape and swam away. I was bemused, it seemed in some distress despite the fact that otherwise it was in absolutely perfect condition. This was the biggest chub I'd ever caught to date and yet the customary good feelings associated with cracking a personal best were somewhat flattened. Poor fish, a genetic defect perhaps?

Big mouthed chub

I packed up after the chub and we spent the rest of the evening in the pub, sinking many pints and indulging in a roast dinner. Molly was mollycoddled all night as before and we retired to a warm and comfortable bed.

I woke abruptly with a sense of urgency and certainty. It was time to fish. In the tent I thought there might be something of pre-dawn glow in the sky but on unzipping the flysheet and peeking out it was moonlight behind some broken cloud. Scrambling all my personal belongings together and checking my mobile, it was five to three.

The swim looked tricky in the dark, so settling into position, laying out the gear with due care and attention to avoid mishaps. I cast the usual bait a little short of the intended spot three rod lengths under the arch but elected to leave it be to avoid further disturbance. The rod on the rest was angled upward so that the tip would catch the light from the bridge lights directly above me and more importantly the rest was placed well out of harms way should there be a scrap later. I baited up with a handful of pellets and a couple of handfuls of mashed bread thrown upstream to sink in the inky flow toward my bait and beyond and settled back in anticipation. I lit a cigarette and smoked peacefully, noticing the pipistrelle bats fluttering silently through the arch. The rod tip began to behave as if it had suddenly sprung alive, not perceptibly moving but looking and feeling as if it were energised, by a force. I thought for a doubtful second, having heard that they do have an attraction to anglers lines, that it might be the bats. Perhaps the line was in tune, resonating to their sonar messages. And then, as so is the case when one becomes fully immersed in some idle and drifting train of thought on the water-bank the rod tip lunged round and I struck without thought, on instinct, and connected with something altogether more urgent . It was a fish and one that at initial quantification seemed to be disappointingly lightweight. A chublet no doubt. Then it all went very heavy, very powerful and very unlike any fight with any fish I'd got myself into before. This fish was every bit as strong as a carp but it was not. Could have been a pike that had devoured my little chublet, or even a very big eel but somehow not. After ten minutes of powerful runs tamed with give and take interspersed with quiet boiling moments as the fish played out all the tactics it could muster finally a head broke surface and the fish rolled over...It was a barbel! Yes, even in the darkness below the bridge it was most visibly and definitely a barbel.

As the fish tired, I pulled the net into a useful position dunking the mesh in the flow and with the handle, which was certainly was too short for comfort, close at hand. As the fish made its very last lunges I noticed something bobbing up and down in the water, slowly sinking and fading from view as it drifted downstream. It was just like a miniature titanic. 'Wonder what that is?' I thought to myself 'strange thing'. And then the full horror of my predicament dawned. The 'bobbing thing' that had so intrigued me at the very conclusion of my victorious fight was the butt of the net handle!

Now it wasn't the fish that was beat, fate had dealt a card in her favour, it was me! I was dumbstruck. For what seemed an age I stood there not knowing what could be done. I certainly was not going in the drink to cradle the fish ashore as I had done so many times with carp in lakes. Lakes are one thing, they are still and they are placid, they are not usually that deep in the margins but the magnificent Severn, at night, alone, was out of the question. And then I saw a way out, but had to raise Judy from her sleep in order to execute my plan. I called her through clenched teeth not wanting to wake the other campers. After a few minutes and no Judy, it seemed I had failed and would have to think again. However my strategy was not utterly lost, but tactics to achieve overall objectives had merely escalated tenfold in complexity. I now had to go it alone. Somehow, I, alone, at night, had to make it one way or another up the steep bank and struggle as silently as possible the thirty yards to the next swim upstream in order to pinch the long-handled net that would be my salvation belonging to the angler next door that I had seen left outside his tent while he slept...and without losing the fish!

It had to be done, there simply was no alternative, and so I set off up the bank keeping a tight line as best I could. I made that part of the job easily but next I had to maneuver around the dense nettles that separated the swims creating an angle in the line, the fish temporarily tethered. One final sudden mad lunge for freedom and it was all over. I hoped and prayed that the fish was well and truly played out whilst I grabbed the net and carefully wound my way back. Reaching the top of the swim I realised that the line though still tight was going backwards. I was caught in the undergrowth! Winding back to the snag, right to the rod tip, I gave the snag a sharp whip and it broke free. Winding back furiously to the fish I gave thanks that it was still there, the barbless hook was well and truly set. Finally after a little cajoling she came rolling into the security of the net and I hauled the whole happy mess up the bank to the safety of the soft mown grass.

It was a truly wonderful fish gleaming in the sodium tinged half-light of what was by then, the pre-dawn. My first barbel, and a good one I thought. I suppose it weighed around eight pounds.

'Wow, that's a nice fish' said Judy, striding to the rescue ' bet that took a bit of landing'

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