Saturday, 22 November 2008

Northern exposure

Judy was due to attend a conference in Birmingham yesterday morning, and so I thought I'd take advantage of her route and hitch a lift to a new river. I'd found a stretch of the Blythe, just off the M6 at Coleshill, that looked and sounded just the ticket. The only whole river SSSI in the entire British Isles
, its protected status wholly justified apparently, by an unspoiled and unbroken flora and fauna succession all the way from its source, to its confluence with the Tame. It skirts the eastern edge of the vast post-industrial sprawl of Solihull and Birmingham, but has by some miracle remained as natural a lowland river as anyone could wish to fish. It even has a head of barbel into double figures alongside specimen chub, roach and perch. So, I was optimistic that a good days sport lay ahead.

The River Blythe at Coleshill

My first glimpse of the river, apart from tantalising glimpses I'd had from the M6 on previous journeys into Brum, was one of delight. It was a much bigger river than I had thought it would be. And pretty too. I crossed the footbridge, clambered over the broken stile and trudged through the marshy grassland eager to walk the entire downstream stretch, and pinpoint a few likely looking swims.

The weather, which earlier in the day had been calm and overcast, was freshening. The cloud had cleared and a biting northerly wind was now whipping across the valley through which the stretch runs, threatening to pitch my hat into the water. Though the wind was finding weaknesses in my armour, I was warm, and didn't notice quite how exposed to the elements I really was.

The first thing I noticed about the stretch was its almost total lack of cover. The fields provided little in the way of windbreaks and at the river were just a few swims with overhanging branches and rafts, everywhere else the swims were open. Not a problem really, but with no knowledge of the stretch and a lot of water I had some trouble settling down. So, I decided to trot bread flake under a stick float, as the open nature of the banks made this method easy and likely to pinpoint areas of interest where a static bait might be positioned later on in the day.

A big pool and a wind-beating set up

I had a few bites, but no fish and after a while decided to fit up a running ledger and sit with my back to the wind and fish into a large pool. I wasted an hour here, and some bait, but stayed for some time just because I didn't want to face into the wind. Eventually cloud cover returned and then a few spots of drizzle. It all went very dark, and cold, and miserable. And the fishing was turning a bit weird...

I began registering bites as soon as I fixed on a bobbin. Slow lazy affairs that resulted in striking air. I thought it might be rubbish coming downstream but when I eventually upped sticks and moved downstream to likely spots identified earlier, the same bites were experienced. I thought of scaling down but the thought of retackling in the biting cold was not a pleasant thought and so I stuck it out on a size 6. After all, the stretch contained barbel to double figures, apparently.

This went on all afternoon, no matter where I put a bait. As evening approached I decided to make a last move to the only swims with tree cover, reasoning that if a chub would feed today it would be there, and only there. The first pitch was short drop under a raft. Sure enough the same bites occurred. I thought by now that the river must have a crayfish problem and that these tardy 'bites' were nothing more than crustacean attention. You'd never notice them on the rod top because as the bobbin rose slowly into the butt ring and the tension increased, whatever it was that was causing the bites would not have the strength to make even the slightest registration on the tip.

Far trickier than it looks!

In desperation, and in an attempt put some blood into my freezing feet, I moved once again, to easily the trickiest swim on the stretch. A pool with a deep near bank slack and a fast run on the far bank, right in the willows. Stumps, rafts, snags, overhanging branches and little room for manoeuvre meant this would be a hook and hold kind of place. If a fish were to ever get its head down to my bait.

First cast I got another of the bloody slow 'bites'. I was ready to quit, but then got serious. I committed all my remaining groundbait - a couple of handfuls of hemp and all the last of the breadcrumb, together with some ground up bread to the crease between the slack and the run - put a bait right into it all and sat back to freeze, or win. I reasoned that if any fish were around then they'd either go for the sudden banquet or totally ignore it.

Ten minutes on, and the bobbin had not moved an inch. A good thing I thought. At least the slow 'bites' had not occurred. Then the bobbin twitched and rose rapidly to the butt ring. I struck and a fish, a powerful and determined fish, tore off to the nearest safety. I leaned into the rod and stopped it, but it tore all over the place and ploughed straight under a willow stump on the near bank and snagged. I slowly let the rod fall to the water to get the line below the snag and it pulled free, the fish tearing off once again.

For a while I had an idea what it was but then I saw those big white lips and knew it was a large chub. Like all chub, it used up all its energy in a few intense minutes of thrills and spills, and then when it had been inched away from what it thought was safety, it began to tire rapidly. I had it in the net soon after. A perfect fish, and my first fish of any species from the Blythe.

A chub will always get you out of a hole

It was nearly dark, the phone camera barely coped with the gloom, and I was shivering so much that I could not hold the damn thing still. She pulled the scales down to four pounds twelve ounces, a cracking start to exploits on a new river. After the necessary ritual I slipped her back, had a smoke and packed up. As I exited the willows to return to the car-park across half a mile of rough grass in near darkness, my knee joint suddenly clicked and made a horrible clunk that resounded up through my body and registered in my grey matter as urgent and serious pain. I walked on with every step sending the same message - stop, stop, stop. But how could I?

Suddenly the Blythe seemed a place with a character most unlike its name. What if I had to spend a night out in this freezing wilderness? I decided to drag my useless leg, hopping all the way if I had to. Then suddenly it clicked and popped again and all the pain vanished...

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