This being the fourth of my annual forays to the Itchen at the Lower Itchen Fishery and it becoming a familiar place now in want of further exploration and discovery, I started off as I meant to go on all day long, trying out swims and beats, nooks and crannies that I'd never tried before. First ports of call were a few swims downstream of the weir at Gaters Mill where I found a few bites but nothing worth striking at, the first being no deeper than a few feet at most at the tail of the run off from the weir, and the second, a far bank slack a little further down.
Whilst fishing I hear Sash, the trip organiser for all the Itchen trips I have made, who was fishing his favourite early morning swim in the weir 'pool' (not much of a pool, but enough) call out across the noise of the rushing water. I knew it could only have been an alert for a really good roach coming to net as would not have bothered himself to do so for anything less. Needless to say, I ran around and crossed over the bridge to see it. As I came around I could see a massive fish in the dripping meshes, but Sash, who should have had an ear to ear grin, looking somewhat odd, his face one I have never seen an angler wearing, it being a curious mixture of crestfallen disappointment and surprised delight...
"@$£% orfe!" he exclaims.
I'm perplexed. Under circumstances of crashing noise, to my Cockney ear this was a clear exhortation to 'get-lost-pronto-like', but as he wasn't assailing me a with a bank-stick or throwing handfuls of maggots in my face, or self-flagellating with a spare quiver tip, I stayed around nevertheless to witness this clonking great roach. I thought that perhaps Sash always reacted this way on arrival of the fish of a lifetime, a character trait known to only his close mates, but one they'd put up with out of a sense of forbearing loyalty.
And then, as he peeled back the mesh, I saw exactly the reason for that unique quizzical look he'd had all the while, and fathomed his surprising utterance...
For what lay there was not the three-pound roach he had at first sight surely thought it to be, but another three pound silvery fish entirely, and one that really shouldn't have been there masquerading as a roach, and giving roach anglers starts and fits...
A blue orfe!
|Three-pound three-ounces of exotic imposter. A big surprise and a fine fish, but Sash still hasn't quite got over it, as you can see by his face!|
Next on my agenda was a small carrier stream. It looked very much like my local River Sowe in both its scale and mix of reedy shallow waters and occasional deeper pools. I eventually found a pool worth fishing, for there were few fish to be seen anywhere else, and this one was deep enough to obscure bottom, and that's what matters on such intimate small streams. There were no signs of anyone else having ever fished it before, consequently the banks were a tangle of the desiccated stems of last year's scrub. In went a flake of bread and a bite was got almost immediately.
It wasn't a roach bite, I'm sure of that. Twangy and sharp, but without the slow pull necessary for a hook up. Twenty bites and an hour later I was till none the wiser, so called time, and went off to the main river to try there. I thought I'd begin at a favourite swim of mine, a place where I once had what still stands as my biggest ever river roach, despite trying very hard to beat in the meantime. This was the fascinating S-bend (? Lower Stannels) with its footbridge giving double bank access to the big deep slacks where I just know, if I can ever work it out to a 'T', large roach like to live, and these are, I believe, swims that possibly contain the biggest roach in the entire fishery.
There was another fella fishing opposite and trotting maggots through the outside of the bend but he was catching very little and that's just how I fared fishing the inside of the same bend because I had not a touch in an hour. Nevertheless, I decided that by evening it would still be worth another try, so went off downstream again on a search for bites, as they were now becoming hard to find as the low light of early morning gave way to the brightness of noontime. Eventually I found my first grayling catch of the day and took three of what are the standard Itchen size for the species at around half a pound to three quarters.
|First grayling of the day. Would it be the last?|
Then it was time for a lunch break and a half-mile walk upstream to the fishing hut to meet Keith, Danny and Baz, fully prepared, but never dissapointed, get reports there of much better action than I'd experienced thus far. Baz, who'd come down on this his first ever trip to the Itchen hoping there to finally catch his first ever grayling, had done rather better than he or anyone had expected, bagging a two-pounder before he'd seen any of the million smaller fish that inhabit this part of the river. He'd followed it up with a high pounder so his face was a pretty picture. Danny had had a mid five-pound chub so he too was beaming broadly with his morning's work in the bag despite not catching a record gudgeon.
I was happy too, striking out on some exploratory legwork that had produced very little but a ruddy complexion, but was fascinating nonetheless, and something I very much like to do. Keith was nowhere to be seen. He was still upstream at the top of the stretch flogging away for a grayling of size enough to secure himself big points on the challenge board, but unsuccessfully, I heard. Unfortunately, my Kelly Kettle was in his car, so a cup of tea was not to be had just yet...
Afternoon I'd decided would be spent fishing back downstream from the very end of the top beats, places I had never visited before now, so they might hopefully throw up a surprise or two if not a change of sky from what were the now familiar beats near the mill. On the long hike up I found a dead fox making a poignant shape in the short grass, frozen, mid-trot, as if downwind and coming up along the scent of his final prize ...
One day, no doubt, in some wild place you'll find me there, rod in hand, poleaxed, but forever casting.
The very top swim was just ravishing. The water, channelled into a funnel between banks and running through the mouth of two opposing sets of overhanging bushes, was both deeper and more forceful than anywhere I'd yet seen on the way up. I trotted bread through under a stick float set to near full depth, and after a few unsuccessful trots through, the float dipped, I struck, and a fish kicked back. I was expecting a trout or a salmon, even a barbel, in such a compressed current, but the fight was too pugnacious for either, or. It was as if I'd hooked a living, breathing, swimming, log. After an age of battling the fish upstream, an inch at a time, I was surprised, at last, to see a chub coming exhausted into the less difficult currents under my feet.
By the dogged nature of the fight I expected it to turn in five pounds, but it were only four-pounds-four. Nevertheless I thought it a remarkable capture it being the largest fish I have ever caught on trotted bread (a technique I have practiced all too infrequently for a roach angler) but also because of the circumstances of the heavy duty swim, one where I'd never even considered a chub might like to live. Respect is due.
A trout was taken next cast and then I moved down to a long, long glide falling after a curvaceous reedy bend with swampy margins where an angler has to stand up to his welly tops for the best possible line down. Here I trotted sweetcorn, that wonder bait that snares all the biggest fish for the least effort. I know red maggots are the staple bait of Itchen trotters after a big grayling, but I can't stand to use them as they require that so much effort and time be spent building a swim and wading through small voracious fish to get to one. Corn, on the other hand, requires no preliminaries, no free offerings, just a single grain on the hook cast out on its own, and when put through an Itchen swim on the right day, selects big fish and deters small ones, I'm sure of it.
I wanted a big grayling now, and corn is what I hoped would do the trick. I expected a monster of a grayling actually, as reports coming in suggested that the small fish were decidedly off feed in the coloured water, and the big fish, be they few and far between, were on, for the average stamp today was remarkably high.
First trot down this lovely glide, and it was very long one of near the capacity of my reel, saw a dip of the float some forty yards downstream. The second trot saw the same and the strike connected with a small brown trout of a couple of pounds weight. The third I was connected to a fierce, splashy fish that leapt clear of the water in anger. A spanking, purple-hued sea trout, of course.
The fifth cast trundled away and came near the hotspot, but it passed through untouched, till that is, it came to a spot ten yards farther down, where it dipped, and disappeared from view. The strike connected not with a fish that could be cajoled back upstream by degree till it was beaten and netted, but one that demanded I go downstream after it. I was praying for a big grayling as the fight was not that of a trout. I leap frogged downstream by throwing the net along and keeping a tight line to the fish whilst squelching through the marshy margin toward the first sod of hard grassland, as I just could not budge it upwards no matter what. All the while the fish was zig zagging wildly across stream in an effort to throw the hook.
When we were on a level, I saw a long, thin, bright silver flash of the flank of a fish that was easily the length of my arm, a grayling of three pounds or even more, and then held my breath as it came up top to the danger point, near bank, nearly spent, and in the fast, shallow water by the waiting net where so many grand fish are either won, or lost. And there, as it finally made its mystery known at last, I realised I had not the grayling that dreams of grayling are made of coming to net, but that other long silver fish of the southern counties winter chalk streams, a kelt, which is a hen salmon mended after the terrible rigours of its successful spawning cycle, and returning to sea.
Just as Sash with his Blue Orfe of the early morning hadn't known how to compose himself, I didn't know whether to laugh in my dissapointment or cry in my triumph, all my expectations of one fish having foundered on the rocks of a second just as remarkable, for here I was with the first banked salmon of my life...
Only there wasn't time to think of all that. The fish had be returned as quickly as possible but I couldn't very well mark this occasion without a trophy of some sort. The camera was already set up anyhow, so I ran bank up the bank with the fish in the net and snapped off a hurried shot of us both together before she was slipped back to resume her lifelong cycle of epic journeys in and out of this fabulous jewel of a stream.
I don't know what she weighed. Two pounds, or three, or what? It's not important. I was so tangled up in my own line by this point having forgone the arts of tackle mending that I couldn't fathom where the loops that wrapped around each of every of my five limbs were so I bit off the lot and retired. Who cares about fishing on when the first, or best, is banked?
I met a girl once who cried like a baby after banking her first Salmon...
But she'd tried three years for it. Thrashing the water with various lures and flies. Had she known about the wonders of sweetcorn in the hands of an upstart 'coarse' angler treading the hallowed grounds of the Holy Aquified armed with a float, a centre pin reel and a tin of Jolly Green Giant then she might have cried herself all the way home, and off to sleep. But then again, mine was only a kelt, a fish in the part of the cycle where, I have heard, they'll snap at anything to build up strength to mend, and not hers, a fresh fish coming in, at its prime, in springtime, and without the need.
Nevertheless, the first is always memorable, and she was my first salmon, not hooked, but banked, which is what matters most to an angler, and so I'll never forget her so long as I live.
But she was skinny. As a Rake!
I don't know who was thinner, me or her...
Or whom more tired after the fact of the matter.