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This sporting life is too much

Grilse runs, Willie Gunns, cricket records and rugby tests


Very fresh, not long in from the sea.
Very fresh, not long in from the sea.

The salmon are running! Days of heavy showers have put an end to the drought, and elevated the river level, and fish are now moving up the river; bright chrome bars of silver being caught in the lower reaches. Thank goodness it’s Friday!

I get back from the office, flop down in a chair with a beer and, lo and behold, realise the highlights of the Lions v Highlanders game is on TV. It’s one of those games which took place days ago, but I’ve no idea of the result, so it’s like real-time. We (the British) tough out a one-point win - but most of you already knew that.

I start to make my supper whilst watching an intriguing run-chase develop in the Essex versus Nottinghamshire 50-over cricket match on another channel. Nottinghamshire have been set a record score to chase and it looks like Patel and Mullaney might do it. This is live from Chelmsford. So I tie up some more Willie Gunns whilst watching history being made as Notts inch past Essex well into the final over. I pull on my waders as the ball crosses the boundary.

It’s nine o’clock and the light looks good for fishing - quite heavy cloud. Will it rain? I jump in the car and drive down to the river. The air’s warmish with a downstream breeze, but the river is slightly high for settling fish. They’ll probably just run straight past me but, hey, you never know…

I set up with an intermediate tip and a Willie Gunn half-inch copper tube and start swinging it across the boisterous flow. Two kayakers paddle by, so I get out of the water and take the dog for a walk downstream. I’m scanning the river for leaping, running fish, but I’m not seeing any. I amble back, resume casting and the fly swings unimpeded.

My confidence isn’t high, as the river is higher than I’d like, and there’s obviously no fish about. Just as I think this, it happens… that slow draw, tug-tug-tug, draw zzz, zzz, zzz: I’m in!
It’s a great feeling, that lift of the rod and tip locking down as if it’s attached to a bucket of concrete.

How big is it? In those tentative first few seconds it’s very difficult to tell, but this one gets elevated from ‘trout’ to ‘salmon’ pretty quickly, and only later to ‘possible grilse?’ when it head-shakes and careers around the pool, whirring line off the drag.

“Banjo, get out!” I hiss at my dog, who lives for fish-landing time; like me, she’s fascinated by fish. As soon as the rod goes over, she wades out to her chest with a dawdling, circular dog-paddle, waiting to receive any trout, salmon or sea trout that I happen to be fighting. She has a habit of being exactly where you’d like to have a waiting landing net, so whilst I’m preparing a fish for landing I’m constantly urging her to get out of the river. That used to work, temporarily, as it would give me just enough time and space to land the fish, before she couldn’t resist getting in again, but this year, Banjo’s ears have gone completely, and now she can’t hear her master’s voice (not that it made THAT much difference in the past), so she just keeps paddling round and round in front of me, keeping an eye open for any splash or roll that indicates where the fish actually is, and making for that point. So this year, I’m having to play fish as quietly and as cunningly as I can, leading them into my bank one way, and then swiftly changing direction so I can glide the fish into my chosen landing spot, having sold Banjo a dummy.

This fish is like a silver bullion bar - all five pounds of it. A beautiful fish, very fresh, not long in from the sea. I take a photo, slide the fish back, with Banjo’s eager – but always restrained and slightly bemused – assistance and accompaniment, and continue fishing – there could easily be more in the grilse pod - whilst Banjo paws at the water in a perplexed manner, at the exact point where the fish has simply vanished.

It’s quiet. Having fished the pool-tail meticulously, I return to the top and run down the pool again. This time, the only action is provided by a beaver which decides to launch and cruise across the river, so close that I’m worried I might hook it on the swing. How Banjo misses seeing it, I’ve no idea, but dusk falls without further incident.

Never mind, I’ll come back on the river tomorrow, on Saturday morning, to see if I can intercept another runner. Hold on, though! The Lions are playing the Maoris in the lead-in to the first test at 8am. I tune in live from New Zealand confronted with a dilemma: when am I ever going to find time to paint the house?

Mark Bowler has edited Fly Fishing and Fly Tying since its inception in 1990, and is the author of the Haynes Fly Fishing Manual, which was published in November last year.

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