This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
Last year, in autumn mornings, when the big round clouds sailing swiftly overhead reminded me of springtide days and joyous skylarks in the heavens, but when all parent birds were silent, knowing how dark winter soon would chill the world, a thrush, that not long since had been a fledgling in his nest amid a shrubbery of box, came to the fruit-tree near my window, and, in such low tones that only I could hear them, warbled that all in earth and sky was beautiful.
To Lutra, lonely like the thrush, and, like the thrush, not yet aware of pain and hunger, the world seemed bright and filled with happiness. At first, like a young fox that, till he learns the fear of dogs and men, steals chickens from a coop near which an old, experienced fox would never venture, she was, perhaps, a little too indifferent to danger. In her perfect health and irresponsible freedom, she paid but slight attention to the alarm signals of other creatures of the night.
Up-river, at a bend below a hillside farmstead some distance from our village, is a broad, deep salmon - pool, fringed with alders and willows. Right across the upper end of this pool stretches a broken ledge of rock, over which, in flood, the waters boom and crash into a seething basin whence thin lines of vapour—blue and grey when the day is dull, or gleaming with the colours of the rainbow when the sun, unclouded, shines aslant the fall— ceaselessly arise, and quiver on the waves of air that catch their movement from the restless swirls beneath. But in dry summer weather the ledge is covered with green, slippery weed, the curving fall is smooth as glass, and the rapid loses half its flood-time strength.
This pool, though containing some of the finest salmon "hovers" in the river, is nowadays but seldom fished. Since the old generation of village fishermen has passed away it seems to have gradually lost its popularity. The right bank of the river above and below the pool is for miles so thickly wooded that anglers prefer to pass up-country before unpacking their rods. From the left bank it is useless for any angler who has not made a study of the pool to attempt to reach the "hovers." Under far more favourable conditions than these, the throw necessary to place a fly on even the nearest of the "hovers" would be almost the longest that could with accuracy be made. But the angler is baffled at the outset by the presence of a steep slope behind him.
I well remember two instances when I was tricked by the self-conceit which led me to suppose that my skill in casting was of no mean order. Once, while the river was bank-high after flood, I happened to be throwing an unusually long line, with careless ease, over the lower end of a pool, where, before, I had never seen a fish. I was, no doubt, thinking of something quite unconnected with fishing, otherwise I should not have wandered thus far from the spot where I generally reeled in my line. A salmon effectually aroused me by a terrific rush at my fly. I " struck" hard, and the fly, after a momentary check, flew up into the air. I am not one of those anglers who give rest to a salmon in the belief that, after rising, he requires time to recover from his disappointment at having failed to catch the lure. I believe in "sticking to" a fish, perhaps because the first I ever hooked was one I had bullied ceaselessly during the whole of a spring evening. And so I tried hard and often to tempt that sportive fish again ; but after the careless, easy casting which resulted in the rise, I could not by any means throw satisfactorily over the tail of the pool. However I tried to do so, the line would double awkwardly as it reached the water, or would curl back into the rapid on the near side of the "hover," or the fly would splash in a most provoking manner as it alighted on the stream. So at last I left the riverside.
Henceforth, I attempted the same long cast whenever I passed the pool. I lost many flies, and never again rose a fish. But I was convinced that I had discovered a " hover " new to the village fishermen, till my old friend Ianto chaffed me into the belief that the salmon I had seen was a "passenger," and, probably, a "spent kelt" in such a weak condition that for it to stay in the rough water higher up the pool was impossible.
On another occasion, in early days when my ignorance of the river and of fishing sorely troubled both Ianto and myself, as I was wading down-stream along the edge of a pool a grilse rose, "head and tail," about twenty yards below my fly. Using my long gaff-handle as a staff, I walked slowly towards the fish, casting carefully all the way. I was so absorbed in my work that I did not know I was moving into deep water till I found that my wading stockings had filled. I then stopped, and, lengthening my line at each successive "throw," sent my fly nearer and still nearer to the grilse.
How I managed the long, straight cast that presently resulted in my fly passing down the "hover," I do not know. The grilse rose sharply at the lure, but I " struck " too late. I reeled in my line, and after a few minutes began once more to cast. Now, however, try as I might, I could not get the line out to the distance required; it would not fall straight and true. In desperation I endeavoured to overcome the difficulty by sheer strength. I swung my arms aloft; my old hickory rod creaked and groaned with the increasing strain, then snapped immediately the tension was released with the return of the line; and, a second afterwards, the grilse took my fly and bolted away down-stream.
All caution left me; I was " into a fish" —that was enough. In haste to catch my rod-top as it slipped down the line from the butt, I made one step forward, and fell over head and ears into a deep hole beneath the shelf of rock on which I had been standing. When I recognised what had happened I was clinging to an alder-root near the bank; thence, breathless, I lifted myself till I was safe on a tree-trunk above the pool. My rod and cap were drifting rapidly away; but, after divesting myself of half my dripping garments, I recovered the rod in a back-water below the neighbouring wood. All my line had been taken out, the gut collar had been snapped, and the fly had undoubtedly been carried off" by the grilse.
In those old days of which I have elsewhere written,1 Ianto and I often resorted to the wide, deep pool under the farm. Sometimes, during summer, we were there before daybreak, fishing for the salmon that only then or in the dusk would deign to inspect our "Dandy" fly. And there, in the summer nights, we frequently captured, with the natural minnow, the big trout that wandered from the rapids to feed in the quiet waters by the alders. Ianto knew the pool so well that even in the darkest night he would wade along the slippery, weed-grown shelf near the raging fall, to troll in the shadows above him. Had the old man taken one false step he would have entered on a struggle for life compared with which my own adventure after hooking the grilse would have been insignificant.
For several months free, happy Lutra made her daytime abode in a " holt" among the alder-roots fringing this pool. She loved in the long winter nights to hear the winnow-winnow of powerful wings as the wild ducks circled down towards the pool, the whir of the grey lag-geese far in the mysterious sky, and the whistle of the teal and the gurgle of the moorhens among the weeds close by the river's brim.
1 In " Ianto the Fisherman, and Other Sketches of Country Life".