by Steve Schroeter.
1st published February 2010 in Trout and Salmon and reproduced here with their kind permission
On an evening in early May, when the new growth is so green it hurts your eyes, the navvy with mutton chop whiskers and a twinkle in his eye is biking home and stops, as usual, to look over the humpty backed bridge where he sat with his brother years ago, dangling paste for chub. (A plaque says 1672. How many snotty noses and sweethearts have gawped over that low parapet?) There, a trout rises confidently 5 yards downstream, close in to the bank. The navvy gets back on his bike (no gears, but hey, these legs are young. Only last year they carried a 60lb pack across Shetland. Nothing can stop them!) and away home for the tackle, a fibreglass Hardys’ Jet, heavy gear for this small stream but a step up from lying on a high bank in the long summer grass, dapping a dry fly or weighted nymph for individual fish….trout, chub, and then, twice in one summer a 15 inch grayling with a pop eye. She’d only take it if it landed on her good side. I still think of that Jet as my new rod.
A rough home tied Black Pennel is fixed to a 2 lb point, all is greased to float, and then our angler is over the wall and circles through the pasture, finishing up with a 15 yard stalk on this water heavily overgrown with trees. Miraculously the fish is still rising. False cast a little to get the length, then drop the fly 8 inches in front of the last rise. The navvy-angler holds his breath as the fly floats down, low in the surface film, then one sip and it’s gone. Strike, and the fish comes clear of the water then bolts into the deeps under the bridge. Overgunned, she comes to a wetted hand a couple of minutes later and measured against the rod she is thirteen inches of spotted perfection. Released head upstream, the trout takes a couple of seconds to recover then heads straight up into the safety of the shadow of the bridge.
The navvy-angler leans over the bridge parapet, but there are no more trout to be seen, just a shoal of nervous dace. A pinch of snuff, then he’s back on the bike, and sated with the ecstasies of labour on a hardened body, heads home on a promise made, and fulfilled, within earshot of the beck. During, and after, these navvy-angler years there is a pond and a lake, a stream and a river, a sea and an ocean of Camerons’ bitter, trying to quench a prodigious and unquenchable thirst. Ah, that Lion Brewery. If only you too, friend, had been there. If only you had been there.
Three or four years after the navvy caught the trout, as a first year student in Sheffield, then a city fragrant and glowing with breweries and steelworks, I wandered one hard, cold March afternoon, flurrying with snow, up the diminutive stream in a city park, living in the city, dreaming of the country. Then, oh joy!, here comes an Iron Blue Dun a-sailing down, wings upright, neat as you like on the gunmetal stream. Wouldn’t it be perfect if there was a trout to take it? ONE DOES! ONE DOES! Oh wonderful city. Oh grand, unlikely day, it lifts my heart even now to think of it. Away, then, back to the shared terraced house to plant that troutlet into collective memory over cheap black coffee in the kitchen. Only one fellow bedsitter reflects my enthusiasm, and though not yet a flyfisher or whisky drinker, he will be. We will later fish in Shetland and the Western Isles together. Next year, when work is less pressing, he’s going to catch his first salmon. It’ll be on a fly, in Scotland, in a spring snowstorm. And it’ll go straight back in.
Stretch on, life, for thirty more years. A million business miles under the belt has racked and wrecked the navvy-body. I park the car by the humpty backed bridge and hobble half a mile downstream to sit on a log and watch. It is May again and green, green, green. The kingfisher whistles and hurtles past at Mach 3. A wren chunters, and worrits over her brood fattening on gnats in the rafts of driftwood. Evening sun and a light westerly bring Bibio to the water, and see, just there, a trout rises twenty yards upstream. I slide down the steep bank feet first through the young and tender nettles into the river (will it come over the wader tops?). Slow and stealthy despite the creaking knees I stalk up with the Hardy Palakona, water almost lapping over. On goes a dry Hawthorn, a scrap of fur and feather tied last winter with feebling hands, and glasses which never quite seem to focus no matter how often they’re cleaned. One lucky, perfect cast. A neb comes up, fly goes down, rod goes up, hell breaks loose with the fish at once in the tree roots and then airborne, but eventually the trout is brought under control, comes to hand, and measured against the rod it is fifteen inches of quivering muscle. Not many fish that size come to a fly on this river. Even fewer go back. Slipped back straight away this fish doesn’t linger, but one flip of the tail and it’s gone, splashing me in the eye for my trouble.
I climb stiffly up the bank to sit on the log for the now habitual pinch of snuff and a nip of a distilled essence of the Western Isles, purely by way of celebration, of being on the river.
People will ask that great non-question “Did you catch anything?”. It absolutely doesn’t matter. What does matter, what always mattered, is “ How did the light shine on the water? Did the curlews call? Did a lapwing flash white in the sun?”
This little river, this loved river which has seen, in my lifetime, invasions of Himalayan Balsam, of mink, and now of signal crayfish, layered on to the eutrophication of England and the ploughing of permanent pasture. I witnessed the demise of occasional spawning groups of barbell, and of the hundreds of thousands of lampreys which used to spawn on the gravels in spring. I witnessed these things, but I said nothing and I did nothing, and my silence and my inaction shames me.
We know where the water voles have gone, but where are all the dace we used to be able to get on a pheasant tail nymph, fished up? Where are all the bullyheads? What happened to the drumming snipe from over the Bog Hills pasture? These things matter so much.
When they cease to matter, when I’ve snuffed it in the other sense of the word, cut out my heart, fling it over the humpty backed bridge on a May evening, and burn up my rods for the pyre.
by Steve Schroeter