When Autumn begins to splash its hot glowing colours on to the hedgerow trees and the beech woods burn with tawny lustres, the thoughts of the sportsman turn to pheasants. I have indelible memories of bleached grasses, rush and thistle in tinted glades with the leaves already growing sparse and the explosive rise of an old cock bird, bejewelled and gaudy as a pop star, chortling in affronted indignation and curling out over the bronzed willows with his tail-feathers fluttering. Hit or miss, the angry eye, the flash of white collar and the whole setting is a picture which most shooting men will recall with misty eyes when they are finally confined to their wheelchairs.
It is very pleasant to anticipate the delights of a new season: the first skein of geese, the first liquid whistle of wigeon, the coming to strength of the partridge coveys, all herald a promise of delights yet to come. For me, however, there is equal pleasure in dwelling on past happy days in the field.
I recall, for example, a day in early June when the year was young and fresh, the elderflowers frothed in creamy profusion on the hedges and the air was rich with the scent of mint and cow parsley. I was standing on the shores of Blagdon, that magical lake in Somerset which, according to Plunkett Greene of immortal memory, is haunted by a witch. Red-roofed cottages on the Mendip hills looked warm and cosy with wood smoke curling from their chubby chimney pots. A herd of cattle trailed along the lane, pausing to munch the hedgerow foliage as they walked heavy-uddered to the milking shed. A patchwork quilt of fields unrolled before me ? just for my private delectation it seemed ? as the early mist slowly curled off the water.
I stood on the dried and pock-marked earth where the water had receded from the lush grass after a spell of dry weather. A little breeze rippled the water and far out on the lake a mighty fish broke the surface with a ?sock?, and nearer the margin a series of more modest dimples and humping backs showed that fish were moving and feeding quietly.
Many a lake trout fisherman would at this juncture have marched boldly into the water with much splashing and a great bow-wave, and started hurling a three-hooked lure 40 yards on to the bosom of the lake, retrieving it with lusty pulls. He might even have taken a fish had one chosen to remain in the vicinity, but surely to desecrate the sport of Skues, Canon Greenwell and Halford in this way would be little short of blasphemy. Call that sort of fishing what you will, but flyfishing it certainly is not!
The fish refuse a tasty morsel
Having learned some little wisdom over the years and also to keep faith with my idyllic surroundings, I tied on a little Black-and-Peacock Spider and, keeping my feet dry, flicked it hopefully some 30 feet into the shallows. I allowed it to sink and retrieved it as slowly as a leech creeps over a submerged stone.
Fish were moving all around me. I felt I only had to stamp or cough and the spell would be broken instantly. I cast again ? there was a slight ?draw? ? my heart beat like a hammer. It was only weed! In an agony of anxiety, I pulled a strand of green mare?s tail from my fly and cast once more. Again I was weeded. I changed the direction of my cast and covered a rising fish about 30ft out.
It ignored the morsel with lordly disdain. I fished the fly slow, fast, deep and shallow. It looked sufficiently like the black midges that were hatching to encourage me to persevere with it. The sweat began to cloud my brow as a shaft of sunlight picked out a village church steeple on the hill opposite. Sure such a propitious morning could not end in a blank.
I took a few careful steps into the water and lengthened line. My fly sank slowly and I gently plucked a coil back over my fingers. There was a slight resistance ? that cursed weed again ? I flicked the rod tip to free the fly and met with a solid and heavy tug. A gleaming silver ingot erupted from the water with a suddenness that made me jump. The few coils of line in my hand were gone like a puff of smoke and the reel was wailing. The fish tore off like a torpedo in a straight line to the middle of the lake; I felt a flick on my forefinger as the splice flashed up the rod.
Suddenly, far out, a great fish leaped and leaped again. It was like The Old Man and the Sea all over again. It was so far out and so much to the left of where I expected it to be that I had difficulty in convincing myself that this great and distant fish was connected to me ? by how tenuous a link I knew not.
After the first mad rush, the pace slowed and I was able to recover a good amount of line. The trout gave sudden short rushes and would occasionally boil on the surface like a miniature maelstrom. I reeled in further and held on, my rod straining, the humming line cutting the water at an ever sharper angle. It came still nearer and I caught a glimpse of a grey-green shadow sliding past only yards in front of my legs. I stripped back frantically to tighten again and at that very moment it tried a last desperate boring rush and the reel screeched like a banshee as the rod tip buried itself in the ripples. Once more I hung on, and now its strength was waning. I prepared the net, and as it glided straight to my knees, it slid into the meshes without a splash.
With trembling legs I returned to the bank, used the priest and placed my gleaming beauty on the grass. My little fly was just through the skin and gristle of the scissors but it was a firm hold. A couple of strong twists to remove it and the point broke off clean. Had it chosen half-a-minute earlier to fracture, I feel that I would never have enjoyed a night?s sleep again. It was a beautiful rainbow weighing four pounds and seven ounces, in perfect condition, short and thick with great humping shoulders and deep flanks.