Stop me if you’ve heard this one. There is an old and hackneyed story about a fisherman who finds himself in what he decides must be Heaven after his death, because he finds himself beside a river, armed with a flyrod, and spends a day catching an endless series of 2lb trout. All of them take the fly on the first cast; all of them are within easy casting reach, close to the right bank; all of them fight valiantly. This happens the next day, and the day after that; and soon enough, he comes to the conclusion that he is, in fact, in hell.
Now, I have heard this story many times in my life as a fisherman, and I have never really thought much about it until Ten-Pound Tom reminded me of it on our way to fish the Hampshire Avon this week. For those of you who do not have the misfortune to live on this dank little island, this river is part of England’s angling mythology; a place so historically loaded with fish of every species, and such big ones, that many people fished nowhere else for their entire lives. Some stretches, such as the legendary Royalty fishery, are still incredibly famous and renowned despite the fact that hardly anyone has caught a fish there for years; while the upper Avon is where Frank Sawyer, river keeper par excellence, spent his life discovering genuinely new things about trout and grayling and, while he was at it, gifting us the pheasant-tail nymph and the improbably effective Killer Bug.
So all in all, it should be a pretty impressive place to fish. And indeed, the river is still fairly majestic – 50-odd miles of picturesque chalkstream which becomes a pretty substantial chalkriver, endlessly studded with weirs and mills and running through some of England’s finest countryside. It is known for its enormous barbel, chub and roach in particular; just one of the reasons why I have for some years been a member of a syndicate that has 3 miles or so of fishing on its banks.
Now, anyone who has ever fished the Avon will tell you that it does not give up its secrets easily. I don’t fish there much, but I put in a few days early in the season to fish for trout every year and a few days at this time of year to try and find some barbel and roach. And, like nearly everyone else, I have days there – many, many days – when I wonder if there is a fish in the entire river. Last Tuesday was one of those days, a day when one would happily have been consigned to the sort of fishy Hell in which our hero at the top of the page found himself. I caught a few minnows; Tom caught a couple of out-of-season trout, both of us fishing with bait. And I really don’t think either of us really felt we were in with a chance of something bigger or better on that day, despite the fact that we have the best part of 50 years river fishing experience between us, or the fact that Tom is one of the most skilled all-round anglers I have met in all of my time doing this sort of thing.
Whose fault was this? Well, it would seem churlish to blame the river, although it is no secret that like most of our rivers it has been in serious decline for decades, a legacy of the usual misguided water abstraction policies, agricultural run-offs and habitat loss that plague river-lovers everywhere. On the other hand, we did nothing wrong either – we just hit on one of its less cooperative days, despite conditions that seemed as perfect as I have ever seen them. It is just a difficult river with a difficult personality, and at some level everyone who fishes there must accept that.
It makes you think, though, about how we actually do judge rivers, and what makes them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ones. I somehow doubt that I will ever persuade Tom to fish there again; Tuesday merely confirmed his long-held belief that the Avon is a river with very few catchable fish in it, and that his time would be better spent somewhere else. But the fact remains that if you do catch a fish on the Avon, it is likely to be a very memorable one indeed – perhaps even truly the fish of a lifetime.
What sets it apart from other difficult rivers? I write this as Paul is fishing one of my favourite rivers in the world, the Oreti in southern New Zealand, which is no slouch in the Difficult stakes itself. I have fished it only twice, and have yet to catch one of its legendary browns – but I have seen fish there that made my knees literally weak, my fingers literally too shaky to tie on a fly. Big fish that hide behind what seem to be logs, but are in fact much, much bigger fish; fish that lurk so close to the bank that you can almost tread on them accidentally. When I think of what river fishing for trout can be, I think of the Oreti; because while it is not the most beautiful of the world’s trout rivers nor one of its remotest ones, it too represents the chance to catch something magnificent and memorable, in as challenging an environment as I can imagine. The fishing can be very hard indeed – both days that I fished it, the trout were lying deep in swift, stone-bedded pools in which even Jedi-class fisherman like Paul and Jim Curry struggled to see them. On the other hand, you might turn up there on a day when all the fish are up and feeding – as Tom did last year – and catch more fish of seven and eight and nine pounds than you might ever see again in your days on this earth.
It is not the size of the fish that makes the Oreti what it is in my mind. In truth, if the fish were all nine inches long I would probably feel the same way about it, because of its inherent nature. It is, I think, hardly very original and probably very clichéd to note that all rivers have their own personalities. But I think that it is still important to consider what one really expects from them, and why. If the Oreti, or the Avon, held no fish at all, then nobody would fish them; if they held feeding fish in every pool and under every bank, then everyone would fish them. Somewhere in the middle, there is a mildly unhappy but altogether necessary compromise which ensures that while we may have a great day on them once a decade, we always fish with hope and expectation, even if we get skunked most of the time. That, I think, is what makes a truly great river, and what ensures that the boundaries between heaven and hell are forever blurred. I’ll be going back to the Avon sooner rather than later; but perhaps not before I fish the Oreti again. Expect reports in January.