Wading in Welly boots

Andrew Brown for Waterlog

 

It had rained for two days from a flat sky, as if a giant grey iron were pressing on the crumpled hills and hedges of Normandy to flatten them into the sea. The sun appeared just as I drove slowly down a dripping hill towards a promised river. I stopped at the bridge, of course, and leant over. The water was so thick with mud that the main current swirled thickly, the colour of cold coffee; in a shallower eddy the silt particles glittered as they rose and fell in a slow whirlpool. Foolsí gold: thereíd be no fishing there for days with anything less than a depth charge festooned with worms. But the sun was there at last, the leaves dripped and quivered as the water ran off them and the fields exhaled; somewhere in the smallest headwaters there would still be clear water.

In the meadow below our farmhouse there was the river Lilliput: a thread of water about a foot wide where it ran through a culvert under the road. I climbed down a steep bank, grasping the electrified fence through my wide-brimmed waxed green fishing hat. Itís not a perfect insulator, but it made the shocks interesting rather than painful. The grass in the meadow was much higher than the brook was deep but when I walked carefully along the bank the brook did form a miniature river, with shallows, pools, and undercut banks on corners fully four inches deep. In the tail of one of the long runs there was a quiver, then an arrowing in the water leaving a sharp memory of trout. Up here the water was completely clear and all the remained of the iron weather was a blustery wind blowing through holes in the cloud. I walked up slowly, spotting three or four pools where there might be fish, until I came to the nervous horses at the top of the field: a mare and her curious foal. There was one pool where they drank that might be promising, but the mother did not like her foal being frightened off. Circling away, I found a real gate in the wire, which made up my mind to fish.

It would have been ridiculous to use a proper rod. Fortunately I had with me an absurd brook rod I had built fifteen years before. The handle is slimmer than the reel seat, to fit a childís hand and the whole thing is only six feet long. Children find it really hard to cast with, but it is delightful for adults with tiny hands: those with normal hands just have to hold it very carefully indeed. I put on a mud-coloured three weight line and picked my way through the water meadow to the bottom of our farmerís fields.

In proportion to its depth, the river Lilliput had banks of Devonian steepness, Wriggling under some barbed wire, I must have slipped eighteen inches down a mud bank into the shallows. It was obvious that only wading up the middle of the current n Wellington boots would make any sort of cast possible; and for the first ten minutes of shuffling and muttering, I did little but retrieve my flies from the tall green stalks that guarded the water, or snap it off on shrubs and barbed wire. The wind gusted down river and slightly across. Whenever I made allowances for it in a cast it would duck gracefully out of the way, and my fly would land in the greenery on the right; if I resolved to cast straight, the wind would rush back and push the fly into the greenery on the left.

Eventually it tired of this game. There was a brief straight stretch and I got the fifth fly of the afternoon to float down it properly. Nothing. It didnít matter that the River Lilliput was three feet wide here, the trout were as determined to hug the banks as they would have been on the Yellowstone. I managed another cast which slid down about four inches from the bank and the first Lilliputian seized it. I struck as if it were a normal river, and yanked the poor creature clean out of the water. He came skipping towards me like a demented flying fish. Iím ashamed to say that I laughed. After he had been retrieved from another bankside bush he turned out to be perfect, silvery yellow and green, with black and red spots. The whole lot of him was not more than four inches long. There was nothing to do but laugh for joy once more as I released him.

So the afternoon continued. My hand grew gentler. I caught three more perfect Lilluputians on a sedgy dry fly and my best trousers were smeared with mud from calf to thigh by the time I reached the horsesí reach. The Lilliput here ran into an impenetrable tangle of brambles and barbed wire, which combined with the trees on the far side to produce a tunnel twenty yards long in which the biggest fish of the river had to be. But it really was impenetrable. Barbed wire cut off the wading, both above and below, and even if I had managed to duck beneath that, I would have had to crouch under branches all the way up. Even with my tiny rod, casting would have been impossible. Regretfully, I turned to face the horses. For the pool where they drank was almost a foot deep where it swirled out of a culvert. There would have to be monsters there.

Now that I was down in the water, I did not seem as threatening as I had been when moving along one high bank. The foal, with its coarse chestnut hair pressed into a swirl on its nose, came close and close to watch me as I shuffled towards the pool. The Lilliput here surpassed itself: there was a bend, and even a hidden boulder the size of my foot to provide a shelter where monsters might lurk. I placed my fly right in the middle of the main stream, and just as it came to the cushion of water where the current bent, a trout seized it. On a six foot rod, he fought violently. His flanks were perfectly silver; and though it is easy to overestimate the giddying size of a really large fish, he was, Iíll swear, six inches from nose to tail. After I had released him I realised the pool was so huge it might hold as many as two fish; and the second one, rising to my second cast, was slightly smaller than the monster. But he gave me as much pleasure as anything I have ever caught.

The horse watched me carefully as I scrambled back under the barbed wire, destroying what remained of my best trousers.

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