Dateline: May 31, 2012 – Unpronounceabletown, Wales
I lay awake at night worrying about finding new species to catch. Roger Barnes lays awake at night worrying I might come back to the British Isles and ask him to find new species to catch. Somehow, we remain close friends.
The good-looking one is Roger Barnes, artist, musician, and Thames river guide. If you’re anywhere near London, you’ve got to fish with this guy – +4411 8934 2981.
Indeed I did visit the UK, or you wouldn’t be reading this. The trip was solely designed around one fish – the Twaite Shad – and I had no idea how ironic of a statement this would be. The Twaite Shad isn’t necessarily uncommon, but it is only catchable in a few late spring weeks a year, when it migrates into coastal rivers to spawn. With a work trip to Europe coming up in May, I scheduled a few days off to spend with Mr. Barnes chasing Shad in the scenic, wild River Wye in Southern Wales. I had been to Wales once before, with Marta on an epic 2005 trip, but this was my first try at the rivers there.
After a day of business in London, I took the early train out to Twyford and we hit the road. Roger’s vehicle is a Volvo station wagon, pre-war in vintage but it runs relentlessly and it is a very familiar place to me, except that the steering wheel is on the wrong side. After a bit of commute traffic through Reading, we were off on a straight shot across the country. Every junction, every hill, every valley has some sort of history attached to it, whether it was where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 or where Roger caught his first Grayling a few years after that. It was a fine spring day, some clouds, some patches of brilliant sunshine, and Roger expressed his horror at the fact that I could eat three gas station BLTs for breakfast.
We entered Wales in the late morning. As soon as you cross the border, there is a sign to the effect of “Please leave all rules of spelling and pronunciation at the guardhouse.” Simple words like “Guido” become impossible jumbles like “Slymrfhgymyn.” (Which is pronounced “Cleveland.” See http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/countdown-to-1000-norway-land-of-the-hidden-stairs/) This is the one enduring revenge the Welsh have on the English for conquering them.
Argyfwng? Seriously? I swear I didn’t Photoshop this.
There are very few major highways in the UK. Once we got off the main motorway, we meandered along narrow, two-lane roads, driving through rolling hills, bordered by ancient rock fences and fields full of content-looking sheep.
In Wales, even the 4-lane highways have only 2 lanes. I didn’t take any photos of the actual sheep, as this can be considered a little racy in Wales.
From time to time, we would pass through quaint, unpronounceable villages.
A quaint, unpronounceable village. Note the cars on the wrong side of the road.
We began catching glimpses of the Wye, and after a few miles of scenic river road, we finally pulled up to a gate in front of a long, forested drive. It was at this gate I noticed a sign – Caer Beris Manor. Was this Welsh for “Care Bears?” No way.
I inadvisably attempted to explain Care Bears to Roger. He nodded politely, but it was as futile as the time I tried to explain the Grinch to a taxi driver in Malaysia. “Newt Gingrich!” he would say – even after I showed him a picture.
I have never seen an episode of “Care Bears,” but I don’t think they have explosions and lasers. Good cartoons should have explosions and lasers. And Acme products.
The manor was absolutely gorgeous. In my jeans and fishing shirt, I felt like one of Dickens’ street urchins, but the owner, Peter Smith, is an old fishing buddy of Roger’s and he treated us like royalty. http://www.caerberis.co.uk/
Peter Smith, your host at Caer Beris and a fine angler.
Is that cool or what?
The lounge. Not exactly a place for muddy waders. (The fishing accessory, not the musician.)
Peter gave us a tour of the area. We strolled down to the River Irfon, which winds through the estate’s vast and immaculately groomed grounds. Roger could name off most of the plants – Bougainvillea, Ficus, Kate Bush – and he also spotted a host of birds.
Roger and Peter tour the grounds.
My knowledge of British avians extends no further than frozen Cornish Game Hens, but I was entranced by the water and impatient to make some casts into this living postcard. We finally reached a pool at the base of a long rapid, and I was positively drooling – this was the perfect spot. So I began my search for a Twaite Shad.
The River Irfon.
Predictably, nothing happened. I threw jigs, spoons, and spinners around the area for about half an hour with no strikes, but we had two days ahead of us, so I didn’t panic. Roger suggested I change to a small red and gold Kastmaster. On the first cast – slap. A tap and a miss. I was encouraged. About 2 throws later, I hooked up and could see bright silver flanks flashing downstream. Moments later, Roger netted a Twaite Shad for me, and we had a quiet moment of celebration. Well, at least Roger’s moment of celebration was quiet. Mine may still be echoing along the river valley.
A Twaite Shad – the one fish, and I do mean ONE fish, that I came looking for.
I couldn’t wait to keep fishing, as everyone knows that Shad travel in large schools, and as soon as one is caught, the rest will follow. I cast. Nothing. “Hmmmm.” I thought – but I could see 25 fish swimming right below my feet. I cast again. Nothing. Over the next few hours, this non-drama unfolded minute by painful minute – and I never did catch another one. Unthinkable.
We headed in for dinner, with me likely the only angler in history to catch exactly one Shad. The steak at the hotel restaurant was marvelous – far better than gas station BLTs – and we enjoyed a few beers and talked fishing with other guests.
The following morning, I rose early to fish the area around the hotel. This is rough, wild country, but it was in the prime of spring, and the dawn was mild and clear. I had the river to myself, casting in the type of quiet solitude that makes many men contemplate the meaning of life, but that makes me brood about Jaime Hamamoto.
A lovely Grayling caught a few yards from the back door. This is truly a special place. And Jaime hasn’t even been near a Grayling.
We made arrangements to fish for Salmon in the afternoon. This was no mean feat, as it involved getting special permits from the Trust that manages the river, and their address was something like Dfrwspr House, Old Cbgyredw Road, Grkbrf. (Pronounced “Cleveland.”) But we pulled it off, and early afternoon found us parking on a famous stretch of the River Wye. Each run and hole has its own name, and this one was known as the Bishop Pool. (My theory: Bishop Apocryphal Ggrnthyrwn, a famous 14th century Welsh clergyman, drowned himself there after losing a big salmon. But that’s just a theory.)
We donned waders and assembled our gear in silence, just listening to the river rush by a few yards away. There is something remarkable and deeply spiritual about casting for Salmon on these rivers. It’s one of the oldest fisheries in the islands, and the Salmon are rare, elusive, and frustrating, but still they call to us. Every day is a fresh chance, and I thought today might just be my day, just as I did on October 12, 2005, when I caught my first and only Atlantic Salmon, on a quiet river in Northern Ireland. While the photo of me and the Salmon is one of my favorite fishing shots ever, Marta is forever fond of a pic she took moments later, of me sitting in stunned joy by the side of the river.
October 12, 2005. I laugh uncontrollably on a riverbank in Northern Ireland.
Guide Tom Woods, who didn’t know quite what to make of my jubilation, was an absolute superstar. If you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland, write me and I’ll connect you to him.
We walked through farm fields, passing a skittish mare and her foal.
The meadow. It was a mare hundred yards down to the river.
Mother and baby examine me carefoally.
We headed steadily downhill, then reached the riverbank where anglers have been ignored by Atlantic Salmon for hundreds of years. I tied on a lure and hoped the Fish Gods were taking the day off.
Breathlessly, I cast. The spinner sailed out within 10 feet of the other bank, splashed down, and fluttered out of sight. I began my retrieve, and the #3 Blue Fox thumped gently as the current swept it in a broad arc below me. As it spun almost directly downcurrent from me and held in place, something unexpected happened. I got a hit. A big hit, and a fish on, wildly shaking its head and taking line downstream. The normal, low key British approach would be to quietly announce “I have hooked a fish, Roger.” So I may have committed a slight breach of etiquette by splashing down the bank in a full run, yelling “Holy #%$@, Roger, I’ve got one! I’ve got one! Get the #%$ net over here!”
I was so worked up I didn’t notice the fish hadn’t jumped. I fought it to the water’s edge, and Roger looked down and said “I’ll be. It’s a Pike!” And indeed it was a Pike. Not a Salmon. I was crestfallen. At that moment, in the middle of the river, a beast of a Salmon jumped clean out of the water and laughed at me. Dutifully, I retied the spinner and began casting anew, knowing that it would likely be futile.
The Pike I wanted to be a Salmon.
I also cast the area for Shad, but they ignored me too. I remained the first person in history to catch exactly one Twaite Shad.
As the sun went down, we had a quiet walk back through the meadow and headed to the Manor for dinner. The food was exquisite – I had Salmon and that made me smile - and I went to sleep satisfied with a beautiful day on the water. Little did I know that the next day would provide two surprises, one charming, one bizarre.
In the morning, we had another lovely breakfast at the hotel. It felt a bit odd to be in grubby fishing gear at a place this fancy, but they were very gracious to us and we made sure to use utensils. We met two brothers who do an annual fishing getaway and had made Wales this year’s destination. They too had been having a tough time with the Shad, but they had gotten some lovely Trout and Grayling, so they were quite pleased.
Breakfast in the Caer Beris dining room.
With the Twaite Shad (barely) on the scoreboard, I figured we would give the Salmon another shot. We drove down to the Wye, and this time, I planned to try a few stretches above the bridge before we headed back to the Bishop pool.
Wading the Wye above the old stone bridge. An unsettling surprise awaited me here.
This is when things got downright weird. I saw a lovely hole above one of the bridge abutments, and so I waded out and cast a few times. On perhaps my fifth cast, I got a loop in my line, so I let the lure settle to the bottom to clear the reel. When I tightened up, I felt a strike and set hard, and then got a very odd, heavy fight – definitely a fish, but not a Salmon. I battled it in to the shallows, and could not believe my eyes. I had caught a Lamprey, a primitive, jawless fish that uses a rasping disk to bore into fish and eat them from the inside out. So I didn’t put it in my pants, that’s for sure.
One of the more disgusting things I have ever caught. For the most disgusting, see the Hagfish from http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/a-plaice-in-the-sun/
I called Roger over, and he said “What have you done now?” Then he saw it. “Oh, my goodness. You’ve caught a Lamprey. Don’t put that in your pants.” We snapped a couple of quick photos and let it go. By the way, I know most of you are calling foul and saying ”Wait a minute – Lampreys don’t hit lures.” It took me a few hours to piece it together, but after studying them from the bridge, here is my theory:
Lamprey spawn in the river this time of year. Several of them get into a depression and clear all the rocks out and engage in Lamprey romance. If anything rolls into their love nest, they will pick it up with their sucker and move it. This is what happened to my spoon – it rolled into their nest and one of them tried to move it and got hooked. I should have gone and played the lottery.
The business end of a Sea Lamprey. Do not put this in your pants.
After that bizarre encounter, I was ready to be abused by the Salmon. I knew in my heart it was hopeless, but there is something so wonderful and timeless about casting on one of these ancient rivers, that I had to go give it a shot. I cast and cast, and the Salmon jumped and jumped, but lure and fish never intersected. I quietly waded from spot to spot and kept throwing an assortment of spinners and spoons.
In the Bishop Pool. I was able to enjoy nature’s splendor undisturbed by Salmon.
As I walked into the shallows, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny puff of sediment as a smallish fish fled under a rock. It looked a whole lot to me like a Stone Loach, one of the very few creatures in British fresh water I had not captured.
So it was that I found myself, in one of the loveliest Salmon rivers in the British Isles, on my hands and knees in the shallows with a 1# handline and a #32 hook, going hand-to-fin with 3 inches of steaming Stone Loach. For over an hour, it kept darting out and moving the bait, but it wouldn’t bite. I began to get cramps. But my patience finally paid off, and with a strike that was certainly savage in scale, I got my Stone Loach. “Oh dear.” said Roger. “You’ve caught one.” It then became the most photographed Stone Loach in the history of Stone Loaches. I smiled with contentment – 2 totally unexpected species in one outing.
Let’s play “Find the small fish in this photo!”
It began to cloud up a good bit more in the afternoon, and with a long drive ahead of us, we decided to pack it in for the day. One last Salmon jumped right in front of me, and I smiled, knowing he would be there again, and that I would be back, and that I still probably wouldn’t catch him.