Dateline: August 12, 2014 – Twyford, England
Roger was gone, and we came from all over to honor him.
Roger Barnes with one of his most demanding clients.
I had said my goodbyes in May when Roger was alive, but when I mentioned to Marta that I was thinking about going to the funeral, I hadn’t finished my sentence when she told me “Go.” United Airlines, normally a difficult and snide group, were actually remarkably flexible and found me a ticket for the days I needed. I let John Buckingham know I was coming.
On email, I asked John if it would be OK to slip in a few hours of fishing. He responded “It would be inappropriate not to.” So when I flew in on the 10th, I got to the hotel, unpacked my gear, and met John at a small pond out in the countryside near Marlow. Roger never liked these stocked venues, calling them “ditches,” but this ditch had a population of crucian carp, and I was determined to catch one – the only reasonably common English freshwater species Roger and I hadn’t gotten together. Roger’s funeral was in two days, and I was determined to have that fish on my list before the final goodbye – a tribute to him.
The ditch in question. Reasonably near Maidenhead and Windsor, it’s a nice way to spend an afternoon.
The front side of Finch Farm. Most of our angling was done in the back, to the left.
This sort of delicate float fishing is one of John’s specialties – he has spent a lifetime doing it, and he is extraordinarily skilled. He did his best to assist me, bringing all the right baits, gear, and rigging, but I still did not seem to have the gene to set the hook at the right time.
John in his element. Float fishing, I mean – not the stock pond. And the double rainbow wouldn’t be the last one I would see that week.
We went all afternoon, catching beautiful common carp, roach, and giebels, but I could not get the crucian. John got several, and was increasingly distressed each time he landed one. We traded some of our favorite stories about Roger, and each one brought a smile.
John with one of his crucians. There is pain in that smile – he desperately wanted me to get one. He is pretty much the opposite of Jaime.
It was fair that I suffered to catch this fish. They are extraordinarily delicate biters – their strike makes the float look as if a fly has landed on it – and I have the attention span of a caffeinated ferret. I didn’t really understand until late in the evening, when John, with uncharacteristic directness, asked me to please, please put away the multiple rods and focus on one float, intently and without blinking.
It was getting dark, we were both late for dinners, and we stuck it out as long as we could, but it was not to be. John couldn’t come the next day, but he left me with enough knowledge and strategy to give me a shot in the morning.
The next day, I got a car back out to the pond and set up around 9:30am.
I hadn’t been there long – maybe half an hour, just enough time to get a good trail of bread in the water. I had caught two small gibel carp, and was watching my float intently, as John had instructed me. The float dipped a fraction of an inch, and with reflexes tuned from years of dodging line drives off my inadvisable curveball, I set the hook. The fish was the right size, and it fought somehow differently than a gibel or roach. When it floated to the top, I saw the golden color and red fins, and got the net under it. I had my crucian.
Finally, a Crucian carp.
I set the rod down, and I shed a tear. This was a moment I would have given anything to have shared with Roger. I could swear I heard him say “Well done, old boy,” or singing “Crucian … on a sunny afternoon …” Roger loved musical puns.
Roger always said they looked like a new penny.
I stayed for a while and caught a few more nice fish – carp, tench, roach, and gibels. Jumping into a cab, I ran over to Twyford and managed to sneak in a couple of hours of perch fishing with Steve Collier, proprietor of the Land’s End pub.
Steve Collier – a fine man except when he tries to feed me mushy peas.
That evening, I had dinner in Marlow with Katy and Sam. She was remarkably composed for having gone through the year she just had, and Sam was flat-out a great guy. Roger, ever protective of his only child, always spoke glowingly of Sam, and it was plain to see why. The first thing they asked was whether I had caught the crucian. I told her “We caught the crucian.”
The next morning was the day of Roger’s funeral. I was up early, and I was determined to catch one more pike from the Marlow weir in back of the hotel.
One of my most beloved fishing spots anywhere is the back lawn of the Compleat Angler hotel, throwing lures for pike. Roger and I did so much fishing together, but this was always the place I valued the most, the place that was the most sacred. The place that left me slack-jawed with wonder on my first trip here in September 2003, and a place that still comes into so many fishing dreams.
A view of the Compleat Angler from the churchyard across the Thames.
This was the fish that all those lures in my father’s old Plano tackle box were meant to catch; this was the fish my father and I never caught together. I wanted to get one more before we all headed to the small church in Twyford.
It was an unsettled morning; some clouds and wind, the threat of rain but breaks of sunshine. August is not prime pike time, but I walked down to the retaining wall and pulled out a favorite spoon. Beginning my ritual, I started casting from the bottom of the walkway and worked my way toward the weir.
After perhaps half an hour, I got a sharp strike. No hookup, but a strike. I might normally swear at this, but I smiled. This was Roger’s message to me, and fish or no fish, I just closed my eyes and treasured the place and the moment.
I moved up toward the weir, just outside the hotel restaurant. I was throwing a a big rubbertail spinner – a “flying condom” in the local parlance. The wind was right, and my casts were sailing well across the first weir and into the gates. I let the lure sink deep and swing across a lot of very good water. Just as I let one cast finish sinking and started to reel, I got crushed – a no-doubt-about-it, violent strike from a pike that seemed equal parts hungry and hateful.
With 60 yards of line out already and the fish running hard with the heavy current, my Stella 3000 was getting dangerously low even early in the fight. I ran down to the end of the wall to gain a few precious yards back, and then, as the fish reluctantly turned and began making a looping swing in toward the shore, I had to run back to keep a reasonable angle on the fish. When I got back up to the weir, a lovely older couple had come out on the lawn. “Are you playing a fish?” the husband asked politely. “Yes, sir.” I responded.
Moments later, several more people had come out from the hotel to watch the contest. They were as quiet and respectful as a golf crowd, and one mother even shushed a child who asked what I was doing. The fight went on close to 40 minutes, and this is the real reason I didn’t shave all that well before the funeral. The crowd got larger and larger as people streamed in from the restaurant to see what was now regarded as something rather entertaining. I prayed that the fish was hooked well and that my knots were all good.
Finally, she got in the back eddy just by the weir; I knew she would hold here until she came to the top. After a few minutes of coaxing, she surfaced, just by the wall where only I could see her. It was a private moment, her finning in the current, as clear a message from Roger as I could have ever gotten.
I reached down and landed her, and the crowd oohed and aahed and broke into light applause. She was 18 pounds – one of my largest pike ever. We took a few photos, then I released her to fight another day.
A lovely Marlow Weir pike.
It was then I looked up. I am not an intensely spiritual man, but for today, I had to be. The sky was filled with not one, but two rainbows.
I told you we would have another double rainbow.
I had to race to get ready in time, although I remember thinking that if I was late to Roger’s funeral, this would have been a very good reason. I went up to my room, and as tempting as it was to wear waders, I put on a suit.
I met the group at Roger’s house. Katy and Sam, John, and Dee were there. The front room was a jumble of Roger’s fishing equipment, as they began the long job of sorting out a lifetime of odds and ends. I found myself staring into the pile, recognizing so many things – a single action reel, a float, a box of hooks. We fishermen will never use all these things, but we are compelled to buy them.
The centerpin reel in the middle of the photo gave me hours of enjoyment. I am the only American I know who owns one. Roger once caught a 20 pound pike on it.
We made the short walk over to the church. It was a marvelous turnout. Well over a hundred people were there, fishing friends, music friends, art friends, family – a wonderful group there for a sad occasion.
I met dozens of people I had never seen before, and quite a few people recognized me. “You’re the American species hunter.” People I had never met asked me if I had caught the crucian. An entire town, it seemed, had been pulling for me to catch this fish.
It was a lovely and fitting service, featuring some heartfelt speakers and music from his band. They carried him out to the churchyard to the strains of “Morning has Broken” by Cat Stevens. I will never be able to hear that song with a dry eye again.
I said goodbye there at the graveside, and if there was any chance I might stay composed in public, that went to pieces – along with me – when I saw a thin, orange object on the casket. Someone had tossed a float into the grave, to be with Roger for eternity.
We then headed over to Steve Collier’s Land’s End pub. He had volunteered it for the evening, so the group could eat and chat and remember Roger. More people came up to me and said “You’re the American species hunter.” As we got a few more drinks into the evening, it sometimes came out in a most un-British fashion – “You’re the species freak.” Roger had told all these people about our adventures. I had no idea. Many were of course passionate fishermen – it was like being at a British expert anglers convention (minus one the best.) As you will see in future posts, several of these new friends become involved in the great species hunt.
Many of Roger’s musician friends, from local bar band guys to some big names, had come for the service. After we had eaten, had a few drinks, and looked at the photo board that showed so many facets of Roger, they set up a stage in the corner of the dining room. They played the blues and rock and roll and everything in between far into the night. I had never seen Roger play – it was always something I would do the next time. This was a regret I would never be able to fix.
Sunset at the Land’s End Pub, as I walked out and headed for home. It had been a long and sad day.
I flew home the next morning. There wasn’t time for an early fishing session in the weir, but I walked down to where the boat had been moored all those years, then up to where it had been dragged under the trees. It stood there like a kind ghost, full of memories. I knew that the pre-war Volvo station wagon would not pull up at 8:15, and that Roger would not be unloading gear and setting up until 9, when we would have started out for the willow on the far side, or the middle weirpool, or the old millrace. Roger Wyndham Barnes, last of the Thames Rivermen, was gone.