I hate doing anything in front of an audience. There is a definable effect; It follows the Schrodinger’s Cat Quantum Theory which states that the very act of observing something changes the nature of the thing being observed. I concur. Watching me trying to do something transforms me from modestly competent and self-assured into an uncoordinated, stammering, sweating, red-faced idiot. It’s the principal reason I fish rather than play golf (the limited experience I have of the latter still prompts PTSD relapses) as I can largely choose to conduct my sport out of sight of critics and in the company of a select few. Occasionally though, even in fly fishing, events conspire to put me front and centre-stage, with all the squirming discomfort that you experience from one of those dreams about suddenly finding yourself naked in Tesco just as your ticket for the Deli-counter is called. Or is that just me? Anyway, moving on.
The winter months are always a humdrum affair. My saltwater forays for bass and mullet are a distant memory, and the count-down to the new trout season drags like a party political broadcast before the Bakeoff finale. I can content myself with replenishing my fly boxes of course, but there’s no substitute for getting out on the river. So, a couple of times a year I jump into the car with my pal Ade and we trundle down from Wales to meet my long-time chum Steve, for a full day chasing Grayling on the hallowed Hampshire Test.
So it was, that on cold and overcast late November morning, the three of us convened over a ludicrously huge and artery-clogging English breakfast in a fishing hut on the banks of the river. Steve sat rigidly and awkwardly over his steaming mug of tea, a drawn and haggard expression on his face.
Stoically, he said “You two will have to push off and leave me – I’ve caught a nerve in my back…I can hardly move!” It was a Captain Oats style statement, and the grimace said it all. Ade and I were on our own.
After a brief consultation, we decided to walk to the very furthest down-stream beat, exploring a couple of small feeders and pools on the way, before switching to a larger carrier stream and working back towards the hut for lunch. Footprints in the rich, dewy grass and soft sieved molehills tracked our progress across the fields and we soon arrived at the beautifully picturesque lower limit of the beat. Across the river, a quintessentially English thatched cottage sat serenely, and the flint road-bridge to the left gave a perfect vantage point to an indifferent Magpie, which croaked in a bored fashion.
We were bathed in all the silence that my age-related tinnitus could muster. Bells chimed softly in the far distance, and the odd pheasant chattered occasionally in the woods. Not a car, not a bike. No-one around. Peace.
I had decided to fish leader-to-hand. Ade was well versed in the technique and swore by its effectiveness, but this was only my second outing committing myself to mastering it. The 10ft 3wt seemed perfect for the job, and the wide-open space afforded me some margin for error. With only Ade to watch and lend me some gratefully accepted pointers, I set to work from the bank, furiously concentrating on trying to get the timing right on the cast. It’s tricky, not having the reassuring weight of the fly-line loading the rod to flick your nymph upstream. The cast requires more effort; a slower but very precise snap, using the water to provide just a little tension to lift into the back-cast. Cast after cast I could feel it beginning to come together, but I was having to pay great attention to lifting the rod back sharply to get the line out behind me. In fact, so intent was I on that motion, that when the little three inch grayling shot out and grabbed the beaded PTN just as flicked the rod back, it caught me somewhat by surprise as the fish went whistling past my right ear and straight into the long grass along the fence-line behind me.
I snorted an ‘Ooops!’ as Ade laughed and I turned to quickly return the unfortunate little chap to the water.
The line wafted in the gentle breeze. Without a fish on it.
“Rats…where did it go?” I enquired. Ade dropped his rod and we both immediately started hurriedly poking about in the grass.
“It’s a good job nobody saw you mate!” he chuckled.
At which point I glanced over his shoulder towards the flint bridge just behind us…straight into the horrified faces of at least a dozen day-glo lycra-clad Sunday-morning joggers and a father with a little girl in polka-dot anorak. The little girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders had her hand to her mouth. I distinctly heard the words “Daddy…will the fishy be OK?”
I felt the prickling heat rise around my neck and creep up towards my face like ants. “What, like all those people you mean?” I said to Ade in a choked fashion.
Crouched over, he glanced under his armpit. “Where the heck did they all come from?!” he hissed. The little girl was looking increasingly alarmed and the joggers were muttering. “We need to find this fish fast or you’re going to have to release a stone in the river and pretend!’ said Ade.
Time had slowed and the naked supermarket sensation romped over me as I envisaged kneeling gently by the river proclaiming all was well with a loud “There you go fella, all safe and sound – Gosh! Look at him swimming away to his friends!” as a released pebble mournfully drifted to the bottom with the words ‘how could you?’ floating before me.
I swallowed hard and battled the urge to drop everything and run. The frantic search turned to panic.
The whole event had thus far only taken 30 seconds but it felt like a life-time, so there was a colossal gush of relief when my peripheral vision caught a flash of silver in the wet grass as the little grayling flipped up and my desperate scrabbling was replaced by a gentle scoop and swift transferal to the cold water with an audible, shuddering sigh of relief as the fish instantly shot away.
The little girl looked satisfied and waved at me. I smiled nervously back. The joggers now appeared less like a hangman’s jury and merely like a bunch of people taking a breather at a picturesque Hampshire view-point. The world started to turn again, and I sat heavily to consume a chocolate bar and restore my depleted blood sugar. I let Ade fish the rest of that run, and I resumed further up. Round the bend. Out of sight.