The Last Gasp
Salmon fishing - I've done my bit in the Pacific, but I've never had the opportunity (or fiscal reserves for that matter) to warrant pursuit of the Atlantic variety in old Blighty, So, given such an opportunity to have a crack at them on a 'dead mans shoes' syndicate water on the lower Usk ...well...you would, wouldn't you. So I did.
I had been promised a session on the river by an acquaintance of mine, a well-known local raconteur, and salmon fishing nut, Roland Mason.
"Keep your waders in the car, Joe" he'd said some months back, "because if they're on the bite, we'll need to drop everything and get down to the river."
To be honest, as the clock wound down to the dregs of the season, I'd pretty much forgotten about it, but as my waders spend most of their time in the car anyway, a faint ember of hope continued to stubbornly glow as the ashes late summer clinked and cooled into Autumn.
In fact, reports had consistently conveyed that the parched catchment area of the Usk had meant the river had been 'on it's bones' for most of the season, and the salmon runs had been lean to say the least. But fate it seems felt motivated to throw me a scrap; the heavy rain earlier the week had breathed a little life into the system despite the minimal run-off and, combined with a big tide, had given the frustrated Salmo a very brief window of opportunity, as the water came up just a few inches.
So the phone rang, and Roland's voice, without introduction, said "I hope you've got your waders in the car - we've got literally 7 hours of the season left and the fish are running!"
7 hours of the season left?? Nothing like leaving it until the last gasp! Work was dispatched with all haste and emails diverted. It took 3 agonising hours to extricate myself from my office and make haste to Roland's, whereupon we threw gear into the back of his well-used Range Rover, sped to his house to pick up a flask of tea and the rods, before careering off down the lanes of rural South Wales to the exclusive waters he has the privilege to fish.
After a half-hour journey, we slewed to a halt on the muddy verge of a wooded lane and jumped out of the car. Donning waders in record time and grabbing both fly and spinning rods, we clambered unsteadily over the fence and slithered down a treacherous, muddy slope to the edge of the turbid, dark waters of the Usk.
The river here was deep, the water surging and heavily coloured with silt - more so than expected. Roland sucked his teeth and declared that things may be tricky on the fly, and suggested that we switch to the lightweight spinning outfits, 10lb line and quality, weighted black and purple 'flying condom' style spinners with a rotating copper blade at the top. I felt a slight pang of disappointment but wasn't about to let that get me down.
Roland knows every lie in the river, and his absolute expertise directed me to place the spinner into a slight bay, hard up against the opposite bank, then retrieve at a solid pace across the roiling water as the lure was swept round. The first two casts were 'range-finding' affairs; it's been a while since I've had to use lures with such precision placement.
To be honest, whilst I was excited at being there, my expectations for success were pretty limited. Atlantic Salmon fishing has always struck me as being a hit and miss affair so I was slightly shocked when on my second proper retrieve there was a brief thump on the line.
I was therefore frankly astonished when, on my third cast (which landed perfectly in the sweet spot) I got a savage take within seconds and the line tore off the reel!
Roland was patently delighted for me, and a bright silver 9lb-er erupted through the chocolate surface and tail walked up the river, thrashing violently to be rid of the spinner. After 10 minutes of frantic charges it succumbed and, heart drumming, I slid the net under my first proper Atlantic Salmon, an exquisite, fresh-run, chromium beauty.
Well that was me chuffed for a start! First Atlantic Salmon!
Roland asked me if I wanted to take it, and in this very rare instance (and being seriously partial to Salmon) I agreed, and this one fish was dispatched and bagged.
I was incredulous as to the fact that it had only taken three casts to connect with one, and I was beginning to view this somewhat modest looking river in a new light. The very next cast was yanked hard again, and I felt another fish put up jagged resistance. It was certainly smaller, and turned out to be an extremely handsome 4lb Usk Brown Trout, a fish to be much revered on any other occasion!
This spotted beauty was carefully released and a hearty slap on the back from Roland signalled that, whatever else may or may not happen, this was already a good session!
Eager to show me other productive pools and lies, Roland persuaded me to tear myself away and follow him a few hundred metres upstream. The water was more open here, with high, grassy banks; wider, shallower and punctuated along the far side by the odd gnarled old willow. It was to these that my attentions were directed, as fish purportedly lay in scoops beneath them.
This time I took up the 13ft double-hander fly rod and decided to try the fly in the more suitable, shallower waters. Wading out into the extremely powerful flow, I tried to recall my brief spey-casting lessons, a skill I’d rarely required as one who normally fished a single-hander, and succeeded in managing to ungracefully deliver the fly into the right zone. However, I didn't get much opportunity to develop my skills before a yell from Roland had me scuttling back to the bank to grab the net as his spinning rod lurched violently under the weight of a big, rust-red cock-fish. The beastie fought with sheer brute force, displacing great bulges of water with its spade-like tail before I intercepted it successfully and hefted the net under its weight. It was handsome; a lithe male in beautiful breeding colours and it was cradled gently for the obligatory photo opportunity before being revived and released unharmed. Roland was indeed a happy chap.
Certainly put a smile on Roland's face!
I struggled back upstream to my mark and had barely started to re-present my fly when yet another yell signalled the netsman would be required once more! This fish turned out to be a hen, but even bigger than male before it!
Something special was happening...
This was turning out to be something of a special evening...we'd already netted 3 salmon in an hour and 30 minutes! I persisted a while longer with the fly, but couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't going to deliver in the poor river clarity so, feeling the pressure to capitalise on the promise the river was presenting, I swapped to the spinning rod once more...and blow me down if that didn't pay dividends almost immediately when covering the same water!
For me, this was a far bigger fish and I could feel the line whining under the strain of the sheer weight. Ten heart-stopping, wrist-wrenching minutes later, Roland lifted the net out of the water to reveal a splendid hen, a solid torpedo of muscle and surely the best the evening would have to offer!
A pinch-yourself moment...anther one?!
After its release, and as Roland sorted out the net and we stood chatting, I lobbed the spinner across the water and retrieved across the flow, feeling the blade of the lure thrumming in the current. Retrieve complete, I lifted the lure out to recast and as it came up out of the water, it was immediately followed by a launching silver male salmon, which only just missed it 2ft out of the water before crashing back right next to where we were standing, spraying water over both of us! We stood agog, and looked at one another as if to say..."did that actually just happen?" - amazing!
The shadows were deepening and light was just beginning to leach from the sky as the sun kissed the horizon, and yet there was still another two marks to try, so we set off down the lane and dropped down a steep wooded bank to a restricted gap between sycamore trees.
Once again, under instruction, I plopped in a pinpoint cast to order, right on the button, and began methodically moving the subsequent casts a few feet further downstream.
Ten minutes in, another brutal take, and this was undeniably...unbelievably...bigger! This was an out and out wrestling match in deep, fast, turbulent water. Time after time I thought I had it bettered and we were treated to a tantalising flash of colour in the darkening flow, only to have the line inexorably drawn back off the spool under unnerving clutch tension.
Room to manoeuvre was limited to say the least, as I could only move a few feet on the slippery bedrock on the edge of the water; a step too far would have spelled a dangerous situation. After six or eight attempts to steer my gradually tiring adversary, I finally managed to get it's head up and Roland seized the chance with perfect timing …and almost pitched into the river as he went to lift the net from an extended position and was met by a lot more weight than he'd bargained for! There was a solid thump as the fish hit the wet mud ...and she was an absolute beauty! It was a 'high-five' moment - what a cracker, and by far the best fish of this extraordinary ‘end-of-the-end-of' season session.
My face probably says it all!
We persisted a while longer, and I managed to pull up a reasonable little sea trout of about 4lb in the twilight gloom, but eventually the 7 o'clock deadline arrived, and thus the season ended.
To say I was happy was an understatement, and this was surely no better validation of the old phrase "Everything comes to he who waits", and a perfect illustration of what drives an angler; undying optimism that it’s never too late to catch another fish!
Being a ‘fly guy' at heart of course, the evening would have been nigh-on completely perfect had I managed to connect via the flyrod, but... as a lure fisherman too, it has to be said, I couldn't argue with the results!