The fish road: adventures upstream

Not a bird blog this time. I do sometimes hang up the binoculars and take up the fly rod instead to go fishing on Britain’s beautiful rivers. Some encouraging comments on a recent trip to Devon prompted me to write something about fish and fishing for a change.

The fish road isn’t an Old English term, but it should have been. Fisc-rad. It has that concise, pragmatic feel of many Old English compound names born of plain observation, whilst still conveying striking imagination. There is a whale-road (hranrad) and a swan-road (swan-rad) – Anglo-Saxon metaphors for the sea that depict oceans as travel-paths belonging to seabirds and mighty cetaceans. There is even an Old English ‘fish and river’ riddle that seems to imagine a river in these terms: both beings run their course together, the fish sometimes resting, the river always rushing forth, sometimes the fish swifter than the river’s flow. A fish journeys by river, is of the river.

It feels as old as rivers themselves, proverbial, as though it certainly should be recorded in the earliest examples of our language. The fish road. Inauthentic as it may be, it’s a term that occurs to me often on the river, because it speaks powerfully of astonishing fish marvels, of my attempts to see these creatures in their water-worlds, maybe even to catch one.

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My brother wading the fish road.

Fish do travel, of course. Some perform migration feats that rank amongst the most remarkable of all creatures. European eels begin life in the Sargasso Sea off the North America Coast, then make their way east, changing form twice by the time they swim up British rivers. They might spend up to 20 years in fresh water before heading back across the Atlantic to spawn. The Atlantic salmon performs almost the opposite journey: those born in British waters will mature at sea before surfing currents homewards, sensing Earth’s magnetic current through their lateral lines and literally smelling their way home to natal rivers. The brown trout can do the same – some anadromous forms of this species undergo a change which turns them seawards. They become salmon-silver, and will return just like their larger cousins to breed in fresh water. True travellers.

 

The fish road, though, is also ventured by those who endeavour to seek and catch fish – not necessarily to eat them, but more simply to wonder. From time to time, I am one such rover. I don’t claim skill. I own more than one rod, a pair of waders, and I can navigate sufficiently the arcane language of my fly box – sedges, klinkhammers, peeping caddis flies (and the more humorous residents – dog nobblers, boobies, foam daddies). I can cast a line now with accuracy and distance enough to satisfy a desire for progress, and I know as much as any fly fisherman the heart-lurching thrill of that sudden snatch that signals a take.

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The contents of my fly box.

I know others, though, who practise the art far better than I ever will. My brother and our good friend – both Richards – are obsessive river-travellers, unable to resist pausing at any bridge we pass to scope new spots and look for fish suspended in the water column just below the arches. I love the grace and ease of their casting – a choreographed sequence of arm and rod, flex and timing, to unfurl the line in big immaculate loops across the surface so that a tiny feather-fly touches down without a slightest splash.

Richard Burbidge casting a fly line. Photo: David Wood.

We have fished together across the country, on Cumbrian tarns, Hebridean lochs, off south coast shores. But most of all in rivers – the Taff, Wye and Exe, the Itchen, Avon, Rother. All these, as Roderick Haig-Brown describes, are ‘water in its loveliest form … life and sound and movement and infinity of variation … veins of the earth’. At least as much as the prospect of actually catching, it is the lovely form that compels us to keep fishing. To walk a river, alone and silent, is to know a way of being and moving that others cannot know. Wading upstream towards a river’s source in the same direction that fish face the flow, sometimes chest-deep, trout eye-level and necessarily slow, we leave others behind.

This week just gone we fished for brown trout in the Exmoor rivers in Devon – the Exe, Barle, Bray, Taw and Lyn. At times we whiled hours exploring just a few hundred metres of water. Strollers and dog walkers on their own paths knew nothing of our existence, and they did not see what we encountered so closely – kingfishers, dippers (once, an otter swam right past my brother on the Irfon in Wales). This is our privileged passage. Down here, where the bankside alders tunnel inwards the fish road is a long lost highway – a sequestered holloway that enters another world. There is no more intimate way to know the veins of the earth.

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Two roads at the Rother, Sussex.

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