Someone, presumably a lunatic, once said that in order to fully appreciate nature one must experience it in its best and worst weather, and it was these questionable words I held at the front of my mind on Christmas Eve as I trudged grimly along the river.
I had no business being there. Since October I have been lucky enough to live right beside my club’s stretch of the River Wharfe, so I am essentially at liberty to fish whenever conditions are best (or would be save for work). Yet still I found myself tackling up with numb fingers, being lashed by rain and hail, while the trees above me creaked and groaned in the wind. Absurd. This is why I often regard angling as akin to some sort of mental illness, or at the very least dangerous fanaticism. The sufferer could open their curtains to be greeted by fire and brimstone raining from the sky and, so strong is the compulsion to catch fish, still reason with themselves that the sudden increase in temperature might have ‘switched things on’.
The river was in no good order, swollen and dirty from days of foul weather. I pitched a swimfeeder of liquidised bread (two red maggots on the hook) into one of the few slacks where fish could hide from the main flow, set my rod down, and attempted to sink into the bank for some sort of shelter. A group of rather harassed looking Goldcrests flitted around in the ivy on some large Sycamores, and as I listened to the wind rasping through the wire fence of the waterworks behind me, I wondered how such tiny, delicate birds weren’t simply torn from their perches and dashed on the ground. Even the usual guard of herons seemed to have stood down for the day. The only other angler out plying his trade was a solitary Cormorant who skulked past before vanishing beneath the surface in a boil of water. I took his presence to be a further ill omen in already hopeless conditions, and needed no further encouragement to scurry home and dry off.
On Wednesday morning the contrast was spectacular. It was still, I suppose, weather fit only for anglers and the criminally insane, but a calm, bright, frosty morning is a sight to rejoice in. Even if it’s probably better to do so through your bedroom window.
The river, which had dropped back to its normal level, steamed in the sun, and as I crunched through the frost-fixed leaves, watching a drake Goosander drift quietly downstream, I felt rather confident, albeit a little concerned that I’d never feel my nose again.
I set off fishing in the same manner as I had earlier in the week and, having settled back and poured a cup of tea, felt able to relax, take in the world around me and… dare I say enjoy myself? However, on a bitter winter morning it doesn’t take long for brain fluid to freeze and morale to vanish, so I was grateful when after 40 minutes or so a sharp rap on the rod tip led to a scrappy little out of season trout which was soon bundled ashore, although not before the landing net had been wrenched from the bank, its mesh having become frozen to the ground.
With no more bites forthcoming, I began roving from swim to swim in search of fish – Grayling (my intended quarry) often shoal very tightly in cold weather, and tracking them down is often the biggest challenge of the day. The fact that all the walking keeps the blood circulating in your feet is an added bonus.
Eventually, after feeding a few maggots, I started generating some interest in an old favourite pool – a steady run with a tongue of fast water running down the far side, creating an inviting ‘crease’ mid-river. All manner of wildlife seemed to favour this spot. Wagtails were darting from rock to rock, a Dipper fished in the rapids, and a Mink hurried to and fro from its nest in a pipe on the opposite bank. There were Grayling here too apparently, as after missing rather too many bites, I finally connected to a familiar serpentine fight. Not a big fish, probably 10-12oz, but Grayling are in peak condition at this time of year, and admiring their gunmetal flanks, the subtle flashes of blue and violet, their rosy sail of a dorsal fin, is enough to make any angler forget their imminent frostbite.
Having released my prize and watched it make its way back out across the gravel, I tried a few more token casts, but when they met with no response, I was content to call it quits. When I got home, I found that my hands were so spectacularly frozen that it took a gargantuan effort just to turn the key in the lock! Stupid business, winter fishing. No doubt I’ll be out there again very soon.