Tonight I was swiping absentmindedly through photographs on my phone as I often do, when I faltered on a handful of shots from last September: pictures of a tiny, boulder strewn Cumbrian beck. Unassuming in appearance, but possessing a wild, intimate beauty, and, as it transpired, a plucky population of beautiful wild trout. Immediately I was transported back to the autumn, and a precious stolen hour of late season fishing.
My girlfriend and I were holidaying in the Lakes, keen to make the most of the last of the year’s mild weather. While I had thoroughly enjoyed our visits to the various quaint villages (the gingerbread shop in Grasmere is a must visit if you happen to be in the area and are a greedy git like me, by the way), and walks through the fragrant autumn woods and atop the blustery fells, by the end of the week I was longing for running water and golden scales. True, I’d already snatched a couple of hours perch-bashing on Coniston Water, and even wet a fleeting line in dramatic Goat’s Water as we passed along its rugged shores, but somehow for me this can never ‘scratch the itch’ in the same way as a river or stream. Though a stillwater, particularly the deep natural tarns and lakes of Cumbria, can be intensely atmospheric – mysterious, brooding, even intimidating – for me it can never match the bustling, youthful energy of moving water. There’s an undeniable vigour. A heartbeat. So, it was with this longing that I slipped out of our comfortable little cottage on the final evening, the sun already sliding behind the fells, and made my way into the steep bracken clad gill to the tumbling mountain stream in its bottom.
It was a very small watercourse indeed – not more than a stride across for most of its length, and very shallow, but there were enough undercuts and miniature pools dotted here and there to encourage me of its potential. I’ve caught trout from improbably small becks in the past, but each one presents something of a lottery – will they or won’t they be there? The answer remains unknown until that first bite, if it ever comes. Schrödinger’s trout, if you like. As such, it was with a level of uncertainty that I set up a light worm rig and began flicking speculative casts upstream, watched with some intrigue by the local Herdwicks (clearly they were as interested in what the outcome would be as I was). Initially I found no success, with only a few blunted hooks and several lost shot for my efforts. Then, once I got the knack of shepherding my tackle between the hotchpotch of rocks, I began to get flurries of lightning fast plucks and rattles, the bait being stripped most casts. Despite a reasonably small hook (a 14 or 16 I think) I struck into thin air again and again. The inhabitants of these becks, though invariably eager, are flighty, timid creatures and can be devilishly tricky to hook.
It was not until I reached a deep pot beneath a sort of mini-waterfall that I finally got a more hearty grab at my worm and brought the would-be diner skittering to hand. Probably no more than five inches long, but though Northern beck brownies are diminutive in stature, they are shining examples of the beauty of their species, and this one was no exception with its dark back and canary yellow flanks marked with vivid black spots, and liberal splashes of rowan berry red. I followed this jewel with several more examples – none longer than my hand, but each as pretty as the first, and as I sat on a lichen flecked boulder in the half light listening to the poppling of the water, the gentle bleating of sheep on the breeze, the kronk-kronk of ravens wheeling overhead, I was as perfectly content as anyone in the world.