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Paean by Jon Beer

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by Jon Beer

Originally Published by Fish&Fly on 9th September 2006

PAEAN - strange word and not one I get to use very often. Or ever, come to that: I think this is the first time because I have just had to look up how to spell the thing. Also, to check that it means what I think it means. It does: the Oxford Dictionary gives it as 'a song of praise or thanksgiving; a shout of triumph or exultation'. Which is exactly what I had in mind.

It has been a strange and wonderful spring. I don't know how you reckon spring: I take it from 3rd March (the opening of the trout season in Wales) to 16th June (the beginning of grayling fishing in England and Wales and just about the end of any meaningful mayfly). But whichever way you reckon spring, it has been a strange and wonderful one.

I have lived my life surrounded by old blokes banging on about how good the fishing was before I was born and how poor it is now. They are not blaming me but this constant lament is inclined to get me down eventually. The fish were more plentiful, and bigger, and there were more flies. There were also tuberculosis, rickets and Hitler, but if you survived those, then apparently there were more flies feeding more and bigger trout. They may be right. I dunno. Old blokes sometimes are. But I am getting to be an old bloke myself and this has been the best spring of trout fishing I have ever experienced - with more and better fish. And more flies. We get enough of the other stuff: I thought you might like to hear some good news for a change.

It began in Wales, on the River Tawe. It was 6th March. In previous years I have sworn I will never again go fishing before the second week in April because March can deliver such a kick in the teeth that it can be well into May before I get my confidence back. And each year I forget this oath and go anyway. It was as chill as March can be and the water was cold and grey and carrying a little colour from the rain that had drenched the rest of Wales. Received wisdom dictates that the trout of March will be lurking on the bottom and that the only chance of happening upon them is to get down and join them. We were loaded with lead. Every fly was designed to sink and sink fast: if either of us had slipped while wading we would have plummeted to the bottom, no question. And yet those weighted flies did not catch a thing because the trout we found that morning were busily feasting on a hatch of Large Dark Olives. So we switched to dry dries and caught our fill. On dry flies, on 6th March. Weird - but wonderful.

It was not just the Tawe. In late March I phoned a friend on the Usk to see if the March Brown flies were hatching. A few had appeared but the trout were preoccupied with the Large Dark Olives that were still hatching on rivers around the country. It had been one of the best hatches of these little beauties that folk could remember.

Spring continued with miraculous weather until Easter. I was exploring the depths of east Devon, which are very deep depths indeed. The little River Culm rattles along through nowhere in particular which is its chief blessing. I hadn't done this for years: wandering along in the car, turning into dusty farmyards and asking if I might fish through their fields. It was too hot for waders so I crept along the stream bed in shorts and plimsolls, picking small bright trout from each run. It was a magical day although whatever I saved myself in heat-stroke I made up in nettle rash.

That day on the Culm reawakened my love of small waters, streams so small that they are rarely fished. They are fished all the more rarely nowadays without a generation of children with nothing else to do. Without that day of rediscovery, I doubt I would have hit upon the Mells River.

The Mells River is not the River Mells. Almost all British rivers are the River Something-or-other: American rivers are the Something-or-other River. I have no idea why. Actually The Mells River wouldn't be a river at all in America: it wouldn't even rate as a creek. It is a small brook that wanders through a wooded gorge hard by the Somerset town of Frome. My father played here as a boy, worming for roach and perch and the occasional trout and I went there more from curiosity than any intent to commit fishing. But there it was and there I was and as we looked at each other a trout beneath the low trees rose to a mayfly. And then another fish rose and pretty soon they were all at it. A thickly wooded brook can be a daunting place to fish but once you are down in the stream there are few places a fly cannot be got if you are prepared to do whatever it takes. Once the fly arrived at the water, the trout did the rest. Perhaps the trout of the Mells River don't get to see many mayfly (I know I haven't over the past few years): they couldn't believe their luck: I couldn't believe mine. They feasted in the way I sort of thought I remembered but probably didn't. I caught somewhere between twenty and thirty trout that afternoon. Above ten it really doesn't matter: it was my best day's fishing in many a year.

A week later I was walking along the River Windrush above Burford: not fishing, just walking along a green lane down to the river. I had seen a few mayflies on the river upstream but nothing had prepared me for the multitude of glittering spinners between the tall hedges. There were thousands, a cloud of besotted males, rising and falling and generally strutting their stuff in the sun of late afternoon. We went for a drink of cold cider in an old Cotswold pub beside the Windrush. I had barely parked before a host of female flies was trying in vain to lay their eggs on the glass of my sunshine roof, mistaking it for the waters of the Windrush. People who know about these things tell me that the Windrush has just seen the best mayfly hatch for a quarter of a century. And not just the Windrush.

That evening I arrived home and walked up the stream that runs through our village. The tall grasses that fringe the stream were bristling with duns and spinners, resting before the fray and frenzy of the mating dance. Others were dancing over the meadows beside the river. I have lived here over twenty years: I have never before seen a hatch like this.

It has not just been the mayflies. Usk fishermen have been witnessing the unthinkable, with March Brown and Mayflies hatching at the same time and the fish not knowing which to go for first.

There it is. I don't know why this is. I don't know if it will happen next year. I'm just delighted it happened at all and that I was here to enjoy it.


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