Ben: Andy it’s Ben, how’re you doing buddy? Fancy shooting some stuff for a streamer fishing article on the Usk?
Andy: Hey bro, all good ta. I’d best not, I’ve got to save a bit of cash at the moment…
B: We’ll do it on the cheap, take the tents…
A: I’ve got a few things going on that I need to focus on…
B: It’s the last three days of the season down there…..
A: Shit, you’re right it is. I’ll meet you in Brecon at midday. Bring streamers…
My name is Andy Buckley and I have a problem. I can’t say no. I’m a weak man and I think people have picked up on it. The Ben in question is Ben Etridge. Ben is not only a super talented photographer and global fish-botherer, he’s also a guy smart enough to know that the urgency of the looming close season would get to me instantly. The plan was hatched over the YouTube videos of Fly Fishing the Ozarks which inspired in us the kind of patterns that would have The Fly Fishers Club reaching for the rulebook. A plan so utterly heinous and audaciously offensive that it couldn’t fail…
We stood high on the river bank looking down over the water, or what was left of it.
B: Oh, bollocks.
A: Yeah, I think that pretty much nails it.
The dry autumn had taken its toll and left us with a river that was slow, low and very very clear. As if that wasn’t anathema enough for the prospects of “swinging some meat” (god bless ‘Murca) then the conditions above us were the nail in the coffin. Warm, bright, still – wall to wall blue sky. The bugs were making the most of it – a flotilla of olives were carried along on the current, the spinners danced above our heads, sedges scattered and splashed and teased the trout. After admiring our beautiful selection of zany articulated streamers we put them away, not to see the light of day again until March.
To paraphrase Alan Ball – it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. We weren’t going to be throwing tandem filth to “Bucknasty Browns” (god bless ‘Murca) and that was really frustrating but with South Wales ablaze in autumn splendour it didn’t seem to matter. The fire of red and gold spread the breadth of the valley, the skinny little river trying its best to sweep away the evidence of the seasonal decay.
Amidst the slow death of the summer rose the trout, and with fervour too. Low water conditions on the Usk would ordinarily drive the sensitive wild browns away from the surface until the harsh light of the day dropped away from their eyes but this was different. The spinner fall was in full swing and by early afternoon we tackled up while watching some really large fish head and tailing with total confidence. Over the next few hours Ben and I did our level best to miss as many takes and lose as many fish as possible but even while fishing at a level of incompetence I thought I had left behind in my teens we caught fish regularly on dries.
The drifts were as tough as can be expected in low water but the difference now was that the fish would let us get closer than usual. For the first time ever I managed to stalk, cast to, hook and land an Usk fish with only the leader out of the rod tip – something that I dined out on for the next two days. All the fish took my SiP (Spinnas in Paris) pattern with conviction but none more than the cracker that Ben hooked in some seriously tricky water. Twice it took to the air in a flurry of gold and spots and spray before managing to throw the hook in a tiny cave of bedrock. I don’t regard fish as intelligent but that one knew where safety was.
The pattern was set for the next two days as the warm still air propagated strong hatches throughout the day. With the fish spread between the oxygen rich riffles and bug laiden pools Ben and I found that we had to switch between nymphs on the french leader and the dry fly rod. Ben had spent an hour watching me with the bugging kit and made a grab for it as soon as I got distracted by a rising fish and within a few minutes we were photographing what turned out to be his first capture using the modern leader style – a solid 14″ fish a worthy reward for just cracking on and trying something new.
At around 5pm on the last day of the season I stood knee-deep in the cool clear water surveying a compact but powerful and deep pool that flowed over a bedrock seam. It appeared the perfect habitat for a big trout – depth, tree cover, a good food line and plenty of places to hide, but after a few minutes of watching the water I began to lose hope. In hindsight it was ominously quiet in that pool – an area that could hold dozens of fish was just too empty to be true. I heard it before I saw it, something between a sip and a slurp. By the time I looked up I had missed whatever it was but could tell from the concentric ripple spreading across the river that it was a significant thing. Then it raised again before my eyes, a brown trout of the ilk I last saw in the trophy waters of New Zealand. Then again, the broad shoulder of the fish breaking the water first before the whole head rolled over the meniscus, then the dorsal fin and then tail. Then again, so slowly I could see the spots on its huge head. I stalked closer, studying the currents for the most drag-free route to float the fly along. The pool was a minefield of boils and seams and I could easilly see how a fish resident here could grow so large. I crouched behind a wall of bedrock ten yards from the rise and waited for another. The fish lifted comfortably, clearly unaware of my presence. I waited a few seconds for it to settle then perfectly pitched my fly six feet above him. The fly closed on the target area quickly and I anticipated the take, but then the little spinner pulled sideways slightly across the flow, an unavoidable micro drag of no more than an inch or two. I waited for an hour. The fish didn’t rise again.
And that was that. My entire season boiled down to one shot at the fish of a lifetime. I sat on a rock for a while as an armada of autumn leaves flashed by me in the current and I wondered how another seven months had been carried away in the drift and flow of time. Surrounded by the shimmering blaze of change I became very aware that all things in this environment are doomed to the fate of the river some day. The leaves, the flies, the fish and even the boulder I sat on all of a sudden felt ethereal and temporary, small and insignificant instances caught in an irresistable ebb and flow that they must and will all submit to.
Other than the busy murmur of the river everything was silent and still until a large brown salmon leapt and shattered the waters surface fifty yards above me. A chillingly cool breeze crept down stream and down my spine and at the first sign of frozen breath I snipped the little dry fly off and placed it back in its box until next year.