What they can give - Reflections on being the England River Manager
October 23, 20176 min read
Finally, after all the noise, it is how it is. In our little sport, it is how it is. You cannot change it, and neither can I. Fly fishing moves ahead and it moves us. We are its pawns and its major pieces, but all part of the whole, beautiful game. It saves us too. Some years ago I left it behind; the competitive sport. I would do my own thing, I thought. And so I did, but, yes, I missed it. I watched, prowling around the edges. What old team mates could still give, and what the new could offer. I saw my countrymen fall into a sort of stasis, while those teams from several other countries stampeded forwards. They gave more. It is what happens. How it is.
It changes though. Always. It is always dynamic. Tidal.
Sure, there are political and societal forces that seek to wreck my country, but we will survive and come back.
Sure, the instant gratification culture of over-stocked fisheries trivialises this sport for which we all have so much passion. While British agriculture lays its foul stench across the landscape, robbing us of the beauty of the natural, wild environment. Yet, the river still flows in spite of it all. We still pick up fly rods and cast, and search. For answers, for the numbingly beautiful perfection of a wild trout, or grayling, or salmon… Or roach, for goodness sake. For waters clean enough to support whatever wild species nature intended to be there, in all its wonder of diversity.
And from low points, states of competitive mediocrity, we see English fly fishers picking up the pieces and getting on with it. While England teams have not generally fared well in recent years there have been enormous positives. You just have to look closely. That’s all. Just look at some of the individuals we have, with their great skills, on both still water and river. Just look at the performances of Andrew Scott, Iain Barr and Fred Bainbridge; simply World Class competitors. Just look at the collective efforts put in by our teams, across the spectrum. Do this, without the tainting of fear or favour, or personal likes and dislikes - leave all that nonsense behind, where it belongs - and you really do see it for what it is.
Freddy Bainbridge - Captain
As river team manager, I have been privileged to interact with competitors at a personal, fundamental level, and then with the collective of the team, driving towards a single goal. When once I was a team member, or a captain, a unit within the whole, now I participate in altogether a more enjoyable, unifying role. And I do, indeed, see it for what it really is. After all the noise falls away.
When Rosalind Franklin stared at the model of DNA that Nobel laureates Francis Crick and James Watson had made following their phenomenal discovery, in which Franklin was so instrumental in interpretation of the crucial X-ray photographs, she is reputed to have said (to Bragg, father of X-ray crystallography) something like: ‘Finally, all of it (the noise, the bitterness, the competitiveness), doesn’t matter. All that’s left is the beauty.’ Anyway, I like to think of her saying this. Fly fishing is not discovering the structure of DNA. It is not X-ray crystallography. It is not important, in the human scheme of things. And competitive fly fishing is even less. But to you, to me, to those who can give…
As the days collapse, and we lose the light, I find myself musing over the year that is drifting away. It has been an odd one. Contrasts. Pains and delights, of times spent by the river when all was right with this segment of the natural world, and times spent there when all was so very wrong. You try to balance it up, and for one’s sense of well-being, for one’s conscience, so you can sleep at night, all contrives to see you through. Best to dwell on the highlights, therefore, and I know that many people who bother to read what I write are tired of my way of illuminating the image of the water’s surface, as I see it, and what flows within and beneath. But then, we can hardly stay quiet about it, can we? The scope for wrong is so much greater when good men do nothing.
So, my year of contrasts, when, one day, I could be by a chalk stream in the north of France and the idyll would be pervasive and uplifting, even overwhelming. Another day soon after could be the other side of the black hole, the other side of the human condition, on Eden, watching still more, avalanching abuse ripping through the system, robbing me, and you, and our children, of one of the most precious environments with which England was blessed. It leaves me shaking with rage and regret. And one’s sense of worth is further diminished when you report it to the authority that could, and should, prevent such horrific damage. For absolutely nothing to happen, of consequence. Ever. Really, nothing happens. Ever. Just degradation of an entire river system. Tiny oases of conservation effort - and there are many - are effectively swept away. Why does it all work properly in France, and yet in my country..?
Further contrasts with a fly rod; that fly rod, and more significantly that fly line, the gorgeous presentation line that my entire fly fishing life seems to have converged towards. One man gave us this, against all the hostile odds in the industry. Really, a whole way of fishing - another way, which apart from the line involves plume tips and a very soft rod, and minimal disturbance, and losing all the variables, down to one. Losing, even, the leader, but especially losing the crudeness of conventional fly lines. It is all so removed from the competitive fly fisher who viewed the river, and the lake, in such a different way, not so long ago.
And yet, it has been like going home, this year, as manager of the river team, and abruptly I have found myself with an eye on the numbers again, the easy fish, the percentage water, the pragmatism, the tactical approach. And I had thought I had left all this behind! Ah, then you can take the man away from competition, but can that man ever really lose the competitiveness? From a personal standpoint, I am not remotely competitive anymore, I think. That is for others. Like the appalling grip and grin photo that infests our pursuit. Oh, how those are going to weigh on us in years to come.
It is when I look to my team, that it all comes dancing back at me. I look to their strengths, their weaknesses, their personalities, what they might give. And the river we are given, and I try, again, to piece it all together, my mind in an altogether familiar function, though not running so smoothly as once it did.
I love interacting with them, learning from them, giving to them. This is what fly fishing is, at its best, in beautiful places. Is it not? I think, finally, it is what we each can give. We have refined it so much now, while, conversely, it can be so horribly crude. Cruel. It does not have to be like that. And, with my team, it is not. On my lovely chalk streams it is not like that. On Eden, that once-lovely English idyll, well, let’s turn away…
Being with them, on the campaign again. They are incredible, you know, these competitors right out there on the fragmenting edges of an esoteric pursuit. Just don’t knock them. It’s too easy, and it is meaningless. They go through it all, and for very little, in the scheme of things. But they lift this beautiful sport of ours up to astonishing heights. It is difficult sometimes, to live up there, at that altitude of performance. But then, I have no need to. I have them, and it is all theirs to give, now.
My favourite methods of fly fishing are dry-fly or sight-fished nymphs/bugs, but particularly during the winter, when fishing on spate rivers, the grayling are usually loath to rise to a dry fly and the water is too coloured, or the light too poor, to see the fish for sight-fishing. It is then that I resort to a range of nymphing techniques. Of which Euronymphing is my most used technique
Frank Sawyer and Oliver Kite showed nymph-fishers the value of the induced take when nymph-fishing and stillwater fly-fishers are aware of the importance of applying movement to lures. However, many of the dry fly anglers that I see appear to rarely apply movement to their surface offerings, believing that ‘dead drift’ is the most effective way of presenting surface flies.
In the early 1960s when I first started fishing split cane was still the most popular rod-making material and fiber glass was just starting to become popular. However my first ever coarse fishing rod was made of ash butt & middle sections with a greenheart wood tip. My first fly rod, bought in the early 1960s, was a second hand 9’ cane rod built by E. Kerry of Lockton, a small village near Pickering.
Presentation is another critical factor in achieving success & grayling are just as unpredictable with respect to this. Sometimes they want a fly ‘on the drop’ & often they will travel quite a distance to take a fly as it slowly sinks. So there are times that it doesn’t pay to fish a fast-sinking, heavily weighted fly.