We arrived about 6pm, bundling out of the car to stretch cramped limbs and eagerly look at the river. The Teme ran summer low. A little recent rain had put just a tiny tinge of colour into it. It looked good.
Unable to wait we hauled the gear out of the car and began tackling up for a few hours before dark.
I went in the pool just above the bridge, the one I had done so well in last year. Simon claimed the corner pool and Ned dropped in just above him.
A couple of hours passed. I fed steadily with hemp and casters and ran the float through time and again. A dace and a small chub rewarded me. At 9.30pm I packed up and walked back to the car, the others arriving just after me. Simon had caught a small barbel almost immediately while Ned, like me, had blanked. Ned and I set up the bivvies while Simon disappeared to get some food. We ate late and sat around the fire drinking a bit of whisky 'til about midnight and then turned in.
I was up early the next morning, roused by the movements of the others. I was fishing by 6am, leaving breakfast for later - after the fishing had slowed. Apart from the odd dace and a small trout there was still no sign of barbel in the bridge pool until 9am when I hooked and lost what was obviously a barbel. I went and had breakfast in disgust. I continued to flog the pool all morning, spurred on by the lost fish, but couldn't get another take. I had the feeling there weren't many barbel in there today, as they should have responded to the feed by now.
The lunchtime conference revealed Ned had caught a small barbel and Simon had blanked. That afternoon, Simon and I explored the lower reaches below the bridge. There were some lovely swims, but despite our best efforts we blanked on the barbel. The chub obliged, though, and I enjoyed the rythym of fishing the pin, line pulling off the reel to the pull of the current. I even tried the feeder but could only catch a couple of suicidal brownies.
I moved back up above the bridge in the late afternoon. Ned had now managed three barbel. By 9pm I was still fishless and moved into the corner swim. Both Ned and Simon had caught there almost immediately and I hoped for something similar.
At the top of the swim a bar of red sandstone crosses the river. The far side juts out above the Summer level while the near and middle are eroded away by the force of the water and the river flows over this shallow lip forming a pool below. There's an eddy either side of the central flow. On the nearside the eddy sweeps back along a reed-fringed bank, while on the far side the current hits another sandstone bar about 10 yards downstream and is forced upstream, cutting under the sandstone and forming a pool below the trailing branches of willow. This far-side eddy is the barbel's home.
Here they can sit out the winter floods and summer lows, hiding under the sandstone ledges, and wait for the current to bring them their food.
As soon as I started to fish the pool, casting over to the far side, I began to get little taps and tweaks. The light was fading fast and I fancied my chances of a barbel. At last there was a firm pull. I connected with the fish, played it for a while and then lost it. The 4lb hooklink had been too frail. Cursing myself for an idiot, I swore. Two barbel hooked and two lost!
I went back to the others at the bivvies and quickly ate the fish and chips supper, retackling afterwards with an 8lb hooklink and a new size 8 barbless. I was going to have an hour after dark to see if they were feeding after dark.
Within minutes of my return I hooked- and lost- another barbel. Two hours later, when Simon came to find me I had caught one and landed a second as he sat there. I decided to carry on fishing as long as the barbel fed. Simon joined me for a while, just upstream, and then went off to bed a bit later.
Ned was already asleep. The river and I were alone.
Because of the strong current through the middle of the river it was necessary to hold the rod high, keeping the line free of the current. I sat on a low chair and trapping the line against a finger, rested my elbow on a knee, steadying the rod and keeping the line high and tensioned.
Under the trees it was dark, only a thin strip of sky showing between the trees. In the clear country air a myriad of stars lit that thin strip. Later, a meteor flashed across it, burning blue as it burned itself out in the atmosphere.
Bats worked the river and every now and then one struck the line, plucking it. I nearly struck several times until I got used to the difference - a sideways pluck instead of a downwards pull.
It was night fishing like I'd never experienced before. The need to hold the rod and feel the line tightened the tenuous link between me and the fish. I was constantly alert to the pull of the current, thrumming the line , the tweak of a bat and the longed for the pull of a fish.
The fish came steadily, about every half hour. The fight in a snag-ridden swim the size of the average lounge was a no-mercy slog. I struck and wound, gaining valuable line and then they pulled back, taking it back again. The fights see-sawed back and forth in a grim silence, broken only by the sound of the river. Sometimes the fish would stick fast to the river bed and I could only hold on and keep the pressure up, hoping I was still attached to the fish and not the bottom. I lost two sets of tackle that way.
A trio of bigger fish made a guest appearance. The best (a guesstimated 7lb - but a good 7lb - I had no scales) a new personal best. At 3:15am the dawn chorus started. A single, sleepy bird at first - soon followed by others until by 3:30am they were in full voice. I thought the action would probably stop soon and got up to stretch cramped muscles and make myself a cup of coffee.
I walked back to the bivvies and quietly kicked and fanned the fire back into life. The fire- blackened kettle bubbled and hissed in the fire while snores rattled and rolled from the bivvies. I carried the cup back to the swim. The fish continued to bite and daylight allowed me to see more of the fight. A pull on the rod tip, a strike followed by frantic backwinding and the sullen gleam of a barbel under the far-side willow branches. Or a brief, golden flash in the tannin-stained thrust of the main flow. The rod bent double to the boiling barbel under the rod tip.
As the light grew so the feeding activity slowly died away, I had to wait longer for a bite - until by 9am I was left with only memories. Memories of a night that will stay in the mind forever, indelibly engraved as a red-letter day. To be taken out and warmed against on a cold winters day by the water's edge.
Tiredly, I packed up the gear and in a zombie-like state started to break camp for the trip home. Unusually for me, I even managed to sleep a little on the way home.
For those who are wondering, the final score was a draw - 8 all. I caught eight, but eight made good their escape. Not that it mattered.