I saw Her again today.
Five fish swam past, pecking at a few offerings, but only from habit not from hunger. The biggest was a good double, over 11lb I should imagine. A few chub drifted by, in that sideways style they favour. I hooked one and the rest scooted. 5lb 6oz.
An hour later, from my position in the tree I watched as two very large barbel dropped back and suddenly picked up a few bits of bait. I slivered down but they had moved on by the time I had got my rod in my hand. They were seriously big fish, 12lb and rising.
A barbel I estimate at 8lb in the clear water comes to the net at just under 10lb. The other fish in the area glide into the safety of the nearby weed strands.
Twenty minutes later, back in the tree, watching, first the chub, and what a chubâ€¦broad backed and looking like a carp. How big? At the very least 7lb. It dropped back from the weed bed.........and there she wasâ€¦
The third time in three days in the same place. Probably the largest barbel I have seen.
Always on her own, except for the big chub that shows at the same time. How big? Big enough to fill your dreams and then some.
At the moment though, it's a bit of a nightmare. She picks up 2 or 3 pieces of bait and that's it. 4 hours later maybe 2 more. If I put few baits the chub clear them, if I put lots it would be like winning the lottery if she chooses the one with the hook. I think I need to go and leave her. At least until the water colours up some and she is not so shy, hopefully. Stay safe Beauty.
A month passes and we are into August.
Still the water remains crystal clear and the river looks like a river should do. It glistens along almost with a mirror coating on the top. Reflections of the wonderful fauna tickle the surface and break up into shards of light as a chub or dace noses a fly from the silky smoothness. The weed flows with a constant rhythm, dancing and swaying to the silent beat.
The barbel are not yet nervous of anglers, however they need to be tricked a little to pickup a baited hook. Watch and learn, the deposit of time to be paid back with interest when the river colours and deepens and other venue challenges are tackled.
The line is heavy and visible, yet the barbel approach without a care. One nudges the line, almost caresses it alongside its form as it passes up to the baited area. Suddenly they spook wildly, in different directions. What happened?
I watch the same thing a few times until it become clear. The barbel did not worry at all about the visibility of the line, they swam alongside it, brushed it even, until another fish moved it on to them unawares, the natural reaction, inbuilt for survival being to rush away, escape. I try to relate this to human behaviour.
Safety means as you walk through a forest and brush aside the tangled branches and the leaves, you see them and visualise no problem, but if one suddenly reached out and touched you from behindâ€¦? Would you jump?
I sat and watched and caught fish into double figures, moving it away from smaller ones and the chub. The predictability of the sport was more than made up for by the pleasure of watching and learning.
Mid August, a group of fish in the 5-8lb range were picking up the particles alongside the sunken tree. They divided as She came through, one mouthful of bait and then she continued on her way. Slowly, gracefully, regally.
Open mouthed I looked across to my rods, unpacked on the top of the bank. I had been immersed in the watery underworld for over three hours and the time had passed in the blink of an eye. She continued upstream into the large streamer weed bed and was gone.
During the past few weeks I had wondered if I had overestimated her size, indeed, wondered if some of the other fish I thought were 13-14lb were her. My mouth closed after the gasp had left it. I think she is nearer 18lb than anything, my mind said.
September, leaves were starting to golden.
The fish were becoming a bit more wary, still the waters ran gin clear and it was not enough to put a bait near fish and wait for it to be picked up.
Some of the actions of fish behaviour may hold some interest, possibly not believed by many.
How many times that little stab on the quiver top, often ignored, would in fact be the fish mouthing and dropping the baited hook! No longer were they picking up a bait and moving away, but picking it up statically, holding still and then trying to eject the bait and hook. One fish did this five times before it managed to spit it out, others after two or three attempts, bolted, leading to a wrap round on the rod top. Many times the fish would move away after being unsettled by mouthing the hair- baited hook, only to return in a short while to pick it up again, often till a mistake had been made and the fish had firmly pricked itself enough not to be able to blow the hook out from its hold.
Changing the bait shape to multiple small ones on a hair fooled the fish time after time and more good ones followed, with over five more different doubles and numerous other fish coming to the net in so many visits.
One other regular angler came over to chat one night. We shared memories and other fishermen's tales, until bursting, with a haunted look in his eyes he said, â€œHave you seen Her yet?â€ It was whispered, but spoken with deep reverence.,
â€œHow big do you think?â€ Was my reply?
We settled on not less than 16lb but probably bigger.
The day changes. Dusk was an hour away. She came alongside the gravel bar, not three feet out from my chair. Picking up the bait particles that had fallen from my feeder every time before a cast.
I lent forward and slowly turned the reel handle, dragging the bait in from its far bank position. It snagged on a small branch mid-stream, catapulted towards me and landed with a wave-making splash on top of where the fish was feeding. Or had been.
I could have cried, perhaps should have, but for some reason I laughed out loud and long. I am never going to catch this fish, I thought.
October came and so did the rain
I sit behind the rods, wet, waiting for the rod to move. I have learnt that if I take the hook length down to about 4 inches the fish often prick themselves when the pivot upwards after picking up the bait. The downside is the chub catch rate has gone up, and this spooks the fish. Sometimes you have to wait two hours until there are signs again of fish aroundâ€¦sometimes you wait until home time. People pass you by as you catch a chub. â€œNice chubâ€ they say. You smile. In your mind your fingers stretch out as if self motivated and you slowly strangle them.
You fish the river twice a week, and sadly, when the pressure applied to a fish brings it toward you the first time of asking you realise that this is not the fish of your and others dreams.
Fortunately other rivers still keep you sane and undemanding.
The colour of the water hides the fish and you are happy that mystery to the river is returned. Over and over you tell yourself it could be the next bite.
Mid October, 4pm and the rod wraps around after an hour of indications. This fish keeps low and steady, makes a long run with a clutch tightened down so no onion roots can join the tussle.
I get nervous and start to bully the fish back to me and it surfaces. It's not Her, but a very good fish. Towards the net, and she dives after touching the rim. Downstream again, and again bullied back up and to the surface. Difficult to get her past the inside flow and ping the hook pulls as I go to raise the net. By some magic trick she is not in it. 14lb at least. Bad angling.
Memories of another lost Loddon fish; shared with fisher friend Dick some seasons ago come flooding back.
I go downstream to share my woes with â€œhave you seen her yet?â€ who nets a 12lber as I arrive. Cruel. I take the â€˜photographs and the congratulations, slightly hollow, echo around in the mist.
I am unfaithful; to spite the river and Her and I visit the Bristol Avon for the first time at the invite of Russell and manage two welcome doubles.
October continues to be fish filled, The Kennet has been a kind river to my customers with plentiful doubles, including fish over 12lb and many new personal bests to reward their endeavours.
A Junior day teach in for the Barbel Society bags a first barbel for two of the young men, a nine year old catching a 12.11oz fish as his first ever.
The Thames teases as usual with a series of blanks broken by the odd fish over 10lb coming to the net.
The Loddon eases from my mind; I have decided that I will never, ever be able to catch her. Time to admit defeat.
Wet and windy, November is here, never say never. I surely have a date with a very special fish.
To be continuedâ€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦
Graham Elliott - 2004
Photographic Acknowledgements - with thanks.
Matt Brown. The River Loddon in summer
Andy Frances The River Loddon in autumn.
Russell Jones B.A. Fish.