Where I live in the south-east of the UK the fishing gets crowded. There are places I can go where I see few people but the fishing is tame. The rivers run slow and visibility is poor as they run over clay. Even in many of these ‘wilder' places I'm fishing for fish that have been caught time and time before in most cases. Many of them even have names, which annoys me intensely. It's not unusual to catch a fish and have somebody walk along the bank to view it and say. ‘Oh, that's One-Pec, my mate had that last week - it weighed 27Lb 8ozs.' Or some such other annoying fact.
The truth is I don't want to know in advance what the fish I caught weighs even before I've weighed it, or even if I choose not to weigh it. I don't want to know its name or when it was last caught.
So each year, given the time and the opportunity I pick up the phone and dial the secret number to my personal fishing paradise. If I'm lucky Mike picks up the phone and after a few minutes chat I've got a room booked for the week.
Depending on the time of the year I could be fishing for one of several species. If it's the coarse fishing close season then I pack the fly gear and set my hat for trout and shad and the odd chub that inevitably shows up sometime during the week.
If it's the coarse season then it's the barbel gear I pack and I'm looking to catch barbel and some of the huge chub that can be found in some pools along the river. There's also salmon and pike but as yet I've not found the time to explore the river's potential for these though I know it has produced 40lb salmon and pike almost as big to those who've put the time in or been lucky.
But what I really go for is the entire package. I'm going for a weeks fishing in a proper fishing hotel, run by a fisherman for fishermen, with control over some four miles or so of crystal clear fast flowing river, running over gravel. And best of all I can spend all day fishing without seeing another soul. If I do bump into someone else then it's someone of a like mind. A quick chat and we're off in our separate directions. Throw in the hills and vales of the welsh borderlands, a good menu and a selection of good beers and ales to round out a long days fishing and you begin to get an idea of what's on offer.
Depending on whether I'm going for the trout or the barbel the journey can take two forms. If I'm going for the barbel it's usually with my mate Dick. It's a car full of gear, loaded to the gunnels with rods, reels and enough tackle and clothing to sink a ship , and an early start - about 5am - to pick him up and avoid the rush hour traffic and rolling speed limits of the M25. With luck we're pulling into the hotel car park about 8.15am, just in time for the full English breakfast which sets us up for the days fishing.
If I'm on my own, chasing the trout and shad, then it's a different trip, with just my fly gear and a leisurely drive down after the rush hour. I don't know why the two trips are different but I suspect the truth is we wind each other up over the preceding weeks until we're at fever pitch to get there. By contrast, trout and shad fishing seem more relaxed - there just doesn't seem the urgency to get there.
Like any trip this one has its landmarks, motorway junctions at first and then as the trip goes on more rural landmarks. The Air Balloon inn is one. The first time I saw it, it was living up to its name with a hot air balloon hanging just a few hundred feet above it.
One of the other landmarks that marks last phase of the journey is the appearance of the first tractor of the day - almost inevitably hauling a trailer full of potatoes for the crisp factories - and almost inevitably on a stretch of road either too narrow, too busy or to winding to allow safe overtaking.
To my Southern mind the people of Herefordshire seem remarkably laid back - the pace of life seems slower, more relaxed with no panic to get anywhere or get anything done. I'm sure it's because of these Potato tractors which plod along the road at a steady 15 - 20 MPH. Everybody is so used to getting stuck behind one that their whole way of life has been affected.
But occasionally miracles happen and the tractor pulls into a lay-by to let the stream of traffic built up behind it pass and then its pedal to the metal before he changes his mind.
Eventually the car rolls over the last landmark - the Bridge at Bredwardine and up the road to the hotel.
The Red Lion dates back to the 17th century when it was a coaching inn and also the local courtroom, used by circuit judges as they made their way around the countryside.
As to be expected of a building this age it's full of oak beams and little nooks and crannies. It would be a double-glazing salesman's dream as no two windows are the same size and there's not a sealed unit to be seen. Everywhere there are pictures and paintings of local scenes and fishing.
The Lounge bar reflects the changing face of British angling. The Wye was once a prolific salmon river, famous for its 'portmanteau' fish and the hotel catered exclusively to the visiting salmon angler. Nowadays the salmon runs are much reduced due to high seas overfishing and it is the barbel and chub angler that now forms the mainstay of the visiting fishermen at the hotel. This identity crisis is reflected in the décor with a mix of antique salmon and trout tackle scattered around the hotel and bar intermingled with pictures of barbel.
Anyway, that's enough scene setting - let's get onto the important bits - the fishing. Here's an article I wrote but never published some time ago. To give you an idea of size the net in the pictures is 24 inches in diameter.
The Birthday Double
I stood on the bank, besides the rods, looking glumly out over the smooth sliding water of the pool. The Wye was low - as low as I'd ever seen it. Yesterday I had blanked. I always manage to blank on one day a trip but it looked as though I was going to blank today as well - on my birthday! Not just any birthday but my 50th, not that I hold much importance with so-called landmark birthdays. They're all the same as other birthdays but I do like to go fishing on that one day a year. I've got this vision of personal bests rolling into the net on those days. It's never happened yet but I live in hope.
Not that I could complain I suppose, this week I'd already had a personal best 6lb chub and a mid double pike, on a meatball, as well as a few barbel - good going in the hard conditions everyone was complaining of. But then I'd managed to blank last year on my birthday and two years on the trot was a bit much! My only hope was a chub as the light faded, I had about two hours to save the day.
Beside me the left hand rod tip slammed down and I stood in disbelief for a moment before grabbing the rod halfway down and striking - sort of! The rod remained bent, pulling back and I sorted myself out. As I played the fish the RH rod bounced. For a moment I had visions of playing two barbel at once. ‘Please! No.' I thought to myself, knees knocking, panic setting in at the thought of two barbel on at once. The tip dropped back and I breathed again.
The fish fought hard and I played it carefully, unwilling to lose it now after all the fishless hours of the day. It tired finally and I drew it over the net and lifted, pulling net and fish toward me and breathing a sigh of relief at the same time.
At 8lb 10oz it was my best barbel of the week. I walked it up the pool to release it away from where I was fishing. For a while it hung in the margins, recovering its strength before surging out of my hands back into the river, heading away from where I was fishing. I walked back down the pool and rebaited both rods and recast.
That one fish had changed the day. Gloom and despondency had gone to be replaced by a feeling of anticipation. I reached for the flask and poured a coffee. The first mouthful had barely gone down when the left hand rod again banged down. I spilled the coffee over myself as I put it down and struck - the rod pulling over hard.
The fish immediately took off across the pool and I hurriedly slipped the fighting drag over on the reel. (I'd scoffed at the idea of a fighting drag when I bought the reel but I have to admit I've changed my mind where clear-water barbel are concerned.) The fish slowed and I leant on the rod to begin pumping the fish back. The rod bent over double and I realised this was a lot bigger fish than I had thought. The thought of a double crept into my mind for the second time that week. (The first time was the pike.)
The fish and I slogged it out, time flying by. It did it's best to visit every part of the pool and I did my best to stop it, fearful of the snags on the far side. There was no feeling of control over the fish, and I up-rated my thoughts of its size - the fish growing from a double to something of mid double size. Maybe even a new record for the river. I wondered if I ought to sack the fish in the margins when i landed it and try to find a witness. I gulped the rest of the cup of coffee before it got too cold and continued to fight the fish.
How long I fought the fish I don't know but for the second time in my fishing career my arm was physically aching. It felt longer than it was probably was. Even so the light was going from the October sky before I saw a bronze flash as the fish rolled briefly. It didn't look as big as I thought it should in that brief glimpse - there was something not quite right. The fish fought hard under the rod tip and I piled on the pressure and bullied the fish into the net as the truth sank home.
Moments later it lay on the gravel at my feet and I smiled to myself as the truth was revealed - my designs on fame and glory shattered by reality. It was a barbel - but not the imagined monster - just an average seven pounder, firmly hooked in the base of the pelvic fin. No wonder it had gone where it wished! I laughed and unhooked the fish, returning it to the water.
I continued fishing. The barbel were still feeding and I made the best of it. Another graced the net at 7pm and I decided to fish into dark for an hour or so, fitting the starlights to the tips. As the light faded the chub moved in, hungry and eager for the bait, slamming the tip down almost as soon as the bait settled. I missed several of these ‘unmissable' bites before connecting with one - a good four- pounder. Another followed shortly - this one a ‘five'.
I looked at my watch and decided it was time to go - my stomach having the final say. The hotel, a meal (definitely the steak tonight) and a couple of birthday drinks beckoned.
My only regret was I had to leave tomorrow but it had been a birthday to remember, especially the tussle with the ‘double'. I'd had all the fun and anticipation of the moment and yet had it all to enjoy again. I'd proved you could have your cake and eat it too! And it was a birthday cake!
Once a common species in the rivers of the UK, the shad is now limited to a handful of rivers, among them the Severn and the Wye. These are incredible sporting fish. A member of the herring family they are almost like mini tarpon and spent almost as much time out of water as in when hooked. I fish for them with a 3 weight rod and on this light gear they're great sport.
They say a picture paints a thousand words so I've put together a few thousand words into a little video about the river with a little shad fishing thrown in. Hope you enjoy it.
So if you're like me and want a bit of peace and quiet while you're fishing coupled with beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife and un-named fish - treat yourself and head west to explore the Wye valley.