There is a part of the River Walkham in Devon that is straddled by the Grenofen bridge. As you cross the bridge, to the left, upstream, is a stretch I have often fished, covered by the Tavy, Walkham and Plym Fishing Club, permits for which you can readily buy and cost only a few pounds a day (for trout).
Downstream, and to the right, the fishing is private and I have never been able to fish it. I am not sure anyone actually does fish there as the fish in it are crafty big fish which seem to know they can't get caught there. At certain times of year I have also looked down on the long, lean, purposeful backs of salmon lying very deep down. Or, at the foot of the pool I have heard the distinct splash of the sea trout.
But all of this has always been off limits, tantalisingly so. This year, Pete and I hung over the bridge looking at one particular brown trout, waiting for some acceptable present to drop from the sky. He was a sizeable fish, big enough to fuel many a pub conversation were he ever foolish enough to be caught. And as other smaller fish tried to take his lair, he bullied them out of the way. He was king of that bit of water and of course, we wanted him.
We discussed the impossible cast that would be needed to reach him, whilst still casting off the bank we were allowed to fish from. It would need to swoop under the bridge – casting into him, not from behind like you would generally do – and still land on his nose without startling him. We leaned right over the metal bars that formed the sides of the bridge. I was chewing gum, deep in tactical conversation. It was all academic, since we would never get a crack at him, but still.
What fly would we use? We discussed many. I said a parachute black gnat, small, visible, nimble, good for a hot day (which it was that day, we were still in the arms of summer). He was feeding very selectively, but we couldn't see on what. It would be difficult, Pete said, with such a clever, big fish, to know what to present him with. It would have to be exactly the right pattern. Maybe something generic, he said, like a black gnat (hurrah!) that would sit in the surface film, on a size 24 hook which is very, very tiny, nothing big and gauche. The big trout, seeming to know he was being watched, went deeper.
Then something startled me, causing me to open my mouth in surprise. And, as I was leaning so far over the bridge, my gum fell out of my mouth, and into the river. It landed in the water, a small grey, circular blob. Right on top of the big brown trout. I panicked at the thought of having introduced some horrible, foreign body into the river when, deep from his hidey hole, the big trout raced up and without hesitation gobbled my gum right up. Had a hook and line been attached, I would have had myself the catch of the summer, fallen to a green Extra. (Please don't try this, gum and rivers/fish don't mix.) He spat it out fairly quickly but still, Pete looked on in sheer disbelief. I bet I can get him to rise to just my saliva, I said. I powered up my cheeks and spat, as only an Italian girl trained by legions of male cousins can, into the Walkham. Again the fish rose and swallowed. So much for fancy flies and theories, I said. Pete tried it, gobbing into the river. Nothing. The fish completely ignored it. Never mind I said, it takes years of practise.