Country Matters: Sparrer's slippery business

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WHEN we met in the pub at lunchtime he said he would pick me up at 11 o'clock that night, to go elvering. 'I shan't be coming in, mind,' he said. 'I'll see you in the road.'

Sure enough, his van appeared on time, but again he was evasive. 'Leave it a minute,' he said softly through the window, 'then drive down the lane. When the road gives out, just keep going straight 'til you see me again.'

The night was clear and cold, with the moon on the wane. There he stood at the end of a bumpy track: a tall, gaunt figure, dark as a raven in the starlight. 'Don't use my name,' he told me - so I will call him Sparafucile, or Sparrer for short, after the hired assassin in Rigoletto, for there was something conspiratorial, if not actually sinister, about his manner and appearance.

He unlocked the door of a small shed, went in and lit an oil lamp, which revealed an old sofa and armchair. 'Might as well be comfortable,' he said cheerfully. 'Not like those buggers stuck out on the bank all night: we can come in for a warm-up and a cup of coffee.'

Soon we were joined by Jim, a young fellow half his age, and we all picked our way out over a high grass bank and down to the rocky foreshore. The men took up station a few yards apart, each with a fine-mesh net on a frame, like a huge lacrosse bat, which he lowered into the water. Every couple of minutes one or other would bring up his net, switch on a torch to see what he had caught, and tip any elvers into a bucket.

The night was magically quiet. Not a sound or light disturbed the darkness. The surface of the river was so still that I could not tell which way it was flowing. Reflected stars shimmered in a black satin blanket.

Trade proved slow: Jim was bringing up 20 or 30 baby eels each time, but Sparrer was getting no more than four or five - tiny, translucent worms, two or three inches long and thin as wire, which run at about 5,000 to the kilo. It seemed incredible that such tiny creatures could have spent three years drifting in the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea, beside the Gulf of Mexico; still more extraordinary that they have powers of navigation.

As he fished, my companion talked quietly about his life on the Severn. Born and brought up in a village on the river, he has gone elvering in spring for more than 40 years: from February to May he has dodged and flitted about the banks at night, so that he knows every bend, every shift of the current, every lode and pill (drainage ditches), every tump (vantage point) on the bank.

When he was a boy, only locals went elvering, and their catches were eaten at home or sold for 6d (2 1/2 p) a pound in villages and towns nearby. 'My old chap died when I was seven,' he recalls. 'That left four of us boys and our old lady. There was nothing like National Assistance and all that crap you have today. We had to rough it. So in the spring we'd go elvering: get a bucketful, clean 'em up and cook 'em. Normally, you just fry 'em, but we'd squash 'em down in a pillowcase to make a sort of pate. With the juice squeezed out, it was almost like bread. We had that for breakfast, we had it for lunch, we had it in sandwiches for tea.'

Then, in the Sixties, everything changed. According to Sparrer, it was the opening of elver stations, which began to buy catches and market them commercially, that 'knackered the whole job up'. As demand for live elvers rose on the Continent and even in Japan (for eating and breeding), so the price climbed, and strangers began to infest the river.

This year the price opened at pounds 52 a kilo, but an itinerant buyer, operating from a van, was offering pounds 5 above basic, or pounds 57. After a while the rate suddenly crashed to pounds 20, but it is now back up to pounds 45.

It is this kind of money that makes the fishermen so secretive - for although most have probably bought pounds 20 licences, they do not like paying income tax, and most are on the dole. 'Nobody wants to be seen or identified,' said Sparrer. 'The whole business has got hyphenated bloody up, if you know what I mean. There's people that go in gangs, six or seven of them together, with walkie-talkies, hi-tech stuff, all spread up the river. They tump out (reserve their spots): they'll have six tumps at the Moors, six at the Crib and six at Elmore Back. They'll put two blokes in each place, so that if the elvers get up anywhere, they come on the radio and say, 'Anything down there? Nothing? Well, we're on 'em 'ere. Come on up.' '

Sparrer doesn't bother to tump out. As he says, 'I've got me own places I go,' and he prefers to 'slip about in the dark'. There was something special about the spot we were on, but I promised that I would not divulge its secret - and in any case, it was producing very little that night.

Much depends on the temperature, the wind, the amount of fresh water in the river and the state of the tide. Elvers drift up on big tides, and then, as the ebb sets in each night, make for the sides of the river, aiming for flows of fresh water.

On some nights, for reasons which not even Sparrer can fathom, they mass into solid snakes, apparently miles long - and if you hit one of those, you hit gold: every time you put your net in, it comes up full.

That night's tide was a 24- footer. 'He'll be dropping in about the top end of the Moors,' Sparrer mused. 'If he went 25 foot, I'd have a look at Longney Crib. He might put a bit of water in the right condition into Elmore Back . . . .'

After an hour or so we retired to the hut for coffee, to sit out the dead period while the tide turned. Sparrer lamented the wild stories which get about - of people earning pounds 20,000 in an evening. But he admitted that he and Jim had one phenomenal night last year, when they netted over 50 kilos (the price then being pounds 30 a kilo) and came away with pounds 1,600.

He takes his own catches, carefully preserved alive in special trays, to the elver station run by a man he calls Clarky, who gives him a chit for each night's amount, and pays out at the end of the season. 'At the finish Clarky'll say to me, 'Cash up then, Sparrer,' and next day he gives me a cheque.

'It ain't got no name on it, mind; just says 'Pay the bearer' - so you don't want to go and drop the bugger . . . .'

Last year there was a brief scandal when the bank in Gloucester ran out of money, such was the end-of-season rush on funds.

Outside again, the moon had gone and the air was even colder. Two foxes were squabbling noisily in the field nearby. Now, with the tide ebbing, the elvers should be on the move - but no. Hardly any came up in the nets, and at 2.30am Sparrer decided to pack it in. With his own firm to run, he would have to be up at seven, ready for work.

The whole night's operation had yielded less than half a kilo - not even pounds 20 worth - yet his optimism remained unquenchable.

'We've got a big tide next Thursday, and he'll be good. Then we've got a May creeper to look forward to: he's a tide that creeps on you, without you hardly seeing him. You could be looking for him down there, and he's up here, gone by yer.'

The same could be said of Sparrer himself. He might easily go by you in the night, leaving no more trace than a ghost.