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A Christmas Reverie

Francis Walbran
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A Christmas Reverie

Francis Walbran

I often wonder why, at that time of the year which is usually termed by the people in general ‘The Festive Season,’ the mind should revert so much to bygone days, but the fact remains that it is so; and tonight, as I sit in my den, turning over the pages of my angling diary, the events of many happy days spent in the past with comrades, some of whom have gone hence never to return, and others who are scattered far and wide over the face of the earth, come like a waking dream before my eyes. It is very curious how perfectly one remembers the most trifling details connected with things that have happened twenty years ago - they seem like occurrences of yesterday - while important matters, which are of some more recent date, are almost forgotten.

The pages of my diary, in the early portions, are yellow and the ink faded, but the memory of the events noted therein is as fresh in my mind as on the day when they were written. How frequently at that time did the name of my cousin W.N. appear, and naturally so, for was he not my mentor in all things appertaining to angling, and did I not form my first determination to be a proficient in the gentle art owing to the enthusiasm which he instilled into me? The first trout that ever I saw captured was by him, and although more than thirty years ago, the whole scene comes vividly before me. We were both of us scholars at Ripon Grammar School, which in those days was situated in St Agnesgate, close to the river Skell. My cousin was a most enthusiastic angler, and always used to bring his rod, so that during the half-hour allowed for recreation, and also after school hours, he could follow his favourite sport.
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One fine June afternoon, as we left the school-yard, he asked me to accompany him, and I consented, more from curiosity than anything else. How little did I think then what an important item in my future life angling would become. We were soon on the river bank - the strip of land behind the Maison Dieu Hospital, immediately below Bondgate Bridge. The Skell was full just after a fresh, and the bait that my cousin decided to use was the natural minnow. He showed me, I remember exactly, how it was put on to the tackle, and then spun it close in at the edge, to let me see how it was worked against the stream. Almost at the end of the narrow spit of land some willow bushes overhang the water, and he pointed that out to me as being a likely place for a feeding fish. Gently he swung the minnow under the boughs, and drew it with short jerks towards us. It had nearly reached our feet when I saw a flash in the amber-tinted water; with no sign of excitement my instructor dropped his hand for a moment, and then tightened the line with a steady draw. His supple rod bent into a graceful curve, and after a minute or two of great excitement on my part, and perfect coolness on his, I witnessed the capture of a beautiful pound trout as mentioned before, the first I had ever seen. We wandered on from one stream to another, finishing up about eight o’clock in the evening with a pretty dish of eight trout in the pink of condition.

From that memorable day my cousin and I were inseparable, and on many occasions, when supposed by the headmaster to be deep in the study of Virgil or Euclid, we were in reality discussing (to us) far more important questions, whether fly or minnow was likely to prove the most deadly, when we were free to rush away to our beloved river. Poor W. N.; sad was my heart many, many years after, when we had spent hundreds of happy days in pursuit of trout and grayling, he shook my hand for the last time, departing to Australia, to accept a remunerative situation in a bank there. I never saw him again, as he was fatally injured in a football match, and, after lingering for several weeks, he died far away from his friends and relatives. Call it foolish sentimentality if you like, but as I sit thinking over those early days in my angling career the tears will come, and I fancy that once again I can see the handsome face and hear the cheery voice of my dear friend, who, let us hope, is now in that unknown land where all is peace and rest.
Then, there was old Dick Smith, a veteran angler upon whom we youthful Waltonians were wont to look with a feeling akin to awe. He very seldom fished with anything but the artificial fly, and was certainly at that time about as good a fisherman as ever threw line upon Skell or Yore. Many and many a time have I stayed away from school - or, I suppose, better say at once, played truant - in order to spend the day with him, watching his movements and admiring the skill with which he added fish after fish to his basket; then at the close of the day I would accompany him to his cottage to receive my first lessons in fly-tying. He seldom used a winged fly, all his favourite patterns being hackled ones. I should say that a dozen varieties would be as many as he would employ throughout the entire season. His special favourites were Woodcock and Orange, Waterhen Bloa, Snipe Bloa, Dark Snipe and Purple, Dotterel and Yellow, Yellow-legged Bloa, and a series of partridge hackles with various-coloured bodies. Since then I have tested the above on many rivers, and am convinced that his experience was correct, for, varied in size, I never knew them fail. It is many years since Dick Smith joined the majority, but I never shall forget his memory or his teachings.

I turn over a few more pages, and come across the names of two other famous anglers, who always were to be found together on fishing excursions - W. Dibb and John Bellerby. The mention of them immediately brings to my mind the recollection of a day at Tanfield, the only occasion when I ever knew the Oak Fly, or Down-looker, as it is generally called, to be of any service on the Yore. A friend and myself were fishing above the village, and the other two above-named worthies were on the length below the weir. We had experienced a very disappointing day, and were having our tea in the little parlour at the Bruce Arms, when in came Mr Dibb and ‘Old John,’ as Bellerby was familiarly called. To our great astonishment, each had a splendid basket of trout, and on inquiring what fly had produced such sport, we were told the Down-looker. ‘Whatever made you try that, John?’ I asked, knowing it was not a usual killer on that water. ‘Nay,’ he replied, ‘I hardly know, but we had tried about every fly in our books, so thought we would give ’em summat out of common,’ and ‘They did take it right,’ he added. That was in the days when there was no railway to Tanfield and Masham, and many times have I walked from Ripon, fished all day, and tramped back again after nine o’clock in the evening with my pannier full to the lid. Tempora mutantur, my friends, since then.

Another well-known Ripon angler was Lowther, an umbrella-maker and cutler. He made for me the rod that I almost always use, and which, although, if I recollect rightly, only cost me three half-crowns, I would not exchange for the best five-guinea split cane rod that was ever built. Lowther was a good all-round man; he seldom fished the fly; he was a great adept at swimming the worm, and I fancy I can see him now, fishing his favourite bit of water just below the point where the Skell flows into the Yore. He left Ripon during the time that I resided there, and I often wonder if he is still in the land of the living.

And so could I continue ad infinitum; in fact, a goodly-sized volume could be filled with the history of my angling experiences. These memories constitute to a great extent the charm of our beloved sport. The traducers of angling cannot understand how it is when a couple of fishermen come together that they can find subject matter for hours of earnest conversation, or how so much interest can be evoked from the turning over the leaves of an old fly-book; but everything in that weather-beaten-looking volume reminds one of some incident or another. The mere sight of a ragged fly or a tarnished artificial bait brings to your mind the struggle that you had many years ago with some exceedingly heavy fish. If the pleasures of angling began and ended with the capture of fish, there would be a termination of the sport tomorrow. If a man is what I term a born angler, namely, never grows weary or impatient whether sport be good or bad, ignores discomforts of the weather, and is willing to put up with an inconvenience to ensure a day’s fishing, I say that man is also a lover of Nature; to him the riverside is a book, and in every yard of ground that he travels over there is something to attract his attention and excite him. But my reverie is at an end, for I hear the patter of little feet, and my room door is thrown open by a little fairy with dancing eyes and flushed cheeks, who begs of me to come and inspect the Christmas tree that mother and sisters are decorating upstairs. There is no denying her, and my pen must be laid aside . . .
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See more about
Grayling and How to Catch Them
by Francis Walbran