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The Hebden Clocks

Chris McCully
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The Hebden Clocks

Chris McCully fishes for Grayling on the Wharfe

The Hebden clocks have ticked through my adult life.

It was the third week of October, 1974. Over the half-term break I stayed with a school-friend in a house owned by one of my mother’s former nursing colleagues. She and her husband had rooms full of clocks: grandfather clocks, carriage clocks and lovely mantel clocks whose burnished cases were oak or mahogany. The clocks weren’t entirely synchronised and so the chiming came in a scatter around the top of the hour. Some clocks struck the quarters and we ate our meals to a haphazard rendering of the Cambridge Chimes. The cottage was immaculately kept and smelt of oiled leather and furniture polish. Evenings were spent writing up the fishing diaries; nights were dreamless. For breakfast there were fresh eggs; there was ham and brown bread. I remember great kindness – tin-foil and packed lunches, apples and cake – and the exhilarating relaxation that comes from absence of deadlines or strain. There was nowhere particular I had to go, except to go fishing; there was no-one particular I had to be, except a grateful and polite self.

We’d gone to Hebden to fish the Grassington waters for grayling. I can’t remember which of the family had after much prompting bought me a copy of Reg Righyni’s seminal book
Grayling, but I do know it was a Christmas present in 1971, three years after the text had been published in the Richard Walker Angling Library. I opened Grayling so often, so avidly that the physical fabric of the text was threatened and therefore I laminated the cover (a lamination in place to this day). Naturally, because I’d fished the Wharfe and was acquainted with some of the places appearing in the book’s photographs I gave out to my school-friends that I knew all about grayling fishing. Of course I did. I could talk long-trotting, the dry fly and the efficacy of spiders with the best (and worst) of them. I doubt very much that I invented bountiful catches or impossibly large grayling but I almost certainly promoted my non-existent but enviable expertise. Oh yes.

The diaries, which have always been and remain unerring in their record of uncomfortable angling truth, tell me that by 1974 I’d caught only a handful of grayling. The first came from the River Rye on a dry-fly; the next came from the Swale while long-trotting; the next – tiny, out-of-season fish – from the Wharfe and the lovely pool below Linton Falls. These last I’d got on spiders but noted that the fish ‘took like lightning’. They did not, or not entirely. In common with many inexperienced downstream wet-fly anglers I tended to hold the rod-tip too low while the flies were swimming. I was anxious to feel the tug, the pull. Yet as Righyni pointed out, if a downstream wet-fly angler feels a tug, the fish has accordingly felt immediate resistance from the rod and line – and will eject the fly. This elementary angling fact accounts for the ‘fruitless tugs’ that are a feature of my angling diary entries at that time. I hadn’t then learnt to keep the rod-tip high, to give the fish time to take and turn, to watch the water and/or the bow that forms between water surface and fly-line when downstream wets are being presented correctly.
Did we usually walk from Hebden to Grassington and to the Post Office that sold day tickets? I think we must have done. It’s not far – a couple of miles – but the road, thin-verged and twisting between dry-stone walls, can’t have been altogether safe to walk even in those days, when traffic was lighter. On at least one morning we got an unexpected lift from a man in a van. The diary calls him ‘the local bailiff/naturalist’: ‘He told us of the 11½lb trout a grayling fisherman took below Bolton Abbey last winter, and of the half dozen 3-4lb trout that can sometimes be seen below [Ghaistrills] Strid.’ I also wrote that this same kind man ‘showed us his flies: the basic patterns [of spiders] on 14 and 16 hooks’. There’s a hint of the patronising: ‘the basic patterns…’ He’d doubtless caught more grayling than I ever will. In 1974 I probably thought he had nothing to teach me.

It was this self, credulous yet arrogant with insecurity, that I took to the wall ends upstream of Grassington Bridge. The insecurity had advantages. I was desperate to harmonise experience with what I’d so spuriously claimed I already knew.

October 22nd, 1974. There was a light, variable wind and the river was up but running clear. Working on advice we’d received from another kind voice behind the Post Office counter, where day-tickets were £1, we walked to the glides that run, now faster, now more slowly, between Ghaistrills and Grassington Bridge. Had not Righyni stated that he looked for exactly these types of glide as prime autumnal haunts of grayling? I put up three spiders – a Partridge and Orange, a Dark Needle and a Snipe and Purple – on 2.5lb nylon. From lunchtime onwards there were hatches of olives; in the late afternoons there were needle-flies; I recorded a brief hatch of iron blue duns, though that might have been fanciful. By the end of the day, by fishing up-and-across and then allowing the flies to swing below me, I’d released three small grayling and risen or turned many more. The diary states that the best of them was 10¼ inches long (around 7oz). There must have been a tape measure; I note the ¼-inch with a smile.

The next day, fishing across-and-down in a gusty downstream wind, I got another three and was clearly learning: ‘By keeping an appreciable bow in the line between rod-tip and water it is possible to minimise the useless kind of plucks that one sometimes gets….’ It’s true that I was paraphrasing Righyni but the results were beginning to be meaningful. The best of those three grayling weighed 1lb 1oz.

The next day, fishing the glides below Linton Church, I released eight grayling and was still learning: ‘I cast the flies at 90 degrees across…to enable a longer travel and to let the flies sink deeper…’

And through it all the Hebden clocks ticked . . .
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The River of all the Goodbyes
by Chris McCully