Fishing

Gentle craft, noble sport, this beautiful river of ours has tempted and teased huge numbers of a very particular audience to our riverbanks.

When commentators said we were a ‘classless’ society, it is evidently not true when it came to glory days of salmon fishing, the ‘gentry’ fish. Anglers paid big money for a ‘rod’. A fitting equivalent could be polo today and its select audience and players.

The Wye has entertained royalty (Emperor Hirohito’s visit is anecdotal: we’re still looking for evidence!), world leaders, captains of industry, senior military personnel, politicians, and, at the other end of the spectrum, poachers.

It is a different scene for salmon fishing today, as it slips down the angling hierarchy in order of economic importance to coarse fishing. But many still fantasise about landing the ‘big one’.

From Hay-on-Wye to Symonds Yat, a distance of 60 miles, the River Wye meanders and only drops 160 feet. In bygone times salmon fishing was plenty on this middle section, but nowadays the numbers of running salmon are low and so they are spread out thinly along the Wye.

George Woodward, 74

‘Our Atlantic salmon are going thousands of miles. It’s the equivalent of taking a small child when he was three, putting him in the Amazonian rain forest ‘til he was about ten, then saying, “Make your own way from here lad”. It’s just beyond comprehension really.’ George Woodward.

‘It’s very likely people know more about the dark side of the moon than they actually know what happens two feet under the water of the Wye, because you don’t see salmon and fish on a regular basis. Lots of people think it’s just a river, it’s got fish in, but they don’t know or understand the life cycle of those fish. David Attenborough makes marvellous films about the migration of the wildebeest on the Serengeti plains of Africa, and people sit there and think, “oh, isn’t that marvellous?” Those wildebeest are only going a few hundred miles at most. Our Atlantic salmon are going thousands of miles.’

Maurice Hudson, 85

‘I’ve been fishing since I was a youngster. I had no choice but to take up fishing.’

Maurice has caught more Wye salmon than anyone alive, 2,400 salmon at the last count. An ex-pupil of Monmouth School for Boys, he went on to a career as a physics master at Seaford College in Sussex for 35 years until his retirement, but still made time to return regularly to his home patch for a spot of fishing. He has owned the same stretch of river bank for over 50 years and can be seen there most days during the season, with his wife, Judy, and their faithful pooch.

‘My father was a fisherman and his father was a fisherman. Where we fished, the Duke of Beaufort owned the fishing rights. It was my grandfather who leased the fishing rights off the Duke of Beaufort. In those days, it was a source of food for us. You caught your food in the river, grew it in your garden, and you shot it in the woods. The river provided an awful lot of food. We always had more salmon than we knew what to do with.’ 

First salmon 

Major Patrick Darling, 59

A stretch of river frontage at his farm in Sellack was a ‘tremendous bonus’ for Patrick Darling when he moved to the area: ‘It’s a delight to have a river, particularly such a pretty part of it.’ He has always fished growing up in Northern Ireland. When he was in the army he fished wherever he could if there was some fishing going. He is chair of the Wye Preservation Trust, an organisation that ensures that the river continues to be an unspoilt part of our natural heritage in Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, and Powys.

The Wye salmon has special appeal. Patrick Darling again: ‘It’s just the magic of the salmon. It’s a wild fish and its ecology is so amazing, how it spawns in the river, the way it is nurtured in the river, its fry, then its parr, then its smolts, then it goes out to sea. The Wye is a big river and probably should be England’s premiere salmon river. I think at the moment the Tyne is, but potentially the Wye, if we get it fully restored, should be the best. It’s quite a slow river. Up in Wales there’s some lovely fly water. Once it flows into England, the Welsh, rather contemptuously, refer to it as the “English ditch”. That really is referring to the fact that it gets quite slow flowing, meandry, not particularly good for fishing for salmon with flies. So the salmon fishing, traditionally, has been done with minnows and spinners. And in previous days, banned shrimps and worms. And very effectively, people would catch a lot.

‘I caught my last salmon on the Wye about five years ago now. The reason for that is I really haven’t had time to go fishing and this year I haven’t fished on the Wye at all. I think the Wye salmon spend quite a lot of time at sea and come back very big because of their migration route. So there is a tradition in the Wye for some very big fish. Certainly, if you go to Aramstone you will see the British record for the two biggest fish caught in a day. They are both enormous, in plaster casts up there. Fishing as a sport is a lovely way to clear the mind. It is a wonderful, relaxing sport.’

In his book, ‘The Tale of a Wye Fisherman’, H A Gilbert discussed the salmon fisherman’s ultimate ambition: the portmanteau. It was certainly the dream of Richard Pennington’s father: ‘We lived in Winforton and fished near there. My dad must have caught hundreds of fish and I think his best was a 36-pounder but he would have loved to have caught a portmanteau. 40-pounders were called portmanteaus. I don’t know why, I suppose because they were heavy. To catch a portmanteau was the ultimate ambition for salmon fishermen.’

There is only so much salmon any self-respecting fisherman can eat. So there comes a time when finding a buyer is the best option. At one time in Hereford there was Mac Fisheries and Sid Wrights selling fish. But the man of choice was ‘Fishy’ Gardiner. His shop, on the corner of King Street and Bridge Street, made a striking impression in its day, it was a Hereford institution. Across the shop front a shoal of fish hung from above, laid out on tables in front, and resting on marble slabs inside, all jostling for space. In later years the business was moved to the Butter Market, but of his former shop, once seen never forgotten.

Hatton’s of Hereford

Hatton’s of Hereford cannot pass by without mention. A legend among sporting fisherman, the doors to their St Owen Street shop are long closed, but the impression left behind continues to linger.

Writing in 1955, C V Hancock (Rod and River,1955) insisted, ‘the name of Hatton must recur in any history of the Wye salmon fishing’. And he is right. In its time, Hatton’s reputation, like the salmon fishermen it served, was world-wide. When the shop finally closed its doors in 2001, it was described as the ‘end of an era’. Certainly, anglers old enough to remember this ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, describe the shop and the Hatton family, Herbert, Margaret, their son John, and later Norman Owen, with great affection. Among the many illustrious customers to step over its threshold were some royal guests including Edward VIII, when he was Prince of Wales, and George VI when he was Duke of York.

The patriarch of the business, Herbert Hatton, who died in 1955, founded the shop at the turn of the 19th century and steadily built it up into one of the best known of its kind in the world. In his obituary in the Hereford Times, he was described as ‘arguably the king of salmon fishing on the Wye and his customers and any correspondents from all over the world dredged him for knowledge until his deathbed in 1955.’

Herbert honed his craft from his own experience as a fisherman, landing no fewer than fourteen salmon over 40-pound in the Wye with the Wye Minnow, a lure he designed and patented in 1907. It was painted by his wife, Margaret, who worked from a back room. She was a respected fisherwoman in her own right, described in contemporary reports as the ‘Grand old lady of Hereford angling’. Her father-in-law had rented five miles of river bank at Fownhope and here she learned almost all there was to know about catching salmon. Her greatest catch was in the 1930s, a 38lb salmon in Fownhope, and she tore the seat of her trousers on a barbed wire fence doing so. Herbert founded the Hereford & District Angling Association in 1921 and he and Margaret were made life members in 1937.

Hugo Mason is a retired director of Hook Mason architects. The conservation of churches and historic buildings was at the forefront of his work and included a major refurbishment of All Saints’ Brockhampton in 1999. He is a lifelong angler and gardener and wildlife, countryside and dog lover. Thoroughly practical and supportive of good art, colour, creativity and exceptional craftsmanship, he was a customer of Hatton’s: ‘Nothing about the Wye would be complete without mention of Hatton’s. From my very first day’s fishing, Hatton’s was the place where most people, especially salmon fishermen, used to buy their fishing tackle. It was in St Owen’s Street, approximately opposite the Town Hall. Very soon after I started to go there, they were joined by a competent local angler and rod builder, Norman Owen. This was good news as the Hattons were getting older. I had a ‘Hatton’s Hereford’ built cane fly rod at the time, but didn’t know how to use it. Norman offered to give me two lessons at Hoarwithy, for free, and so this is how my life’s fly fishing really began. I remain extremely grateful to Norman for his help in those early days. When he took over the running of Hatton’s I helped him design and seek planning permission for his Walenty Pytel shop sign.’

Lyn Cobley, 75.

‘Fishing was a bug. I was working in Hereford and I took a job nights so I could fish throughout the salmon season.’ Lyn Cobley

Lyn Cobley, a former South Wales’ coalminer, is a ghillie at Ingestone, Foy. Can there be a greater contrast in his choice of workplaces, from dark coal caverns to this sublime stretch of river? He must pinch himself every morning. He has been on the river at Foy for 39 years and shows no sign of retiring. ‘I’ve fished all my life and my dad introduced me to the Wye when I was five years old.’ Lyn’s love of coarse fishing started in his birth place, Wales:

‘There wasn't much fishing at home in South Wales as the rivers were black with coal dust. My dad used to bring me up on the Wye and we'd catch a bus and fish there and all we used to catch were trout and sand dabs but up on the Wye we used to go all over with the Angling Club, and we used to catch the chubb and dace and god knows what. Fishing was a bug. I was working in Hereford and working nights. How the hell I used to get through the season I don't know!

‘Coarse fishing, you go in and you catch fish in freshwater and then put them back and when we used to come to the upper reaches of the Wye at Builth, Glasbury, Newbridge-on-Wye, the condition of fishing them was you had to take the fish from there, so you caught the fish and took them home.  They were buried in the garden but thank god none of that goes on now.

‘The Wye was about the best river in the country for coarse fishing. You could come in and catch about 30, 40 pound bags a day of roach, you're talking about 50, 70, 80 pound bags of chubbs, and when the barbel come in, it altered it. There's no doubt the barbel made big in-roads into the Wye, it was introduced into the Severn, it's a fish that come from abroad originally. It was put in the Wye illegally and now we get people from all over the country to fish for barbel. They'll catch the other fish but the majority is barbel.’

The Eel

The eel, snake-like, slippery, slimy, what’s to like? Well, at one time quite a lot actually. They were easy to catch, there were lots of them, they provided a cheap food source and, we are reliably informed, tasted pretty good. But there is a problem with our eel population. Their dramatic decline makes for shocking reading. The shrinking salmon population pales into comparison when it comes to the eels’. Words like devastating, catastrophic and irreversible are bandied around when talking about the ‘slippery one’. The statistics really do speak for themselves. One group are trying to do something about it.

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is part of The Herefordshire Eel Project, a collaborative effort between the Golden Valley Fish and Wildlife Association, the Lugg and Arrow Fisheries Association and supporting groups and sponsors. It is trying to increase the numbers of eels in the Wye: ‘The eel’s population has dropped by 95% in 30 years in the Wye. I can’t remember the exact figures, but I think in the 1970s it was something like 50 tonnes of elvers (baby eels) caught on the Wye. Last year there was just one kilo. A dramatic difference.’  The Project has restocked county rivers with elvers and is campaigning to stop the fish being exported. It remains to be seen whether this effort can replenish the Wye of the elver that has been fished, almost to extinction, over several generations. It has quite a job on its hands. It’s a sad and poignant story. As one old timer put it: ‘There’s none left. Little boys can’t bring an eel back home and show mum anymore. We all used to do that.’

Easy then? In preparing a plate of grilled eel, recipes call for the creature to be salted then skinned. No doubt Fishy Gardiner would have done this in a blink of the eye. There were many methods. One particularly brutal way was to nail it to the door and then set to work. Many more children bought them home to mum, putting the writhing mass into the sink in the scullery. When ready, eel was grabbed, head chopped off (‘put your foot on its head and then chop it off’), salt it to give some purchase, and then start to roll the skin down a little way. After this slightly tricky start, the skin could be pulled down fairly easily and came off in one piece. Simple once you know how we suppose.

Adrian Howard, Crokers Ash:

‘You’d have a job holding onto them, they’ve got a slime on them. It’s horrible if you get an eel, they wrap around your arm and sometimes around the line. Bit like you get a trail with a snail, it’s a bit like that. The Garron used to be full of eels and they used to be a damn nuisance. We went down there once after a thunder storm and we caught 18 in three quarters of an hour. We ran out of worms then and we broke the last worm in half and we had an eel each on that.’

A young Hugo Mason of Brockhampton was another night time eel fishing fan:

‘By the time I was 12, I was well into fishing and this increased as I reached my teens. I used to fish under Capler, below the Iron Gate, down to The Boards or The Stones and it was nothing for me to catch a bucketful of eels in a four-hour session. These eels would wriggle all over the place and took some handling. I fished for eels until 1965 and caught many over 3lbs in weight. The big draw of eel fishing was going at night. This I used to do very often.’

Elvers

Elvers are amazing creatures. Small, transparent, worm-like fish, they arrive in the Wye and the Severn from the Sargasso Sea in their millions. They are a highly sought-after delicacy with the appearance of glass noodles. In Gloucestershire, they are commonly served with scrambled egg on toast.

The promise of gold enticed thousands to the Californian goldfields. It was a rough, tough, uncertain and often violent existence. But there could be the occasional riches that kept the carrot dangling for much longer than it should have sensibly done. Could we make similar comparisons to the Wye ‘elver rush’? It’s not too much of a stretch, you know?

Make no mistake, there was big money to be made and some rough and tumble on the riverside to secure it, with bullying, intimidation and even death threats. At one time, a kilo of elvers in China (where it is considered a delicacy and consumed in vast quantities) cost £6,000. That's more than Beluga caviar

The stakes were high and it could get rough during the season as competition for prime spots reached fever pitch. Unconventional, and often flirting with the law, Les Moses took his elvering operation very seriously, employing some ‘hard nuts’ with the intention of putting ‘the fear of God’ into fellow elver fishermen: ‘I done the elvering all my life from the age of 16. I used to go and just dabble, have a bit of fun. There was 300 to 600 people fishing there at one time. But the big money crept in on it. I shouldn’t have done it at the time, but I banned all the locals from going on some land that one of my relatives owned. They said, “You can’t do it,” and I said, “Watch me.” So, I got three of the hardest nutters from down the valleys and one of them was one of the hardest men rugby league players ever. They were fishing with me to look after it. I’ve had up to £480 a kilo at one time. The best they had down there was probably £380 a kilo. One time, the crew fishing for me, we had £52,000 in less than an hour one night. All tax free.”

Pike

And then there was the pike, the underdog in many respects in the river. They don’t get the best of press. One observer was most unflattering in its description: ‘It has the smallest of brains. It lacks anything of the innocence of salmon, trout or perch, which renders the creature so repellent!’ (Gibbings 1942). Its predatory nature is well known. Last century, a fisheries inspector, H. Cholmondeley-Pennell, recalls this example of the greedy fish: ‘A night line had been set, and when taken up the next morning was found to have a large pike on the hook. In order to extract the hook this fish had to be opened, and it was then found that the hook was really inside a smaller fish, which had been swallowed by the bigger one. This smaller one was then opened, and it was found that yet another pike was inside its belly’.

Hugo Mason: ‘Pike are amazing fish. I got to know the beat under Capler very well and I became very good at locating pike when they were feeding. In the Wye they can go up to about 30lbs in weight and are truly fantastic as they can move like lightning. I never got anywhere near 30lbs, but I did catch a lot in the twenty-pound bracket. One late autumn day in 1988, I took my nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, down to the Wye, where we fished for over an hour with a ‘Colorado Spoon’, a type of baitfish lure. I really wanted her to catch a pike and just when I thought we were going to have a ‘blank’ a really fine pike took the spoon. Lucy played the fish with no help from me and it weighted 12.5 pounds. I thought that experience was a once and only, but was proved totally wrong when I took eight-year-old Damian on his very first fishing lesson in exactly the same spot some 27 years later. We hadn’t been fishing long and were using a heavy rubber sprat as bait using the sink and draw method. Just as Damian was about to pull his bait off the water in order to re-cast, it was taken by the largest pike I have ever seen.’

Richard Pennington from Winforton is a salmon fishermen who has some sympathy for the poor old pike, especially in his days at ghillie at Letton: ‘When I was there the salmon fishermen, if they caught a pike, would just throw it on the bank. I chastised them in a polite sort of way. I said, “if you catch a pike give it to me”. I knew somebody in the village who liked it, and we have one once or twice from Letton Court. It would be my job to get rid of all the bones. They are quite boney but the flesh is nice. I think it’s as nice as cod. I used to make it into Dutch fishcakes, which was about 80% fish. Everybody would eat them. Salmon fisherman didn’t like them because they ate the salmon. When I was a boy my father and I used to do pike fishing. we used to apply for a licence from Whitney Court, a permit, and on it said: ‘All coarse fish caught must be killed!’ When we applied for the next one we would tell them how many pike we had caught, and that stood us in good stead for getting another one. One of the fishermen who used to come down to Letton would very often catch a pike and he would take it back to London and they would have a dinner party with his pike.’

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