Bedfordshire is generally a flat county, and maybe only Lincolnshire is flatter! It is full of rivers and streams, but most flow slow and deep, and contain a full head of a great variety of coarse fish, and its prime river, the Great Ouse, is reckoned to have some of the best fishing in Britain. The habitat preferred by salmo truta is rare.
I bought OS 153 and 166, and scoured these looking for potential trout water, my thinking being that perhaps the headwaters of the counties’ recognised fisheries might be shallower and quicker. I drove the grid on a systematic basis, but found that whilst OS showed lots of thin blue lines, many were mere ditches. Maybe the chalk seam to the south and east of Dunstable would have the odd stream worth a look. The headwaters of the Gade looked promising. To the south of Luton, the Lea just below the Bedfordshire/ Hertfordshire county line looked trouty, so why not just above it! This part flows at the bottom of the garden attached to a Doctor’s Surgey, and I popped in! They thought I was mad. But I did see some healthy barbel in a couple of feet of nicely flowing waters though the hedge adjacent to their property. ‘There are no trout there’, the head of the clinic advised!
I wrote seeking advice on Flyfishing Forum pages; I wrote to Angling Clubs and Stillwater fisheries’ management; I wrote to fishing chums and through them to EA officials (of which more later). I was not discouraged and learned of the odd catch of trout, but these it seemed were more likely, escapees, than indigenous. I visited and walked some of the stretches where my respondents suggested I might be lucky. But I found little to excite, although via this Blog, I received a helpful reply from James Humphrey, who wrote –
“You should try the River Ivel, a couple of places, just outside of Shefford which is very small and looks fairly unpromising but I have caught one there. Or continue down stream and apparently they are caught fairly regularly at Clifton Road Bridge stretch. Shefford Angling Club and maybe talk to Andy at Andy’s Angling. Hope this helps.”
I don’t know whether James caught on the fly, though.
But his note did make me think that headwaters were my best bet, and those of the Ouse tributaries should be my focus, and I discovered the Biggleswade and Hitchin Angling Association.
One of the BHAA’ then officials, Anthony Pogmore, embraced my quest and offered me a temporary membership, and this gave me access to water where trout had been caught, but mainly by coarse fishers and after walking several of their beats on the Ouse, the Ivel, the Ivel Navigation, and the Hiz, I concluded that a rethink was in order, and I was not going to be beaten!
Paul Jennings put me in touch with Justin Mould, EA Fisheries Officer for Cambridge and Bedfordshire, and a ‘light came on’ when he wrote about fish surveys conducted just years before –
“The sites on the Ivel (Henlow and Girtford) would probably be very hit and miss, although there are still occasional accidental captures made by coarse anglers, but I suspect that the River Hiz may give your friend the best chance though. A colleague recently told me that he had seen a few brown trout during a recent visit to Ickleford Common, so this area might well be worth a look also.”
The Hiz may take its name from the Hicce tribe who gave their name to Hitchin, and their river, the Hitch, is abbreviated to, Hiz. Its source is a chalk fed spring just south of the village of Charlton, and its flows just 10 miles and joins the River Ivel at Henlow.
In his book ‘Chalkstream – In Praise of the Ultimate River’, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, includes a piece written by one, MRL White, and first published in The Field, in 1906. He wrote – ‘Sharp stickles and long, smooth glides over golden gravel, fringed by lines of overhanging willow – the haunt of trout of unknown pounds avoirdupois’
A century later, how would I describe it? Between Hitchin and Arlesey, the river flows through Ickleford Common. As ‘common land’, cows and sheep graze freely, and are held back from the stream by ‘significant’ (aka barbed) wire fencing. The ‘Hicca Way’, inaugurated in 2012, is a footpath which follows the course of the river between the two towns.
It is popular, therefore, and it is ‘natural’, and it feels far away from the intensity of nearby Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City. It is surrounded by farmland, horses and combine harvesters were working hard this week.
The fishing is the peoples, therefore. But you have to clamber over tightly strung wire fencing to get close to the river, and only where you can actually see the river. For, and for just how many years, I know not, the river has not been ‘keepered’ like its Hampshire cousins, and is a wilderness. The river has been strangled by neglect.
Ancient willows tumble into its flows, alders block out light, and the hawthorn bushes all form a protection, for much of its length here. Where it is possible to peer into its clear flows, ranunculus streams in slow motion in huge clumps, inside the bank where reed grows five feet high. Few fish it.
But look at that! Above a patch of what looks like a sandy bottom is the most glorious sight. A trout of some size, just hovering in mid-column, until it sees me, and slides under the streaming weed. There ARE fish here! I spook another, of similar size, and wonder whether this could be my day.
I am walking down river, marking where I see fish for my upstream attempt to snare one later.
When I can walk no further, I turn. I now know there are fish here, even if I cannot see them. The weed is thick, and between the clumps, the gravelly bottom is exposed by the faster flowing water. This is the feed line for trout who prefer the security under the weed. No fish are rising, so I tie on a weighted nymph and flick it into the flows. The wind is making casting into a tight space difficult and a hawthorn bush relieves me of my fly. A quick replacement is cast but a sloppy landing spooks the feeder who skips under the weed. Damn! But there ARE fish here!!
This is difficult fishing. Overgrowth means that where there is a glide, casting is impossible, and that assumes I can clamber over the wretched barbed wire to get into casting position.
Now that looks like a trouty run, and I can get at it. But I have to contend with the fence, and a mating pair of swans whose thoughts for their brood of three, will be enough to see me off, if they feel threatened. But clamber, I did, and threatened they were not, even though they staked a claim to their bit of stream, they retreated and I was clear to cast.
I know enough about trout to know that even though they may not be feeding, an attractive floated morsel, and too enticing to resist, will often rise a fish you cannot imagine is even there, in the first place.
I cast such a morsel, a #16 elk hair caddis, bulked out by gink, into the runs between the fronds, and was distracted by a conversation between a dog walker and his mobile.
The winds died down. It started to drizzle, just a little. The head of this pool looks interesting, so I cast into it.
What happened next was magical. It was all in slow motion.
The waters parted as a snout appeared and sucked in my fly.
The water where my fly landed, swirled in angry disturbance.
My line tightened as I lifted, and my heart started to beat faster. The pull was strong and I knew this was a good fish.
He rushed into the nearest weed and I lifted higher, keeping him clear.
He tried to snag in weeds again, and again, as I realised this really was a good fish, and I had not even seen him yet. I reminded myself of the maxim, “ you have to ‘boss’ a good fish, don’t let him ‘boss’ you” and I tightened even more, conscious that this 3-weight Orvis had to deliver. My rod was bent right over, as time and time again, he strove to get under weed. Closer now, I saw what I could not believe. This was a seriously large fish, deep bellied, powerful, and angry. My heart pumped even harder as I came to terms with the possible. He was within six feet from me now as I pulled my landing net from its magnetic hold. Lifting more, I pulled him close, and with one movement ….GOT HIM! He was bigger than the length of my net.
Now what? What do I do first? I need a photograph…!
Scissors removed my fly from his. I realised he had been well hooked and was always mine, then. I let my rod into the water and rested the net on floating weed, where he stayed calm, to recover from exertions enough to enable me to take a few pictures.
Now it was my turn to honour him. Lifting him reverently, I lowered him back into his stream, where he pondered what had just gone down. ‘’What was that all about?” He had probably never seen an artificial fly, never therefore met an angler, and his whole being, in shock…bit like me!
I photographed him from above, and then underwater, as he recovered his dignity. And after a few minutes, he slipped back into his own space.
My dog walker returned, and took the trouble to ask how I was getting on. I explained what had just transpired, and how excited I felt to have captured such a magnificent specimen. At 19” in length, and a full bodied specimen, he was probably 2 1/2lbs of wild brown trout. “There aren’t many fish in the river, now” the local revealed, and walked off.
I called back to him. “Where am I, exactly?”
The response – “Well I’m in North Herts, but you’re in Bedfordshire”
He should know, but I verified that by referring to my OS maps, and GoogleMaps/Earth.
My calendar reveals that my first visit to Bedfordshire in search of a WBT was in 2011….it has taken a mere six years to find one!