Confessions Of A River Keeper

There is no doubt that luck, or good fortune can play an important part in how we fish and what we fish for. A chance encounter, an accidental catch or even moving house and changing location, can present the angler with new opportunities and ideas.

Barbel legend Ray Walton said that had he not once been feeder fishing with a weight too light to hold the bottom, causing it to trundle through his swim, he may well have never discovered his devastating method of rolling luncheon meat.

The great HT Sheringham took the whole concept of luck a stage further. In 1912 he wrote: “So far as my experience goes, it is certain that good luck is the most vital part of the equipment of him who would seek to slay big carp”.

And so it was that my bit of good fortune was to come in the spring of 1996. I’d moved house to a small cottage situated near Hambledon in Hampshire, right in the heart of the Meon Valley.

The river Meon is a beautiful, English chalk stream and flowed less than a mile from where I lived. The water was crystal clear and from one of the road bridges, you could stand in the late evening, and watch the brown trout rising. The problem was, that fishing this stretch was a syndicate affair, with a £300 price tag and a 10 year waiting list.

It was mid April and the weather was mild. The spring lambs had already started to fatten up and were becoming clumsy, and the rapeseed fields would soon be bursting into a blaze of yellow.

I pulled into the lay by near the bridge and crept up to peer over the top. I gazed down into the water and could see two plump brownies basking near the surface, without a care in the world.

I felt that excitement all anglers do when they see a good fish, but this was washed away with the realisation that I would never be able to fish for them. I decided to go home.
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As I set to leave, I saw two figures coming towards me along the bank. They were still some way off but I could clearly see that one was carrying a rod. As they drew closer, I noticed that the man carrying the rod was an elderly gentleman and he was accompanied by a much younger chap, carrying what looked like a panga knife. These knives were usually used for making jungle clearings, so I was surprised to see one on the river bank.

The two chaps chatted for a while and then parted company. The elderly man came along the bank towards the bridge, while the younger man started hacking at some bank side nettles with his knife, he was obviously the river keeper.

I became so engrossed with watching the keeper at his work, that I didn’t notice that the elderly gentleman was now standing next to me on the bridge. “We can look at them all day” he said, glancing down at the two fish still hovering in the current below, “but catching them is a different matter”. He had a friendly smile and is so often the case when fishermen meet for the first time, we started to chat.

He confirmed that the man with the knife on the bank was indeed the head keeper and that their second keeper had recently given up his duties. River keeping on that stretch was not paid work, it was purely done voluntarily and for the rights to fish the river. The second keeper had changed his work shifts, so could no longer make the 3 evenings a week required.

At this point in the story I would like to point out that I don’t, as a rule, make a habit of lying. Whether it was the sight of the two plump trout, chatting with the elderly gentleman who seemed so contented with his rod in hand or watching the keeper at work, I now must confess my sin.

I’d never done a single hours river keeping in my life. A couple of work parties with various fishing clubs was about my lot. Even then I took guidance from other members, doing what they said, which mostly involved getting spiked by bramble bushes. But there on that bridge, on that mild spring evening, I told the elderly gentleman that I’d done some keeping on the river Test.

Before I had time to think of a way of retracting my story, the elderly gentleman had called over the head keeper and he too, was now standing on the bridge.

His name was Simon, he was a mild man and like his elderly friend, very warm and polite. He told me that he needed somebody that could work 3 evenings a week and in return, I could fish the stretch for free. He would equip me with a knife and I would work unsupervised, phoning him once a week with any issues.

That was it. No interview, no questions, no proof or references, I was a river keeper and I could start on Monday.

Driving home I felt sick. Sick with excitement for the opportunity to fish such a stunning river, sick also for the lie that I’d told and the worry of not having a clue about what I was doing.
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Over the next few days I made frantic phone calls, went to the library and read as much as I could about river keeping. I was meeting Simon on the Thursday to have a final chat and pick up my ‘weapon’ and would start the following week.

Simon was already standing on the bridge when I arrived. As before, he was polite, friendly and immediately put my mind at ease. We chatted about fish, fishing, rivers and flies and then he gave me a quick brief of what was required. We parted with a shake of the hands, two river keepers, two fishermen, now friends.

I was itching to get cracking in my new keepers roll, so unable to wait until Monday, I decided I would do a full days work on the Saturday. For the next two weeks I went to the river in any free time I had. Cutting, lifting, nurturing and caring, I put every ounce of thought and attention I could into making the beautiful river the perfect habitat for fish, fishermen and the bank side wild life.

I did not fish at all for the first few weeks. Maybe I was still carrying the guilt of the lie, maybe I wanted to earn my fishing or maybe i felt that I’d not yet put enough into the river, to deserve taking anything out.

I had a phone call from Simon half way through the third week. A group of syndicate members had spent the day on the river and had called him to say that they had never seen it look so good.

”Well done” he said. “I knew from the moment we got talking that you were the right man for the job”. If only he knew.

The phone call was very pleasing. In some ways I suppose it justified my earlier fabrication and as everybody was very happy with the job I was doing, I had no need to cling on to the burden of guilt. It was time to fish the river.

Watercraft is important in any branch of angling. Watercraft when dry fly fishing, maybe even more so. My three weeks on the bank had taught me much. I knew every pool, riffle and hole. I knew which of the shallows the trout favoured and which they avoided. Most importantly, I knew where the bigger fish liked to rise of an evening.

There were two spots I thought would be best for me to target. One was a slow bend right at the very top of the fishery and the other was a cattle bridge about half a mile down stream from the main road bridge. After I’d finished my duties that evening, I would cast my first fly.
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I now need to make a second confession. I was not a great fly fisherman. Most of my fishing had been for carp, tench and chub and I’d only ever caught a handful of small wild brown trout while on holiday in Devon.

In fact my only fly fishing trip so far this particular year had been to a still water. A trip which was marred by a stiff cold wind but did result in my biggest fly caught fish to date. A Carp! Yes the only fish I’d banked on a fly all year was a fat 12lb common.

My plan was to use my knowledge of the river, rather than my skill in presenting a fly.

It was a warm evening. By now it was May and the heavy scent from the rape fields, filled the air. Finishing my keeping duties, I made my way to the top of the fishery towards the bend. Knowing where the fish would be, I approached low and soft.

The cast I needed to make was only about 12 feet and I would expect a rise from about one two three feet from where the fly would land. I’d practiced this cast in my sleep, I knew exactly where i wanted it and despite my fears, my line shot out in the right direction and the fly landed with a soft ‘plip’.

As if the fishing gods had been reading my mind, the fly drifted back towards me for no more than a few seconds before a giant swirl and slurp, saw it disappear. Having not hooked a decent sized trout before, I was somewhat taken back by it’s initial charge and acrobatics. However, knowing the river and having been up close to the various snags, I was quickly able to guide it out of trouble and into the net.

One cast, one fish. I was beginning to realise that river knowledge could turn a very average fly fisherman, into a successful one. Albeit only on this river.

With a confident stride, I decided to make my way towards the cattle bridge. One fish already in the bag, nothing from that point could spoil my evening. It was warm, I was feeling fit and healthy from my river keeping work and started to feel at one with with the river.

All of the hard work and attention I had put in had made me build a personal relationship with my little stretch. I knew where all of the birds were nesting, I knew every rock, stone and piece of weed and I’d even built up a friendship with the cows in the bottom field, who loved nothing more than chomping on nettles, after I had cut them.

I’d thought about the cattle bridge a lot during my time on the river. The distance between the arch of the bridge and the water was only about three feet. The problem was that all of the fish I watched, only ever rose for a fly or insect when they were under the bridge. To try to flick a fly, with any sort of finesse, under the bridge would be impossible, no respected fly fisherman would even give it a thought.
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Fortunately I was not a respected fly fisherman. I was a phoney river keeper with a rod and a box of flies. I could quite easily bring myself to try this. My theory was simple; Pop a fly into a place where these fish feel completely safe and even if it dropped a bit heavy, their curiosity would get the better of them.

Squatting on my knees, no more than about six feet from the entrance of the bridge I ‘threw’ my line forward and then pulled it back and downwards. This resulted in my line hitting the water hard but in doing so it catapulted the leader and the fly forward and right under the bridge.

The fly hardly had time to move when it was hit hard by a confident trout. Dashing off downstream towards me, it was hard to keep contact. Once it was out from under the bridge, I relaxed a little and played it patiently towards my net.

Two casts, two fish! Had anybody been watching, they may thought me to be some sort of expert. But just as i had proved that you don’t have to be a qualified river keeper to keep a good river, I had proved that you don’t need to be a great trout fisherman, to catch trout.

And so it continued. I would work the river, study the behaviour of a particular fish and then work out a plan to catch it. Each time I phoned Simon to give him my catch details, he would tell me I was catching more than everybody else. It got so bad that when fishing the cattle bridge, I could stick on a fly that looked like a Pom pom or ball of fluff and it would still catch.
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I stopped fishing the river in about July. I carried on with my keeping work but started feeling that the unfair advantage I had over the other anglers wasn’t really sporting.

I had so many opportunities to view the fish, watch them feed and build up knowledge of their habits, it almost became like a safari park ranger, going out shooting his own game.

One thing I did learn though is that if you can put a bait, in a place where a fish feels completely safe, you will catch. It may be worth spending a few hours, days or even weeks watching your quarry, before you even cast for them.

Technical ability in making rigs, tying flies and casting long distance may well give anglers the chance to out fish their fellow fishermen. But having the knowledge and the watercraft of a particular river, lake or coastline, can improve even the most average of anglers chances.

About Damien Swift 14 Articles
I'm a life long angler and now editor on the Angling Gazette Magazine. I am passionate about fishing and writing and I like to encourage as many people as possible to do both. The Angling Gazette is for all Anglers of all levels of experience and i hope it brings some pleasure into your lives.

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