An Unexpected Journey

By Ian Colborne 

 Last weekend I was all set to go boat fishing for wild trout with Alan at Catcleugh reservoir on the Scottish Borders, when he got one of those phone calls no one wants to hear.

I had put together my fishing gear the night before and checked it off my tick list. I always make a list of everything I need for a fishing trip a few days in advance. It’s not that I’m organised, you understand, it’s more the fact that I am not that makes me write it all down. If you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’ve brought the wrong reel, you’re up the creek without a paddle, so to speak.

It was early Saturday morning and I was in the park next to my house trying to wear out my dog so he wouldn’t miss me too much while I was away for the day. “Lovely day for it,” said a fellow with a baseball cap coming in the other direction. It certainly was, I thought. The sun was just beginning to burn through the haze, it was already warm with a little cloud cover, a light breeze was blowing through the park, and it wasn’t even 8 o’clock yet. “Should be perfect on the lake today,” I said in a quiet tone to no one in particular.

I was just heading home along the path through the woods when I felt the vibration of my mobile in the pocket of my hiking pants. It was Alan, “It’s bad news, Ian, I’m afraid.” A member of his family had been rushed into hospital and the trip was off. He was trying to apologise but I wouldn’t hear of it. I could hear the concern in his voice, he knew where his priorities lay and there was nothing he could do about it. “There’ll be other times,” he said, as if sensing my disappointment, then rang off.

So, there I was, the day to myself and nothing but fishing on my mind. “Where am I going to go,” I thought. The mayfly were on the River Derwent, I had seen a few of them hatching off five days earlier but I hadn’t seen a single fish take one. “They must be onto them by now,” I thought. So with a quick change over to my river rod and reel, then grabbing my two mayfly boxes, I threw my stuff in the car and headed down to Allensford and along the lane to Crooked Oak. My plan was to fish The Sneep, a favourite place of mine on the Derwent – a couple of miles of river, twisting and turning its way through a steep-sided gorge, undisturbed for centuries. Due to its rugged location, rocky pocket water and difficult terrain to navigate, and the fact that it has no path along its length, it’s seldom visited by members. I’ve already described it at great length in a previous article so I’ll leave it there and move on.

When I was younger it never bothered me going fishing alone in remote places but last year I was picking my way back and forth through a hundred yards or so of large rocky plunge pools directly below Silver Tongue (an old lead mine on the river) in the lower part of the gorge a few hundred yards downstream of the Black Hole when I lost my footing and fell elbow first in fast flowing rapids and got it jammed between some big boulders accumulated over time by rockfalls from the cliffs above. Now, when I say I fell elbow first, what I mean to say is I was holding my rod in that hand and took the fall on my elbow to prevent me from snapping my beloved rod. Silly now with hindsight, but it was my first instinct. I fell down hard and my elbow wedged between two large rocks concealed beneath the fast-flowing plunge pool I was wading at the time and then became stuck fast. I was half-submerged lying on my side, there was a 150ft cliff on one bank and about 10ft on the other, a jungle of trees all around and the river raging through a gap a few feet from my face. “Shit,” I shouted at the top of my voice, nobody is going to find me here. I panicked, pulling my arm upwards vigorously as hard as I could, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Right, Ian, think fast. How are you going to get out of this?” I say to myself. That film where the mountain climber has to cut his arm off with a penknife when he trapped it in a crevice flashes through my mind. I bet that morning when he got up he wasn’t thinking, Today I’m going to saw my arm off with a pocket knife. Anyway, there I was lying on my side, my hand under the water still holding onto my rod. I lay there for a few minutes assessing my situation. A bit sore but no broken bones. “How the hell did I get myself into this mess?” I say under my breath.

Reaching over with my free hand I take my rod from my other hand and throw it clear of me into the shallows. Then, facing down, I turn my body over so I am kneeling; gathering the top of my chest waders with my other hand I just manage to prevent the water from flowing in and dragging me further under. I had taken a small amount on board on impact and could feel the cold water working its way down the inside of my waders, wetting my trousers as I lay there. I start to feel around under the water with my other hand to see if I could tell how big the rocks are and then realise the gap in the rocks below my elbow travels about 18 inches down to the riverbed. I run my hand along the edge of the gap beneath the water and it seems to widen slightly below where it’s stuck, so I straightened my trapped arm, pushing it down the gap until I am almost touching the riverbed. I twist my elbow from side to side and tug it along instead of my natural reaction to pull it upwards – and manage to free it. What a relief!

I stand up and the cold water in my waders rushes into my boots. I wade over to check my rod and reel and they’re both fine. The only thing dented is my pride. I compose myself for a few minutes while sitting on the bank staring into the middle distance, thinking about what could have been. After a deep intake of breath puffing out both my cheeks, I blow it out loudly at the same time, saying, “Bloody hell, that was close.” The whole episode only lasts a few minutes but seems much longer. Walking further upstream I attempted to fish again but can’t really concentrate, my mind drifting away from me; besides, my elbow is starting to become too painful to cast so decide to cut my losses and call it a day.

When fishing Muggleswick gorge or The Sneep as it’s known locally, I always park my car in the same place at Wallish Walls just up from Crooked Oak cottages on the short grass by the pumping station next to the newly built stretch of dry stone wall. I once parked further down the lane near the cottages but the farmer came and found me almost half a mile further down the track in his Landrover and asked me to move it as he couldn’t get his combine harvester past it. I could see by the tyre tracks next to my car he’d had a few attempts before he gave up. I can just imagine him dragging my car along behind his combine without even knowing it was there, so I don’t take any chances these days. I pull on my chest waders, put on my hat, grab my waistcoat and rod; while shutting the car door with my foot I check through the window and there is nothing on show. Any sign of fishing gear can hint at what might be lurking in the boot. You just never know who’s poking about down these quiet country lanes when you’re not there. Passing by Crooked Oak farm as I open the gate, a couple of sheep stand firm as if challenging my right to be there. “Come on, girls, shift,” I say, waving my rod as if holding a lightsaber.

It takes a good 15 minutes to walk down the grassy track and through the woodland into the gorge. The valley is a wash of colour, every tree is in full bloom, every leaf a fresh shade of green, the shrubs are in flower and fighting for their own space under the canopy, even the purple heads of the thistle looks pretty, swaying in the meadow. I continue down the track, stopping short of the Leadmill cottage nestled by the river, built a few centuries ago and still inhabited. I bear right and climb over a steep drop off of at least thirty feet, lowering myself from tree to tree, jamming my foot behind each one as I go to prevent me from continuing down the hillside. After clambering down I arrive on the valley floor. I must find an easier way to get down here, I think to myself.

Crossing the river I’m already scanning the surface for activity. I tackle up my 9’ 3# Streamflex with a duo set-up. Balloon Caddis on the dropper and a nondescript Black bead on the point. I run it through the first pool a few times and the fish do a good impression of ignoring me. I notice a couple of mayflies hatching in the margins and decide to change my dropper. While I’m on I change the point fly to a Bed bug, a pattern of my own creation, the details of which I have previously shared on here. A few more casts and I’m into my first fish. Not a big brownie by Derwent standards but a fish nonetheless, shortly followed by another, then another and I’m off the mark, my confidence building as I work my way up the river, crossing it back and forth as fallen trees block my path. These are not long pools I’m fishing by any stretch of the imagination, just boulder-strewn stretches of dark peaty water no deeper than 4ft and sometimes as little as 10ft in length but home to some of the feistiest little brownies I have ever fished for.

The gorge is steep-sided, sometimes plunging as much as 200ft into the valley, scoured by the passage of millions of gallons of water during the last ice age. It has countless large rocks on the riverbed, many of which are the shape of gravestones tipped over at an angle and covered in slime, waiting for some unsuspecting angler to step on and do the splits. Here speaks the voice of experience. On the opposite bank I spot an old mine entrance 15ft up from the waterline, about 4ft in diameter, with Wild West style prison bars on the front. As I stare into the blackness of the mine, a fox pokes its head out then retracts it when it see me. It gives me the creeps so I move on.

My duo set-up seems to be doing the business, so I press on through the pools, skipping a few stretches now and then concentrating on the easier pockets of water with a bit of room for a backcast. I started the day pinging catapult casts under bushes in the hope that no one has ever fished them, but when you’ve had thirty something trout, you start to get a bit protective over your flies and don’t want to lose them and have to tie on a whole new set-up this late in the day, just in case the magic goes. Some trout are taking the Grey Wulff, some taking the point fly.

As I clamber over a huge landslide of rocks narrowing the river to a couple of feet at the top of the Sneep, I can see quite a few trout rising in the long swept bend of the river above, so I change to a single mayfly and finish my day on a high, the trout taking it down greedily. My final count is 43 trout, losing countless others, all wild and all returned safely, none the worse for their experience, some of them just this side of a pound. Not the biggest in the river but very rewarding nonetheless.

As I make my way out of the gorge and up the hill through the mature woodland, the heat from the sun finally penetrates the canopy above, making me take my cap off and wave it like a fan to cool my head. I look back down into the valley and I can see the fish still rising in a long slow stretch beneath me but I’ll have to save them for another day, the usual responsibilities of life beckoning. When I reach the edge of the farmyard, the sheep move out of my way as if recognising me. I nod to the farmer’s wife as she pulls up in her Landrover, her collie dog’s head poking out of the passenger window. The little lane seems longer on the way back, my legs weary from the day, and as I approach the last bend I’m pleased to see my car is still there. Sitting on the tailgate I slowly pull off my waders and put my fishing gear away in the same order as I always do, ready for the next trip. An unplanned journey through the gorge today, but one of my more productive ones.

Contemplating how lucky I am to have all this on my doorstep as I drive along the lane back to the main road and thinking aloud, I say in my subconscious, “I must bring Alan up here next time, I’m sure he’d enjoy fishing these pockets and pots. But what about climbing those cliffs and rock falls?” I ponder a moment. Maybe not then – I’ll just keep it for myself. Then it occurs to me, I must stop talking to myself and get home to walk my dog.

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