Yet again indecision plagued me. In the end I snaffled two sausage rolls for an early lunch and put the tip rod, and a barbel rod in case, in the car along with some hastily gathered bait and tackle - and a third sausage roll. The plan was to stop until half past six then head back and hit the chippy for tea.
Even when I arrived to find just three cars parked up I wasn't sure if I'd made the right decision. The river was painfully low and clear. There was still a trace or two of snow to be seen in the shady gullies of the fells. I feared a chilly river. Nothing ventured, I set off to the bend hoping that the farmer wouldn't return with his muck spreader before I got there - there being a fresh line of muck along the river's edge.
A pair of goosander flew up and away as I approached, buzzards mewing in the distance. As I got close to the bend I saw it was occupied by a pike angler, who I know so I could muscle in on him to a degree by fishing my second choice swim. Three months away from the river and it had altered yet again. Not enough to change the fishing but enough to make getting my bearings tricky.
A boilie went upstream and the maggot feeder, still with a size 16 to fine line, and a single red maggot slightly downstream and about two thirds of the way across. Then the thermometer went in. The day was warm, 10c, despite the clouds and a wind with a chill to it. The thermometer showed a river that was fluctuating between 5.7 and 6.1. I put this down to the sensor being in inches of water and that being heated the air and sun when it broke through the clouds. Even so a barbel had been caught upstream. There was hope.
As I sat waiting for a rod top to do something I heard a rustle in the far bank woods. Scanning through the trees I caught a glimpse of movement. Roe deer. A group of them, maybe half a dozen it was hard to say, moving nimbly up and along the steep sandy bank. Tawny owls hooted with hours of daylight remaining.
I was stood behind my chair, just out of reach of my rods, talking to the pike angler when the quiver tip pulled down purposefully. As I reached the rod and made as to pick it up the tip sprang back. We both knew the hook would be gone. It was. Either a barbel or a chub had broken the fine line. I debated whether to step up to a 14 on a 3-06 bottom and fish double red maggots. I did.
When M started to pack up I moved into his swim and put the boilie straight across with the maggot feeder upstream. His parting words were, "All you need now is a chub on the maggot rod and a barbel on the boilie." "Knowing my luck it'll be the other way round," I replied.
The wind was dropping, and the sun came out making the late evening very pleasant indeed. I'd put the thermometer in the new swim and here it was reading 5.7. Quite why I don't know, the sensor was deeper and more shaded. Probably a truer reading. Even so I was confident that the barbel rod would spring into life.
The sausage roll was demolished and washed down with a cup of tea at five. An hour later the quiver tip pulled down slowly and eased back. I leant forward thinking the chance had been missed and it pulled down again. Initially I wasn't sure I'd connected, but soon felt the kick of a fish. Chub. Then it made a run that forced me to backwind. Big chub? A couple more runs, one a long one and I began to realise it was a barbel. Probably not a big one, but a barbel. Three times it found a mid river snag. Three times I managed to get it free. After what was almost certainly the longest I have played a barbel for (excluding ones that have snagged me and forced me to put the rod down until they swam out) I slid the fish over the landing net.
As it was my first barbel for some time, the first of the year, and my biggest on maggot, I weighed it and took it's picture. Not even five pounds it was still most welcome, and had that bright brassy look with the pinkish fins setting off the sheen that barbel get when the water stays clear for a prolonged period. I recast both rods and waited for a chub to pick up my boilie!
The rig was my heli-feeder rig, and the upper stop had been pushed well up the line - almost certainly when the feeder had snagged. Still, the rig had had a good workout and passed the test.
The isotopes began to glow, but it was still mild as darkness descended. Memories of August evenings flooded back. I can see my thoughts of avoiding the river next summer and fishing for other things might be in vain. I listened to the Archers then began a slow pack up. Winding in the feeder I saw the maggots had been 'chubbed'. Squashed to limp husks. I thought the tip had moved but hadn't been sure. Never mind. Hunger was beginning to gnaw. The boilie had remained untouched.
I switched the Petzl off once I was up the sandy bank on on level ground. Out in the open it's not too difficult to see where you are going and follow a well trodden path in the dark. I switched it back on after I slipped on a lump of 'muck' I'd failed to spot and almost lost my balance. Half way back to the car park I thought a strap on my rucksack was squeaking so I stopped. The noise continued and sounded louder. It was the grunting chatter of badgers arguing back in the woods on the bend. What a great place the river is.
I hadn't expected to be the last off the river, but I was. Just the way I like it. The car's thermometer was reading 7 as I headed back to civilisation. The call of the chip shop fell on deaf ears and I stuck two slices of bread in the toaster when I got home.
Two days of the river season left, and a dry weekend forecast. The banks might be busy. Can I face joining the crowds?