He’s a difficult, cold, austere man and a High Court judge,” said my friend. “He’s just taken up salmon fishing and he needs lessons. I’ll tell him to hire you when he’s on Tweed. Whatever you do, don’t swear. He’s a born-again Christian and very prim and proper. Oh, and by the way, he’s just got married. She’ll be with him.”
I arranged to meet Judge Jeffreys, as I had mentally christened him, at the fishing hut on the beat and at 9am sharp the brand new Range Rover drove up. The man who got out was immaculately dressed in new plus-fours, new fishing jacket, with a new rod and reel and a new wife. She was a dowdy little thing with mousy hair and glasses but there was something about her, a simmering sensuality, which didn’t quite fit with the overall image.
We went to the river and it was immediately obvious that Mrs Jeffreys was a far better fisherman than her husband. It was also apparent that he did not like this at all, so that by lunch-time, when she had caught a salmon and he hadn’t, he was in a foul mood. I opened the door of the hut for them and there, leaning on the wall, with his trousers around his ankles was the river owner’s 18-year-old son. Facing him, and similarly unclad, was his current girlfriend. It was obvious that they weren’t tying flies. “Go away,” she drawled, totally unfazed, “we haven’t finished.” Judge Jeffreys was red in the face with rage. “I’m going back to the river,” he exploded, “I want you gone when I return.” His wife waited a second before following him. “You’ll find it much more comfy on the table, dear,” she said, helpfully.
No beat on any river can be called properly equipped without a fishing hut. As can be gathered from the above anecdote, they fulfil many requirements besides giving sanctuary from the weather. Their walls are festooned with photographs of fish and their captors, usually grinning inanely. There are dirty postcards from faraway places and lengths of nylon with successful flies pinned next to them. They are places of nostalgia and happiness and, after a day’s fishing, many hours are spent in them telling lies, reliving battles and remembering ancient stories.
Many of us look forward with happy anticipation to the hour or two passed in a fishing hut at the end of the day, when the witching hour has faded to complete darkness. There is camaraderie, warmth in the body and a glass in the hand. Even if we have caught nothing, have fished badly and have soaked feet and cold hands, the whisky, the friendship and the laughter soon make us feel like river gods.
There is, however, a great difference between fishing huts on salmon rivers and those on trout streams. On most salmon rivers the fishing hut is built opposite the most yielding and prolific pool. It is a place of warmth and comfort because salmon fishing is far more rigorous than trout fishing. It needs plenty of heat to thaw out frozen hands and feet, and an abundance of whisky to defrost the inner core.
The most comfortable salmon and sea-trout fishing hut I know is Sir Edward Dashwood’s at Abercothi on the River Towy. This has every facility that could be desired. The beat is the most famous sea-trout fishery in Britain with some salmon at the end of the season. The sewin are many and large and the fishermen dedicated. Thus there are bedrooms for crawling into in the early hours. There are showers for those who have fallen in and cooking facilities for the ravenous dawn angler, including a microwave oven. There is a rod room with gutting facilities, deep-freeze and record book. A small tackle shop sells the basic necessities. The main room is comfort itself, with deep armchairs, sofas and a wood-burning stove. On the walls is a plethora of angling memorabilia. Trophy fish in glass cases are interspersed with ill-shot photographs of enormous sea-trout. However, the most impressive picture of all dates from 1931 and is of Doctor Alexander Lindsay with his 51lb salmon taken from the Junction Pool of the Towy and the Cothi just downstream.
But Ed Dashwood’s fishing mansion on the Towy is the top end of fishing huts. I have fished many beats where there are merely windowless erections too lowly to be called huts. They have no doors, either, and I once asked an owner of such a misery why he didn’t improve it. “Because the local yobbos will only break into it and smash it up,” he told me. I strongly suspected this to be an excuse for meanness and lack of interest.
Salmon and sea-trout fishing huts are essentially masculine. They are basic, strong, scruffy and untidy but with warm hearts. Trout fishing huts are usually feminine. They are pretty and tidy, often with beautiful creepers growing over them to enhance their beauty. They do not need heating for the trout season starts in April and ends in September. They have tables and chairs more suited to tea and sandwiches (or wine at the most excessive) than whisky. Often there is merely a records book on the table but no tumblers to encourage friendship, laughter and exaggeration. Most trout fishing huts are for shelter from a summer shower with a genteel cup of coffee. On the walls there are photographs of vast fish but they are sad creatures with torn fins and depleted tails. Unfortunately, some of our chalkstreams have been reduced to corporate entertainment parks where tame, torpid trout of an unnatural size take an ill-presented fly with insouciance. Their images adorn the walls, together with monstrosities in glass cases which often demonstrate the taxidermist’s incompetence.
There are, however, trout fishing huts which have deep historical and aesthetic interest. Such a one is Oakley or Halford’s hut at Mottisfont on the Test.
Here the grandfather of dry-fly-fishing, Frederick Halford, studied and made notes for his ground-breaking and revolutionary book Floating Flies and How to Dress Them. This was an immediate success because it explained the theory and practice in huge detail. However, Halford did not invent the dry fly – this was done 2,000 years earlier by a Roman – but, with his friend and fellow angler, George Marryat, he went into far more detail than had ever been seen before.
His fishing hut has changed little since those halcyon days, but it has been restored with love and care by the present owner of the estate, the National Trust. Volunteers have built a tiny gem of a garden next to it and its porch is covered by the leaves and flowers of a winding honeysuckle so that on warm evenings the whole hut is suffused by that heady smell of summer. Inside, on the slanting part of the ceiling, are reproductions of Halford’s own photographs taken on glass, which had to be rubbed with a potato to bring out the colour.
Fishing huts, however prosaic and ugly, hold a special place in anglers’ hearts. They are places where friendship and laughter thrive and I cannot think of one that evokes sadness. I once lost what I know was a salmon of over 30lb and, heavy with disappointment, soaking and sad, I returned to the hut for comfort and commiseration. Very soon, the loss of the monster meant less as the anodyne of companionship worked its potent remedy and my soul was healed.
Writing of them now lights up my memories and in my imagination I shall cross to the fire and put on another log. I shall stand a moment waiting for the warmth to seep into my chilled back. Then I shall refill my glass with nourishing whisky and return to my chair at the table and the close and happy company of my fellow fishermen, there to listen in contentment to their tales of leviathans lost and tell my own, almost true, lie.
More fishing in The Field