The radio made a noise like a throat being cut, and a gravelly voice came through the darkness. "URA Four to URA One. Blue Ford pickup, registration HDE 878 E, approaching you along B 7737. Out." I could just make out Ron Millichamp alongside me in the Land Rover, fumbling with his end of the linkup and acknowledging the message. Millichamp and I were up to the hubcaps in thick farm mud, lying in ambush up a track that commanded a view of the whole black valley. The nearest I'd been to this kind of conversation before was in front of a television set, taking in a police serial. But it was real enough.
Mid- Wales in midwinter, Llanfihangel Nant Br�n on the wild uplands of Breconshire. In the afternoon we had driven north through snow flurries to the high ground. The hill streams were like oiled steel in the last light, running through rock gullies, churning into froth under bare alders. Stone walls, sheep, buzzards. The Black Mountains rolled east to the English border, and when Millichamp slammed the Land Rover door the echoes rattled about like gunfire—not inappropriately.
Millichamp was engaged in a battle, though it was one that was to be mostly fought in silence. This was the rough country that he had to hold over the next six weeks, through the crisis period. Tall, dark, a little stooped, he has a nervous intensity of manner that causes him to stammer at times. It was understandable just then when his responsibility was so big.
"Did you bring Polaroids?" he asked. I put mine on and followed him across the road to a small stone bridge spanning the little River Br�n that runs into the Usk above Brecon. He was peering over the parapet into the water. "Look at the stones," he said.
The shallow run under the bridge was lined with pebbles. They were gray-green with weed, but farther down they were much paler, gleaming oyster-white in the water.
"See the ones they've turned?" he asked. "Come after me now." I got onto the low parapet and dropped onto the spongy bank below. We scrambled through wet undergrowth for maybe 10 yards downstream, to where the water ran slower and deeper. "Can you make them out?" said Millichamp.
The Polaroids cut through the surface gleam, but it was several seconds before I could make out the big shapes holding still in the current. "That hen would go 20 pounds," said Millichamp. "The cock fish are a good bit smaller." Without the Polaroids the shapes were vaguer, but the colors came out better. I could see the dull gray sides of the female, the red of the male fish, and their great hooked lower jaws that had developed through the summer. Atlantic salmon at the end of their spawning run are the bravest, most beautiful fish in the world when they come into the river with the violet sheen on their silver flanks. But vulnerable always, and never more vulnerable than they were at that moment, though they had passed through extraordinary dangers in the four or five years since they had been spawned in a Welsh hill stream like this one, possibly in this very stream itself.
Before the eggs were hatched in the Honddu or the Br�n or the Cilient, hundreds were gobbled by small brown trout. Bigger trout attacked the fry. Little boys and other predators finished off more when they were four or five inches long. Then, with two years of Usk life in them, when they migrated downstream as silvery smolts, cormorants and pike intercepted them. In the estuary, pollack and sea bass ripped into the shoals. But in the North Atlantic they fattened and grew fast until they met the west Greenland nets at Sukkertoppen, the newest and the biggest killing ground of all. Two thousand metric tons of salmon died there in 1966. The survivors began their spawning journey, homing on the Welsh coast. They massed in the tide races of St. Govan's Head and the Helvick Shoals, and the seals and the porpoises found them. In the estuary there were the commercial netsmen; in the Usk, anglers. Two thousand-odd fell to rod and line. Now, at the cold back end of the year, within hours of spawning, they faced the last enemy. The hill-stream poacher with the barbed gaff.
The Welsh bring to killing salmon something of the same enthusiasm that they lavish on Rugby football. The handbook of the Usk River Authority, for whom Ron Millichamp is chief fisheries officer, and in whose area we were operating, sadly states: The local population regards salmon poaching as a legitimate winter sport. And has, the handbook might have added, for a number of centuries now. Millichamp, indeed, is one of the few Welshmen who look upon salmon poaching as somewhat more serious than a parking offense. And he regards it with some passion, liking nothing better than to apprehend a poacher. For him, a justly imposed $250 fine is as much a prize as a 20-pound fresh-run spring salmon to an angler. His motivation is not malicious. Purely and simply he loves Atlantic salmon, and this was why, on this hard winter's afternoon, we were reconnoitering the hill streams, looking for the patches of white pebbles where the salmon had used their broad tails to carve out the spawning beds, looking for the vulnerable pools where the fish lie. Looking for other things as well. Tire marks, for instance, on the muddy verges of these little-frequented country roads, where a car may have pulled up on no legal business.
In Wales in mid-December the dark falls early, and as we drove back toward the valley farms, the big, wet snow-flakes started again, the kind that look as if they will soon turn to rain. Rain is the poacher's enemy. It swells and discolors the streams until not even experienced eyes can penetrate the water. Millichamp couldn't make up his mind about the rain. The salmon might be safe enough, but there would be no pounce. And he had laid plans lovingly for a big strike that night.