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The Rivers Of Thou Shalt Not
William Humphrey
May 09, 1983
On the holiest of English streams an American angler encounters the wariest of trout—and an exacting code
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May 09, 1983

The Rivers Of Thou Shalt Not

On the holiest of English streams an American angler encounters the wariest of trout—and an exacting code

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I didn't catch my fellow guest's full name when we were introduced, but it didn't matter; in moments we were Bill and Doug. Jolly nice chap. Suggested to me, who hadn't the faintest, which fly to use—a Logie—and positioned himself so that I was fishing ahead of him.

We were fishing downstream, of course, this being salmon fishing, casting always the same length of line, enough to reach the opposite bank, and letting the fly drift with the current to midstream before picking up and casting again. When, having fished out a spot, Doug moved nearer me, I moved on, thus keeping the same distance always between us. It was awfully generous of him to fish water I'd already cast to—generous, or else he felt certain he could catch fish where I couldn't—something I was quite ready to grant.

We'd been at it no more than a quarter of an hour when I felt a fish mouth my fly. In Scotland years before I'd lost my first and only salmon by responding to it like the trout fisherman I am: I instantly struck. It's what every trout fisherman does, and in so doing, half the time he pulls the fly out of a salmon's mouth, the jaws of which, if it's a cock fish, are forced apart by the kype it grows at spawning time and can't be closed. With salmon you must overcome instinct; suppress that impulse, wait, let the fish turn downstream, and then strike. This way, you will look the fish in the corner of its mouth. Remembering this, I let my fish send me four signals before I struck. Four. I had it, though as the sequel will soon show, God only knows why. But I did, and it was a good one.

We were not many miles from the mouth of the Test, and until the recent rains, no salmon had been seen running. This felt like one fresh in from the sea, not one that had lolled about in a spawning pool for weeks, even months, eating nothing, growing lean and weak and debilitated by sex. This was a salt still randy and spoiling for a fight, like a sailor just ashore. The rod I was using was not a light one, but this fish put a deep bend in it. I needed both hands for the battle. Doug, of course, obligingly withdrew his line from the water. In fact, he got a landing net, and after a tug-of-war lasting 10 minutes, laid my fish out on the grass. Like all the fish of the Test with which I've now made acquaintance, whether passing or permanent, this one was game to the end.

Now, a 7½-pound salmon is not a big one, yet when it's your first you're pleased with it and with yourself, especially with gracious ladies on a lovely lawn to admire it and congratulate you. But a 7½-pound rainbow trout is a big one, and that, on closer inspection, was what my fish turned out to be. With that you're more than pleased. It was a very silvery fish, with hardly any spots, and its red stripe was faint; that was what had caused us at first to mistake it for a salmon.

I hadn't seen it, hadn't cast upstream, hadn't caught it on a dry fly. But, said my hostess, a fish that size was a cannibal, one she was glad to have out of the water, and for it any means was fair.

On hearing about it, one of my new friends observed, "Bill has really broken his duck." The phrase had to be interpreted for me. It's cricket talk, with duck short for duck egg, or zero. Translated into baseballese, it would be hitting a grand-slam homer after a season-long slump at bat.

Doug had done a neat job of netting my fish, and over the drinks that followed I thanked him as best I could. He left earlier than we did, and then I was able to learn from our hostess that the part of his name I hadn't caught was title. It was "Lord." Not many can boast of having had a peer of the realm for his ghillie.

The English are surprised and skeptical when told that you find them to be a likable people, friendly and hospitable. (Some of them are not entirely pleased. To a people long used to power and deference, being liked may seem uncomfortably close to cozying up, friendliness and hospitality, virtues useful to those who in their station have need of useful virtues.) I'm reminded of the story about the two American ladies, strangers, forced to share a table in a crowded dining room. Said the one, "I can tell from your accent that you're from Boston. I've just been there for the first time. Before leaving Alabama, I was told to expect to find Bostonians cool and unfriendly. It's not true. They were all just as nice as could be." Said the lady from Boston, "I am afraid you did not meet the right people."

Thinking back, as we're about to leave, on the generosity and kindness to us of everyone here, I guess we didn't meet the right people.
Yours,
Bill
cc: Al, Ted

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