April 25th 2019. Coffee time and I am scrolling through the latest social media’s inexhaustible supply of photos of other peoples meals, mishaps and shared cliched life changing quotes accompanied by a pictures of fluffy kittens or worse still unicorns; when the above post appeared on my screen and my heart sank.
Ellerhayes bridge spans the River Culm. A Devon river that has meandered through my life for half a century or more. A river that has provided me with so many delightful encounters with it’s natural world. And now this; an ecological disaster. A total wipe out of all species of fish, from huge barbel to the tiniest of minnows. All floating belly up, lifeless. At the time of writing no culprits had been found or prosecuted. And the likelihood of a successful trial seems even more unlikely with each passing month. The river has suffered before. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s I had witnessed the river flowing almost milky white from the outpourings of the upstream paper mills. Farmer slurry “mishaps” have periodically leached into it’s waters leaving chronically damaging wands of sewage fungus littering the river bed. Yet somehow whether by some miracle or pure good fortune each time nature had prevailed and healed. But this time the fateful nail had been firmly driven home.
And so I grieved; if grieving is the right word. Grieved for the death of the fish that I had caught, fish that I had lost and even fish that I had dreamt about. I know it sounds pathetic, but this river, more so than any other, including the mighty Dorset Stour and Hampshire Avon has sated my angling appetite. The Culm provided me with my first Devonshire coarse fish. My local water, the River Otter; a counterfeit chalk stream, was inhabited by spotty trout only. Fished for only by the local gentry. Retired doctors, solicitors and double barrelled surnames. Upstream dry fly fishing only. Such a disappointment for a lad from Staffordshire that had just discovered the joys of getting spiked by the dorsal fin of a Perch and how a keep net covered in bream slime could guarantee an empty seat next to you on the bus ride home from the local park. Once when I dared to approach one of the rod wafting “Toffs” and enquired as to where the best spots were for roach fishing, he simply went berserk. A spluttering tweed clad gutter-mouth; using language that a twelve year old probably shouldn’t know. Fortunately for him I had been a season ticket holder at Stoke City; so I understood him perfectly.
And then an Allelulia moment occurred. My father and I discovered The Exeter Angling Association or the Exonia Angling Association as it was known then. The Culm beckoned. Proper fishing at last. Meandering black line drawings of unknown rivers excitingly leapt off the pages of the club handbook. And so from then until now I have enjoyed it’s splendours and it’s disappointments. I’ll keep the memories brief, but they include the time when my mum came with us and was rewarded with the sight of two naked men wild swimming through my favourite swim. At least she was pleased; and she didn’t drop a stitch from her knitting. Once we were accompanied by my Canadian cousin who (jammy git) caught a perfect two pound roach on his first cast. Instead of enjoying our almost sincere congratulations he just turned around and said “This is the bait fish…right?”
Throughout the years I have been rewarded with bream to nine pounds- well actually it was the same fish each time. “Boris” somehow managed to find me whichever swim I fished. Perch over two pounds, pike to double figures, specimen sized dace, a chub that weighed just one free offering of luncheon meat short of five pounds. Chub of course being a non native species to the river somehow managed to swim down Dorset the A31 and A35. Allegedly in the boot of a car. Finally I must apologise to anyone that happened to witness this fifty five year old (at the time) doing cartwheels and running along the bank “a whoopin’ and a hollerin'” Tom Sawyer style on the 25th September 2015. But my jubilation was warranted as I had just caught my first Devon barbel (well, only one actually.) At a couple of ounces over five pounds it was no monster. Non native of course this barbel , or it’s parents had probably travelled a much similar journey to the earlier mentioned chub. I have caught much bigger ones from other rivers. But none have given me as much cause for celebration. Piscatorial memories. So it was for these fish and many more that I unreservedly grieved.
I still visited the river. Refusing to give up. Ever the eternal optimist. Catches were minimal. Quite often I failed to trouble the scorers at all. The river as always looked perfect. Mr Crabtree could wax lyrical to Peter about the waving green fronds of weed, the overhanging willows and the distinctly “chubby looking” holes. But it’s appearance was all a lie. A trotted float remained untroubled throughout it’s journey downstream; my old cane rod remained undisturbed, happily slumbering in it’s forked stick rod rest. Baited hooks slowly drowned in vain. A watery grave. Liquid deception. Much in the same way as when someone tells you that they have an incurable disease and you almost disbelieve them because they look so well. But beneath the skin; the surface, there is a growing lifelessness lurking in the depths.
Then just after the muted New Year celebrations I heard some welcome news at last. The Environment Agency had started a restocking programme in November 2019. 6000 dace introduced with a further mixture of 25000 dace roach and chub over the next three years. Of course this coincided with the Covid pandemic; fishing had become an irrelevance. So it was some months later (October in fact,) that I found myself bankside once more. Armed with a pint of maggots and my trusty old trotting gear I headed across the meadow to rekindle my spirits. First trot down and my quill float submerged. A feisty dace was netted. Fin and scale perfection, glowing in the autumn sunshine. Subsequent casts resulted in more dace, plump chub and even a surprise gudgeon. I haven’t caught a “Gonk” on the Culm since (check diaries) 1993. All were in pristine condition. Remarkably whichever swim I offered a bait in the results were the same. No monsters or knuckle rapping reel screechers but jubilation was warranted just the same. Hope thankfully like the river, had been restored. As the cool evening mists drained the colour out of the trees and the crows headed to the woods to roost I retraced my steps across the meadow. My uncontrolable beaming smile lighting up a path through the sheep turds.