Mr Goldhead And The Grayling
Trout & Salmon|January 2018

Lawrence Catlow fishes the rapidly recovering River Irfon in Powys.

Lawrence Catlow

THE VALLEY OF the upper Irfon winds its way between steep-sided hills, some of them thickly cloaked in dark conifers, others bare-headed, dotted with the high and distant shapes of sheep moving almost imperceptibly along the slopes above the open oak woods below. It is a deep as well as a sinuous valley, which makes it seem a half secret and secluded place. It is green as well as deep, green and lush, with the different and complementary greens of the grass and bracken on the unwooded slopes, of the tall conifers and the round-topped oaks. Buzzards, kites and ravens float and call in the sky. It is all very atmospheric, all very beautiful and the river that twists and turns along the green floor of the valley is every bit as beautiful as its surroundings. It flows in the shade of alders, birches and willows, and the peat stain, which persists even in low water, shines with just a touch of gold. There are deep pools and long, streamy runs beneath the trees, there are cascading falls, there are narrow channels where the river runs smooth and dark between confining slabs of grey rock. It is all very beautiful, and yet the Irfon has not always been just as full of life, of food for fish and fish for fishers, as its own and its valley’s beauty might suggest. About 50 years ago the head of the catchment was smothered with mile upon mile of forestry, which, predictably enough, has tried its best over the years to poison the river with the invisible pollution of acid rain. I have been told that the Irfon almost died.

I first fished the river six or seven years ago with a party of friends; it was not dead but it was very clearly in poor health. A few parr were caught, a few troutlings and, although none came to net, there were rumours of a few grayling here and there. It seemed a river still struggling to support life, but one that had been pulled back from the brink. The watershed bogs and some of the higher tributaries had been heavily limed, the whole river had been declared catch-and-release; they were blocking the ditches in the plantations and reducing that blanket cover of fir and pine and spruce. The Wye and Usk Foundation were doing all they could to improve the situation. Very slowly the Irfon was being nursed back to something like its former vitality.

Two years ago one of us caught a grayling, last year I caught one not far short of the pound, as well as two or three decent trout and lots of small ones and plenty of parr. This summer there were just two of us fishing at the start of the week. On our first morning we headed for the river, from our cottage at Cwm Irfon Lodge, through a windless Welsh mist of drizzle and low cloud. The Welsh midges were putting on a performance that would have made their more famous Scottish cousins jealous and I had, of course, left my repellent behind. Anyway, I endured the assault of the Welsh midges and fished my way slowly upstream. The water was in good order, neither too low nor too high and flowing with a touch of that lovely golden stain, but sport was nevertheless slow. I caught a few parr and was pleased to catch them. I was even more pleased to catch one or two small trout and a monster a whole 12 inches long.

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