Valentine Warner goes salmon fishing

We challenged TV chef Valentine Warner to pit his wits against the king of the river: the salmon – so he headed into the wilds of Cumbria. Photo by Mark Elliot

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For the past four hours, town and country have been flashing by as the train I’m on pushes north, carrying me closer to my favourite river, the Derwent in Cumbria. I’m returning there as BBC Countryfile Magazine has issued me with a challenge and it’s one I can’t resist taking on: can I catch a salmon in a day?

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It’s a great excuse for enjoying a day’s angling but, just as importantly, an opportunity to learn about some of the issues facing the fish and fishing.

My fishing rods have so far lain dusty and idle this year due to work and the arrival of a new child. But this is my chance: I have one day – a single October day – all to myself, to get in the water and put my rods to use. I’m as excited as I remember being when I was a child listening for the sound of hooves on the roof come Christmas Eve.

With my nose pressed against the carriage glass, I watch the last few pink streaks of cloud give the sky the threadbare look of day’s end. Towns become villages, which then vanish, giving way to a long cutlery blade of silver sea. And suddenly the sea is blotted out by the inky fells; their steep-sided silhouettes punctuated occasionally by the warm orange windows of isolated farms.

An intake of cold air as soon as I step off the train at Penrith makes me smile. I recognise the smell and the silence. I’m in the Lakes and I feel a freedom that I only get when in the wilder places.

Poaching and preservation
Dave Smith, the fisheries manager at Cockermouth Castle and a good friend of mine, is waiting for me at the station and our drive to Cockermouth is a welcome opportunity to catch up on news. Instantly relaxing, I mention Dave’s uncanny resemblance to The Great British Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood. “Watch it you!” he replies. “I’ve had to shave off me goatee because those in town keep asking how me buns are.”

Before Dave took over, I also spent many happy hours with his predecessor, the late Stan Payne. Stan told me of the old poaching methods: stories of big men with refrigerated trucks on narrow, moonlit lanes and of punch-ups on riverbanks. A colourful character himself, Stan was said to “scythe down poachers like nettles” with the hook that replaced the hand he lost in Korea. Stan’s valuable knowledge helped me get an A in my English mocks with an essay titled Poaching on the Cumbrian Derwent.

While he was alive, Stan advised a government fisheries review on wild salmon and now Dave continues the great work trying to preserve the fragile biodiversity of the river through careful management funded by proceeds from the fishing. It’s a hard job but, so far, the Derwent has managed to look after its fish and remains a real jewel of the north.

Catching the criminals
Poaching persists, however. It carries a maximum fine of £5,000 but a lack of enforcement guidance has made it difficult for the police to act on reported incidents. In the hope of remedying this, the Angling Trust, which is headed by Mark Lloyd, who I’ve invited to come and fish with us tomorrow, has recently added the Essential Guide to Elementary Freshwater Fishery Law & Enforcement in England to the Police’s national online resource. The guide is endorsed by the police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit and is now available to police officers in England and Wales.
But poaching is only one of the problems angling faces. According to the Angling Trust, fish habitats are also under threat from industrial and agricultural chemicals and waste, invasive species and falling water levels. As a result, the stocks and health of England’s fish are declining, so their habitats need managing and protecting, which is why revenue from fishing is desperately needed to bolster private investment, as well as council and government funding.

Which is why Pamela The Dowager Lady Egremont (my hostess for the night as well as the owner of the fishing rights to the Cockermouth Castle section of the Derwent and an old friend of my father’s) was one of the first to subsidise the commercial salmon nets on a river in order to monitor fish stocks. In return for not fishing, the fishermen were paid a sum that matched the profit they would have made from the salmon they usually caught. The scheme worked a treat and salmon numbers recovered quickly.

As always, I find her reading beside a roaring fire. She’s nearly 90 but you wouldn’t believe it. She is tall and elegant, with piercing, twinkly eyes and is someone I’m always eager to see.
I caught my first salmon with Lady Pamela. She fired my mind as a boy with tales of her adventures around the world and stories of monstrous foreign fish such as the Indian goonch, with a greed for children splashing in the shallows. On her advice, I’ve caught mackerel with fuchsia flowers and read the books all keen fishermen should. She still fishes using a split cane rod to this day and modestly catches more salmon than anyone I know. It’s because of Pamela, the Derwent and its salmon, sea trout and brown trout that I first took up fishing.
That night, recollections like these and the sound of rushing water outside my bedroom window help me drift off to sleep.

Blindfolded darts
It’s 8.30am and I’ve been up a while. Coffee’s my ceremonial fishing drink and I’m two cups down already. I’ve also gorged on what feels like 10 yards of coiled Cumberland sausage, a breakfast that I always approach as a challenge. Only a trembling fainthearted southerner would leave any uneaten on the side of the plate. Mark Lloyd arrives. I’ve never met him before but I like his manner instantly, not least because he also can’t disguise his eagerness to get fishing.

Soon Dave, Mark and I are driving along narrow, rain-soaked lanes. Everything is dripping wet and the yellow leaves driven flat against the black tarmac looks like gilt on laquer. A secret gate is unlocked and, with a rattle of the rods strapped to the car’s bonnet, we bump and crawl across a field towards Armathwaite and the huge pool we’ve decided to fish.
Pulling on my waders I ask Dave the ritual question: “What are our chances today?”

“You have a good chance,” comes the customary reply. The seed of hope has been well and truly sown but I’m feeling more optimistic that ever today because Dave has lent me Cardinal Basil Hume’s fishing rod. Hume was the Archbishop of Westminster and before his death in 1999 used to visit the River Derwent frequently. Surely his austere black rod with its papal purple whipping should carry a blessing.

I liken salmon fishing to playing darts blindfolded, while standing on a giant spring. So many factors come into play: water level and clarity, air and water temperature; are the fish holding or pushing through? It’s the eternal hope of the fisherman that keeps him fixed of mind while the water pushes at his back and the wind and rain challenge his technique and resolve.
After an hour’s fishing with my favourite fly – the silver stoat – I begin to hear my internal mantra: “Soon it will happen, soon it will happen”.
The weather is mad: one minute the sun is blazing, demanding the removal of a jumper; the next, a squall sends a million leaves waltzing over the water’s surface before rain lashes down and then subsides to reveal the most perfect rainbow I’ve ever seen.

Mark commands his line like a circus ringmaster with whip, rolling it out with graceful precision or skipping back to his hand when a fly change is necessary. It’s easy to see this man has spent alot of time doing what he loves and what I hope to do more of. I’m about 15m (50ft) ahead, watching the red belly of a kingfisher move over the water like an RAF jet over the fells when – wallop! – Mark’s into a fish.

Delight and jealousy
“What a take,” Mark shouts. His rod is bent double, the line taught and cutting a slit against the current. I feel an uncomfortable mixture of delight and jealousy. Deep satisfaction for my guest that he’s into a fish and that the trip is a success, while at the same time worried that this could be the only fish of the day. Yes, angling is always a lovely day out, but it’s even better when the curved and juddering rod is yours. Mark’s catch is a perfect 6.3kg (14lb) hen fish that’s coloured and ready to spawn. We unhook her and hold her facing the current, gently rocking the water through her gills. Soon, with a powerful flick of her tail, she surges from our supporting hands and arcs into the midstream currants before fading into darker water.

I find the faces of salmon very moving; they seem to possess a look of melancholy determination. Something single-minded broods within them. It must, I believe, in order for them to fulfil their amazing lifecycle. They hatch in the river then leave for the sea to hunt for ever diminishing food, having run the gauntlet of fish farms and sea lice. With the sharks behind them, its back through nets, seals and otters, on a hungry journey upriver to spawn in freshwater.

As the lake water overflows into the river, I notice the level has risen a few inches. I fish on, taking a dopping of goosanders as a symbol forecasting failure, before spotting a huge skein of geese over the misty fells, which can only mean success.

Never the purist, and with rising water, I switch tactics to spinning with a spoon lure. My confidence returns and I plop my spoon under the low trees by the far bank. Within five minutes I have a lively little hen fish on but, despite her strong spirit, she comes to the net quickly. A photo and she jumps from my hands back into the flow.
Dave offers his congratulations and, throwing caution to the wind, I give him a hug, remembering too late that Cumbrian men don’t hug other men. It starts to spot with rain again as Mark appears having lost a fly and fallen in the shallows. It’s time to go. We’ve fished hard, are soaked through and all happy. I rose to the challenge of catching a salmon and, what’s more, I’ve found a piece of fruitcake in my pocket – a fitting and well earned reward.

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The next morning, Mark drives me back to Penrith. We laugh about the previous day’s exploits along the way and agree to ring each other once we’ve arrived back in our offices to further discuss the fishing matters that our obsession with it prevented us from doing the previous day. Kindred spirits. Put either of us in the river with a rod in our hands and everything else fades away.