I will begin on a sad note, with news of the death of Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE, the man who started and for many years directed the Wye and Usk Foundation (he retired in 2016). I will remember him as a soft spoken man with sometimes a delightfully dry sense of humour. Originally a Bristol dentist, salmon fishing gained a real hold on him as it does on so many. He lived by his own beat on the wildest part of the upper Wye at Gromaine, enjoying the kind of view which most of us can only dream of. He began the Foundation as a response to concerns about declining salmon runs in the Wye during the late 90s, and worked tirelessly to build the organisation and to fight to improve the river. The Usk was later added to the target area. As it turned out, the Wye and Usk Foundation would benefit more than just salmon angling interests, and those of us who fish for barbel, trout, grayling and even sea trout also have every reason to be grateful to Stephen and his legacy. Our condolences to his family and friends.      

August is not always an easy month, but this year a lot of people came fishing. The month started with a heat wave and ended with low temperatures and storms which seemed more autumnal than appropriate weather for late summer. On 29th July DN from Bristol fished the Usk at Aberbaiden, caught 5 trout and mentioned that the fishery is shared with Merthyr Tydfil Angling Alliance. In point of fact it isn’t, although MTAA have the opposite bank and can be regarded as “the opposition” if you like. DN saw some big trout under those sandy cliffs, although they would be hard to get at, no doubt.

The following day, a very hot and bright one, Dave Collins of W Herefordshire found himself in the midst of one of those legendary ant falls while fishing the upper Wye below Llanwrtwl. The upshot for Dave was lots of dry fly action using an ant imitation and a small F-fly, and 12 trout and 15 grayling to 1.5 pounds. Dave subsequently did some asking around and found that on the same day ants were reported at Gilwern on the Usk and found in the stomachs of rainbows caught at Llyn Gwyn nearby. It’s remarkable how, when conditions are right, ants all seem to take wing together and I am wondering whether some other catches had some benefit. It was certainly a good fishing day considering the heat. RB from Redditch had 10 trout and 11 grayling from the Rectory, SB from Solihull had 3 trout including a 2 pounder plus 20 grayling from Craig Llyn, mostly on New Zealand style nymphs, and DR from Bristol fished at Doldowlod with the same method and caught 6 trout and 13 grayling. On the 31st SC from Llandeilo Graban had a bit of a tour round the wild streams, first to the River Cammarch where he found the parking space in the Trout Inn blocked off, then to the Upper Irfon without much result, and finally to Aberbwtran where he caught 5 grayling on a Griffiths Gnat. On 1st August JP from Retford had 18 small grayling on a nymph at Dayhouse on the Lugg. MM from Newport with a friend reported 24 trout from the Pontardulais AA water of the Teifi.

River Cammarch on summer low - DG from Hereford
Monnow Valley - JP from Wolverhampton

Heavy fishing pressure continued on the Beacons reservoirs; I can’t remember getting so many reports in a short space of time from Usk and Llwyn On. Apparently Welsh Water has closed the cash ticket machines on site as an anti-virus measure, and so all bookings now go through the WUF. Some anglers were happy with their catches of rainbows, but many more complained that the fishing was poor. I don’t think I can comment beyond mentioning that reservoir fishing may not be at its best in August, particularly when the weather is hot and bright. The WUF confirm that the reservoirs are being restocked every two weeks.

JB from Uppingham had a “highly productive evening and night’s fishing” on the Dee at Llangollen Maelor Angling water, having stayed on until after two in the morning. Falkus would have been proud of him! The catch included 7 trout, 2 sea trout and a grayling. Interestingly and I imagine quite unusually, the grayling apparently took a Medicine fly in the middle of the night. On the 2nd AM from Dorridge reported a large catch of grayling to 18 inches on nymphs from the upper Wye at Doldowlod. IG from Pontypridd with a friend were having a difficult time on the Usk at Dinas, but then the fish switched on quite dramatically at dusk, mostly in one pool, and they reported 20 fish for the day. On the 4th AP from Newport with friends from Gwent Angling Association explored three different mountain lakes of the Aberystwyth AA portfolio and caught 12 trout including a 2 pounder, many with a traditional Mallard and Claret wet fly. AK from Leominster fished at Abernant for 5 trout, 5 grayling and a chub. On the following day RB from Redditch reported 7 trout and 19 grayling from the upper Wye’s Rectory beat. JJ from Tonypandy with a friend accounted for 10 trout and 4 grayling with nymphs from the Rectory, along with half a dozen chub taken on dry fly. On the 7th, with a heat wave well under way, JA from Leominster paid an early morning visit to the Arrow at Whittern and took 5 trout on small dry flies. SL from South Ockendon fished the upper Wye at Dolgau for 16 grayling and one trout.

Llwyn On and an Airflo Balance reel - ST from Merthyr Tydfil
Top of the Wye at Ty Mawr - DG from Hereford

On the 9th, AM from Dorridge had 8 grayling and 2 trout from Doldowlod. GA from London performed an interesting feat with a fly rod the same day at Middle Hill Court on the lower river. Arriving early in the morning he spotted a shoal of barbel near the bank and using a team of nymphs he eventually managed to catch a barbel, a good chub and a carp. On the 11th JA from Leominster had a large trout, unfortunately not measured, in a bag of 4 from the Arrow at Titley.

We were really suffering now from a record heat-wave, with afternoon temperatures reaching beyond 30 degrees. This did nothing much for the results. There were quite a few eels in the reports of those barbel and chub anglers braving it out in the sun. I have noticed before that big eels seem to become active during the daytime in August, particularly if thunder is in the offing. I take it this is a preliminary to downstream migration. By the 14th the extreme heat had begun to break up with low cloud and thunder storms bringing intense but localised and unpredictable showers. The rain missed the main valleys of both Wye and Usk at first, but the Lugg and the Monnow quickly rose in short-lived but muddy floods. The Ithon in particular poured coloured water into the main Wye above Builth. Other streams were spared for a while and the cooler temperatures were welcomed. HH from London fished the Usk at Fenni Fach and had a 2 pounder in his bag of 3 trout: “One of the most beautiful places I have fished in a long time.” JC from Derbyshire fished with a size 18 Goldhead Pheasant Tail Nymph in the pocket water at Dinas and accounted for 13 trout. OB from London had 6 with the dry fly on the same beat next day and watched otters playing in the river at dusk.

Arrow trout - JA from Leominster
Low water on the Usk at Chainbridge - JT from Nailsea

On the 17th and 18th BJ from Chippenham fished some of the Aberystwyth AA lakes, Llyn Craigypistill and Llyn Syfydrin, taking 10 trout to a pound. By now the continuing heavy showers had affected all our rivers and fishing on running water was hard to find. On the 20th SR from Hexham braved 50 mph gusts from Storm Ellen to fish Llyn Eigiau belonging to Dolgarrog FC and caught a dozen hill trout. Most came to a Cochybonddu variant in a team of wets anchored down against the wind by a weighted nymph on the point. On the 22nd, with conditions still pretty wild, CT of Cardiff with two friends had 30 trout to 1.25 pounds from various lakes in the Teifi Pools complex. LE from Usk had 9 from Llyn Egnant. AK from Leominster found plenty of water in the Arrow at Whittern on the 24th and managed 9 trout to 11 inches. On the same day by contrast, KL of Bristol found the Bideford Brook still very low, unaffected so far by the rain. Nevertheless, he had an excellent catch of 26 trout to 11 inches plus a couple of roach.

Storm Francis came roaring through that night, with more rain everywhere in the region, and this finally produced the “meaningful spate” which salmon anglers had been waiting for. The Loughor produced several fresh salmon to those spinning on high and coloured water. Elsewhere in South Wales there was major flooding with property damage, and two deaths by drowning on the lower Taff. As I write at the end of the month most of our rivers were still pretty high and whatever is due to be reported from the bank holiday was not yet available.

Sewin fishing during early August was quite slow, and in fact there seemed to be more salmon than sewin in south-western Wales rivers. One evening on the Llandeilo AA water of the Towy I bumped into Eifion, our club chairman at Pontardulais, and we decided to work a large pool as a team. I would go down first with a surface lure and Eifion would follow with a tube on a sink tip. The idea of this ploy is that the surface lure sometimes stirs up fish which will take the conventional fly following shortly after. The surface lure is traditionally reserved for very late at night when darkness is really thick. However, here I sometimes do well with it when fished earlier in the evening, and in any case this was going to be a very dark night. After a hot day, thick clouds had gathered across the valley and a low yellow moon to the east was mostly obscured. The air temperature never dropped below about 18 degrees. We sat waiting for the light to fade, talking about shotgun chokes of all things. Then we started into the head at 10 o’clock and by the time we reached the tail a couple of hours later, Eifion had made brief contact with a heavy sewin which was quickly on and off, while I had caught a small one of about 20 oz which followed the surface lure out from the shadows under the far bank and took it with a splash. At midnight, somehow neither of us felt like doing it all again. “They are few and far apart this year,” Eifion reckoned as we headed back to the cars for coffee. Of course you never quite know with the Towy; last year from the very same pool Eifion had a fish of 6 or 7 pounds and his son Lyn a 13 pounder “fish of a lifetime.”

Towy sewin by red torch
Wye at Abernant - AK from Leominster

News of yet another pollution incident arrived at the beginning of August. This involved the Llynfi, which drains Llangorse lake and enters the main Wye at Glasbury. A very visible brown stain affected the lower part of the tributary and according to first accounts there has been a total kill of fish and invertebrates over several miles down to the junction with the Wye, where presumably the pollution was diluted. Even eels and crayfish had crawled out of the river to escape. It is only four years since the last pollution and fish kill incident here, and until quite recently we were wondering at what speed the stream would become repopulated. I remember being delighted to catch a big grayling at the top end of Pontithel a couple of years ago. Left unpolluted, the Llynfi is a delightful and unusual stream; along with trout and grayling it also contains a few perch and pike which may be introduced via the outfall from the lake above. The mayfly used to be superb in the lower section down to the Wye, and indeed there is good mayfly fishing in the side-tributary Dulas (which I think must be unaffected by the present pollution). For now the Foundation has closed the Pontithel beat. Dave Collins and other members of the Gwent Angling Association, which along with the Foundation has done much work to improve the Llynfi system, won’t mind being described as incandescent with rage about this latest disaster. I can recall quite a number of conversations in the Llynfi valley during which residents complained about careless slurry-spreading, and indeed the importing of digester waste from outside the area to be spread on these fields. We want to see a prosecution this time; not just a word of advice to a careless farmer. On the same depressing subject, this month film evidence was provided to the SW Wales police of dead sheep and plastic bags of rubbish being deliberately dumped into the Loughor. Similarly we are hoping for action and a prosecution in that case.

This pales into insignificance compared to what happened to the Loughor several days later. On the night of the 26th a tanker train from Milford Haven derailed and caught fire alongside the estuary just a few miles below our Pontardulais fishing.  The police declared a major incident and the village of Llangennech was evacuated for a while. At the time of writing, NRW are not able to estimate the total extent of the damage and its effect on wild-life. This much we do know: the fire has been extinguished and the driver and engineer are unharmed, but 10 tanker cars, each containing 75 tonnes of diesel, have been derailed and most of them have overturned. The little Heart of Wales single track line connecting Llanelli, Llandrindod and on to Shrewsbury, the one we cross at night for our sewin fishing on the Loughor and Towy, remains closed. Most riverside paths have been closed to the public and cockle harvesting has been suspended. A stink of diesel hangs over the whole Llanelli and Gorseinon area and a visible slug of heavy oil is washing up and down the estuary with every tide. The neap tides are low at the moment, but the next high spring tides will run up into the lower part of our fishery at Pontardulais. All this just when, for the first time this year, recent floods have provided some salmon in our little river.

In the pub with angling friends – and isn’t it funny how often we seem to end up there – we used to play that certain game. You know the question: “If you were restricted to using just one fly pattern for the rest of your fishing career, which would you choose?” Whatever favourite flies others came up with, I always had what I thought was a sure-fire winner for this game: “Pheasant Tail Nymph of course, provided I can have it in all the different sizes and variations.”

I still think this wasn’t a bad answer, if you consider the implications. Sawyer’s original river nymph weighted with copper wire incorporated in the dressing is very likely to be taken by any river trout or grayling you can get it close to. If it doesn’t sink fast enough, well, substitute a more recent version weighted with a brass or tungsten bead – it’s still a Pheasant Tail Nymph. These work on lakes as well as rivers, but it’s rather overlooked now that there used to be a much larger range of Pheasant Tails which were used on still waters a few years ago when Bob Church and friends were leading the field. These were tied on heavy wire nymph hooks from size 14 right up to a long shank 8, basically using Sawyer’s construction principle, but employing colour-dyed pheasant tail fibres, a coloured thorax usually of seal’s fur, and a soft hen hackle tied in full at the neck. There were a whole bunch of these and while large or small ones could be fished fast or slow, the long-shank 8 versions came pretty much into the lure category. Thus we had the White Pheasant Tail (good for fry-feeders), Grey (a small one was supposed to take midge feeders), Yellow (useful when sedges are on the menu), Orange (strip it back as a lure in high summer), Black (another one for buzzer hatches), Natural (a general-purpose nymph imitation, just as in rivers), Olive and Claret (not exactly sure, but they both work when fished slowly). One or other of these would almost certainly be appropriate for most types of sub-surface fishing. To the collection I could add a standard PTN tied with a pearly thorax, which is good for fish feeding on pin-fry if tweaked back to the bank in late summer and autumn, and also the Arthur Cove version of Sawyer’s nymph, which has no tail and definitely imitates a midge pupa. Arthur Cove used to drift it round in the wind on a long leader and this still works very well. If I could get away with it, I would add in Payne Collier’s Pheasant Tail, which is an early 20th century West Country dry fly and a very useful general purpose pattern at that. This would give me the opportunity to fish on the surface as well as beneath it. And all that with just one pattern!

We could extend this game if you like. What would be the shortest possible practical list of dry fly patterns for a season on our rivers? I don’t think it could be only one fly. My problem is that I have experimentally dressed hundreds over the years, but that is not to say that I use more than a tiny fraction of the total over a season. Let’s start at the smaller sizes of the creatures which trout eat at the surface. I have boxes of tiny flies, ants and midges, invented by the likes of Ed Koch in the USA, all of which have been tried out on occasion. My more practical suggestion, though, is this: if the item seen on the surface seems to be small and grey, try a Grey Duster in size 18 or even 20, but if it’s small and black, try a William’s Favourite. So there are two patterns to start off our list, both well–proven, both easy to make, and it’s good to know that the same Grey Duster in a large size can fool a mayfly feeding fish and that a larger William’s Favourite will be useful when gnats or hawthorns are on the menu. OK, now we certainly also need a general purpose olive imitation, and I don’t know a better one than the Parachute Adams, so that is my third candidate for the list. I’m sure others will argue for other choices for this job, including the Greenwell’s Glory and the standard Adams, or perhaps something more modern. I’m still happy to plump for the Parachute Adams, mainly in sizes 14 and 16. So that brings us up to three.

Grey Duster
Williams Favourite
Parachute Adams

I’m thinking back now to the early spring, particularly on the Usk where the trout are famously choosy. I think we really must have a dedicated large dark olive imitation, and the one I’m inclined to settle for these days is the Olive Jingler, again in sizes 14 and 16. And for the March Brown, well I’m going to stick to the same theme, but in a slightly larger size, and put down the March Brown Jingler which works at least as well as anything else – most of the time! Now we have five. Next choice is something to imitate sedges, starting with the grannom as the first one to be apparent. With some trepidation I’m going to suggest the Hair Wing Sedge, in different sizes of course, to imitate the whole family of trichoptera. You can tie these with light or dark deer hair, different coloured body material, and add a tag of orange or green if you like. With luck you can get results with a Hair Wing Sedge of some size from the time the grannom arrives right through the rest of the season, although you might be wise to twitch it a little on the surface as the summer draws on. That makes six. I’m afraid my thoughts of making this list a “magnificent seven” as suggested in Pat O’Reilly’s book Matching the Hatch are fast disappearing.

Olive Jingler
March Brown Jingler
Hair Wing Sedge

One reason is that I find that certain general purpose flies are so useful on occasions that they just can’t be left out. So number seven has to be the Deer Hair Emerger, that famous “get out of jail free” card by Bob Wyatt which so often proves to be the only thing which will provoke a good trout, seen once, to come back to the surface. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to be without Marijan Fratnik’s F-Fly, a brilliant and simple design. A small one with a body of claret thread dusted with mole’s fur works as well as anything else when fish are taking iron blues. Dave Collins, I am sure, would add Charles Jardine’s Duck’s Dun generic pattern to the list. It’s certainly a very good one, but I need to show some restraint. 

We are up to eight patterns already and there is more of the season to come. Now I must ask you, can we really rely entirely on a large Grey Duster for the mayfly season? Some would say so, but I still think of my favourite Monnow Gosling as the best mayfly pattern I have come across. Substitute a Grey Wulff if you prefer, but I’m putting the Gosling in and that makes nine. I’m going to try to be stricter in my choices from now on. For years I have been very fond of using a Rusty Klinkhammer, usually in size 16, on small wild streams. It works, and very well too, but it’s my belief that the Parachute Adams already on the list will do this particular job just as well. Unlike the fish of the Usk, small stream trout cannot afford to be so choosy. So, good as they are, I’m going to leave the whole family of Klinkhammers off the list. Then we come to the matter of blue-winged olives, a mid-summer hatch which many of us find can be difficult. I am going to put a Parachute Tups forward as a candidate, although I can think of quite a few occasions on which it has failed me. Orange Quill and Sherry Spinner are both traditional flies which sometimes work. For that matter John Goddard’s JG Emerger sometimes works, but not to the extent that I have full confidence in any of these. If anybody knows of a sure-fire winner for blue-winged olives, duns and spinners, do please let me know. For now, I’m putting the Parachute Tups on the list.

Deer Hair Emerger
Monnow Gosling

We are now on ten and we still need to cover that wonderful September and October grayling time. I am going to find this difficult, because nothing is so much fun as working a grayling shoal with a box of different patterns to show them and there are a dozen or more which work well. The Grey Duster already on the list is certainly going to be useful, probably in size 16. Number eleven has to be the Grayling Steel Blue, to some extent imitative, but with enough hints of colour to interest fish right into the autumn. The GSB is my favourite grayling fly of all time and I have been successful with it on chalk streams also. Rob Evans tells me he fishes the wet version on the top dropper for reservoir rainbows. And finally at number twelve I think we should have a “flame-tail” and what better than the Red Tag with its bright blob of scarlet wool showing amongst coloured leaves in the river? You know fly patterns are a bit like wines, in that some travel and some don’t. The Red Tag is known all over the world, even as far away as Tasmania and New Zealand, although it originated on our border streams as the “Worcester Gem.” Anyway, there you have it – the deadly dozen, or perhaps it should be the dirty dozen:

Grey Duster, William’s Favourite, Parachute Adams, Olive Jingler, March Brown Jingler, Hair Wing Sedge, Deer Hair Emerger, F-Fly, Monnow Gosling, Parachute Tups, Grayling Steel Blue, Red Tag

Parachute Tups
Gold Bead Hares Ear

I wrote the above without reference to my fishing diaries, but I have just now looked up the summaries for the last couple of years and it is indeed the case that the river fly patterns above did most of the work. My memory must be reasonably sound. At the same time, friends accuse me of being over-conservative and inclined to choose flies and other tackle of a traditional nature. So I looked up CV Hancock’s Rod in Hand to see what he recommended for the same streams 60 years ago. He also came up with a “deadly dozen” of dry flies, but not one of his appears in mine. In fact he had a very different approach: “On the Welsh border streams, which I know best…it usually pays to use big hairy patterns, dry and wet alike….the smaller the brook, the bigger the fly.” Here is Hancock’s list:

Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear, Rev Powell’s Paragon, Pheasant Tail, Hereford Alder, Cochybondhu, Rev Powell’s Moth, Iron Blue, Knotted Midge, Badger Hackle, Coombes Blue Variant, Fore-and-aft Mayfly, Midget Mayfly.

Grayling Steel Blue
Red Tag

He added an after-note, that he wouldn’t mind making it a baker’s dozen by including the Dogsbody invented by Harry Powell of Usk, for which he had a high regard. I think I know and have tied all of these (with the exception of the Midget Mayfly), and also used them on occasion. The fact is none of them made it onto my list although the Knotted Midge and Powell’s Ermine Moth might tempt me and I have already mentioned the Pheasant Tail. And yet, there was a time when local anglers used to swear by some of the others, particularly the Hereford Alder for fishing on the Lugg. Nor, for that matter, do I really concur with the idea of automatically selecting “big hairy patterns” for small streams. You can see where Hancock (a most successful angler) got his ideas from, just as I know where I got mine from. Maybe we anglers are, after all, creatures of our times. Maybe the fish have changed their tastes also.  

What about North Country spiders? This will be an even shorter list; working from the diaries I have Waterhen Bloa (definitely for early season dark olive feeders), Dark Moorgame (a substitute for the better known Orange Partridge), Snipe and Purple (associated with iron blues but generally useful), Woodcock and Hare’s Lug (works during a March brown hatch), Hare’s Lug and Plover (can work during grannom hatch and on many other occasions), and Little Dark Watchett (associated with blue winged olives). Of course there are many more, but those are consistent performers.

Going back to the pub where we started off, could we play the same game again with the nymph patterns used for river fishing? In my case I think this would be even easier, because after tying up and filling boxes with all sorts of different nymphs seen in various past magazine articles, I am going to put up just four which I actually use on a regular basis:

Goldbead Hare’s Ear Nymph: this is used singly on small streams early in the season before trout start to rise, in size 14 or 16 depending on the power of the current.

Tungsten Hare’s Ear Nymph: an incredibly useful heavy nymph in size 14 or occasionally 12, fished as one of a team under the rod tip or experimentally added to the point of a team of spiders. It has the exact outline and colour of a natural baetis nymph.    

Pink Shrimp: normally fished in tandem with the Tungsten Hare’s Ear above, this one’s purpose is to accommodate the grayling’s well-known taste for a bit of colour. I tie them in 4 different weights on size 10 and 12 grub hooks.

Sawyer’s Pheasant Tail Nymph (standard): back to Sawyer’s brilliant invention which, while it lacks weight compared to many of the modern flies, is a wonderful fish-taker. If I fish a team of three heavy nymphs, I tend to put a size 16 PTN on the top dropper where it will wave around enticingly just above the bottom.

In the case of fishing with nymphs, I pay more attention to the weight than the pattern. I accept that may seem an over-simplified approach to many. I have a very experienced and successful nymph fishing friend who tells me that “matches are won on the fly-tying bench” and he has an enormous collection of patterns. And I do accept that on some very pressurized waters, the exact nature of the pattern being presented or whether the bead is silver or black may become more important. Thankfully I don’t think that is the case yet on most our WUF waters.

As for Hancock, he had nothing to tell us about nymphs although he did give the dressing for several wet flies including his own “Pet.” One of the many things I like about his book is that it includes a photograph of the author, taken sometime during the 1930s, fishing the Lugg beside that bridge at Lyepole, a place which is so familiar to many of us. Not so much changes, at least not in the valley of the Lugg. “Caliban,” by the way, refers to Hancock’s oversized creel.

Tungsten Hare's Ears, Pink Shrimps and various Pheasant Tail nymphs.
CV Hancock fishing at Lyepole. Caliban refers to his over-sized creel

Occasionally a little international news creeps past the British media’s obsession with the pandemic and how badly it is supposedly being managed in this country. During early August we heard about the disaster in Beirut, a city I got to know quite well at the time of the Narh Al-Bared camp war in Tripoli to the north. As minor wars go, that was a particularly vicious little struggle between the Lebanese Army and extremists from Fatah Al-Islam embedded in a Palestinian refugee camp. It began with a bank robbery and ended with the flattening of the camp by heavy artillery. When it was all over, as usual in Lebanon the UN and international donors were handed the responsibility and the bill for reconstruction. The present catastrophe seems to be another example, on a very large and brutal scale, of human carelessness destroying the infrastructure and environment as well as people. In the photographs taken after the explosion, behind the wreckage of the port warehouse which held the explosive fertiliser, the shattered towers of the grain silo stand as a potent symbol, a golden stream descending from broken concrete walls to the harbour. Polluted now and open to the elements, that yellow pile is what remains of Lebanon’s strategic wheat reserve.

Lebanon is one of those countries where an extremely wealthy elite rub shoulders with the relatively poor. Corruption is rampant. I find it difficult to be comfortable in places where people drive Bentleys while others on the same streets eat from containers. You can count about 20 political/religious factions in Lebanon, not even including the descendants of the original 1948 refugees from Palestine (who don’t have citizenship rights, but made an agreement to use their camps in Lebanon as a base for armed struggle against Israel). Neighbouring states tamper at will with a virtually unworkable political system left by the French. Add to that and the already existing burdens of the UN in Lebanon, more than a million new refugees from Syria and now the virtual collapse of the food import chain.

Despite the tragedy in Beirut dominating international news, I have been thinking also about Spain this month. See what you think about this memory from nearly 40 years ago? On 23rd February 1981 I drove my family in a hire car from Almeria province to the city of Granada, using the back roads through high mountains. It was a bright, frosty morning and we left the vineyards which supply sweet, white Christmas grapes to the English market, to climb steadily higher into the Alpujarras. Every now and then, the wheels slipped on a shaded icy corner. In a remote mountain town, we stopped to drink coffee in the sunny part of the little square. While we were there an old green van pulled up; two rough looking men got out and ordered coffee before opening up the back. Inside was a jumble of bloody fur, chains and gin traps, and the bodies of the only wolves I have seen in Western Europe. Two of them were still alive and the men amused themselves and the café owner’s wife for a few minutes by torturing them around the square, swinging them on chains with gin trap jaws clamped on bloody muzzles, eyes glaring with defiance. Eventually the café owner came with a baulk of timber and put them out of their misery, trapping them on the ground before breaking their necks. I have wondered about this grizzly scene at times. They were wolves all right, not foxes or jackals. And yet wolves are not generally recorded in the Alpujarras, although they are known in the Sierra Morena a little further north. Perhaps they are now extinct in that southern range. I can imagine that herdsmen must have hated them for their predation on sheep and cattle. 

At the time, the brutality of the scene in the square acted on me as a reminder of the old blood-thirsty, fascist Spain. The dictator Franco was not long dead then, and Spain was still an uneasy country under its young King Juan Carlos, its economy in trouble, riven by separatist movements in the Basque country and Catalonia, pulled apart between the modernising left and the reactionary right. Juan Carlos in his early youth had been personally selected by Franco over his father, groomed carefully and then anointed as the dictator’s successor. It had been assumed that on taking over with his restored monarchy he would keep Spain centralised, ruled from the top under the existing Francoist system, relying on the three legs of the famous stool which supposedly supported the nation: Land-owners, Church and Army. To the surprise of most and the disquiet of some, the young king with his Greek princess wife had moved rapidly to liberalise the system, opening the country up to elections and parliamentary rule.

In Granada’s Washington Irving hotel that night, we found everybody watching television and listening to radio sets. Few people slept and this would in the future become known as “the Night of the Transistors.” A military coup was under way, something which used to be quite familiar to Spain as a nation. During the 19th century a pronunciamento happened almost annually. A general would stand up, make a political pronouncement and, provided he had enough support, all the jobs and personalities would change like a game of musical chairs. The event was usually bloodless. Senior officers of the Army, seeing themselves as guardians of the nation, seemed to spend most of their time plotting. On this winter day in 1981, a Civil Guard colonel named Antonio Tejeres carrying a drawn pistol had marched with a squad of his men into the Cortes, the Spanish parliament in Madrid, and taken all the deputies hostage. With TV cameras running, deputies were ordered to lie on the floor. There followed shouting, scuffles and then automatic fire into the ceiling. The nation was in shock. Then all eyes turned to the Army, the all-important question in everybody’s mind being how widely was the coup supported? The Spanish Army was and is organised regionally, with Captains General in charge of each province. The course taken by the military in each province would determine the nation’s future.

Even today there are some conspiracy theories about what happened next. The more obvious version is that the coup needed the King’s support, but did not get it. General Armada represented the coup in Madrid and applied to the palace, but the King refused to see him. In Valencia, General Jaime Milans Del Bosch sent his tanks onto the streets and took over the civil administration, although the local Air Force command resisted and threatened with fighter aircraft. Meanwhile Juan Carlos, who had made a point of cultivating relations with senior figures in the military and who was a keen amateur radio ham, was working the phone lines through the night, contacting the Captains General of the regions one by one, from Navarre to the Canary Islands, asking each for a declaration of loyalty. At one o’clock in the morning he appeared on television and made a statement condemning the coup and urging all Spaniards to be loyal to the elected government. 

After a night of uncertainty, by morning it was clear that the coup had failed. To the surprise of many, certain regional Captains General known for their conservative views had remained loyal to the government. Tejero and his Civil Guard surrendered after leaving the Cortes. Armada and Milans Del Bosch surrendered themselves to the military police. The main conspirators were eventually tried and given stiff prison sentences – of which they served roughly half. Spain would continue on its course to a relatively liberal democracy and membership of the European Union. The Army would become a professional fighting force, integrated with NATO and hopefully unconcerned with politics. That morning, in every sense, Juan Carlos looked like the hero of the hour. Always best visited in winter, Granada sparkled like a jewel in the sunshine, although frost remained in deep shadows cast in narrow Moorish streets. The famous snows of the Sierra Nevada formed the backdrop. There is snow up there even in August. On a clear day, you can see Africa from the summit.

An optimist that day could be forgiven for thinking that fascism had at last come to an end in Europe. Unfortunately that was not to be the case. Fascism is a much overused word, but real old-fashioned fascism, by which I mean the 1940s kind with the swastika, “Ready for the Fatherland, Commander” and the Roman salute, is still alive and well and living in Eastern Europe. They keep it slightly better hidden these days. Meanwhile modern Spain became disillusioned with its royal family over the years. The newly liberated Spanish media learned a lot from the British tabloids and rarely missed royal errors. As he grew older, Juan Carlos became known more as a playboy rather than for leadership in his appointed role. There were scandals about big game hunting, women and money. Six years ago he abdicated in favour of his son and now, with a prosecution for corruption threatening, he has left the country, supposedly for the UAE. It’s a sad ending to a very public life. Juan Carlos’ detractors ask why did he wait so long before making his statement that night of the coup attempt, and was he undecided for a time? Was he deciding which way to jump? And indeed, why were the telephone lines left open to him? Personally, I hold to the view that his decisiveness and determination saved democracy in Spain that night. I wonder if young Spaniards and young Europeans in general think much about that today.

Back to fishing and September can be a joy of a fishing month, so let us be hopeful. Temperatures should become cooler, flies should be hatching again and there should be good chances of late trout or grayling on the dry fly. Darker evenings might be more practical for those after a harvest sea trout and salmon grow more aggressive as their season draws toward its end.

Tight lines!

Oliver Burch 

Wye Valley Fishing