Descendants of the ancients return to relive ritual

Outdoor Living

ANNUAL CEREMONY Crisp, clear, early-winter water and coarse gravel make for perfect trout spawning grounds.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

I walked to the woods at dusk; not to the near forest, which I have come to know well, but to another nearby, where stands an ancient mansion in a state of advanced dereliction. A bridge straddles the river close by. Eaten by frost, with its footing eroded by a century of floods, the precarious arch was a magnet, as all bridges are for fisherfolk.
A bat defied encroaching cold to flit along the treeline, a flickering reminder of some summer’s eve. When I picked a reed and waved it over my head the little creature came to investigate. Just a year or two ago I would have heard its tiny voice, the high pitched, eager squeak used in echolocation. Time dulls the senses, so it speaks now just to younger ears. I teased it, waving the tuft of reed this way and that to create a moving target, still impressed at the speed of those delicate wings.
A sound beneath the bridge brought a stop to the game; a slow, liquid caress that ended with a roiling ‘Slurp’. I shone my small torch over the broken parapet. The beam cut through the water to illuminate the stones of the river bed, where thin fronds of weed showed vagaries of current beneath a hanging bramble arch.
A spreading ripple drew the light until the source of movement became apparent; trout, many trout, large and small together, gathered to spawn.
There was one, a hen, fat and round and full of eggs, a full six pounds in weight, and at her tail her prospective mate, less than half her size and rather lank, with a long head and powerful jaw. He nosed her flank briefly, wanting her ripe and ready, then took off at speed, wide-mouthed and angry, to chase away the sprat that sidled at her belly.
His task is not an easy one, for the stream abounds with juvenile fish. While the two- and three-year-old females have no part in proceedings, cock fish of the same age are sexually mature and ready to move in at the telling moment, to shed their milt over fresh laid eggs and father at least a few of the next generation.
Another large hen trout dropped down the flowing stream and positioned herself over the coarse gravel at the tail of the bridge pool. As she lay on one side and scooped at the stones with her broad tail, a cock fish of equal size appeared from the shadows to stand guard over the shallow trench her efforts produced. It took half a dozen attempts before she was satisfied with the depth of her redd. She lay in it, holding position in the stream with the barest movement of fins, while her companion champed impatient jaws below.
More splashing came from the next pool up, where more fish indulged in a similar ritual. I stood quiet in the near dark to watch moonlit ripples spread the length of the pool, while cold air chewed at my ears and chilled extremities.
This stream, with its crisp, clear, early winter water, has been host to a thousand similar scenes. It felt a privilege to stand witness to these beautiful trout, and to know they are descendants of those that followed retreating ice millennia before and first stocked the lake downstream, the summer home and fattening ground of sought-for summer fishes.
I find my mind on summer. When would we have enough of June, with her long days and balmy nights? Would a thousand July twilights leave us sated, so we’d never want a thousand more? Or who would be replete with August dawns, no matter how many were indulged in?
On the hill beyond, an ancient fort holds close an echo of forgotten words; I hear it now, or nearly do. The stream of time erased the work of those who lived there long ago, and as far away again, beneath spread boughs, below wind and cloud and under stars, lie flattened mounds that mark past mourning, the sum of all man’s work. Who would hasten there?
While a thin mist grew from the ground a fox cried somewhere in the trees. When I sucked through my fingers to squeal she fell silent. I heard her padding on the path and pushing through bracken, and shone my light to catch an orange eye, just a moment but long enough to know.
Who would love life and see good days?