“Few fish have captivated anglers to such an extent as the legendary trout of the Thames"
To today's angler, the river Thames is perhaps more known for its big perch, shoals of bream or escapee carp. Believe it or not though, it used to be famed for a different type of fish entirely....the legendary Thames trout?
I wasn't totally unaware of the mythical, Thames trout, but it's taken 'Below the Weir - Methods and Memories of Thames Trout Angling’ by Peter Rogers, to really bring their story to my attention. Knowing that Peter's past works include the enjoyable 'Red Letter Days' compilation, and co-editing one of my favourite books, 'The Carp Catchers Club’, when Paul Cook mentioned he was illustrating a new compilation on Thames trout for Peter, it was one I looked forward to reading.
Through these carefully chosen and researched writings, we are taken over a period of 100 years, tracing the history of the legendary Thames trout fishery from its origin, heyday and sad decline. There are works and writings here from such famous Victorian and Edwardian gents as H. Cholmondeley-Pennell, J.J Manley, F.M Halford, H.T Sheringham, Patrick Chalmers and A. Edward Hobbs, as well as pieces from lesser known authors.
For a historical book, these essays are far from being merely dry and factual. Within the compiled 25 pieces there is a variety of technical details, descriptive personal reflections and anecdotal tales. Written in a different age, these are not your modern ‘how-to’ articles, they’re carefully scripted, embedded with prose, humour and wit.
‘It may be asked therefore, whether it is worth while to try for Thames trout at all? Is the game worth the candle? The ardent fisherman will certainly say - yes, by all means; for he knows that the slayer of a large Thames trout at once becomes piscatorial celebrity.’
- Notes on Fish and Fishing - J.J Manley
‘The tiny bait ought to fall with the lightest of splashes on the water, and not as if the object were to break the skull of some devoted fish’
- The Practical Fisherman, J.H Keene
‘A Thames trout, hooked at the head of a weir-run and bolting into it, will take fifty yards or more line off the winch in his first rush; and if he makes up his mind to go clean away, there is no stopping him on fine tackle until he is somewhat exhausted’
- Coarse Fish - Charles Wheeley
It's easy to think that pre-1900 angling must have been a pretty 'coarse' affair but in all these writings, it's shown otherwise. The legendary Thames trout were by no means easy to catch, the species held in such high esteem, that any angler that caught one was instantly revered by his contemporaries. The methods disclosed here, the lengths the masters went in catching them, would no doubt put many modern 'specimen hunters' to shame. So whilst the tackle materials available at this time may have been basic, the Thames trout angler’s skill and tactics certainly weren't.
‘Perhaps there is no fish existing which requires such persistence and wary skill to snare as the Thames Trout’
‘Spinning for Thames Trout requires much more art than corresponding operation for pike’
- The Practical Fisherman, J.H Keene
What may be slightly surprising for a book on trout, is we're not really talking fly fishing here. From these accounts, we learn that the Thames trout grew fat more on fish than insects. So whilst the fly was used on the Thames during this period, these writings show it was by no means the most popular or productive method. Thames trout fishing meant bait mounts, live baits and spinners. Working dace, bleak or minnow baits downstream from the tops of the weirs or carefully positioned punts, methods not so very different to those carried out by the perch fishers today in fact.
Perhaps surprisingly, I kept finding these parallels and similarities with the angling scene of today.
‘The angler who fishes a strange weir has a much better chance of getting fish if he employs a local professional to show him the likely spots’
‘A trout that has been hard fished knows a thing or two: he will feed freely a few yards off your bait again and again’
‘Owing to so much disturbance and the highly educated state of the fish, all Thames fishing is difficult
‘The rod is a dull, dark green, and being well weather-beaten is without glitter’
‘Rods are often used for Thames trouting that are far too stiff’
‘Of course it must be remembered that the foregoing description of a Thames weir was written when they were very different from what they are now. At present they have handrails and a variety of other protections of which no one even dreamt thirty years ago’
Does any of that seem vaguely familiar? Guiding, pressured fish, bankside disturbance, matt blanked rods, overly stiff rods, health and safety….there’s nothing new in this game it seems. There’s plenty of evidence showing, just like today, anglers competed to get the best spots on the weirs, some anglers looked down on others, and those that put the most effort in to learning about their quarry were most rewarded. In fact it was the contrasts and similarities, that I found one of the most interesting and common themes that ran through these essays.
Clearly those Victorian and Edwardian chaps weren't shy of using a few hooks! Some of the bait mounts shown, with their sets of ’triangles’ look positively barbaric in these modern times, (you have to wonder how long the baits would have lasted). That said, clearly anglers of this time were just as concerned and dedicated to trying to maintain fish stocks and their environment as we are today, the river being stocked at various points throughout the late 19th century.
Alongside the writings, 'Below the Weir' features many of the original illustration plates, blended with a series of very fitting, ink illustrations by Paul Cook. In the absence of photography, these really help set the scene, showing the well turned out gentleman beside falling water and weir. Anyone that is familiar with Paul’s work will recognise the black ink illustrations instantly; it’s a style that somehow manages to look modern whilst still sitting well with the traditional theme.
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed this book, I couldn’t help but come away with a slight sense of sorrow, the fact that such a great trout fishery has been lost. I don’t mind admitting, the shear quality and size of the trout that once resided in the Thames I simply wasn’t aware of. It shouldn’t of course, but it almost seems unbelievable that an English river held such prodigious brown trout.
‘I feel sure that my word will not be doubted when I state that I have seen at least six trout of the 15lb to 20lb class in the Upper Thames’
‘The heaviest that I have known to survive the test of balance scales and weights weighed some hours after it was killed was 17lb 3oz’
- Trout of the Thames - A.E Hobbs
However, these writings benefiting greatly from being collated, allowing a factually rich and historical account of this period in angling history. The result is a piece of work that really does do justice to the subject. Simply put it’s a great collection of articles, well edited and compiled, on a very interesting subject. Along the way it's impossible not to be drawn in by the legendary status of the Thames trout.
In conclusion, this is a lovely book and comes well recommended to anyone interested in the history of angling, Thames trout or the river in general.