From a fly fishing competition in Wales.
On our third try, our expedition to the Hanak Competition European Grayling festival on the River Dee is finally happening. After landing at the Luton airport, my friend Lukas and I impatiently hurry to the town of Llangollen, where we set up headquarters in our small stylish hotel. We have heard that the river is running high, but with a promise of better conditions and rapidly dropping water levels we quickly put the kilometers behind us. After driving for more than three hours with one of those typical inedible hamburgers in our stomachs we arrive at our destination. It's already dark, but of course we have to go to the river to see if the water level is going to give this fishing trip a chance.
Our first glance at the river presents us with very high, almost flood-level waters, so we head to the warmth of a pleasant stylish restaurant, where in the comfort of an wonderful old mill we forget the sad truth of tomorrow's first fishing day over some local beers.
There was a freeze overnight, and the river looked calmer with the water level actually dropping. That was great motivation, so accompanied by the local fishing legend Ken we set out for the training part of the lower stretch of the Dee below Llangollen. The setting of the river was beautiful, and was a powerful argument for the local attitude regarding relationships between nature and private property. Our fishing stretch was bounded by two exquisite stone arched bridges certainly over a hundred years old. The fishing was less than exquisite, however, with everything but goat-stys floating by in the near-flood level water. Despite this, we managed to find a more calm area and catch a couple nice trout and small graylings. We moved on in hope of finding better water about 40 km upstream in the town of Bala, but the water there was about to pour over into the fields. We quickly tried to find a place to fish before the rapidly setting sun, and managed to catch a few grayling in a calmer, wadeable stretch - a couple of which were even over a kilo. The fish here are in good shape, very robust, and jump out of the water when on hook, almost like rainbows. We used French leaders with three large flies. Classical leading under the rod worked well for me, but takes were light despite the high water level. Lukas tried pulling up against the current, and after tuning his combination of size and color just right managed a lot of success. It began to get dark, however, so we escaped to the hotel to meet our friend Pavel, the third member of our team.
The next day the River Dee gave us more hope. The water had dropped more than 20 cm overnight. Despite this, it was still difficult to find a fishable stretch that we could at least try. In the end we fished at the same place as yesterday afternoon, near the town of Bala. We were soon frozen through, the fish wouldn't strike, and our total score was just a few though quite nice grayling. For three fishers and hours on the rod, not much. And, no idea whether tomorrow would be better. Nothing we could do about it, however, so that evening at the competition sign-in we washed away our misgivings with a few pints of beer followed by good food in an Indian restaurant. The lottery assigned us all three stretches in three sectors. Since we only knew the river from the car, we didn't make any specific plans or hopes. We would see what tomorrow would bring - the organizers promised lower water levels, so we believed that we would at least catch something.
Early in the morning we downed a traditional English breakfast and packed our things in the car so we could get to the meeting point on time. The tournament was divided into three-member teams, with two fishing in one sector and the third acting as referee for neighboring teams in the sector. We quickly divided up and hurried to the competition stretch. On the way, we stopped at a bridge over the Dee in anticipation, but our optimism was quickly dashed. Not only had the water level not dropped, but it was higher than the day we arrived. It was hard to get motivated, but we were certainly not about to give up. We quickly packed our snacks, score cards, and Lukas got in the car with the Belgian team for who he would referee. Pavel and I hurried to our stretch, parked at the river, and rushed to our site. The sight of the river was terrifying. The water was rushing at flood levels and was extremely cloudy. We rolled our eyes - todays fishing would be more an exercise in survival! Luckily the beautiful surroundings tempered our hopelessness a bit. A nearby steam train with sightseeing wagons puffed by, the fields had grass like on a golf course, everything around was clean, and sheep grazed nearby. The train station close by reminded us of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
But, back to reality. We assembled our rods and walked along the stretch we would fish. We didn't give ourselves much of a chance. We couldn't find much of a place to catch in the muddy water. With a greeting to our referee, we refreshed ourselves on the tournament rules, the most important of which was that only graylings over 20cm would be counted, and the round began. We long searched for a place we could at least wade. We managed to fish a large part of our stretch, but only from the bank and only there where the raging current allowed us. After about an hour, Pavel finally got a strike and hooks a nice fish - it is clear that whoever managed to catch something would likely win. Unfortunately, our triumph quickly evaporated - Pavel caught a nice brown trout, so no points. Time was running, and our hope of getting grayling seemed less and less likely. We desperately tried to get a bite, and when in the cloudy water we finally found a place to wade, I was ready to go for a swim if it helped our chances. Unfortunately no strikes, and the referee whistled the end. A nice start, with a clean slate. We dragged ourselves back to the car, downcast in our helplessness and mainly the disappointing fishing experience. About the only consolation was that we're not the only team with no fish. On more-accessible and wadeable stretches a few grayling were caught, but not much. The afternoon has got to be better.
There was just only time to move to our new site, unloading and wishing luck to the guys, and I hurried on to referee the Belgians on the opposite end of the sector. On the way I had an interesting experience. As I stood on a bridge over the river, all of the sudden about 50 meters upstream a boat suddenly appeared. Just then I realized that the neighboring exquisite arched bridge isn't a bridge at all but an aqueduct. Wonderful - another sign of the relationship of the local people to their environment. I have to hurry on, however, and I got to my stretch just in time. Five minutes later I started the fishing, then sat in the sun which had miraculously appeared, and gazed at the surrounding country. Across the still-flooded river I watched as some golfers tortured themselves even now in December. The warmth of the sun was putting me nicely to sleep, when suddenly I was woken with a yell from one of the participants - hurray! I get to measure a grayling! A full 25 cm, but that would unfortunately be all for this round. One fish is of course more than zero, so I excitedly headed over to our guys quietly hoping they had caught something. It was almost dark when I picked them up, and they also had one grayling - and bigger than the Belgians'! Our hope rises. One fish is not a bad result, and tomorrow we could shake up the results some. We hope that the lottery will go our way.
After wrestling all day with the river and in the evening with beer, we didn't feel much like getting up in the morning. Plus, yesterday's fishing didn't give us much hope for any meaningful fishing experiences. Despite this, we were actually looking forward to the day and I felt that we had a chance. After quickly swallowing another favorite English breakfast we headed for this round's stretch. After a few wrong turns we managed to find our stretch, climbed over a sheep fence, and started to get ready. The river here didn't look too bad, but we're still not sure what we should do. There's an island in the middle, with interesting places to fish visible. But the river was still raging, and it looked impossible to wade there. The competition began! With anticipation we headed straight into the deep current and carefully made our way into the middle. Soon we're in a position where we could lead the flies well, and lo and behold - a strike! After just 10 minutes we waded back to the referee with a grayling. A beautiful 39 cm, and immediately my desire to fish was re-awakened. Catching that fish gave us new appetite and courage, and Lukas and I soon waded back into the current. We caught some small graylings and I managed a sizeable brookie - too bad! But, we unconsciously felt we were doing well. After another hour of competition I got another grayling in the fast current. Lukas got a second wind and bravely crossed the river to the island. Meanwhile I take another grayling to the referee and glance at Lukas, who's wading back with a grayling himself, and over 40 cm at that! He had managed to catch 4 fish around the island, and we finished the competition with seven fish. It looked like a very promising effort! In the end an English team caught more, but second place in that sector gave us a chance for good placement. We packed our stuff, got into the car and headed for the hotel. It rained hard the whole day, so we had a lot of drying out to do.
As we slowly unthawed in the hotel, our originally downcast moods after yesterday turned into pleasant impressions from a well-fished tournament. We looked forward to the results, and believed that we could finish around 10th out of 21 teams. At the announcements we discussed things over with friends from one of the English teams, who narrowly missed the medals and finished fourth. And what about us? In the end we were pleasantly surprised by a sixth place, despite have one round with no fish. Sundays round helped us a lot, and also gave us a lot of motivation to improve and maybe next time get in the running for a medal. Of course we would need much luck in the lottery and mainly hopefully a more normal water level.
After finishing off a couple leftover sandwiches, we sat in the car and headed back to London's Luton airport. We took one long last look at the beautiful countryside and local towns and villages, which definitely make this a place to visit. We talked everything over yet again, and one thing was for sure. We would be back again!! If nature allows!