Tickling trout

It’s been nearly fifty years but I remember mostly the Saturdays from my first summer term at Marlborough. Woken by the hour bells, blinking with the sun on your face (there were no curtains in the dormitories). The smell of frying bacon from the refectory kitchen. Lessons in the morning and cricket in the afternoon for those so inclined. The smell of cut grass and the whirring of mowers on the square below the pavilion if the First XI were playing that day.

Most found their entertainment elsewhere. Some crossed the road to Kennedy’s for tea and buns. Others ventured further, weaving amongst the Saturday market stalls, past Hyde Lane, the Castle and Ball, and the White Horse bookshop with its racks of remaindered paperbacks outside and optimistic honesty box.

Further on, past the town hall and the Aylesbury Arms, a small bridge crossed the Kennett. Although sometimes fast moving in winter spate, the clear water of its summer meanders revealed fish hiding amongst the weed and grasses swaying like a girl’s long hair in the current. Shoals of sticklebacks darting from rock to rock. Then, turning west along the upper wooded bank, with firmer footing near the sluice and weir, to Preshute bridge where the channel narrowed and in the middle of the stream swam larger fish holding position against the current with lazy sweeps of their tailfins. Trout mainly. Mostly browns, some rainbows.

We would discard our shoes and socks, roll up our trousers and stand, shivering at first, then motionless in the stream no deeper than my schoolboy knees. And as we waited patiently, the trout would gradually investigate, their curiosity pricked by the bleached columns of our calves. Cautiously at first, in gentle feints and twitches, then longer lunges and feigned disinterest.

The slightest human movement spooked the fish. The knack was to persuade a trout to see your dipped hand as part of the riverbed, your gently moving fingers no more than weed undulating in the current. Then you waited. Minute after tense minute, sometimes hour after hour.

Usually you ran out of patience, digits chilled by the cold clear water until all feeling was lost. Some once every eternity a fish would swim within the reach of your fingers and with lightning speed you might grasp it or, more commonly, try to flick the fish up and out of the water. In a perfect world, the trout would land on the riverbank, stunned long enough for you, like Emperor Nero, to raise or lower your thumb in judgement, consigning the fish to the smokery or returning him to the stream whence he came.

This last was purely hypothetical. I never once landed a tickled trout. I never had to make that life or death decision for the fish. My own incompetence saw to that. And I can’t, with any certainty, vouch in which direction I might have chosen.

I’ve seen trout tickled by others. I know it can be done. But you have to be an outdooorsman, born and raised on the river, in tune with its mystical rhythms and flows. You have to understand the fish. That comes from experience. At the end of the day, I was just a town boy learning the ways of my country cousins. You can dress the part, even play the role but it’s not the same thing.

Only once was I ever challenged to present my fishing licence for that stretch of the river. With the overconfidence of youth, I argued that I had no rod and line and was just paddling in the water. “Don’t try to be smart with me” said the man “I know exactly what you are doing”. He paused and his face almost broke into a smile. “Done it myself when I was younger”.

I wanted to ask if he had any success but thought better of it. He seemed to want to tell me. We stood for a moment.

“Pick up your things lad and be on your way. We’ll say no more”.