Trout & Grayling Report
by Oliver Burch
The first part of February involved yet more rain, more high water and few opportunities for fishing, except occasionally on the tributaries. Similarly, it has been difficult to keep up the schedule of wild stream cleaning this year and we were all too aware that February was the last opportunity for most of us to get some work done. It is no easier to prune a stream which is in flood than it is to fish it. Only during the last 10 days of the month did we get the sort of cold and dry weather which would allow levels to fall and produce more opportunities. The problem was that when it came it was very cold indeed, even by the standards of February. The "Beast from the East" is what they called a bitter wind blowing to us straight from the steppes of Siberia. At the end of the month, with the temperatures well below zero and snow showers around the country, schools closed and trains cancelled, Britain was in its familiar state of cold weather chaos!
For all the difficulties, some nice grayling were caught this month. AM from Worcester had a quite remarkable day on the little Arrow at Court of Noke on 2nd February, despite high water. He reported eight grayling and, of these, two were 18 inches and three were 17 inches, caught while trotting deep water with maggots. I would call that a red-letter day on any river and in any conditions. By the 4th, the rainfall having reduced for a time, Irfon was down to a respectable 0.60 metres on the Cilmery gauge, so that KD of Swansea and a companion were able to take 17 grayling between them in clear water. AB from Blaenavon was out on the same day fishing the Craig Llyn beat of the upper Wye. He reported 8 grayling, possibly shared with owner Shaun - it wasn't clear. Incidentally he mentioned the new fishing hut by the river at Craig Llyn, which is a rather marvellous thing on wheels. It reminds me of Gabriel Oak's shepherding hut in Far from the Madding Crowd. On the 7th I managed to fish the main Wye at Gromaine for the first time in three months; the water although clear was still very high and trotting seemed the only viable method. Immediately after this the weather resumed its regular bouts of rain, with light snow and sleet at times, so that the rivers rose again. Anybody who took a walk in our countryside during February would have been convinced that the ground was absolutely saturated, squeezing out water like a sponge with every footfall. Many of the sloping pastures still holding livestock were trampled to mud and much of that silt surely reached the streams. When the rain stopped, the volunteer maintenance teams managed a few lightning visits to trim wild streams. While working on the Llynfi, I took several photographs of poached sheep pastures in the valley which looked more like ploughed fields. On the 17th MN from Bristol managed to fish the Llynfi at Pontithel, taking 5 grayling to 16 inches and AS from Newent had 6 from the Colonel's Water on the upper Irfon.
At last, with the month drawing to an end, we began to experience the kind of cold, dry, high pressure weather which has been lacking for most of this winter. Days were frosty with an icy east wind blowing and water levels slowly began to fall. On the 22nd, AM from Worcester returned to Court of Noke with the trotting rod and had another grayling of 18 inches in a bag of 4. Incidentally, and for the second time, I have an apology to make to AM. On that very same day I had committed the cardinal sin of forgetting to check on-line if anybody had booked the Court of Noke before setting off for the river myself. It turned out that AM had booked it, and found me in the parking place setting up when he arrived. Oh dear me! Sorry about that; I will be more careful in future! I'm glad AM had a good day and I did something else which was fun. On the 24th AS of Newent tried Lyepole with 18 inches showing on the gauge, which seems very high. Nevertheless, he managed 8 grayling, 2 of which measured 17 inches. Lyn Davies and Rob Evans of Swansea were out at Ty Newydd on the 27th, the main river being in condition at last. They managed a creditable 27 grayling between them, although Lyn tells me his abiding memory of the day will be of how very cold it was. I was there the following day, caught a handful of shots, but just couldn't stand the wind for more than a couple of hours. At the time of writing, with sub-zero temperatures, that wind from the east still blowing and more snow predicted, spring somehow seems far away.
Here is the latest news on the rules for the coming salmon and sea trout fishing season in Wales. Currently we are waiting on the Welsh Assembly to enshrine NRW suggestions in law. Assuming they do so, just as anticipated, all angling for migratory fish will be catch and release. The likelihood is that these rules will last for a 10 year period. As already described, I personally have no problem with catch and release or the ban on worming for salmon (although apparently worming will be permitted for sea trout). I am not so happy with the plan that all treble hooks except very small sizes will be banned as will any barbs on hooks. For this reason I have been holding off tying any more flies for migratory fish during this winter. I have to remark that the relationship between the NRW and the angling community seems to be at an all-time low. At the end of a laborious consultation process during which NRW has sought anglers' views, they have, almost without exception, ignored our advice. Why do we co-operate if we are not being listened to? Are consultations, of which there are so many these days, really intended to inform the organisations which launch them, or are they merely devices for deflecting criticism. I have been happily releasing salmon and sewin for years, but I find myself now in gloomy moments contemplating a new season in which any contact with a big fish may last a few seconds only before it cartwheels or head-shakes itself off. It's a delicate matter this, but my own experience is that salmon and sewin hooked at range are very different from trout or grayling hooked close at hand - they come off all too easily - and I haven't personally experienced much trouble removing barbed trebles of size 8 or 10 with forceps. I would be happy with single hooks if small barbs are allowed. Never mind, Simon at the WUF tells me to cheer up, because he has mashed the barbs on his hooks down for quite a while now (it's been WUF policy for a long time) and is convinced it makes no difference to speak of. Well, he admits maybe a few were lost!
Meanwhile, another kind of discontent has been brewing in England. Here in the Forest there has been much discussion about a Supreme Court ruling in a long running case between a Severn Estuary putcher rank fisherman, Nigel Mott, and the Environment Agency. Mr Mott claims rather inaccurately to be the last of the commercial salmon fishers on the Severn, but he is certainly one of a dwindling band. Back in 2012, he was ordered to restrict the catch on his putcher rank, which is about a mile above the mouth of the Wye into the Severn, to 30 fish for the season. At the same time the lave-netters, I think, were reduced to 5 fish each. Mr Mott, who claimed he caught 600 fish a year and made a good living before the restriction, made a point of taking 31 for the 2012 year and invited the press and anybody else who was interested to watch him take the final one. An EA enforcement officer turned up and confiscated the fish and then, as Mr Mott had surely intended, they all went to court and a long legal process began. Mr Mott argued that while there were concerns about the Wye salmon run, his activities were not impinging on Wye fish and, furthermore, he should be compensated for loss of earnings. As I understand the situation now that the case has gone right up to the Supreme Court, Mr Mott has accepted a ruling that his activities might be damaging to the Wye run, but he has won his second point - that the EA is liable to compensate him for his loss of professional earnings. I understand the EA has accepted this and a further hearing will determine what the compensation should be. Interestingly, one of the Supreme Court judges made reference to the likely position of the European Court of Human Rights on loss of earnings caused by such a decision and hinted that Mr Mott seemed to have been unfairly treated in comparison with rod and line leisure fishermen. It's an interesting dilemma that; how do you balance the living of one man with the spare time pleasure of many? I wonder if the individual lave-netters (who have more recently been reduced to one fish) will now make claims for losses they have incurred? One thing is for sure, the lawyers will be keeping busy. Rumpole would surely have enjoyed himself with this one!
Back to another rather sad tale: I was disappointed to hear that we are losing the top part of the Upper Longtown beat of the Monnow from the Wild Streams scheme. This beat has been somewhat awkward to fish for a while, as for several years the owner of one field in the middle of the water did not want his part of the river fished, or even for anglers to pass along his field, so a long hike round was necessary. It's a shame, because this is a lovely little mayfly stream, a real dry fly jewel. The final decision is that the short lower part of this beat will be retained, because it is certainly good fishing and a couple of hours there can easily be combined with Lower Longtown, the Olchon or one of the Escley beats. One of the problems associated with some Wild Stream beats, at least in comparison with typical main river beats, is that often more than one land owner / fishing rights holder is involved. Sometimes there are many and for some reason particularly so in the upper Monnow valleys, where in extreme cases there seem to be 6, 7 or even 8 individuals owning about a field each. The idea is that the WUF puts them together as a group and they share the profits to be had from the fishing. This is fine until somebody falls out with a neighbour, with an angler, or for some other reason wants to pull out of the arrangement. A field missing in the middle of the beat spoils the whole thing. The formerly impressive Escley valley beats nearby have been badly damaged in that way as small sections of fishing have been lost. Remember we are, after all, in the hands of the owners, each and every one of them, for access to this fascinating fishing. As a preventative measure, my advice to anglers is that it's definitely best to treat all land owners you meet with kid gloves and the friendliest of smiles lest they become "territorial."
I am not sure why the land plots in this particular part of Herefordshire are so sub-divided - further down the valley in Monmouthshire, the Kentchurch estate with its fishing is huge. I'm reminded of Greece where the custom of dividing land equally between children, including the dowries paid on daughters' marriages (within living memory), compared with the British tradition of leaving everything to the eldest son. So the average Cretan farmer today (if he hasn't given up, opened a hotel or gone to Athens or Melbourne) owns about 20 little patches of land and spends most of his time travelling between them. Is that the problem in the upper Monnow valley? Come to think of it, here's an idea for a PhD thesis for somebody: "Land Inheritance Practices in rural Herefordshire."
In December's newsletter I expressed concerns about some plans to release beavers into a Wye tributary in the Forest of Dean next year. Enclosures are not secure and the effect on our streams and fishing is likely to be damaging according to most angling sources in countries which host beavers. While we are busy unblocking streams to facilitate fish migration, why on earth should we introduce an animal which makes its living by blocking streams? Instead of worrying about the Forest streams, maybe I should have been more worried about some other activities with beavers further upstream. There has recently been some correspondence - and considerable disbelief - about a beaver said to be have been seen in the gorge of the Bachawy in Radnorshire. A beaver in this location did seem most unlikely. But this month, Richard Adeney and I were busy trimming a section of the Llynfi not far from Talgarth, when Richard found a four inch willow stem chewed off with some very suspicious looking marks from chisel-like teeth. Have a look at the photograph opposite. If that wasn't gnawed off by a beaver, what do you think might be responsible? We now learn that since 2017 a group of beavers may been kept in an enclosure in our catchment with a view to gaining permission for a future wild introduction. In this case it seems there is not much point in waiting for any permission; they are already out! Anglers carp a good deal about some of the environmental regulations we are faced with, but generally we respect them. I do wish those with other interests affecting our rivers would do the same. If the introduction was accidental, I would point out that beavers, like most of the rodent family, are remarkably good at escaping from enclosures, a fact which I would have thought would be pretty obvious to anybody. Exactly what has happened here is unclear at the moment, but meanwhile I would be grateful for any more information about beaver sightings or other relevant facts.
There is one reason to be cheerful this month. It was really good to hear that Chew Valley Reservoir, where trout fishing was reported recently as under threat, is to be reprieved for another year. Advocacy by a combination of anglers, business owners and the local MP seems to have had an effect and some new investments are due to be made. Let’s hope that the water company achieves good returns during 2018.
t may be unseasonal, but I'm minded to write some more about nymph fishing. Those of us anxiously trying to keep up with the rapid evolution of modern nymphing methods will have been interested in a series of articles by Howard Croston beginning in the January edition of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying. Croston has worked as a consultant for Hardy-Greys for years and I believe he was the original designer of the excellent Greys Streamflex range of rods. The article is nominally concerned with different ways of adding weight to bead-head nymph patterns, but it actually covers much more ground than that and is certainly relevant to the border streams we fish. The same edition of the magazine carries another article by Howard Colmer on fishing for spooky chalk stream grayling which have been subjected to increasing fishing pressure in recent years. I think this article could be relevant to us also; some of our more popular WUF beats are now fished much harder than they were five years ago. Both these articles provoked me to think harder about the subject of nymphing.
OK, at the time of writing this winter's grayling season is very nearly at an end, but for a moment let's think ahead 7 or 8 months. And of course a lot of nymph fishing is done for trout during the spring and summer, so it's always worth taking another look at the subject. Even during the mayfly season, many anglers seem to want to understand nymphing better. If for no other reason, I find I get a lot of questions about fishing with heavy nymphs from British anglers who are obviously confused between what is called Czech nymphing, French leader or French nymphing and various other fishing styles which have arrived from Europe in recent years. This comes up regularly and perhaps the confusion is not surprising. I don't by any means consider myself particularly adept at any of these, but I am doing my best to follow the developments. You could very crudely summarise the history of upstream nymph fishing over the last 100 years like this:
A: Skues. A single pattern cast upstream intended to imitate a hatching nymph coming to the surface. Relatively stream-lined flies but no added weight, fished below the surface but in the upper few inches. Chalk streams.
B. Sawyer followed by Kite. Imitative and stream-lined single nymph pattern, lightly weighted with copper wire or fuse wire, also to be cast upstream, fishing somewhat deeper than the unweighted flies of Skues. Chalk streams.
C. Initially East Europeans, but eventually followed by everybody else. Teams of two or three nymphs, weighted heavily with brass or tungsten beads and lead wire, designed to be fished along the bottom of the river. Everywhere, used in depths of up to 4 or 5 feet, although usually less. Experiments continue.
Rather than completely dissect both articles, I have pulled out some points and added some of my own which might be helpful to those who have set themselves to learning the nymphing game for catching winter grayling. To my amazement, this has come to no less than 29 numbered points. See if you find any of these suggestions helpful:
- Look for grayling over a gravel rather than a rocky bed. Follow the current. Pool tails, gravel runs, steady glides and steep gravel shelves leading into holes are all good places and 2-4 feet of depth is usually acceptable or ideal.
- Fish the margins of the river under overhanging cover for trout, but the centre of the stream for grayling. Trout have a tendency to be solitary, but grayling often like to lie in shoals.
- Remember that the current on the surface of the river may well be running at three times the speed of the slower current running against the bottom. So grayling may find it easier than you think to lie under that fast run down the centre of the pool. This is a simple but very important fact and modern nymphing techniques are largely based on it.
- Following from 3, it is necessary to cut down through that fast surface water so that your nymphs will reach the fish lying in the slower water close to the bottom. There are times when a grayling will come up to grab a mid-water nymph - but many more times when it won't.
- The best way to get your nymphs down through the fast-moving surface layer is to use the finest possible fluorocarbon or nylon for the tippet, always considering the risk of breaking off in a fish or a bottom snag. Fine fluorocarbon will cut through the surface with minimal drag. A long upstream cast can also help the nymphs to reach bottom, at least after a few yards drifting.
- A long soft-tipped rod will handle a fine tippet much more safely than a stiff-tipped one. Hence the use of 10 foot 3 weight or even 2 weight rods for this work. A long soft rod is also very effective at playing a large grayling close at hand, especially if a barbless hook is used. The same applies to a Tenkara rod. Casting with a team of nymphs almost always involves rolling and lobbing them upstream, rather than conventional overhead casting.
- The fine leader is most important. The effect of a separate indicator, thick tippet or a tapered leader in the fast-moving surface layer will tend to drag the flies up off the bottom and down-stream away from the fish.
- If surface drag is overcoming the tendency of the nymphs to sink, it is of course possible to use larger/heavier flies to compensate.
- However, grayling and particularly grayling on pressurised beats are much more likely to take small flies - size 16 or below - with confidence. So merely increasing the weight and size of the flies to compensate for a thick tippet tends to be counter-productive and results in a less sensitive fishing outfit.
- Neither of these authors sees a need for an enormous number of grayling nymph patterns. Rather the angler would be wise to have a few reliable patterns in a range of weights and to be prepared to experiment with nymph weights while progressing though different pools. Most of Croston's nymphs are apparently constructed along the lines of the well-proven pheasant tail and hare's ear types as well as the French Perdigons. Spooky grayling on hard-fished beats eventually become nervous of gold and silver coloured beads, which is when dull black coloured tungsten beds can be very useful.
- Anglers who tie their own flies tend to develop an advanced sense of proportion when choosing hook sizes and the applied materials. For example, a size 12 hook looks right with a 3mm bead, a size 14 hook with a 2.8 mm bead, and so on. According to Howard Croston, we should forget these inhibitions right away, because grayling do not share them! Croston is quite prepared to apply a 3.9mm tungsten bead to a size 18 hook if he can get away with it. That would be an extreme example, but he typically fishes with nymphs which are both smaller and heavier than those of most anglers.
- Croston gives a number of ways of applying extra weight to small hooks as needed, with the proviso that the hook gape should not be compromised. Jig hooks are very useful for preventing extra-large beads coming over the eye, jig-back weights can be applied and lead wire can be packed in behind the bead. (This reminds me, does anybody still have a source for that excellent square section lead wire which used to be available for weighting hooks? Square section lead obviously packs on more weight per turn than round sectioned lead).
- Many of Croston's nymphs are in the French Perdigon style, in which the whole nymph is hard and covered with glue or varnish, excepting only fibres for the tail. I think this is what used to be called the Piam nymph, after a fly dresser of that name. These are certainly very good for rapid sinking.
- Croston also likes the Squirmy Worm! Heavens! I leave this to you and your conscience, but everybody says it works!
- Croston, as he often tells us, fishes to FIPS Mouche competition rules. Thus he will not fit a bead larger than 3.9mm and if he uses a second bead on the same hook it must be covered by the dressing. There is no reason whatever for you to follow suit, unless you plan to go competition fishing.
- Croston's flies, usually two or three, are about 2 feet apart on the leader. Again according to the latest competition rules which ban leaders more than twice the length of the rod, he uses a modified form of French leader which tapers over about 10 feet before the coloured sighting nylon and tippet are attached (some of the original French leaders were no less than 10 or 12 metres long). However, please note, he has the fine tippet sunk into and cutting through the surface layer, but not the thicker tapered section which is held above.
- Howard Croston is therefore quite honest in stating that he rarely fishes the "true" French leader style. By this he means long distance sight fishing with a very long leader and a single fly which he hopes to see the fish take, a method which originated in the abnormally clear rivers of south-eastern France and was as likely to be used with a dry fly as a nymph. And not what he calls the "hybrid French/Czech style" combining the (now very much shortened) French leader with multiple flies fished close at hand, which is of course what most of us in the UK are doing with it. I can add a quite blunt remark about this - a lot of nonsense is currently talked about French leaders or French nymphing, words which are almost seen as a magic incantation which will result in lots of fish! Very rarely will you see the original long French leader style used in the UK!
- Howard Croston also admits on occasions to fishing a single nymph conventionally cast upstream on a relatively short greased tapered leader. This, of course, is exactly what Frank Sawyer and Oliver Kite were doing on the Avon all those years ago. Because sometimes, as Croston argues to my great delight, this is the right thing to do! Generally speaking this system works best on small streams and relatively shallow water as often found in chalk streams.
- While fishing a team of heavy flies at close hand, try to imagine what your nymphs are doing. Once lobbed upstream, they may spend two or three yards doing nothing more than sinking down to a fishing depth. They may then fish effectively along the bottom for a couple more yards, after which the flies are below you, the leader tenses and the flies inevitably swing up off the bottom.
- Are you certain that the nymphs are reaching the bottom? You should see a vibration on the indicator section as they trip along the river bed. If this doesn't happen, adjust the weight of your flies. I have heard it said that if you make five passes without either catching a fish or snagging the bottom, the weight needs adjusting. The idea should be to try to keep your flies moving, but as slowly and as deep as possible.
- Try to lead the flies downstream behind the tip of the rod, watching the indicator section closely. If you let the flies get ahead of the rod, you will almost certainly miss takes.
- Be aware that you are only covering a small section of the river bottom with each pass, so keep searching likely places systematically. React to any hesitation or stop of the leader with a horizontal downstream strike. Most of these indications will be caused by the flies hitching momentarily on a rock or other obstruction, but sooner rather than later you will find a fish and feel it kicking down there, mirabile dictu!
- Quite often a fish will take as the flies lift slightly at the bottom of the pass. So often in fact that I automatically strike the flies out every time I start to roll forward into the new lob upstream. There may be a surprise fish there which you had not detected.
- Always strike downstream parallel with the water. An upward strike is much less likely to hook a fish and will probably entangle your team of nymphs, either in each other or in branches overhead. Have fun sorting that lot out! It's surprising, though, how many anglers insist on striking up, time after time, tangle after tangle!
- Back again to the all-important matter of weighting your team of nymphs. Personally, I like to put the heaviest nymph on the point. This makes the team easy to manage and avoids tangles. If I use a third nymph on the top dropper, I like to make it a small and light one which will wave around a little above the bottom of the river. A standard copper wire Pheasant Tail Nymph on a size 18 is ideal for this. However, many of the specialists have a different view, according to how they want to pull the whole team towards the bottom, and may choose to put the main weight on the middle dropper or even the top one.
- If you are new to heavy nymphing, do accept that, strange as it seems, grayling will in most cases allow you to stand very close to them in the river while you fish. A number of things scare grayling, but standing close is usually not one of them. Once you have caught a few under your rod tip you will become a believer, but for now have faith.
- This method is something of a strain on your constantly outstretched rod arm (but less so with a Tenkara rod without the weight of a reel). While fishing in this way, as far as I know there is nothing to do with your non-rod hand, in my case the left one. I have never found a solution for this curious problem. Stand like a tea-pot if you care to. You can bring your spare hand into action when you pull the net off your back ready to land a fish.
- If you would like to go more deeply into the history of "true" French leader fishing and how it has evolved, look at Jonathan White's Nymphing the New Way: French Leader Fishing for Trout (reviewed in the September 2016 letter).
- This is something of an afterthought, but the constant roll casting used for this kind of nymphing puts a twisting strain on your rod sections, similar to that experienced by Spey-casting salmon anglers. If you experience any tendency for your rod sections to come loose during a long day, follow the salmon anglers' lead and try taping the sections - you might save yourself a breakage!
Further articles from Croston in the February and March issues of the magazine give more details about his methods, including exact dimensions for the leaders he is currently using, with advice on floatants and bite detector sections. Alternatively of course, if you are one of those for whom a more visual demonstration of fishing methods works better, don't take my written word for all this. My fellow guide and role model Hank Patterson from the USA - and what a master of the art he is - can surely explain the route to better nymph fishing with more eloquence than me - see: https://youtu.be/5m0QbVTWhtw
Now it's March or very nearly March, and we are almost finished with the grayling. A new trout season is upon us and hopefully, despite the present cold, everything is about to change. I hope to be focussing on the Usk for the first few weeks as I dare say others will too. There is nothing quite as delightful as an early spring day on the Usk, particularly if flies are hatching and trout are rising. I have been watching occasional large dark olives come off the Wye tributaries since Christmas on rare grayling fishing afternoons when the floods permitted. If recent seasons on the Usk are anything to go by, we can also hope for March browns. Over on the main Wye the spring salmon fishing will be starting and after a winter of continuous high water it may well be that a few fish are by now well up-river. For the same reason I don't suppose there will be many kelts still in fresh water. Still, if I were a betting man I think I would put my money on the middle river for the first clean fish.
Tight lines for a new season!
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com
There was not so much fishing to write about this last month. As we all know, grayling don't mind cold weather once they have a little time to get used to it, so I would have been happy enough with frost or even snow, provided the rivers remained in condition. However, it turned out to be very different and the flood levels during this winter have made river fishing pretty well impossible for long periods. Some of the tributaries were briefly available for a few days. On the other hand the main Wye below Builth has been frustratingly out of action for three solid months now. My own angling activities this winter have mainly been confined to fishing for rainbow trout from clear spring-fed pools; the other stream-fed forest lakes, including our syndicate water, were frozen for more than 10 days before Christmas and later still full of muddy water. Once we had reached the solstice, 8 hours of light to 16 hours of depressing darkness, open air life was in any case somewhat restricted. I often wonder how my brother-in-law's family in Sweden manages to get through the dark months.
A few hours angling on commercial fisheries for twitchy catch and release rainbows does not exactly constitute engagement with nature in the wild, but lake fishing can be interesting at times and certainly better than sitting indoors. I spent some time at Woolaston with a five weight rod, floating line and a very long leader on which was mounted a size 18 Black Speck Nymph, casting into a low winter sun and letting the tiny fly sink deep before the leader would slide away. The fish were too nervous to take any larger fly, but it was amazing how the small hook would hold under pressure while yet another muscular rainbow would dash off dragging a drowned fly line behind it. The water temperature was around 4 degrees, so the trout were definitely by now in winter mode and at times a small Bloodworm would also work. It was mainly a matter of locating where the shoal was and letting the little red fly flutter down towards the bottom amongst them without retrieving at all. There are many ways of fishing lakes in winter. On another occasion with a cold wind blowing I even had a fish come up under a ripple and hit a little Snipe and Purple spider pulling round just under the surface.
After the New Year holidays I made a trip to the Glyncorrwg Ponds fishery in the hills behind Port Talbot, in order to plan a training day there next month. This was the day of Storm Eleanor and a major hazard driving down on the M4 had consisted of broken branches blown horizontally by the wind. "Why not have a fish in the pool while you are here?" the management kindly invited me. Thus I found myself standing on the dam throwing a very long line far out over the waves, which wasn't so difficult with the gale directly behind me. Despite the wind, it was not cold and every so often I could see the impressive black outline of a big trout very slowly head and tailing through the disturbed surface. Fishing was difficult using sunken flies, but eventually I got three from the top, all of them blue trout and the first fish of my year. One took a tiny Black Speck nymph fished round just below the surface, one on Bob Wyatt's Hare's Ear Emerger and one more on Bob Carnill's Shuttlecock Buzzer. On such a dark day, the small dry flies were quite invisible to me in that confusion of water, but if a rise showed as a patch of smooth water in about the right place I lifted the rod and a fish was there. I really hadn't expected to start January off using dry flies. Broadstone Fishery at Staunton near Monmouth also fished quite well with rainbows showing on the surface.
January on flowing water continued to be difficult. However, by the 7th the Irfon had come down to 0.70 metres on the Cilmery gauge. This is really still too high, but Lyn Davies, Rob Evans and I, all of us now badly affected by mid-winter cabin fever, felt we just had to get out and give it a go. It was a cold day, but the sun was bright and the river ran high and clear. It was hard fishing, but with the other two bugging while I wielded a trotting rod, occasionally resorting to a wee bit of Tenkara fishing, we managed to put a reasonable catch of grayling together. Unfortunately leaking waders and a wet leg had me gasping with cold on this occasion. High pressure and dry weather stayed with us for another week and while we were still waiting for the main Wye levels to fall, opportunities for grayling started to present themselves on the head waters and tributaries: the upper Wye above Builth, the Irfon, Ithon, Llynfi and the Monnow system. The Lugg and the Arrow were unfortunately still very high; once these springs are charged it takes many weeks for the levels to fall off again. Not wishing to waste any chances, I managed trips to the Monnow and the Ithon during this brief period. The lads and I also met to fish the upper Wye at Craig Llyn, where the water was running preternaturally clear as it sometimes does in winter after floods have cleaned out every last bit of silt or slime. Fishing on this day turned out to be difficult. We experimented with various nymphing ideas, but the best couple of grayling, curiously enough, were accounted for by the now extremely dated idea of using a floating line with a team of grayling fancy wet flies - Red Tag, Yellow Bumble and Grayling Steel Blue - all weighted with lead under the dressing. A few other regular anglers were now coming out to join us on the rivers and AS of Newent had 8 grayling from Cefnllysgwynne on the 13th. CP from Clevedon had 5 from the same fishery on the 14th . Everything changed again on the morning of the 15th, when some concentrated rain sent the water gauges shooting back up to flood levels very quickly. PB of Cheltenham nevertheless managed to extract 4 from Lyepole that day, including a cormorant-damaged fish taken on a Pink Shrimp. The Byton gauge on the Lugg was showing a good 1ft 10 inches at the time, so this cannot have been easy. On the 17th LJ from Machen took 5 from Cefnllysgwynne using the trotting rod, still in high water. Before we knew it, rivers had reached the serious levels of flood which moves gravel around in the pools and have us worrying about trout and salmon redds. The Wye at Erwood briefly shot up to 3 metres on the NRW gauge, close to the recent record. Warm gales continued from the west with band after band of rain. There followed a long period of no reported fishing which was broken by a call from Lyn and Rob on the 27th to explain that they had managed to catch half a dozen grayling, one of them a decent fish, from the Cammarch Hotel's lower beat on the Irfon. This was managed with difficulty while the level was showing 0.80 at Cilmery, and they were forced to abandon fishing early in the afternoon as the level started to rise again. To summarise it all, January opportunities for river angling were few. Bravo to all those who tried!
Mid-winter, while fishing opportunities are limited by weather, is inevitably a time for reflecting on the year just gone. Apart from the poor sewin run, the season of 2017 was really not a bad one to look back on and I can certainly remember some good days. In early spring the Usk fished well for trout, as it often does from the very beginning of the season. March browns and dark olives played their part. We are blessed in our region with some excellent mayfly fishing and the smaller streams of the Welsh borderlands did not disappoint during May and June. Moving on, there was also some excellent autumn grayling fishing until floods closed it all down by December. Salmon numbers for 2017 were slightly down, but not enough to dent the overall trend too much and the Wye still seems to be producing better results than other rivers. I recall that bright silver springer which came off after five minutes play in the Quarry Pool at Aramstone during March, the pleasure of taking a grilse on a little Black Pennell from the Chapel Catch gutter of the upper river during low water in summer, and a surprisingly excellent autumn day at Goodrich Court with the river running hard. All of these are reasons to be thankful that we have access to such interesting and varied fishing. I would appreciate some more grayling fishing now rather than to be confined at home tying flies, but I will also make an effort to be content and see what the rest of the winter brings.
My mid-winter reflections included more than angling. You may or may not accept the premise that in The Compleat Angler Isaak Walton was, among his other purposes, slyly, surreptitiously, raising a voice in dissent against the political policies of his time. Cromwell's Protectorate, puritanism and prescriptions against simple pleasures such as Christmas mince pies, music and maypole dancing may seem very distant to us today, but on reflection some of the social policies of the modern Taliban or Islamic State are quite similar. In his book Ike Walton had plenty of comments to make about life in his time and the universe beyond the business immediately at hand, that of fishing. Personally, I have never found it possible to keep my own interest in the sport of angling totally insulated from the outside world. Even if we wanted to, we can't live our lives in a dream, although the delightful process of angling can make it seem so for a few brief hours. Harsh reality breaks in. During the more routine parts of the operation, the mind wanders from the actual act of fishing and the problems of the world do intrude at times. It may be Catalonia, the Middle East, North Korea, US presidential politics or Brexit. Some may say: "I go fishing to get away from all that." In practice I can't quite, not for ever. Another inevitable truth is that a retired man who spends much time fishing alone, is going to be looking back in his thoughts rather than forward. I listen to the radio a lot while coming and going from fishing. And somebody caught my attention with an interesting statement on the radio the other day: "The further away the past gets from us, the sharper it becomes in its focus." That is strangely true. Looking back to the years of international work and our "nation-building" attempts, I confess that most of it now looks like failure.
If I spend some of my time alone and happy with a fishing rod these days, it is not that I hate social interaction. I like the charm of many small things and much to the fore in those would be a glass of wine with partner or friends. What should we talk about, fishing aside? Now Greeks and Italians, for example, just love to discuss politics. What do you think all those old men in the cafes are talking about while sitting for hours over a single coffee? But there is a polite British tradition of avoiding discussion of politics, national or international, as much as possible. Somebody might be upset, so let's rather discuss trivia. Thus were born our chattering classes, capable of making much noise with squeals of laughter, but saying little. My wife when first in this country asked why it is that Englishwomen, when they meet, do all this air- kissing of cheeks and high-pitched squeaking. I admit that sounds rather jaded and cynical, but I think this was a serious question from a genuinely bemused foreigner. Blessed if I can explain why. For myself, I rather tire of being British and polite all the time, but I will emphasise that the following thoughts and memories are mine alone and nothing to do with the WUF.
One late evening in the summer of 2016 I came back to the car in warm darkness after fishing Talybont Reservoir, feeling very relaxed and happy about a couple of nice brown trout I had caught. The world seemed pretty good at that moment. I put the tackle away, shrugged out of my waders, drank a coffee from the flask, started the car engine and switched on the radio as I began to drive. Immediately I learned that a military coup was apparently under way in Turkey. All the way home I listened to a dramatic live commentary as events unfolded. It is true there is a history of military coups in modern Turkey, which has been described as an army looking for a country. The Army certainly used to regard itself as the guardian of the modern Turkish republic's founding principles as defined by Mustafa Kemal. Even today the Turkish Army is the second largest in NATO. It consists of a professional corps of officers and NCOs with a very large number of conscripts doing their 12 months national service. I thought of Turkish officers I had known, in North Cyprus, and in eastern Anatolia where they were posted to deal with a Kurdish insurrection, a brutal conflict which was about as popular with individuals in the Turkish military as Northern Ireland used to be with the British Army. In Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement, a Turkish brigade in the south of my AOR had done excellent peace-keeping work and exceeded expectations by winning the respect of Serbs as well as Muslims. (The brigade also had quite a good military band, which everybody else in SFOR borrowed for parties). Most of the officers I had met had been reasonable, professional people, competent in their work. The soldiers were mostly cheerful teenagers, every one of them knowing exactly how many days they had left to serve. And I wondered what was happening to those individuals now.
By the next morning I was becoming unsure in my own mind that there even had been a real coup attempt. If there was, it was a terrible mistake. Erdogan certainly had his arrest lists all ready and waiting. The purge of Turkish society has continued ever since, so that more than 150,000 people have now been detained or fired from their positions in something like a reign of terror. Meanwhile Erdogan has been voted unprecedented powers. The state of emergency has just been extended for the sixth time. I used to like the old secular, Kemalist Turkey, which was more than anxious to befriend Europe, although elements within the EU persistently kept it at arm's length. The key to understanding Turkey is to appreciate that, with the Turks, national pride is always more important than money. They share that characteristic with Russians and Serbs. Rebuffed again and again on the West European side, they will now look East and North. I hardly recognise what Turkey has now become.
At the staff college last year I bumped into an old friend from the UN who served with me in Bosnia and Croatia. Once a British soldier, he lives now in Germany with his German wife. I told him over dinner that I had once imagined we had seen the last of fascism in Europe with the ending of the Franco and Salazar dictatorships. Certainly we never thought to see the politics of the 1930s and 40s again. But instead fascism - I don't use the word lightly - turned out to be alive and well and living in south-eastern Europe. "That's the point," said my friend. "It never really went away, did it?" During and after the years of war in Yugoslavia we had both of us seen more than enough of that notorious "Roman salute" and accompanying shouts of "Ready for the Fatherland, Commander!" Most countries have lunatic fringes on the far right and far left. But such a chanting demonstration is illegal today in Germany or in Italy. Those are nations which have confronted the past and atoned for it. In my book, they are square with the house and have been for a long time. But further east, among other former allies of the Axis Powers, the chant with its accompanying extended arm salute is being heard more and more, at rock concerts, at football matches and in church. There is a strong modern nationalist movement to reinstate the memory of fascist leaders from the 1940s, masses are said for them, even streets renamed after them. Russia is the one nation which has taken note and objected to this revisionism; Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned it in a recent speech to the UN General Assembly. It is surprising how many of the more senior individuals in the resurrected right wing nationalist parties of the Balkans were once officials in the Communist party in the old days. The point is that these are people who have learned to work a system, any system, to their own advantage. A very clever Columbian I worked for in UNHCR had an expression from his homeland to describe this phenomenon: "Same pigs; different ribbons."
For a week at the end of November, my wife stayed with her mother in Mostar. The old lady is feeling her age these days. The usual winter trip to visit us in the UK, preceded by the necessary journeys to the British Embassy in Sarajevo for visa applications, is now getting beyond her. Our friend Mustafa heard Nerma was coming and put in a request for her to bring some fly-fishing bits and pieces - you can't get Gink and Zink in Mostar, or so it seems. My wife has known Mustafa and his family for a very long time. 25 years ago I had something of a professional relationship with Mustafa when he was an intelligence officer in the Bosnian Army in East Mostar. Even then, once we discovered each other's mutual sporting interest, conversations we were necessarily having about conditions in military prisons tended to end in fishing reminiscences. A fundamentally decent man, he was responsible for the release, may have saved the lives even, of two young Croats who were being tortured.
Early on the morning of 29th November, towards the end of her stay, I had a text from Nerma. It seems there had been one of the "hot" nights in Croatian controlled West Mostar where her mother still lives, last Muslim in the block. All the churches had been open as all-night vigils were held and the Franciscans offered prayers for six convicted war criminals, who had already been given sentences ranging from 10-25 years for organising the murder of civilians and ethnic cleansing during the past conflict. In the morning they were due to hear the results of their appeal after final consideration of their cases by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at the Hague. Having worked since 1993, this was to be the ICTY's last task before the institution's closure. In West Mostar that night the cafes were full and drunken anger became palpable as the old fascist songs rang out. Well before midnight tracer was flying up into the sky and windows vibrated as magazines were emptied defiantly at the stars. Nothing seems to change; so much for all those disarmament programmes we ran post-war. The few remaining Muslims and Serbs kept close to their apartments with locked doors.
Next morning the Hague tribunal issued their judgment. The original verdicts and sentences were confirmed. The judgment also made it clear that, had he not died some years before, Croatia's former president and HDZ party leader Franjo Tudjman, would have been indicted on the same charges. The original 1940s project to create an enlarged Croatian state, ethnically pure, white and ultra-Catholic, including the whole Bosnian city of Mostar and surrounding areas of Herzegovina, had as much support during the 1990s from the Croatian capital Zagreb as from West Herzegovina. As an eye witness, I can confirm that tanks, artillery and special forces from Croatia proper took part in the operation. With the television cameras running, Slobodan Praljak, wartime leader of the Croatian Defence Force in Mostar, stood up in court to hear his sentence reconfirmed, shouted in defiance and committed suicide by drinking poison. How could he have obtained it in a supposedly secure UN facility? Interestingly enough, as he had been detained since 2003, he would only have had a few months left to serve. He probably thought - and I guess he was right - that martyrdom was by that time the best contribution he could make to the continuing cause of a Greater Croatia.
And today? Nerma came home in stages as usual, first by car with cousin Enver to Split and then in short air hops to Heathrow via Zagreb and Vienna. Waiting in the lounge of the Franjo Tudjman Airport in Zagreb, she saw on the television that the Sabor, the Croatian parliament, were standing heads bowed holding a minute of silence in homage for the soul of Slobodan Praljak. Prayers were being offered in Zagreb churches too. It's a curious thing, you might think, for an EU national parliament to be standing in hushed respect for a convicted war criminal who engaged in genocide, treating him as a patriotic hero. But that's the way things are in those parts of Europe. I wonder if Brussels will ever sit up and take notice. For that matter, I wonder if Rome will.
Western European politicians can be remarkably naive and the full consequences of a rapid expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe with all its corruptions, tensions and prejudices have yet to be felt. Until the next military round - of which I am quite certain - ethnic engineering continues in ways which are strategic and reprehensible, but difficult to challenge as they are perfectly legal. Croatian families will pay three times the market price for Muslim-owned property in Mostar just as Israeli Jewish families pay over the odds to buy out Arab owners in East Jerusalem. There are many ways to gain and hold control of territory. Meanwhile that chant continues, even in schools: "Za Dom, spremni! For the Fatherland, we are ready!"
Nerma is more than relieved to be home. My wife still tries to think of herself as a South Slav and would prefer that nobody cares about the ethnicity or the religion. For her, there has never been an East or West Mostar. Her family lived as long as anybody can remember in the city the Ottoman Turks built by Stari Most, the Old One, as everybody calls Hairudin's 16th century bridge over the Neretva. The city adorned with its mosques and churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, was named for the bridge and its people have always been called "Bridgers," or Mostari. The city's famous and very oriental love song, Emina, which begins "In the garden of the old Imam," was written during the 19th century by a Mostar Serb, Aleksa Santic. Later the Turkish bridge came to be seen as a visible symbol of Yugoslavia, linking religions and communities: as such it was on the jacket of Rebecca West's renowned book about pre-war Yugoslavia: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. But in 1993 the Croatian authorities who had taken over West Mostar forced her along with other Muslims to identify themselves by wearing a white arm band at all times while Muslim men of military age were interned under brutal conditions. A year before, her father and his team had scrambled overnight to protect the Old One from shells and snipers with tyres and a roof of boiler plating. In the end, the protection proved to be futile; a Croatian tank parked on a bluff worked for two days to destroy it. Muslim and Croat forces fought themselves to a standstill in the city over 10 months while Serb forces on the eastern hills lobbed shells onto both sides as the whim took them - or according to payments received.
The aspect of a city which has experienced an internal war is always striking, stone and concrete eaten away by small arms fire and shells. Afterwards, visitors shown the Boulevarde and Santic Street, where the front lines had been, invariably came up with the word "Stalingrad." Elsewhere, newcomers would remark the sniper screens to protect pedestrians, made from rows of school lockers filled with bricks, every shady pavement tree cut down for firewood, every little city park full of fresh graves. "I hate this place," Nerma had written to me in her November text from her once beloved and beautiful home town. "I'm so ashamed of my people." Most of her old school friends left long ago, and are now making new lives for their families all over the world: in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Western Europe.
During December the Welsh Marches were gripped in ice with a bitter wind blowing fallen snow into drifts. In some areas the temperatures were as low as minus 12 degrees and rural roads were closed. With the rivers high, I hadn't even thought about fishing for a few days. Our daughter was due back with her battalion in North Shropshire early the following morning, but the train had been cancelled due to tree falls on the Shrewsbury line. Rather than have her try the roads in her little 2 wheel drive, I fired up the old Landrover and we headed across the snow-bound forest and then north for Hereford and the A49. Despite the cold, the winter scenery in bright sunlight was enchanting. In succession the Wye, Lugg, Teme, Onny and finally upper Severn flowed sullenly black between white banks. We chugged along slowly on icy roads with an arctic wind blowing snow across the fields. Reaching Ternhill just after midday, I dropped Medina off with her bag at the guardhouse to drink coffee with her Ranger mates, before heading for home.
It's a long way back without any company, so I switched on the radio, which is a battered old set and now only gets long-wave BBC Radio 4 and a few French stations. Radio 4 gives an excellent service discussing mostly serious issues between 7 and 9, and again in the evening, but I find the middle of the day can be drearily anglo- centric: Woman's Hour, You and Yours, Gardeners' Question Time, Money Box, Just a Minute. There seem to be endless programmes about the National Health Service. When it comes to The Archers, I just have to switch off. Maybe I should get a new radio for the old car? Maybe I should get a new car? If these are some of your favourite programmes I can only apologise for my growing intolerance, which may very well be a sign of increasing senility. At this time of year, with no fishing to keep me happy, I'm starting to sound as grouchy as Jack Dee on a bad night. But if I was at home tucked up on the sofa, I would probably have been be flicking through the satellite news channels - Sky, BBC News 24, Euro-News, Russia Today, CNN, France Vingt-Quatre, Al-Jazeera - in hope of finding something interesting or significant. News channel hopping can become almost as obsessive as continual river gauge watching. I might even have tried to do the Trout and Salmon crossword while waiting for Have I got News for You? Instead, here I was crossing the desolate snows of Shropshire accompanied by the favourite radio channel of the English middle classes. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised and perked up in my seat. An international reporter was presenting a piece about the Yazidis of northern Iraq and particularly the Yazidi women.
Another conversation at the staff college, this time a few years back. On this exercise I was sitting next to a colleague seconded from the Foreign Office, what we call a STABAD or stabilisation advisor. As it happened, we had both spent time working for the reconstruction of Iraq and of course we discussed the whole situation. A favourite subject between us was speculation on just when would the Iraqi Kurds go for full independence and would they get the oil field of Kirkuk to finance it? These are still matters of interest - the Kurds tried it disastrously last year and they failed to hold Kirkuk. But that particular morning the news came online of a new force emerging in the turmoil of the Sunni Arab areas of central Iraq. This was something called Islamic State, an extremist group which was proclaiming a new caliphate and actually controlling territory. I was taken aback, quite appalled. My colleague, no fool by any means, was taking the optimistic view which our government was then promoting. "It's ephemeral," he said. "Nothing to worry about. The Iraqi National Army will take that back in a few days." "My God!" I told him. "I do hope you are right about that."
Of course he wasn't right. I only wish he had been. At one point IS managed to control 1/3 of Iraq. I was always more or less a pessimist about the Iraq reconstruction project and found it hard to see how modern Iraq could remain a unified state in the long term. Three times during the period of our military presence I gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee on the subject and told them each time that the situation was becoming worse and the problem wasn't money, but resentment of Coalition forces and a lack of security for the domestic population. MPs would ask whether more development money devoted to this sector or that sector would help; my advice was always that the problem for our Iraqi partners was not a lack of money, but a need for security so that they could work. Other humanitarians delivered the same message. Back in in 2005, Andy Bearpark and I were invited to a Panorama debate on the status of Iraq reconstruction (Michael Gove, of all people, was leading an argument that the project was succeeding). Andy's view was even more pessimistic than mine; he felt that the situation in Iraq was becoming worse by the day and that we should pull our troops out as soon as possible.
One thing I do recall from the Iraq years, was that for a short time, while the money lasted, I looked after a programme to benefit the Yazidi people in the Sinjar area of Northern Iraq. This was a mainly agricultural and community support programme implemented by a Kurdish partner. There is something very likable about the Yazidis of Ninevah, where they seem to have existed for 4,000 years. They are a minority without any strong aims to nationhood or independence, anti-militaristic by choice, mainly engaged in agriculture, and closely aligned to the natural world and their ancestral landscape which they regard as something mystical. Their religion is most unusual, combining elements of Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. They believe themselves to be children of Adam alone, but not Eve. They believe in seven angels, the most important of which is the so-called Peacock Angel, whose image adorns many of their shrines. Another of the angels, which they call Shaitan, has led to them to be inaccurately accused of devil worship. They also believe in elements of Sufism, the non-violent Islamic cult which can be found in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Including the diaspora, there might be as many as one million Yazidis in the world. They have been described as a Kurdish minority following a particular sect, but although they speak the Kurdish language most Yazidis deny this and feel themselves to be a totally separate people. Nevertheless, despite very different philosophies, generally the relationship with the Kurds is good. No doubt there have been exceptions but Kurds I knew seemed to want to look after Yazidis as fondly as they would slightly eccentric and colourful cousins. Yazidis do not intermarry and do not look for converts. They have no ambitions beyond cultivating their traditional lands. In the region they had the reputation of being a threat to no-one.
However, the Yazidis suffered more than any group when Islamic State took over their villages. Many fled, and you will remember President Obama authorising air strikes to help Kurdish forces trying to rescue Yazidi civilians trapped without water on Mount Sinjar. In despair, they had seen the dry mountain as a holy place of sanctuary. While Islamic State was brutal enough towards Christians and Shia Muslims, they regarded the Yazidis as barely human due to the nature of their religious beliefs. Something over 5,000 Yazidi men were executed when they refused to convert to Islam. Their women became sex slaves, traded as "wives" around IS fighters in their barracks, and sold openly with their children in the markets of Mosul.
Today the tide of war has turned and Islamic State are on the back foot. As the BBC reporter described, escaped Yazidi women are being welcomed back into their community with something like a baptism or rebirth ceremony to wipe away the pain of their enslavement. Pacifism did not serve the Yazidis so well and many, including women, have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga to continue the fight against the remnants of IS. Today it is Mosul which looks like Stalingrad. As their territory collapses, the new humanitarian and security concern is what will happen now to the families of IS fighters and other civilians who supported Islamic State. Many of the surrendered seem to have disappeared without trace. This includes numbers of foreigners who were persuaded by the propaganda to join the movement. Families in Chechnya and other European countries, including Britain, are also without news of their children.
It's interesting how our society has changed in the way we view people who go off to fight in foreign wars. British "volunteers" fought on both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and were generally rather approved afterwards as having shown a spirit of adventure and commitment. No British law had been broken. The British socialist writer George Orwell came back and wrote Homage to Catalonia about his experiences. To have fought for the Spanish republic in the International Brigades was almost an essential qualification for a career in the British trade union movement during the 1950s. I had a great-uncle, a flyer named Peter Russell Burch, who in 1939 went with other British volunteers to fight for Finland against the invading Soviet Union, seen then as a David and Goliath conflict. These Winter War volunteers appear to have received a certain amount of unofficial Foreign Office approval. He never saw action, but eventually came back with others in a sealed train through German- occupied Europe, finally arriving home on a ship from neutral Portugal. According to family legend he turned up in Gloucestershire with a knapsack full of Portuguese oranges.
Later still, "volunteers" were more usually called "mercenaries" and were much less likely to be approved by the press or the public. Three Brits with military experience that I know of fought in the Mostar Brigade during the Muslim-Croat war. "Ron," a one-time apartment block janitor from North London, married a Bosnian wife and brought her out to Split in my car in 1994. "Scottie", believed to have been AWOL from the Scots Guards at the time, filmed the destruction of the Old Bridge and was killed the following month. "Norrie," formerly of Hereford, trained snipers for the Brigade and is doubtless still around somewhere, getting into trouble in bars. "Mercenary" was an inaccurate word to apply in these cases. As far as I could tell no money to speak of was involved, although there may have been something of a Walter Mitty element to their decision to serve. You might say the same about the humanitarian volunteers, except that we had not picked a side, or at least we tried not to.
After the Dayton Agreement, I came across several Russians who had fought in the Bosnian Serb forces, married locally and thus avoided the Agreement's clause defining that all foreign fighters should leave within a month. They were now living quietly in the Serb-controlled area of rural Eastern Bosnia and seemed pretty decent people. One of them was particularly helpful to displaced Bosnian Muslims returning to nearby destroyed property and ran power lines to help them while rebuilding. In their case, the dire state of the Russian economy at the time was definitely a factor in keeping them in Bosnia.
The so-called Mujahadin Brigades based on Zenica during the war were another matter entirely. These included some of the scum of the Middle East, supposedly released from long jail terms or even death sentences on condition that they go to fight the jihad in Bosnia. Most of these left the country after Dayton along with the Iranians and other theoretically clandestine supporters of the Bosnian state, but a surprising number remained, again having married Bosnian wives. On my own patch I was left with a particularly problematic mujahadin community occupying the Serb village of Bocinja in Maglaj municipality. They had been deliberately placed there because of the village's strategic location on a river crossing; at the same time the displaced Serbs from Bocinja were my beneficiaries and they wanted their village back. It was difficult to identify just who they were, because they used pseudonyms (their leader styled himself Abu Hamza), but Arabic was their language and we were fairly sure the community included among others Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians and Saudis. We identified support from the Bosnian Government (President Izetbegovic's political advisor described to us having "... a moral dilemma about this as we owe a debt of gratitude to those people"), support from the Maglaj municipality which donated the rents from a market to the community, and also from the Saudi embassy which was supplying vehicles and food. When approached, the US embassy was surprisingly reluctant at first to use political leverage to move the mujahadin out of Bosnian Serb property. One American official asked with a smile if they had big beards and curly-toed shoes. This was, of course, before 9/11.
Meanwhile, local Bosnian people, Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike, were all absolutely terrified of the group, which had managed to create a dark cloud of fear around Bocinja. When I came to the area even most SFOR and international UN police units were avoiding the village. Everybody locally knew that the mujahidin had fought a truly horrific war by European or any other standards, avoiding taking prisoners but instead torturing and cutting heads. Rather than hide such war crimes, the mujahidin were now actively publicising them, taking care to circulate various notorious photographs of their fighters holding severed Serb heads. This is the first time I saw evidence of war crimes actually used by the perpetrators as psychological weapons. With a Polish SFOR major, I interviewed two Serbs who had ventured to look at their houses, but been captured and held 48 hours in Bocinja, undergoing several mock executions in which a running chain saw was passed over their outstretched necks. This happened more than two years after the Dayton Agreement. Although it took years, eventually the mujahidin were moved out of Bocinja to make way for those Serbs who had the courage to return, but not before another group of them had set off a car bomb outside a police station.
So now we have the collapse of Islamic State, which also used terror as a potent psychological weapon, and whoever controls Iraq and Syria will have to consider the future of those who joined the group. For our part we will have to consider not only the volunteers, including British, who gave IS their whole hearted support, but also their wives and their children. Will they come home and how? As our security services point out, people with that ideology and that training pose a most serious danger to our society. It's a far cry from George Orwell's return from Spain in 1937, is it not? Civil wars are dirty wars; only give stupid people power and a gun and finally everybody dishonours themselves. At the same time, they provide opportunities for extremists. Of the identified Al Qaeda 9/11 hi-jackers, it's not generally known that two of the Saudi-born were jihadist veterans from Bosnia. Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in the team which crashed Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, widely seen as the main planner of 9/11 and currently held at Guantanamo Bay, took out a Bosnian passport in 1995. These depth of winter thoughts are leading into dark places, so forgive me.
Nerma came back from Mostar with a small box of Neretva fishing flies sent by Mustafa. I hadn't realised how the Herzegovina school of fly fishing has changed during the last years - they have caught up with the rest of Europe! Instead of nymphs pulled deep by heavy lead weights they are now using proper fly rods, casting lines and even dry flies on some of the tributaries. Here the patterns are. The nymphs and a couple of shrimp patterns are unweighted and rather remind me of the first nymphs developed by GEM Skues. In fact Skues actually fished in Western Bosnia, a rather unusual destination during the 1930s and well off the beaten track. The dry flies certainly look like the kind of patterns which would work on our rivers - I will let you know about that in the course of time. There are some obvious Black Gnats with hackle point wings, and a couple of dry flies with forward pointing wings made of something like mallard breast, rather like John Storey. Also brown flies, reminiscent of sedges, which apparently have eagle feathers involved in their construction - which is slightly worrying, if true. In fact, knowing the vagaries of the language, I suspect for eagle you might substitute griffon vulture, an equally rare bird which nevertheless can be seen haunting those limestone cliffs above the Neretva. Whatever I may feel about cormorants and goosanders, please don't imagine that I have no care for genuinely rare birds!
I promise to try to write something useful about fishing next month! Snow drops and the first lambs have already been seen, so spring and a new season are not far away now.
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com