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Charles Jardine: A source of sanctuary

Charles Jardine extols the virtues of fly-fishing on the River Usk, in Wales in this article from the spring 2022 issue of My Countryside magazine.

All was set for a new season. Shafts of light played across the Beacons, sweeping like never-ending searchlights between scudding clouds; the chrome yellow gorse, the odd brave daffodil and swaying catkins promised spring; the waspish north easterly wind rasping across the cheeks suggested the early summer's warmth was premature.

The River Usk is the watery thread that has wound itself through my being since before I was born – had it not been for Brecon Cottage Hospital, I wouldn't be typing this at all. Later, had it not been for the red earth, painted by the almost psychedelic bankside green, I would not have seen old men with coal-stained, calloused fingers deftly crafting flies from fur, feather and tinsel, recreating the hatches of fly popping from the river surface to greet the watery spring sky; this fuelled my lifelong passion for tying flies. Subsequently, the river has been schoolroom, playground, meditation, therapy and sanctuary… Oh! And hurt locker. But then all wild, far-flung rivers are the same. Yes, we fish… yes, we go to catch trout… but we also receive so much more when immersed in these wilder places. The Usk then, is special; but equally, it could be the Teifi, Taff, Irfon, upper Wye, Dee, Towy… the list of Welsh rivers is near endless, and so often overlooked.

But one must be realistic; the glory days of Usk salmon are but a memory, as are to some extent the revered Glanusk casting events. A time when the legendary Lionel Sweet – King of the Usk – once used to enthral hungry crowds with his fly-casting demonstrations (his tour de force being casting with his foot – no practical benefits really, but scintillating to watch). Yet vestiges of the past remain. Glanusk is as regal as ever, the Gliffaes Country House Hotel remains the epitome of rural elegance and comfort, and Jean Williams – Lionel Sweet's daughter – still deftly constructs flies such as the eponymous Sweet's Grannom, the Usk Grub and a plethora of other game fish enticers from her little store in Usk.

Still, the trout fishing remains as fabulous as ever. From Usk to beyond Brecon, it's a fly-fisher's playground – and one that opens early: March 3rd to be exact, when nature might throw an entire season at you: expect rain, sun, sleet, snow, wind and just about every other permutation, probably all on the same day. Wrap up, travel light – go explore.

On a rather atypical sun-drenched day, Tim Hughes and I slipped into the mosaic of slab rocks and bowling ball stones that spread out across the tumbling water fuelled by the silver threads falling from the Beacons. Of course, I have seen the Usk's sullen side: a corridor of red mud spilling out across the fields. But today, the water chuckled with spring glee, and we immersed ourselves in that salve that only fishers know… lost in time, space and the mesmeric movement of water and fly cast. And oh! That first March brown easing on to the surface, mottled stained glass wings aloft then spiralling into the spring air, is a sight to thrill anyone – fisher or not.

Tim is one of our better fly-fishers – an addict; ensuring that he gets to work at nearby Airflo early enough to spend most lunchtimes in or alongside the stretches of river that ribbon around Brecon.

He oozes confidence and competence with every cast – and fish follow. The day we filmed, he snatched fish from fast, popply water on sunk flies as adeptly as he did in the smoother waters using his cunningly crafted dry flies, imitating the procession of Large Dark Olive and March Brown up-wings as a group of ravenous trout picked them from the surface with practised ease. And what trout we caught: all in and around the pound, with colours and physique to shame their southern counterparts.

But that is the quintessence of fishing this area and further; you will fish with a smile on your face, and chances are, you will rekindle a sense of piscatorial joy that you may have lost in other forms of angling. Certainly, for me, after five decades of being afflicted by this fly-fishing madness, my enthusiasm, no, hunger to fish these rivers more regularly burns ever deep.

There is just time to add a shout out for Airflo: a small Brecon business – making fly lines – that has succeeded where so many have failed to become a global leader. Their innovative and conservationminded operations have attracted a take-over from a major US conglomerate – the Mayfly Group– who have wisely urged that manufacture stay in Brecon and fully support the local workforce and expertise – well, why wouldn't they? They have committed anglers such as Tim, Gareth Jones and Kieron Jenkins… and then you have the archalchemist, Richard Wothers, behind the fly lines.

The Usk really is a rather extraordinary river.

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