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THE LURE OF THE LINE: FISHING FOR YOUR SUPPER ON ULLSWATER

It’s rare that we ever get the time to be still. Fishing forces you to remain quiet, still and focused. The Lake District is a promised land for the casual angler…
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I can’t work out if the lady at the counter of the Glenridding petrol station and bait shop is pulling my leg. Haribo? She nods. “We have a customer who swears by the little jelly bears,” she says. “Trout love them, apparently.” Still unsure whether this is a bit of angling gold or a ruse to clear old stock, I pick up a bag and lay it next to the hooks and the artificial worms by the till. It’s got to be worth a try.
Fishing has long been something of a grey area in the UK – and not just in terms of which bait works best. Finding out where you are allowed to go, what type is permitted where and what licenses you might require can be a daunting task to anyone who isn’t a regular angler. And that’s before you even start buying kit. Together this can all be pretty off-putting to many people, which is a shame because if you ask any fisherman, they’ll rightly tell you that fishing is one of life’s great pleasures and about far more than the mere act of catching a fish. It’s just as much an excuse for getting into nature, slowing down and switching off. Watching your line curl in the water or a float bobbing slows your heart rate; your muscles relax and your mind empties. Heck, it’s practically meditation.

Fortunately the Lake District remains a Promised Land for the (very) casual angler, like me. Not only does it have it all – clear riffles for wild trout, stock ponds for rainbows, pools for perch and pike, even deep lakes where Arctic char have swum since being trapped after the last Ice Age – but the National Park makes it easy for you to try your hand too. Even the more exclusive stretches of fly-fishing territory usually have day tickets available and, as a rule, most of the beautiful lakes that make the region famous are completely free.

Ullswater has long been one of my favourite bodies of water in the world. Wherever you turn it has picture postcard scenes. Fells fall into a vast, eight and a half mile lake regularly cut by the bows of red-funneled steamers shuttling passengers between the villages of Glenridding and Pooley Bridge, sited at either end. I came here on holidays when I was young and, somewhere back in my murky memory, I’m fairly sure I hooked a trout off a pier using a spinner. 
Even now you still only need one official document to come and fish its deep waters – the standard Environment Agency fishing license that every angler in Britain requires. They’re simple to buy online and they give unlimited fishing for a year at only £27. Armed with mine, a hired rod from the petrol station, my hooks, fake worms and Haribo, I arrive at St Patrick’s Boat Landing, just next to where Glenridding’s steamers depart from. 

The clouds gather ominously and there’s the smell of rain in the air, but as I empty my kit from the car, two other fishermen call over to me: “Good weather for it. Perfect cover.” I smile like I know what they mean. Both look far superior at the sport, decked in waders, wearing polarised shades and carrying fly rods. Fly-fishing is unquestionably the nobler art, more graceful, more tricky, but on Ullswater you’re also allowed to fish its brown trout population using coarser methods – namely bait and spinners. 

After warming up with a coffee at the boatyard’s little café, I hire a motorboat for the day, a svelte-looking white thing with an outboard. Following a quick tutorial, the man in charge fits me for a life jacket and divulges a few free tips: “If you’re drifting with a worm in the water, kill the engine about 50 yards out and the wind take you in. Look for the still spots. Don’t get too shallow.”
“Have you caught anything recently?” I ask. 

“Nope. But someone came back with five the other day. Good sizes too.”

Moments later, I’m steering the boat out into the lake, the nose lifting as I open up the throttle, but there’s no need to go far. I cut the engine and row towards a line where the choppy water slips into slackness close to a bed of reeds. No sooner have I settled than the unmistakable schlop of a rising trout breaks the quiet and I hastily find my bait. Threading the body of an artificial worm along the hook neatly disguises the metal and after adding a small shot weight, I cast it close to where the trout popped up. And wait.

The boat rocks gently with the slap of water. Off, some five metres away, the red tip of my tiny float dances on the surface. Instinctively, I check my phone but there’s no reception so I sit in total silence, cut off from the modern world. Everything slows. My hearing becomes clearer. I can pick out sheep calling on the hills and cuckoos in the woods. After a while another trout rises some way off and I notice a grey heron standing in the shallows, like a statue. A good omen, I hope.

Time passes – maybe an hour, maybe more. Rain briefly fizzes the lake’s surface and I decide to try a new tactic. Rowing out, I hug the eastern shore and drop my line wherever I choose. I try little bays overhung with pine and shallower stretches where the stony bottom appears suddenly and worrying close to my hull. Under a stack of rock named ‘Devil’s Chimney’, I float in the calm, deep water and watch as the clouds, charcoal grey, rise from the natural tower above me like billows of smoke. I even get the Haribo out and try a jelly bear as bait, but although it disappears from my hook, I don’t feel any decisive bite.
It’s rare in this day and age that we ever get the time to be still. Most of us walk through places too fast, but fishing forces you to remain quiet, still, focused on the water and your surroundings.
During the early nineteenth century William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, came to Ullswater with a similar mindset, to marvel at its setting, which William described as ‘...the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur which any of the lakes affords.’ In April 1802, he was inspired to write his famous poem about daffodils after seeing a profusion of them across the lake from where I am drifting. He also penned poetic descriptions of ‘Aira Force,’ the grand waterfall that smashes down through the woods of the western shore. 

Checking my map, I notice Aira Force is closer than I thought and decide to motor over. Lifting the engine and crunching up to a gravelly beach, I moor the boat, tying it to a tree, and enter the National Trust-owned woodland. Up a path I reach the thundering column of white water, grandly spanned by an arched, stone bridge. Finding a spot away from the water’s refreshing atomiser spray, I eat sandwiches and chew a couple of jelly bears for pudding. The trout can spare a few, I’m sure. Where I’m sitting the earth has been grubbed up recently and, lifting a clod of it, I find a handsome purple-red worm beneath, which I hastily stash in my empty lunchbox.

By the time I return to the boat, the rain has started in earnest and I decide to head back to where the trout first teased me. The journey in to Glenridding is a mesmerising one. A steamer passes, sending me on a rollercoaster ride through its wash. Boats tack around the lake’s little islands, their sails stark and bright against the brooding sky and hills. At the head of Ullswater, near the reeds, I spy the two fly-fishermen I met in the car park, arcing lines gracefully over the flat water. Behind them the heron still stands watching.

I give them all plenty of distance and let my boat drift with in the wind. The water is Guinness-black and cold and deciding to ‘go natural’, I fish my live worm out for the hook and cast into the shore-side waters, letting the swell take it. It can only be ten or twenty minutes later but when it happens the movement of the rod tip is so unexpected that I stare at it for a moment before reacting. Then the float is gone and the line squealing. I jerk the rod back and see a flash of silver near the surface; another jolt and the whole rig bends as I reel in my shuddering catch from the waves. It’s a brown trout and a good weight too. A keeper. 

Swallowing a celebratory handful of jelly bears, I fire the motor and turn for shore, nodding at the heron as I pass. Meeting me at the jetty, the man in charge of the boats makes no effort to conceal his surprise. “Do you want me to get rid of him for you?” He asks. It’s a nice try, but I’ve already got designs on this prize. 

As evening falls I’m driving over the Kirkstone Pass to my hotel for the night, the BEST WESTERN Ambleside Salutation. I’ve heard rumour that the chef will happily cook your catch for you, but it’s still a strange thing to produce a trout in a plastic bag at check-in. To their credit, no one on reception even flinches. 

“And how would you like it cooking?” The girl on the desk asks.

I think for a second. “However it comes.” 

At the end of a day’s fishing you appreciate that sometimes going with the flow is the best idea.
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