Millie digs out a big fat rat from under the hen hut

A cock salmon.
A cock salmon.

I WAS lucky enough to be given a day’s fly fishing on the Test this week.

We were after grayling, trout being out of season. The main interest of the day was this cock salmon which had spawned and was then at the very end of its life and covered with fungus.

The bailiffs netted and dispatched it and I took its picture. It was about ten pounds and three feet in length.

It gave me a sharp reminder of Salar the Salmon, my father’s book which has recently been reissued with a new introduction by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse, etc).

At the end of Salar’s life, after he had grown up in the Atlantic and returned to the moorland stream one brilliant moonlit night, to spawn, he had become like the fish in my photograph.

This was how father described Salar: “The fungus grew rapidly. Soon Salar’s jaw was covered with cream-coloured ruffs. The edges and centre of his tail fin were corroded, too, and his skin, which had thickened and caused the scales to shrink since his return from the sea, was also patched with fungus where it had been bruised on the weirs, and by fighting.”

Frightened by a goods train roaring over the viaduct above (now part of the A361 Taunton-Barnstaple trunk road) Salar was seen by an old poacher called Shiner, who had tried to catch him before, but who now felt sympathy for the stricken fish.

“Poor old chap”, said Shiner, “What you needs now is a nice li’l fresh, to take you down to the sea, to clean yourself”.

But the river was low that winter, no higher than summer levels, and it was too late for the kelp. Yet even as he died, Salar’s offspring with the hen Fish Gralaks were beginning to hatch from their eggs in the stream that ran from Exmoor.

So it will be with the offspring of this fine old cock salmon we found on the Test this week.

So I read the whole story again in the next evening or so. The book was dedicated to father’s friend Lawrence of Arabia, who was killed on his motorcycle as my father wrote the book, in May 1935.

Charles Tunnicliffe’s splendid line drawing still adorn this new copy published by Little Toller Books. It was a book that greatly impressed The Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, and Michael Morpurgo said in this edition: “It is a rare gift indeed for a storyteller to be a poet . . . to tell a tale so deeply engaging that the reader wants to know what will happen and never wants it to end yet at the same time tells it in such a way as to leave the reader wide-eyed with amazement at the sheer intensity of feeling that can be induced by the word-magic of a poet . . .”

My moment on this premier chalk stream of England gave a kind of full circle to the story of Salar. I had wanted to use father’s old split-cane rod on the day this week but was advised against it due to its fragility. But with a modern carbon-fibre rod did land three fine brown trout which were quickly returned to the water.

Not a sign of a grayling though.

Richard Williamson