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A SUNDAY SIN ON THE RIVER USK

May 20, 1968
May 20, 1968

Table of Contents
May 20, 1968

The Bitter Pill
Elegant Courses
Dick Tiger
Today's Students
People
Rugby
Track & Field
Sunday Sin
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A SUNDAY SIN ON THE RIVER USK

For six days a week Welshmen respect the laws against salmon poaching as much as Americans respected Prohibition. A religious people, however, the Welsh usually suspend poaching activities on Sunday—but not a real baddy like Si√¥n Jones

The radio made a noise like a throat being cut, and a gravelly voice came through the darkness. "URA Four to URA One. Blue Ford pickup, registration HDE 878 E, approaching you along B 7737. Out." I could just make out Ron Millichamp alongside me in the Land Rover, fumbling with his end of the linkup and acknowledging the message. Millichamp and I were up to the hubcaps in thick farm mud, lying in ambush up a track that commanded a view of the whole black valley. The nearest I'd been to this kind of conversation before was in front of a television set, taking in a police serial. But it was real enough.

This is an article from the May 20, 1968 issue Original Layout

Mid-Wales in midwinter, Llanfihangel Nant Br√¢n on the wild uplands of Breconshire. In the afternoon we had driven north through snow flurries to the high ground. The hill streams were like oiled steel in the last light, running through rock gullies, churning into froth under bare alders. Stone walls, sheep, buzzards. The Black Mountains rolled east to the English border, and when Millichamp slammed the Land Rover door the echoes rattled about like gunfire—not inappropriately.

Millichamp was engaged in a battle, though it was one that was to be mostly fought in silence. This was the rough country that he had to hold over the next six weeks, through the crisis period. Tall, dark, a little stooped, he has a nervous intensity of manner that causes him to stammer at times. It was understandable just then when his responsibility was so big.

"Did you bring Polaroids?" he asked. I put mine on and followed him across the road to a small stone bridge spanning the little River Br√¢n that runs into the Usk above Brecon. He was peering over the parapet into the water. "Look at the stones," he said.

The shallow run under the bridge was lined with pebbles. They were gray-green with weed, but farther down they were much paler, gleaming oyster-white in the water.

"See the ones they've turned?" he asked. "Come after me now." I got onto the low parapet and dropped onto the spongy bank below. We scrambled through wet undergrowth for maybe 10 yards downstream, to where the water ran slower and deeper. "Can you make them out?" said Millichamp.

The Polaroids cut through the surface gleam, but it was several seconds before I could make out the big shapes holding still in the current. "That hen would go 20 pounds," said Millichamp. "The cock fish are a good bit smaller." Without the Polaroids the shapes were vaguer, but the colors came out better. I could see the dull gray sides of the female, the red of the male fish, and their great hooked lower jaws that had developed through the summer. Atlantic salmon at the end of their spawning run are the bravest, most beautiful fish in the world when they come into the river with the violet sheen on their silver flanks. But vulnerable always, and never more vulnerable than they were at that moment, though they had passed through extraordinary dangers in the four or five years since they had been spawned in a Welsh hill stream like this one, possibly in this very stream itself.

Before the eggs were hatched in the Honddu or the Br√¢n or the Cilient, hundreds were gobbled by small brown trout. Bigger trout attacked the fry. Little boys and other predators finished off more when they were four or five inches long. Then, with two years of Usk life in them, when they migrated downstream as silvery smolts, cormorants and pike intercepted them. In the estuary, pollack and sea bass ripped into the shoals. But in the North Atlantic they fattened and grew fast until they met the west Greenland nets at Sukkertoppen, the newest and the biggest killing ground of all. Two thousand metric tons of salmon died there in 1966. The survivors began their spawning journey, homing on the Welsh coast. They massed in the tide races of St. Govan's Head and the Helvick Shoals, and the seals and the porpoises found them. In the estuary there were the commercial netsmen; in the Usk, anglers. Two thousand-odd fell to rod and line. Now, at the cold back end of the year, within hours of spawning, they faced the last enemy. The hill-stream poacher with the barbed gaff.

The Welsh bring to killing salmon something of the same enthusiasm that they lavish on Rugby football. The handbook of the Usk River Authority, for whom Ron Millichamp is chief fisheries officer, and in whose area we were operating, sadly states: The local population regards salmon poaching as a legitimate winter sport. And has, the handbook might have added, for a number of centuries now. Millichamp, indeed, is one of the few Welshmen who look upon salmon poaching as somewhat more serious than a parking offense. And he regards it with some passion, liking nothing better than to apprehend a poacher. For him, a justly imposed $250 fine is as much a prize as a 20-pound fresh-run spring salmon to an angler. His motivation is not malicious. Purely and simply he loves Atlantic salmon, and this was why, on this hard winter's afternoon, we were reconnoitering the hill streams, looking for the patches of white pebbles where the salmon had used their broad tails to carve out the spawning beds, looking for the vulnerable pools where the fish lie. Looking for other things as well. Tire marks, for instance, on the muddy verges of these little-frequented country roads, where a car may have pulled up on no legal business.

In Wales in mid-December the dark falls early, and as we drove back toward the valley farms, the big, wet snow-flakes started again, the kind that look as if they will soon turn to rain. Rain is the poacher's enemy. It swells and discolors the streams until not even experienced eyes can penetrate the water. Millichamp couldn't make up his mind about the rain. The salmon might be safe enough, but there would be no pounce. And he had laid plans lovingly for a big strike that night.

Usually Millichamp's men are spread out on watch right through the 700 square miles of the Usk River Authority's area. But this time there was to be a change. Two lucky men, the pair that normally operate on the Br√¢n, had a special assignment. They would spend the whole evening in the pub as decoys, meant to be spotted there making a night of it, leading the local boys to assume that all was clear. But in this perfect ambush country six Land Rovers, two men aboard each, would be lying up off the roads, and what they would be watching for was a light.

According to Millichamp, poachers have one big disadvantage, since at night they must use a flashlight, if only momentarily. In the valley to the west there was a pattern of legitimate light: the cluster of the village, 10 houses, a chapel and a pub. In all the rest, only three pinpoints to mark the hill farms. Anything out of pattern meant trouble.

All this he explained as we moved down to our rendezvous. Then we were pulling off the road onto a side track and through a farm gate. The other Land Rovers were pulled up on the cobbles of the yard, and a crowd of men stood around in slickers, all of them noticeably big men, drinking tea out of heavy white mugs. When Millichamp joined them, they went into a football huddle and then broke off in pairs to board their vehicles. URA Two, Three, Four, Five and Six roared off into the darkness, then Millichamp and I in the command car, Usk River Authority One.

Mountain sheep have red, devil's eyes in the dark, I discovered, fortunately for them and their habit of wandering witlessly across the road. An old ewe appeared, looking mildly up the headlight beam at Millichamp as he braked hard. "Even bl-bl-bloody cows have got more sense," he stammered. He was understandably tense: two weeks previously Len Jenkins, now aboard URA Three, missed death by a few inches when he tried to stop a poacher's car on a narrow bridge. Number plates well daubed with mud, it came hard at him, but he moved just fast enough to escape with bad bruising. This was unusual. Poachers are rarely violent, except the big gangs, and Millichamp has not been shot at for almost a year now. But there was a grudge in the air that night. Millichamp felt it necessary that his men should taste a little blood as soon as possible. Metaphorically, of course.

So we were finally in position, backed up in a farm track. There might be hours before the action came, if indeed there would be any action. It was entirely possible that in the farm above somebody had picked up the phone and made a short call. The underground movement is highly organized around here, although the contest has evened out a little since the River Authority equipped its men with radio. According to Millichamp, some oldtime poachers feel that the introduction of such technical devices is highly unsporting. "What's this, bloody Z Cars?" shouted one indignant Welshman when he was arrested a month back. Z Cars is a popular TV crime series in Britain.

Another ally of the salmon is the recently strengthened British drink-drive law. Three beers now can lose you your license for 12 months, and the boys were always in the habit of tanking up a little before they went out to the river with the gaffs. Not willing to give up this custom, many of them have reverted to traveling on foot and tend to be more vulnerable. So when URA Four told us that a blue Ford was heading our way, it was liable to be an innocent one. It was. "Dai Williams on his way home from Brecon cattle mart," said Millichamp morosely. "We're not looking for him."

I made no comment. My conscience was troubling me. Here I was, sitting in the command car of the good guys, and all the time I was a baddy. I should have been wearing a black hat. I knew who they were looking for. It was a man called Siôn Jones. I also knew where he was. At home, watching television, resting up after his little expedition the previous day.

In Wales men like Ron Millichamp have been looking for men like Siôn Jones for a very long time now, and without a lot of success. The Welsh, many of whom are fiercely nationalistic, have a peculiar blind spot, a chronic inability to understand how a stretch of river that passes through one of their own villages can conceivably belong, let us say, to the vice-president of a chemical fertilizer plant in Manchester. And even if this could be swallowed, the salmon came up from the sea, didn't they? Who did they belong to there? Last week they were downstream at Abergavenny, the week before at Newport. Who did they belong to then?

The Usk River Authority, and others like it in England and Wales, was set up by the Water Resources Act of 1963, and there were plenty of acts before that which made it quite clear that pulling out salmon, except with fully licensed rod and line, was distinctly illegal; but Si√¥n Jones and his friends justify themselves on the basis of somewhat earlier legislation, instituted in the 10th century by an independent Prince of Wales, Hywel Dda ("Howell the Good"). Hywel was a liberal much in advance of his time. He abolished capital punishment. As far as hunting and fishing were concerned, his attitude was, go ahead, boys—though he reserved nine days a year, from November 1 on, for his personal hunting through the land. But even if you were mannerless enough to kill a stag in the prince's own forest, you simply had to pay up. The price of a goodly ox, his law said, plus 10¢ for the skin.

When the Normans moved into England, things tended to be different. If William I caught you in his deer forest—and he owned all the deer forests—he had your hands cut off. It was this sort of attitude that caused the Welsh to hold out for three centuries against William and his descendants until Llywelyn, their last prince, was hacked to pieces in an ambush at a hill-stream ford, 12 miles north of where I sat that night with Millichamp.

But the Welsh continued to take salmon almost at will until the coming of the railways in the 19th century made it easy for the better-off English to travel for vacations and weekends. "Private Fishing" notices began to appear on riverbanks in Wales, and river watchers were hired. In 1861, on the River Wye at Rhayader, there was open rioting over the closure of the fisheries. The proprietors, who had bought up the rivers, imported Germans and English to guard the banks. One winter's night a band of horsemen rode into Rhayader, ran the foreigners out of town, throwing those who resisted into the river, and then proceeded to the salmon pools. When dawn broke, hundreds of salmon threaded on wire festooned the main street. Salmon decorated the doorsteps of the police station and the magistrates' houses. The horsemen were members of a secret society called The Daughters of Rebecca, who blackened their faces, disguised themselves in women's clothes and more commonly employed themselves in breaking down tollgates and burning the houses of unpopular landlords.

That was the last pitched battle, though. A cavalry regiment moved into Rhayader and the No Fishing notices were nailed up again. Since then guerrilla warfare has been the rule, carried on season after season, with the salmon providing most of the casualties.

The small foray in which I had been engaged the previous day had not been easy to arrange. My first contact with Siôn had come after vettings by two intermediaries, a friend of Siôn's second cousin, then the second cousin. It took the form of a note in neat, old-fashioned handwriting, inviting me to meet Mr. Jones in the Red Lion Hotel in Brecon "to discuss the matter at hand."

I couldn't have missed Mr. Jones. Of the dozen men in the bar, only he looked like a leprechaun, hunched, furtive, ageless, indescribably wrinkled. It would not be long before I discovered that for Siôn furtiveness was a way of life. As all the others loudly discussed the price of Christmas turkeys, Siôn's eyes flickered round and a curled brown finger beckoned me to a seat next to his. He shook out the racing pages of the South Wales Evening Post and held them up in front of us. Any half-awake policeman would have taken us in on sight.

His first gambit was to pretend ignorance of the subject. "Duw Mawr, fishing? I do a little bit. Fly only, naturally. Tie all my own flies, I do. Out of season now, of course." He broke into a foxy, barking laugh.

"They tell me," I said, giving him the old droopy-eyelid treatment, "that you can give me some information about watercraft." Infected by all this secretiveness, I twisted my mouth into a villainous, knowing grin. "You know, watercraft." It's not easy being a baddy.

"Who told you that?"

"Elwyn Jones, Penyderyn, your cousin," I said. In Wales, where 90% of the population is called Jones or Thomas, you often use the village name as a means of identification. I didn't mention that Elwyn's price had been two cartons of filter tips. Siôn probably knew. Probably he had shared them.

"He's been telling you lies, then," said Siôn, and wandered off into a short biography of his cousin that featured the latter's meanness and mendacity.

"Ah, go on," said one of the turkey-talking farmers looking round. "Get the man a bloody fish if he wants one."

I could have bought the man a pint on the spot. "That's right, get me a bloody fish," I said to Siôn. "Only I'd like to be with you."

"When are you free?" he asked, apparently unfazed by the breaking of his cover.

"Any time, any time at all," I said eagerly, unwilling to work through the whole process again. "Midnight. Three in the morning. Whenever you like."

"Are you mad?" said Siôn, outraged. "The river's full of keepers after dark. Midday on Sunday, when they're stuffing themselves with food and reading the papers. That's the time."

He promised to call me when conditions were right, and three nights later he did. My small son took the call, and when I came in he said, "A funny old man told me to say the chickens is on the nest." I waited confidently for him to ring again. "Are you ready to pluck the chickens?" he was whispering to me hoarsely a few minutes later. I was getting tired of this Celtic circumlocution.

"You mean go up the river for a salmon," I said. I was treated to the barking laugh again, then he told me to call at his house the next Sunday at 12:30, not before, he explained, or I'd bump into them all coming out of bloody chapel. The Welsh, except for backsliders like Siôn, are an intensely religious people. Poaching was no sin, but poaching on a Sunday! A different matter entirely. "Bring your car," said Siôn, and the old warning lights began to flash in my head. Wasn't there some law about a car being considered legally part of a poacher's equipment, and hence liable to confiscation? "I expect I will," I said guardedly. I needn't have worried, in fact. I looked it up later, and it's only under Scottish law that happens.

He wasn't there at 12:30, of course. That would have been too straightforward. A tiny, ancient lady sat alone in the kitchen. "Bwrw dda," she said, twiddling shyly with her hearing aid. I had to confess that I did not have the old tongue. "Saes?" she said. "English?" No, I said, but the Welsh language had gone entirely from where I lived in the industrialized south.

"Siôn will be in soon," she said. "He's got to be here soon to make the gravy. I can manage the chops myself, but he's got to make the gravy. How old do you think I am?"

"Sixty?" I ventured politely.

"I'm 83 years old and I can't make the gravy anymore!" she pealed triumphantly. "Here's Siôn coming now."

He slid into the kitchen looking guilty and hunted. "Mrs. Williams will becoming in to do the gravy, mam," he said defensively. "I got to go up the river."

"Mrs. Williams makes nasty old gravy. But go on, you," she said severely. I had the feeling that Siôn was going to suffer for this later on. I followed him outside, feeling guilty as well. Not only was I going to take part in an illegal act, but I was the cause of an old lady getting inferior gravy with her Sunday dinner.

"Never mind her," said Siôn boldly, once we were well out of earshot. "We'll go on up."

That meant driving to the pub and secreting the car in the yard behind it, then moving up-country on foot. I was more than a little nervous at this point. There I was, persona grata with the River Authority, a holder of one of their salmon-rod licenses for more than 10 years, the respectable angling correspondent of a British national newspaper. In a week's time I was due to speak as guest of honor at the dinner of a salmon fishermen's association. Subject: The Atlantic Salmon—Can it Survive? I was going to look fine in front of the magistrates. "I went with him out of curiosity, your honor." That didn't sound too good. "I wanted to see how it was done...." Worse still. "Duty to the reading public.... Journalist's responsibility.... We must know our enemies...." Something like that. Si√¥n cheered me up by telling me that, though he had been a poacher for 40 years, he had never been caught. Or, at least, successfully prosecuted, though he had been arrested and searched a few times. "They got my picture pinned up in the station in Brecon," he said proudly.

As he walked, he outlined his philosophy. As a poacher, he was a stern traditionalist. He despised the new sort, the gangs who worked the big river in low-water summer conditions, driving up from the industrial cities of south Wales, putting on scuba suits to drive salmon and sea-run trout into fixed trammel nets, or using cyanide bombs to suffocate the fish and send them drifting downstream to a collection point. Wicked and wasteful, he called it. All he took, he claimed, were a few fish for himself and his friends. "It's my right to fish," he said. "If you got a chicken in the yard, well, that belongs to you. But nobody put the fish in the river. They were there in the first place. When I started fishing, I could go anywhere for a half-crown license. My sort can't go anywhere now, or if I can go it's only a few trout. There's no place for me to fish on the big river."

Siôn was dramatizing himself a little now. He could join a club and still fish salmon for around $25 a year. He was just a natural-born poacher, who had caught his first salmon at the age of 10.

"Was that on your half-crown license?" I asked him.

"No," he said, "jumping off a rock."

"Jumping where?"

"On my guts on top of it! Twenty-two pounds. Har, har, har!" The foxy laugh again.

Much of the war he spent poaching in the uniform of the Royal Artillery, his talents having been recognized in his early training days in Scotland by a perceptive commanding officer, who sent him on leave to Breconshire to collect his gaff, then relieved him of normal duties so that he could get to work on the Scottish salmon for the benefit of the Officers' Mess. This was the greatest period of Siôn's poaching career, and it culminated, just before he went overseas, with the blowing up of the dam of a small loch and the collection of six sand bags full of trout at the outfall. Life was duller with the Eighth Army in Libya, but in Italy he investigated the resources of what he called some river by Rome. "The Tiber?" I suggested.

"Some bloody river," admitted Siôn. The fish there gave poor sport. ("Small little things like trout, only not trout.") What fascinated him were the water snakes. They beat him at first, then he went at them with a wire snare. He gave out a wild cry in the Sunday silence as he demonstrated how he got them in a noose and flung them through the air. I looked behind, full of apprehension, but Siôn was right. Early on Sunday afternoons mid-Wales eats or sleeps. Morning service is over, and you have to get your strength back for evening chapel, where two-hour sermons are not unknown.

We were leaving the trees and the road behind now, and crossing rough moorland, climbing all the time. There was plenty of cover, though, from furze and scrub and the changing contours of the land. We were going to be all right, I kept telling myself. Where we were going, Siôn said, hazelwoods screened the stream. I still hadn't solved the mystery of how Siôn was going to catch his fish. He carried no equipment that I could see.

"Wait and see," he said when I asked him. Carrying a gaff is as damning as being caught in the act of snatching a fish. Once an eager young keeper had tried to prove that Siôn had been up to no good on the river by the fact that he had been spotted coming away from it wearing rubber waders. Plenty of evidence was forthcoming that Siôn spent most of his waking hours in waders. Not guilty.

I was glad when we burrowed down into the hazel copse beside the water, well out of sight. I followed Siôn into the shallows and we waded downstream through a thickly woven tunnel of branches until we came to a hollow under the bank curtained by trailing roots. Siôn felt in it and brought out three articles. A roll of cord, a knife and a steel gaff head. "Look after these," he said, and I could see how he had built up his record of 40 years of unconvicted poaching. We came out of the water then, and weaved and ducked our way down the bank, moving fast at a half crouch. Every few minutes Siôn stopped and looked into the water for a few seconds, then moved on fast again. In 10 minutes I was panting hard, and I'd gone into the mud over my knee boots. Siôn, a dozen years older, showed no strain.

"There you are, there's a nest now," he said suddenly, after one of his pauses. I could see the upturned pebbles but no fish. Siôn could, though, and I followed his finger until I could make it out as well. A cock fish, about 15 pounds. We backed away from the stream. "Will he do?" asked Siôn anxiously.

Frankly, in a way, I should have liked to have stopped the exercise at that point. Apart from the ethical considerations, December salmon are scarcely worth eating, even smoked. The flesh is pale and flaccid. And there were ethical considerations. But another, older part of myself wanted the fish killed. Seeing it lie there so close was as exciting as seeing a big spring fish roll at the fly on a $500 per week stretch on a Scottish river. "Fine," I said.

Then Siôn moved into action with extraordinary speed and agility. First, with his sharp knife he cut a 12-foot-tall hazel sapling; then, without allowing it to fall out of line with the others, he drew it down by the root end until it was on the ground, cut a foot off the top, then lashed on the gaff head with the cord. Then he was down on his belly, extending the gaff across the stream. He made only one stroke, then the fish was coming up the bank as he brought up the sapling hand over hand.

Two thousand miles it had traveled to the Brân, and it flapped there in the mud as the blood ran from its gills onto the dead December leaves, and the white fertilizing milt jetted from its vent. Siôn slammed it with a piece of rock and kicked branches, stones and mud over it as it quivered and died. He cut the gaff head free and propped the sapling back where it had been. "Will you take him home with you?" he said.

"No thanks," I said. It wasn't Siôn's fault. I'd asked him to get me a bloody fish. For information. "I don't eat salmon as a rule," I added hastily.

"I only take the hen fish myself," said Siôn. There was a special reason for this, as I knew. There was money in hens, not much in old cock fish, unless you could find a half-witted hotelier or an Englishman on holiday. A 15-pound hen salmon carries between four and five pounds of eggs, the chief ingredient in a special compound that the Welsh call "jam," a paste of salted salmon roe that is so deadly for brown and sea-run trout that it is illegal everywhere in Britain. Jam fetches $4 per pound in any Brecon pub. Siôn was probably an important supplier.

We put the dead salmon and the knife and the gaff under the hollow bank. Siôn said he would come back for the fish later, but I didn't think he would. We started back for the village, technically, at least, in the clear.

Most Welsh pubs are closed on Sunday by law, so Siôn felt we should have a drink in one. With the air of one who confers a considerable privilege, he ushered me through the back door of his local, and we sat in the bar with the blinds closed. "Are you going out again tomorrow?" I asked him. I knew that Millichamp and his men would be operating, and I owed it to Siôn to keep him from walking into trouble.

"Not tomorrow," said Siôn. "I've had a whisper. And there's Peyton Place on the telly."

We sat and drank our pints of Guinness without enjoying them much, more as a kind of dutiful act against the licensing laws. It was time for Siôn to face the wrath of his mam and for me to face my conscience.

It still nagged me as I sat in the dark with Millichamp next night, in URA One. "Don't—er—sit here all night on my account," I said.

"It looks very quiet," he admitted. "Funny thing, I thought we'd have some action tonight. They're a crafty lot of bastards, though."

"Were you out yesterday?"

"No point," said Millichamp. "They're all stuffing themselves with meat and potatoes on Sundays. And the wife's mother was over for lunch."

"Nearly a thousand fish," he said suddenly. "That's what we reckon to lose on the spawning beds in the winter. They'll kill it between them."

There was no action. The expensive radio equipment called the expensive Land Rovers in. At midnight we were back in the village, feeling much, I suppose, as the English knights felt as they gave up the vain pursuit of an enemy that struck and disappeared, then came disconsolately home, sweating and clanking in their expensive armor.

Before this war is ever concluded, the Atlantic salmon will have gone the way of the Welsh beaver into extinction. The Greenland fishery, the salmon disease that started in Ireland in 1963 and has now spread to the rivers of Scotland and North Wales, with pollution and water abstraction, will kill the run in the end. Salmon in Wales are too caught up in old wounds, old pride and old scores to be anything but the losers. It's just as well, perhaps, that Siôn can get Peyton Place on the telly. He may need it in the future to help pass the empty winters.

EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONSDOUGLAS GORSLINE