Alec Allen made the front page of our local paper, the Carmarthen Journal, three times. The second time was when he died in March of 1972. Alongside the brief obituary was a photograph of a small man wearing a Fair Isle pullover and baggy trousers as he slouched against the base of a railroad trestle, his hands in his pockets, a cigarette in his mouth. It was a typical '30s snapshot, except for one thing: a fish dangling from the trestle. At first glance it looked like the biggest herring in history. It was a good four feet longer than Allen was tall. Closer study revealed that size was not the fish's only unique quality; its head ended in a dark snout and its body appeared to be armored. But it was not merely the creature's unusual appearance that lent a strangeness to the photo. Behind Allen and the fish were a farm gate and, beyond that, a field. What was the newspaper reader to make of a man posing in a Welsh farmyard alongside something of the size and conformation of a shark?
Allen again made the Journal three weeks later when his friends scattered his ashes in the River Towy, where he had fished all his life. The location was of his choosing. It was the spot where, 40 years earlier, Allen had landed the largest fish ever caught in a British river.
There is an Angler's Prayer one still comes upon occasionally, painted on old mugs in fishing inns.
LORD, GRANT THAT I'MAY CATCH A
FISH SO BIG THAT EVEN I,
WHEN SPEAKING OF IT AFTERWARDS,
MAY HAVE NO CAUSE TO LIE.
Allen did exactly that. He caught a fish so big that it would have taken two large men, their arms fully outstretched, to approximate its length But Allen did more than that. He had gone fishing for salmon that day but caught something so peculiar, so far removed from even the footnotes of angling, that a grown man who was present ran off shouting in horror across the fields. That was the first time Allen made the paper The edition of July 29, 1933 reported that he had landed a mammoth sturgeon in the Towy near Carmarthen.
Allen was a commercial traveler from Penarth in Glamorganshire. In his youth he was a well-known sportsman, and in later life he made something of a reputation as a hockey referee; he even officiated at Olympic matches. In 1933 he was in his early 40s, one of that odd breed of innocents one comes upon in the literature of the period, the sporting bachelor. His great delight was fishing.
At the time, Allen was a salesman for a firm of fishing-tackle manufacturers. His father, also an avid fisherman, was a traveler for a wallpaper firm. The two of them somehow managed to make their rounds in the same car. Their commercial beat was West Wales, an area concentrated around the rivers Wye, Teify and Towy, and it was well known that their business trips were scheduled to facilitate their fishing. Off they went, their car full of tackle and wallpaper, on journeys perfectly arranged so that the stopovers occurred at inns beside fishing rivers. The traveling may have been a bit strenuous on those days when the wallpaper shops to be visited were at a distance from the best fishing spots, but the Allens hardly seemed to mind.
Their favorite river was the Towy, which ambled through an 18th-century world of ruined castles and rounded hills until it reached Carmarthen. The Allens had rented a stretch of the Towy, upstream from the town, that included some of the deepest pools. The summer of 1933 was a dry one, and the water level was unusually low. One July evening, while walking along the riverbank, the younger Allen saw enormous waves abruptly cross one of the pools. It puzzled him at the time, but when he told a friend about it later, Allen had no suspicion that the waves might have been made by a living thing. But it was 15 miles to the sea, and tidal water ended two miles downriver from the pool. A few evenings later, Allen and a fishing companion, Edwin Lewis, returned to the spot. Allen began fishing. He soon felt a slight tug on his line. He pulled on it but to no effect.
David Price, a friend of Allen, recounted a description of this moment given him by Allen. "Alec thought he'd hooked a log," Price said. "He couldn't see what it was, except that it was something huge in the shadows. Then the log began to move upstream." A faint smile came over Price's face. "Now Alec, he knew that logs don't move upstream."
Though he had eliminated a log as a possibility, Allen still had no idea of what was on the end of his line. A more imaginative man might have become terrified at that moment, because Allen's line was jerking rapidly and was under greater force than he had ever known before. He had hooked something that moved with the strength of a shark. Allen played his catch for 20 minutes, letting the line out when it swam away from him, retreating up the bank to take up the slack when it came back. Because of the low water, there was no deep channel out of the pool; had there been, no salmon line would have held the catch.
Then Allen saw it. The maddened creature suddenly leaped out of the water and crashed into a shallow run, where it lay, partially exposed. A startled bystander ran off shouting for his life, but Allen and Lewis sprang into action. Lewis ran forward with a steel gaff. He stuck it into the fish, but the fish moved, straightening the gaff. Then the great tail flicked up and struck Lewis, throwing him up the bank There was a large rock on the bank. Allen dropped his rod, grabbed the rock and lurched into the water to beat the fish on the head with it. He struck again and again before the creature finally died. When the battle was over, the two men looked down at the fish in complete bewilderment. Neither had any idea what it was.
A more immediate problem was how to get it out of the river. Allen hurried to a nearby farm and asked to borrow a horse and cart. The farmer asked why Allen said he had caught a fish. After further explanations, the farmer, the farmer's family, his dogs and his horse and his cart all proceeded to the river. So did much of the local citizenry.
"Alec came running to my house," recalled Price, who lived nearby. "I'd never seen him look so excited. He said over and over, 'I've caught something this time you'll never beat.' I went back with him, and they'd got it up on that trestle. People were coming in cars and carts. They were even ferrying children across the river. It had these big scales, I remember, and was very slimy. It was black and white in color. No, I wasn't frightened," Price added patiently. "It was dead."
As the crowd gathered, it was determined that the fish was a sturgeon. Then someone remembered that, by ancient law, a sturgeon had to be offered to the king before an angler could keep it. A telegram was sent to Buckingham Palace the next morning, and a stiff little reply came back saying that His Majesty was not in residence. So Allen sold the fish to a man from Swansea, who paid ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£2 10 shillings for it, about $10. That worked out to something like a penny, ha'penny a pound. (Forty years later Allen's friends were still bitter about the price. Salmon at the time was two shillings and sixpence, or 52¬¨¬®¬¨¢ per pound.) The fish by then had been found to weigh 388 pounds and to be nine feet, two inches long, with a girth of 59 inches. It is still the largest fish ever caught in a British river. There was so much caviar in the sturgeon that it spilled out onto the farmyard, where the pigs ate it. For them, life was never the same again.
According to Price, Allen, who fished until his death at age 77 in 1972, seldom mentioned his record sturgeon in his later years. "The few times he did was when he heard anglers going on about their catches," Price said. "Then Alec would say very quietly, 'Well, this was the biggest I ever caught,' and show the photograph of him and his fish. And then they'd say, 'Good God.' "