I recently took a trip to England with another veteran, Walter Green-Morse. He and I were invited by a man named Tony Spacey. Tony owns Game Angling Consultancy, the UK’s biggest specialty Fly Fishing & Game Angling tackle shop. Each year, he and his wife Jan selflessly invite disabled veterans to stay with them for a week of priceless fishing. The whole trip is paid for out of their own pockets. How awesome is that? I met Tony a couple years back at a Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing tournament in 2012. He was a stocky friendly guy that I could tell had a passion for the military. He had served in the South African Army and also did time as a British Para. He missed the military and loved talking about it. We clicked right away.
Fast forward a year….. It was Saturday morning, and I was saying goodbye to my wife and little girl at the airport. This was the first time I spent more than two nights away from my little Emma Jo and I’ll say this: that goodbye was 10 times worse than saying goodbye to family before deployment to Iraq. So I was already in a bad mood from that little experience. Little did I know that the suck in this day was just beginning. Security check random full body? Sure, thanks. Then, the airline company woman that checked us in announced that the airplane had a tire issue and that the only mechanic they have for all their airplanes doesn’t work on the weekends. She assured us that he’d be there as soon as possible…. You can tell she had a bad attitude as it was, but what happened next drove the nail in. While she was telling everyone about the issue, a woman stood up to go speak with her. The woman was standing a few feet away, and was in no way disrupting the attendant’s oh so important speech. All of the sudden the attendant yelled at her to go sit down and be quiet. Nice. The mechanic finally gets there and says he cannot fix the problem, and this particular airline doesn’t have a maintenance hangar; that would be silly. No, we have to go back to the ticketing booth and all have The Grinch book different flights with other airlines for us. I get a flight with another airline for 3:00, which is 6 hours later than my original flight time. At this point, I was in no mood for shenanigans. As I go back through the security, I feel the eyes upon me. That’s right, random security check number two. “Is it alright if we check you sir?” “Sure. why not. Already did once today.” Apparently, there was some bad weather where the plane that was supposed to take us was coming from. So when it was all said and done, I left Roanoke 7 1/2 hours later than scheduled. The flight to England finally begins. I spent 8 hours with a little sleeping 4 year olds feet on my lap. Her mother kept pulling them off me and apologizing, and I told her I was used to it and it didn’t bother me at all and that it reminded me of my daughter. What I did mind was that my headphone jack to watch movies was messed up and I had to hold it in the jack in a very precise manner. We’re talkin serious hand cramping. I get to customs and the agent asks me where I’m going. “Visiting a friend to fish.” “And where does he live?” “Uh… ” Don’t ask how I got through without his address. I meet Tony and Walt and we begin our journey with a 3 hour drive to Tony’s house. Now I’m a point a to point b kinda guy. But Tony takes it to a, as Eugene Struthers would say, whole ‘notha level! Anytime your speedometer is in the triple digits, you’re rollin’. He made that Range Rover his….well…you know.
Tony’s wife Jan made us feel right at home from the moment we got there. She would fit in perfectly in a southern home. The rest of the day we relaxed and got to know each other through sharing stories with each other. I was having withdrawals from seeing Emma Jo, so I paid for UK wifi for 5 days. That evening, and each evening after, I got to spend some time doing video chat with Lisa and Emma Jo. It is so amazing what opportunities technology has given us. Jan fixed an amazing meal and pudding.
The first day we met Tony’s friend Mick Chater and began our drive to Bank House Reservoir in Lancaster. Tony, Mick and I have very similar attitudes and personalities. Walt and I enjoyed Mick and Tony cracking jokes at each other the whole trip up. Here’s a picture of Walt, Mick, and I.
The property had a small fly shop, hatchery, and reservoir.
The reservoir was designed in a narrow manner. This design allows the feeder creek to keep a very small drift in the reservoir.
I am a big fan of moving water, so this still water type of fishing (at least for trout) was new to me. Still water fishing involves more casting than in streams, so I knew that I had to really keep from being sloppy and using my arm more than necessary. After all, I can’t exactly switch hit… Well, according to Lisa I can. True story: One day while getting ready for work, I told Lisa that I didn’t like the look of my ring and my watch on the same arm. It was too much “bling” for my comfort. Well, she told me to “Just switch your watch to your other wrist, silly!” Simple solution, right? Sure! For people with two arms….. Bless her heart! She redeemed herself by saying “I seriously don’t even see that your arm is missing most of the time! I forget about it.” God love her. Anyways, I knew I really had to make the rod do the work, the way it was made to be with fly fishing. It was a situation that forced me to rely on those tried and true principles that we learn from but inevitably have a habit of swaying from over time. Mick caught the first fish; a nice rainbow.
Walt and Tony weren’t far behind with their firsts. Tony with another. Walt with another. This is starting to become awkward….
Finally! I got the stink off. For those of you who don’t fish or hunt (bless your heart), not catching a fish or killing game is called getting skunked. When you finally get that fish or game animal, you get the stink off. We were all using streamer patterns, and the fish really started to become responsive. We all ended up catching a whole bunch and had a blast.
Tony and Walt even caught what’s called a blue trout. Blue trout are rainbow trout that are triploids, like golden rainbow trout. There’s only one difference. Instead of being weak fighters like the golden rainbows, these cobalt variants fight like no other. They are a blast to catch. Here’s Walt with the largest fish of the day: a 6 1/2 pound blue.
We left the first day behind us with a pile of fish and some great stories. That evening we were treated to a delicious home cooked meal by Jan. She even made dessert, which they call pudding. I fell in love with Jan when she came into the dining room with this…..
The next day the four of us went to Danebridge Reservoir. It took Mick and I all of a day before we were cutting jokes at each other. He made remarks about me being a redneck from a snake charming church (a Baptist church). I threatened to rip all his jewelry out, throw him in the water, and smile while he sank. Good times. This place was tucked in a small village called Winkle. There were cobblestone walkways and retaining walls that had been there longer than Americans have been in the U.S. Beautiful cottages with thatched roofs were common. Check out Tony’s warthog emblem.
Danebridge was more of the traditional oval shaped pond. One whole half of it was reserved for cattails. Near the pond of this family-owned jewel, there was a small hatchery where they actually had areas where kids could catch easy trout in small holding areas. There were quite a few kids there when we arrived. When we got there, the water was quiet.
There were no fish rising at all.
Some of us went to streamers, and some went to buzzers under the bum (indicator). The fishing was very difficult. We just happened to be in England the week after the hottest of the year. It was a couple hours before any of us caught anything. I caught the first: a crawdad that was bigger than some lobsters I’ve seen. This thing was juicing; I’m certain.
Tony and I decided to have ourselves some crawdads for the braai (South African cookout) Tony was gonna have the night before Walt and I were leaving. We got a leftover sandwich from the day before out of the cooler. There were two crawdad cages, so we put half the sandwich in each. We all kept fishing and would periodically check the cages and empty them into the cooler. After a little longer, Walt and I hooked up on some. Mine was a blue, his a rainbow. A few others had made their way to the pond by mid-day. Towards the end of our time there, we all four caught one each. No one got skunked. We collected our lobsters and headed back. When we got back, Jan was once again on top of it with supper on the table. And dessert. Lovin it. Here’s the mess of crawdads.
The next day Mick actually had to earn rent so it was just Tony, Walt, and I fishing. We were going to the River Dove in Dovedale. Finally, my kinda fishin. Some moving water. Eddies, currents, rocks, downed trees. The river was beautiful. Very healthy looking. There was a light mist.
I started out on a nymph. The second cast into an undercut brought a beautiful little wild brown.
Walt and I leap-frogged up the stream. Walt would catch one, I would catch one. I was having a blast. There were sheep all along the valley we were fishing in. This was the epitome of what I had envisioned England to be like.
There was also a man-made path that families could follow along the river and it was busy. It always amuses me when I hear what kids say. “Dad! He’s fishing with one arm!” I think situations like that are great learning experiences for kids (and some adults) to learn that people with disabilities can do the same stuff. They just have to learn it in a different (usually more frustrating) way.
Tony fished for a while and his first was a beautiful grayling. This was a fish I set out on this trip to land. Shortly after, I caught my first; mission accomplished. It was small and I could’ve cared less. It was a fish I’d never had the opportunity to fish for before.
We kept making our way upstream picking off browns and grayling. None had any size, but it ws my preferred kinda fishing. On our way back, I tried to snap some pics in the now steady rain. It really was some beautiful land. There was a crossing that Tony said was thousands of years old. Take a look at the shells embedded in the rock!
On our way back, we stopped by a friend of Tony’s that has a flippin’ amazing setup. This guy’s “secret” place was a beautiful barn turned house with a big pond right on top of it. The tailwater was about 10 feet lower and ran along his back patio. The first 25 yards on it had a cobblestone bottom. It was insane. I would have taken pics of it, but when we got there we heard one of the trout slap the water and I had an anxiety attack. This thing sounded like a great white breeching for seals. Tony stayed with me, and his friend took Walt. After about 10 minutes, I hooked up- for about 2 seconds. This thing was enormous. He snapped my 4X leader like a twig. I immediately understood that I was gonna have to let these things run like a bonefish! This place rarely gets fished and it was a challenge. Eventually, I hooked up on another. This time I was ready. When I landed it, Tony’s friend took a look at it and said, oh nice. You caught one of the babies. This 7.5 lb baby was now my personal best trout. Ever. Magazine cover pose, right?
We left this Loch Ness and got home to once again a phenomenal meal and dessert. Thank you Jan! We had our nightly story telling session, and then went off to bed.
We had a 3 hour drive ahead of us the next day. The three of us were headed to arguably the most famous chalk stream in England: The River Test. This place is where modern day dry fly fishing started. Kind of a big deal….
The River Test holds wild and stocked browns and wild grayling. Unfortunately, there was insane traffic and our 3 hour drive turned into a 4.5 hour one. When we finally got there, the temperature had gotten warm. This was gonna be a challenge to fish this place in mid-day. When we got there, we saw a bunch of fast darting fish, and we saw a bunch of submarines. We had a limited beat to fish, so we had to fish very settle and not spook the fish.
We all were catching fish, but it was very difficult. We were sticking with mayfly and damsel fly patterns. We fished a couple hours, then took a lunch break in the Orvis UK shelter on the river. I saw a couple of familiar faces while in there.
Mr. Jim Lepage….
Mr. Charles F. Orvis……
We had about 2 more hours to fish after lunch. We managed to catch a couple more in the now hot weather. What an awesome place to be able to say you’ve fished. Here’s my best brown from the day.
Tony had told Jan not to fix anything that evening because she needed to be taken out. We went to a cool Portuguese place in downtown Derby called Nando’s. The view walking up to the place was okay I guess.
And here is the Derby Cathedral from the 14th century.
The food was delicious and the waitress even gave us U.S. boys a military discount.
The last day we were off to a rainbow trout haven called Sutton Springs in Sutton Scotney.
All week long I had to hear Tony talk about this place. You’d think he was a paid salesman for the fishery. We had our metal head Mick with us again too so me and him stayed busy goin back and forth at each other. When we got out in the parking lot, there was a small pond about the size of a nice coy pond. This was a teaser pond of what we were about to get into. Look closely and you’ll see them.
This was another beautiful place where the owners lived right there. The River Test was actually the feeder to these two joined ponds.
The house was beautiful too.
We all four started fishing within 25 yards of each other. What happened next was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Mick hooked up on one. A couple seconds later, Walt did. Then after about 30 seconds, Tony and I joined in. Four bent rods and screamin reels at once. It was epic. The fact that we all landed our fish without getting tangled with one another was just as amazing. Walt and I had our first double digit trout. Now I never keep fish I catch. Mainly because I almost always fish for the little wild ones and they’re either too small for it to be worth it, or they’re in an area where we need to practice conservation. But I do believe God put us on this Earth to eat meat, fish, and the occasional plant. So if I’m fishing in a “catch and keep only” place that is stocked and maintained in a scientific manner, then you betcha I’ll keep ‘em. So if you don’t wanna see dead fish, you may not wanna look. Here is the first I caught coming in at just over 11 lb.
Here’s Walt’s best at 11 lb 8 oz.
Mick’s best came in at 13 lb.
Tony’s biggest at 13lb 2 oz.
The biggest trout I’ve ever caught at 13 lb 4 oz.
We left with an absolute harvest. This place was everything Tony described and more. I couldn’t have asked for a better last day of fishin. My forearm was smoked after an afternoon here.
On the way back, Tony wanted to take us by Stonehenge. I’m very amazed by natural wonders so this was an awesome opportunity for me. Little did we know we would get caught in traffic again due to repairs on one of only two access roads to one of the Wonders of the World…. I think it probably took us about 3 hours to drive the few miles leading to it. One good thing about that was the opportunity to take some pictures of some of the many ancient burial grounds.
We voted not to get out once we got to the site. Camera phones with zoom was good enough for us after that extravaganza. It really was an amazing site.
We got home and had another amazing meal (and pudding) prepared by Jan. The next day we relaxed and helped Tony and Jan get ready for the braai. There was a lot of food and I couldn’t wait to eat til I got sick. That evening we got to meet some of Tony and Jan’s close friends and family. Everyone we met was very friendly. Here’s Tony’s sweet brick oven he’s in the process of having installed.
And here’s the spread. Plenty of side items and desserts (including apple pie in my honor), and plenty of meat. We’re talkin’ delicious lamb, tender bbq ribs, one of the whales we caught the day before, and the lobster crawdads. I was in heaven. And if you know me and cookouts, you know I really did eat til I got sick. I have no regrets.
Mick had the audacity to eat Josh, the amputee crawdad.
The next day we got up and said our goodbyes. Jan hates goodbyes, so she didn’t come with us to the airport. Traffic was good and we got there on time. I was starting to feel much more optimistic about the return flight. We said goodbye to Tony and I felt nothing I could say to him would have come close to expressing the level of gratitude I had towards him. The handshake upon arrival to England turned into a firm hug upon departure. I had made a lifetime friend.
We went through security with no problems. I looked to my right to analyze my neighbors on the flight. Seemed like it was gonna be good. Ha! The only good thing was I had a headphone jack that actually worked. The entire 8 hour flight consisted of three tests. Extremely “like oh my gosh” college girls who’s pointless subjects of discussion I had zero patience for. The guy beside me that had a nervous leg similar to Thumper from the movie Bambi. And a kid about 16 years old that coulda passed as Doc Holiday. He coughed up into and blew his nose into the pillow they give you the entire time. Who needs tissues. Good stuff, right?
I get off the plane and go to baggage claim. That’s right. You know what happens next. I wait for 20 minutes only to see that my bag is not there.
I go up to the guy working the claims and give him my baggage ticket and he says, “Oh I see what happened. Your baggage got confused and thought you were going straight to Roanoke without stopping here overnight.” My response was, “It taught my luggage better than that.” He got the message. Half an hour later I got my luggage and went through customs. I went outside to get to the hotel shuttle area. I was greeted by something I’ll never get tired of seeing.
However, that feeling was interrupted when I had to walk about ½ mile to the shuttle area only to wait an hour for the shuttle. The only thing that could make me smile at this point was talking to the girls at home. And of course night one of shark week.
The next mornin’ I had a nice breakfast at the very nice hotel and got ready for my smooth sailing. The quick flight home went without a hitch. I was so thrilled to see my family. Emma Jo gave me the biggest hug and kiss. We went to baggage claim and waited. And waited…. That’s right. Freakin’ airline! I went to the baggage reps, gave them my address and phone number, and informed them that they could deliver my luggage to my house when it came in since this was the second time in less than 24 hours they lost it.
We finally headed home.
Lisa had a hot coffee waiting for me in the truck. What a keeper. My luggage was finally delivered at 9:30 that night. Thank God that was over. This was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. Thanks much Tony and Jan Spacey!
For those of you who may not have gotten the Eugene Struthers whole ‘notha level reference…. Empty your bladder, then watch the video below. Your’re welcome.