Matt Harris goes fishing with Andy Blyth, a former rugby player who, despite nearly dying from a spinal injury, continues to do what he loves – fly fishing for salmon.
I first met Andy Blyth on the banks of the Langa River in Iceland. Watching Andy casting a long, straight line over the icy, gin-clear waters of the sparkling salmon stream, I knew I was watching a passionate and skilled angler. What I didn't appreciate at the time was the remarkable courage and sheer bloody-minded determination that had enabled Andy to be fishing at all.
Andy Blyth was one of English rugby's great hopes in the late 1990s. He played at centre for England As alongside Will Greenwood, and was strongly tipped to make the first XV when, in March 2000, a horrific accident playing for Sale against Saracens very nearly killed him.
After making a tackle, Andy was caught in the ensuing ruck and suddenly found himself lying on the turf, completely paralysed from the neck down. He was rushed to hospital with a concussion of the spinal chord, and for three days his life hung in the balance.
For two months Andy remained in a state of almost complete paralysis, not knowing if he would ever regain any feeling or mobility in his body. But despite the doctors' bleak and uncertain prognosis, he vowed stubbornly that he would walk out of the hospital on his own two feet, without the aid of a wheelchair.
Andy refused to succumb to depression and spent hours simply staring at his toes, willing them to move. Eventually, miraculously, one did! Slowly, sensation returned to his limbs and, just as he had said he would, he walked out of Stanmore hospital 10 long months after his accident, albeit with the aid of crutches.
Andy set out on the long road to recovery, enduring thousands of hours of physiotherapy, re-learning everyday basic life skills like brushing his teeth, and slowly he started to reclaim his life.
He mastered driving again and, with his parents help, eventually managed to move out of the family home. Last year, Andy completed an estate management degree at Northumbria University and he now intends to become a chartered surveyor. Around the same time some of the good luck that he was surely due, finally came his way: Andy met Lucy Foley, a gorgeous, sparkling Geordie lass who is a brilliant bio-chemical engineer involved in pioneering stem-cell research. He couldn't have met a lovelier girl – life was looking up.
While Andy will never again play rugby, he now walks unaided. He is still occasionally a little unsteady on his feet, and yet, astonishingly, last year managed to climb all 19,341 ft of Mount Kilimanjaro for charity, along with fellow celebrated rugby stars Mark Regan and David Barnes. Johnny Wilkinson, who knew Andy well during their times together at the Newcastle Falcons club, described his achievement as: “One of the greatest comebacks seen from a rugby player and an inspiration to us all."
Andy grew up fishing. His father, Ian – himself a talented rugby player who captained the local Tynedale team – took Andy fishing from an early age and their close bond and easy-going banter may well have originated as much from their times on the riverbank as from their shared love of rugby. Both fish with an innate confidence and skill, and to watch them fishing together is a pleasure – a father and son bonded by a real love of the river. Andy started – as many of us do – with a spinning rod, and spent his formative years winkling out sea-trout with a small Mepps.
At the tender age of nine, he discovered fly fishing, and promptly hooked into a leviathan salmon of 28.5lb on a flimsy 10ft trout rod. After an epic 45 minute battle, which involved the backing parting from the fly-line and Ian somehow managing to re-attach it while the fish dutifully stopped running, young Andy somehow managed to put the huge creature on the bank.
That fish put the hook into Andy and he became an avid fly fisherman. After his catastrophic accident, he initially found it very hard to rekindle his passion – his limited movement hampered his ability to fish properly and, despite his father's efforts to persuade him back to the river, it took time for him to return to the water. Finally, as Andy's life started to return to some semblance of normality, his desire to pick up a fly rod returned, and as his physical movements became more fluent, so he found himself able to fish effectively again.
Having forced himself through relentless strengthening exercises, Andy now casts and fishes beautifully and he has discovered the new breed of light double-handed rods that help make Spey casts a snap. Living in Northumberland, he is surrounded by great salmon water – the Tyne and the Coquet are on his doorstep, while the Tweed and the Eden are only a short distance away – and they all offer plenty of incentive to get out of the house and onto the water.
From the moment I first met them in Iceland, I found Andy and Ian to be great company. Sharing fishing stories every evening over supper, I was struck by their closeness and by the warm, mischievous knockabout humour they share. We stayed in touch and I was flattered when Andy invited me up to fish with them for a couple of days on the Tyne back in May. I have seldom enjoyed two days of fishing more. Despite my protestations, both father and son refused to fish and instead took turns to talk me down their favourite and most productive pools.
The banter flew back and forth as Andy and Ian squabbled good-naturedly over whether I should fish a predominantly red fly – Andy's own creation, the “Dr. Foley”, named for Lucy – or Ian's favourite orange Ally's shrimp variant.
As it was, I managed to negotiate a fragile truce by promising to try both of them, and to my absolute delight, both flies worked. My hosts were disarmingly thrilled when I managed to catch a couple of sparkling silver springers, one on each pattern. Ian's triumphant grin and merciless tirade against the “hopeless” red pattern that Andy favours when my first fish took his orange fly and went belting up into the warm spring sunshine were soon countered when I switched to Andy's fly and pulled out a second stunning fish. Andy gently twisted out the fly, and having watched the sleek – and slightly larger – salmon kick strongly back into the stream and continue on her way, he gave me a sly wink and waved the fly under his father's nose with infectious glee.
After a bit of arm-twisting, I finally persuaded Andy to put up his own rod, and in no time, he'd pulled out the biggest fish of the day, a cracking sea-liced hen of 17lb that fought like a tiger – on his trademark red fly, naturally. As Ian tailed the fish and passed it over carefully for his son to hold up for the camera, I was very conscious of the gentle, understated pride that Ian has for his son.
Sharing a few ice-cold beers later that evening I was struck by Andy's passion for fishing. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he recounted battles with fish lost and won and the magic of riffle-hitching flies in Iceland. As well as fishing, Andy ties excellent and killing salmon flies, and his “Doctor Foley” fly is, much like the girl it is named for, a stunner: a gleaming jewel of a fly that just begs to be attacked. The pattern is a sure-fire winner on any peat-stained stream, and I for one will be giving it a swim in Russia next year, where the tannin-coloured waters of the mighty Yokanga are very reminiscent of the Tyne.
While nothing could ever replace Andy's passion for rugby, it is clear that his love of fishing has been a huge part of his ongoing recuperation. His determination to be able to fish effectively has, by his own admission, driven and incentivised his exercise regime and helped his overall mobility and fitness.
As a desperately keen but only moderately talented 47-year-old Sunday league footballer, I myself am now facing the end of my own modest “career” due to the rampant spread of osteo-arthritis in my right hip, and I'm utterly miserable about it. Despite my limited ability, I love my football as much as I love my fishing, and I have struggled to come to terms with the fact that my playing days are over. However, my own disappointments are thrown into very stark and humbling relief by Andy Blyth's story. I can only guess at the bitter hardship that a genuinely brilliant talent like Andy must have suffered when such a glittering future was so savagely and abruptly snatched away from him. His refusal to succumb to the black dog of despair is a profound tribute to his indomitable spirit.
He's a no-nonsense guy and he'll rib me mercilessly for saying this, but I am proud to know him, he is an absolute inspiration.