Saturday, 10 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

Can you believe it’s already December? With Christmas and the New Year looming large I would like to wish all the followers of The River Beat a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Thank you for all your comments in what has been the first full calendar year of The River Beat – it’s always nice to receive feedback.

Invariably we spend a little of December looking back at the year that has been and looking ahead at the year to come.  2011 has been my first full season of river fishing, a learning curve which has been steep and no doubt will continue until the day I kick the bucket. There is a saying that when you start fishing, you’re only interested in catching “a fish”. Soon you want to catch as many as you can, then the biggest fish before, finally, attaining a state of fishing nirvana, the fish don’t matter and it’s about “the experience”. In a river sense, my skill and experience have improved sufficiently for me to have progressed this year from the state of simply wanting to “catch a fish” (any old fish no matter how big or small) to wanting to catch as many as possible.

I don’t belong to any club, partly due to my location and partly down to not owning my own car, but I do feel as though I have had a fly fishing home this year - the Wye and Usk Foundation’s Roving Voucher scheme. The beats are relatively cheap, publicly accessible and do not require any advance booking and embody the type of fishing to which I have become increasingly drawn: small, wild, remote and relatively unfished. The WUF appears not to be without criticism from some quarters for the declining number of salmon stocks in the system, but from a purely trout and grayling fishing point of view, the fishing has been excellent (despite the drought this year). Thank you, WUF.

I’ve taken on 13 rivers this year, from the sizable Lima in Tuscany and the Usk in Wales to the tiny Bideford Brook in the historic Forest of Dean region of England. I’ve enjoyed fishing them all, but one stands out head and shoulders above the rest, the Clettwr in Wales. This little river oozes character in terms of its setting and the beauty of its little spotted inhabitants. The Pilleth beat of the Lugg and the Aberedw beat of the Edw are excellent too.

The Clettwr

The year started with a grayling on the Upper Severn and ended with my biggest fish of the year, fittingly another grayling, of 18” on the Irfon. Perhaps next year will see me catching a wild 20”+ fish...

For 2012 I’ve already secured fishing access to some prime private sections of a few renowned English rivers. The River Monnow in Herefordshire has a devoted following, and for very good reason I’m told; the Dovedale beat of the River Dove in Derbyshire, made famous by Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton; and a dry fly only section of the Derbyshire Wye, home to one of England’s very few self-sustaining rainbow trout populations. As always, I’ll also be looking at options in Europe and perhaps further afield. I can’t wait for the season to open in March next year.

Finally, to spread a bit of Christmas cheer, I’m offering one lucky blog follower the chance to win a new and unused Cortland 444 floating line (#5WF). The first person to correctly answer the following question wins it! What is the name of the only river I fished in 2011 without catching a fish?

Enjoy the holidays and all the best for 2012!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Grayling from the River Irfon

After almost two months of going without fishing since the close of the trout season, Laszlo and I set off on a cold and foggy morning for the River Irfon in the deep heart of Mid Wales in search of grayling. We thought we had made an early enough start, arriving at the Cammarch Hotel in Llangammarch Wells at 10.30am, only to be told that the hotel’s three beats were full. Fortunately, the hotel owner was able to put us on a small stretch of private water between two of the beats, which proved more than ample in the shortened winter daylight hours.

The Cammarch Hotel was apparently the venue of the last ‘wife auction’ held in Wales. Wives may no longer be on sale at the hotel, but it does offer some excellent day ticket access to the River Irfon in conjunction with the Wye & Usk Foundation. In its heyday the Irfon, a tributary of the Wye, was a famed salmon river said to have attracted royalty to its banks, but today it is more renowned for its grayling fishing. And with the hotel’s beats all fully booked by 10.30am on a cold winter’s morning, the news has clearly spread.

Ever so slightly tinged with colour - the remnant of recent rains - the Irfon was flowing fast and powerfully in all but the widest pools which had a more sedate flow. The quarry, the speed of the current and the absence of any surface fly life meant that I was immediately drawn to the partition in my fly box containing heavy tungsten beadhead flies. I picked out a flashback grayling bug which I tied as a dropper to help weigh down a favoured fly of the grayling, a pink shrimp, which I tied to the point.

It was just after 11am that I made my first cast into the first pool, known as the Junction Pool. The morning’s fog had lifted to reveal a low blanket of grey clouds. Every so often the sun would break through the clouds, reflecting brightly off the water’s surface and I was forced to change the yellow strike indicator for a red one so that I could see it. Within minutes the pink shrimp accounted for a little grayling, but other than that, the promising looking Junction Pool yielded no other reward.

The next pool up of any size, flanked by a caravan park on the right, had ‘fish’ written all over it. Within a matter of minutes I lost what looked a good sized grayling, but making my way up the long pool I more than made up for it. First, a pair of 13” grayling came to hand, followed by a 14 incher taken in the fast water at the head of the pool. The latter thought it was a tarpon, repeatedly leaping from the water and shaking its head in an effort to throw the hook. I have never seen this type of behaviour from a grayling before.

And then, the piece de resistance: from the narrow channel where the river entered the same pool, in the depths of the drop off next to a ledge forged by the torrent, I hooked my biggest fish of the year. The indicator checked, I struck and in the deep I saw a golden flash. Feeling the weight it crossed my mind that I had hooked a salmon. The fish hit the current immediately and stripped line down river whilst I stumbled over the rocks trying to keep up. My arms aching from the fight, the fish edged closer until I was eventually able to slip a hand under it. Grayling are affectionately known as the "Ladies of the Stream" but this was no lady. This was an old river warrior - thick set, scarred and strong. It measured 18" from the fork of its tail to its sky-blue coloured snout. Its sail of a dorsal fin flared proudly erect, revealing red and mauve patterns. Its gill plates had a marbled design, similar to the pattern left by wood borer beetles on dry tree bark. It was a fish to make braving the cold worthwhile.


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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Tom's Red Arsed Bastards

The R.A.B. is one of South Africa’s great dry fly patterns. Wide hackled and wispy in the wind, it’s a unique pattern which has stood the test of time, still evident by its frequent appearances in South African fishing blogs and publications.

The R.A.B. is primarily a dry fly for stream and river fishing. Its wide hackle lends it buoyancy and its long legs give it a hint of life. I do also recall, many years ago now, taking trout on a R.A.B. left to drift on the stillwaters of Swaziland and South Africa. It’s a fly that has that fish catching ‘x factor’.

Tom Sutcliffe features a great step-by-step tutorial for tying the R.A.B. on his website: Tying a perfect high-water RAB. Tom’s authentic version looks very different to commercially tied R.A.B.s sold in stores. When Tom came over to the UK last year, he kindly agreed to post a few of his RABs up to me in the Midlands. When they arrived, they looked too pretty to fish with and never quite made it into my fly box.

Instead, I sent them to Michael Scheele in New Zealand whose exquisite watercolour paintings of flies I mentioned in a post in November last year. The result: “Tom’s Red Arsed Bastards” which I’m going to have framed and put up on my wall as soon as possible.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The River Onny, Shropshire

With the trout fishing season closing this coming Friday, I was anxious for one final fishing trip to mark the end of my first full season exploring the rivers of Mid Wales and the neighbouring English counties. Last week, I received an invitation from a fellow West Midlands based fly fisherman which offered me the chance to do just that. I accepted the offer with little hesitation and met Spencer for a day fishing the River Onny on the outskirts of the small town of Craven Arms, a one change, 1 hour 45 minute train journey from Birmingham.

Photo courtesy of Spencer

The Onny is a tributary of the River Teme in south west Shropshire. Flowing close to the town and the busy Shrewsbury-Ludlow road, it’s understandably not the most tranquil setting I have experienced for a day’s river fishing this season. There were a fair number of dog walkers along the banks, and as customary, at least one was throwing large rocks and sticks for his dog to collect in perhaps the most promising looking pool of the entire section. It shows how spoilt I’ve been this season to have felt a little “crowded out” by the presence of a few dog walkers! Having said that, the Onny is a stream with an interesting mix of riffle and deeper pools, and a good head of wild trout, grayling and chub, making for varied and interesting fishing.

Photo courtesy of Spencer

At the risk of my posts sounding a little repetitious, the river was the lowest both Spencer and the local farmer had ever seen it. A good spell of rain is needed to flush our local rivers clean and raise the water level.

Spencer has many years’ experience fishing the Onny and he seemed to know it like the back of his hand. When I mentioned that I had never caught a chub before, he confidently said, “don’t worry, you will get one today.” It was a prediction which soon came true when we came across a shoal of chub and trout. Being low to the water, I couldn’t see them, but high on the bank and concealed behind trees Spencer could spot them and call out their location. I cast out an olive Klinkhammer to the shoal and within seconds a gentle swirl engulfed the fly. I struck successfully and played a species guessing game for a few seconds as the fish clung to the riverbed, eventually surfacing and revealing strange orange fins and silver diamond-shaped scales. A chub! I was ecstatic to catch a new species on the fly.

Triple whammy part 1: chub

Triple whammy part 2: grayling

Triple whammy part 3: the largest trout of the day at10"

In amongst a total haul of 10 fish including 8 brown trout I landed the full house – a triple whammy of trout, grayling and chub - making this a memorable and fitting end to the season. Exactly half the fish fell to an olive Klinkhammer, whilst the rest fell to a collection of weighted and unweighted nymphs. 

Spencer with a trout

My thanks to Spencer for introducing me to the Onny and showing me a few of its secrets.


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Saturday, 10 September 2011

The River Edw, Wales

The Edw is a small, fast flowing stream, hemmed in by impressive oak trees and channelled by forest covered hills, imposing cliffs and rich-green pasture land. The surrounding valleys and quaint village of Aberedw are steeped in history. The air is clean and the remoteness uplifting. It is a bewitching place, making the fishing experience that much more exquisite.

Being a mountain stream, the water flows over broken bedrock and loose stone. On arrival, looking upstream from the stone bridge, Laszlo and I were relieved that the river was running with sufficient volume for a decent crack at a day’s fishing. We had stopped to look at the River Arrow along the way and were shocked to see how low it was running, with barely enough water to dip a toe in. Only a matter of miles separates the headwaters of these two rivers but the west draining Edw appears to have come off better than the east bound Arrow in the summer drought conditions. Looking over the bridge we spotted a number of small fish and promisingly, a fish rose to feed on the surface whilst we watched.

I tied on a Black Klinkhammer #18 and was surprised when it failed to induce any takes. This fly has singlehandedly accounted for more fish than any other this season, and tied with a bright red post I find them very easy to see in turbulent water. After a while, I tied on a #22 bead head PTN to the hook shank of the dry, “klink and dink” style, and was again a little surprised that this usually successful combination failed to produce a result when trundled past the visible fish. The water was so clear that fish could easily be spotted, their shadows on the bedrock a give-away. I replaced the PTN with a larger bead head Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, increasing the length of tippet between flies to ensure the nymph was fished deep enough, and very soon the nymph attracted the interests of a trout. This was quickly followed by two more hard fighting trout from the same pool, the best of 9”.

Some of the trees lining the river bank are just starting to turn a shade of yellow, a sign of the season. With each gust of wind, those trees would give up some of their leaves. They would fall gently to the surface of the water where they would become a snag-in-waiting for the dry fly. The trees were also alive with the energetic rustling of squirrels. I hadn’t seen a single squirrel all season until my recent visit to the Bideford Brook in Gloucestershire. Just as I am trying to get in as much trout fishing before the impending season’s end, the squirrels are focussed on increasing the size of their food larder for the coming winter.

At places, the river has slow moving pools of surprising depth. It was from these pools that the majority of fish were taken on the nymph. The takes were extremely subtle and often imperceptible – I guess there is no real urgency in slow moving water for a fish to waste energy on a fast, savage take. This is not to say that the dry fly was ignored. I caught my largest fish of the day, a good 12” brown trout, on an olive Klinkhammer from a very slow moving, shadowy pool flanked by a cliff and overhanging trees. The Edw’s brown trout are typically densely spotted and have prominent cherry red markings on their adipose fins. The majority of them behaved like rainbow trout once hooked, leaping from the water on several occasions in their lust for freedom. By day’s end, 15 trout had come to hand (discounting possibly the smallest fish – at 3” - I have ever caught on the fly). Whilst most were in the 6” to 8” range, four fish stood out at 9”, 10”, 10½” and 12”.

Laszlo and I also witnessed a pretty unusual sight. I had been attempting to cast beneath a low hanging tree branch to where a fish had been rising in a back eddy against the cliffs. My cast was just a little too long and too high, and the nymph swung over the tree branch like a pendulum. The dry fly (connected to the nymph by a length of tippet) settled on the water on my side of the tree branch where it remained stationary despite the strong current. The nymph, a bead head GRHE, was left dangling about 2 feet above the water. As I was about to try flick the line from the tree branch a trout of about 10 inches leaped clear out of the water in an attempt to catch the nymph! Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed and I was left wondering what would have happened had it managed the feat. Possibly a snapped tippet but boy, what a way that would have been to catch a trout!

This beat, together with the Clettwr River, make up my two favourite experiences of the Wye and Usk roving voucher scheme to date. They are both tumbling mountain streams and I see the Aberedw beat of the Edw as a larger version of the Clettwr.

A castle once stood at Aberedw, believed to date back to the Norman conquest of south Wales in 1093. Today only ruins remain but from 1282 it would have been a symbol of English authority over the conquered Welsh lands. It was at Aberedw that Llywelyn ‘the Last’ was killed and beheaded by the forces of the English King, Edward the First. Llywelyn was the last independent ruler of Wales and his head was put up on a gate at the Tower of London where it is said to have remained for 15 years. Ever since, the heir-apparent to the English throne has held the title ‘Prince of Wales.’ A local legend exists that Llywelyn hid in caves at Aberedw and escaped the English by reversing the shoes on his horse, only to be captured near the River Irfon and killed. Whatever the circumstances of his death, it signalled the end of any serious Welsh resistance in the immediate period. To me, the rich sense of history adds to the overall experience and enjoyment of fishing the Edw.


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Monday, 5 September 2011

The Bideford Brook, Gloucestershire

Autumn has arrived. Waking up early for fishing is now done in darkness and the days have a cold edge to them. Yellow leaves fall steadily on to the water when fishing and the pebbled river banks and log jams are cluttered with leaves in varying hues from yellow and orange to red and brown. Grey squirrels, unnoticed so far this season, have suddenly become active in the trees as they busy themselves collecting acorns and nuts for the winter to come. I enjoy the fact that the seasons are so neatly and tangibly defined in Britain as opposed to where I grew up in Africa. There, the seasons tend to merge simply into a hot summer and slightly cooler winter. The autumnal colours offer a striking contrast to the greys and browns of the thinning undergrowth as the icy grip of winter approaches, a warm and vibrant annual last stand against the inevitable as the days become shorter and the weather more bleak.

I happened to be down in Lydney, Gloucestershire, for a day with a few hours to spare so I took along my Hardy Flyweight rod and waders and fished the diminutive Bideford Brook. Lydney borders the Forest of Dean which, thanks to being reserved for royal hunting for centuries, is one of England’s few surviving ancient woodlands. The Bideford Brook is a small tributary of the impressively sized River Severn which flows onwards to the nearby Bristol Channel and Atlantic Ocean.

I was dropped off at the beat’s start, a stone bridge downstream of the town of Blakeney. Looking over the bridge I was instantly struck by how low the brook was flowing. Tree roots were left high and dry and I doubted my bootlaces would even get wet. Alas, this has been the story for much of this drought hit season. Given that I didn’t really have any other choice, I gave it a go. I’m still learning my craft at river fishing and, the way I see it, the low water conditions this season have provided a valuable grounding to my fledgling education, stressing the importance of stealth and delicate presentation.

I struggled for the first hour. However, the usual pattern of seeing fleeing bow waves of spooked fish in the pool tails, well before I had even reached anything remotely near casting range, was encouragingly broken by missing two lightening fast rises to my dry fly. The brook was filled to the brim with little trout. I must have seen at least a hundred before I reached the beat’s end and they seemed to shoal in the deepest parts of the river. The thick vegetation also offered its challenges – I reckon I lost more flies to the trees in these four hours of fishing than I have the whole season!

The lesson I learned is to slow the pace right down, to keep as low a profile as possible and to false cast sparingly. In conditions such as these I also shift down from 6x to 7x tippet. When it all came together, the fish were willing and I caught 4 brown trout on the ever reliable black Klinkhammer (#18) as a reward for my efforts. All but one (which may have been a salmon parr come to think of it) were honey coloured, an autumnal golden brown with an orange eye-ring unlike any I have caught this season to date. The best fish was a princely 9½” and the other three were between 6” and 7”.

I also lost what felt to be a hefty fish. I had noticed a rise in a rare deep hole covered by a swift bubble line, right up next to the submerged roots of a tree at the very head of a shady pool. I caught and released my second fish of the day in the tail of the same pool and managed to bring it to hand without spooking the other fish, evidenced by a second rise in the bubble line as I crept forward on my knees. A tight cast was required and I delivered a rare perfect first cast which saw the dry fly drift for a second before disappearing in an eruption of water. I had the fish on for the briefest of moments – long enough to feel its weight – before the fly dislodged and came hurtling back to me like a lost puppy. There’s always a wily old lunker or two in any river, even one as little as the Bideford Brook. Who knows what size of fish was left slightly bewildered at the little black floating creature which packed an unusual punch? Ten inches or twenty, anticipation and mystery are two large parts of the addiction which is fly fishing.

Fly fishing can’t get much smaller than this cramped, depleted brook and I was pretty happy with my hard earned return in the circumstances. Walking back down the beat, I came across another fisherman making his way upstream. Incidentally, it’s the first time I have ever encountered another angler on a Wye and Usk roving voucher beat. Given that I had been dropped off, the absence of a car in the designated parking spot would have led him to believe that he had the beat to himself. I felt pretty bad about it, especially as after we greeted he said “there’s nothing in here!” At least, he pointed out, he was going home with a good excuse.  


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Monday, 15 August 2011

The River Ithon, Wales

The River Ithon is a good sized tributary of the Welsh River Wye. It was due to its size that Laszlo and I chose to fish the Disserth beat downstream of Llandrindod Wells this past Sunday. I’m pretty happy on the tiniest of overgrown streams but every now and again it makes a nice change to try something different. It was a chance to air out my 8’6 5wt rod which I have ignored for so much of this season, and to cast in a more open and forgiving environment. As always on larger rivers, it takes me a little while to get to grips with drag and line mending but on the plus side, it means less time on the knees and crawling on all fours as the fish are usually a little less shy than their small stream counterparts. It still amazes me how close you can get to fish in a good sized river.

Under a low grey sky the temperature was cool for August and a very light drizzle accompanied a blustery downstream wind. Coupled with the low water conditions and an uneventful first hour’s fishing, it became very apparent that this would not be an easy day’s fishing. Fortunately the weather gradually improved – the clouds disappeared to reveal a brilliant blue sky and warm sun and the wind abated. The sun stirred the river valley to life, arousing insects and birds from their cold lethargy, and magnified the colours of the wild flowers and water. The red stained bedrock, in places covered with sweeping tendrils of bright green water ranunculus, added to the vivid scene.

The energising effect of the sun wasn’t spared on the fish as trout and grayling started to rise. In a lovely fast-flowing pool head I took a 12” grayling on a #16 Terry's Claret Parachute Emerger and a 13” brown trout a few casts later. Neither fish wanted to stay for a photo though - a pity as the heavily spotted brown trout had a remarkable azure blue sheen to its gill plates. A grayling of 6” was soon enticed by a small PTN tied below the dry fly which I drifted through the same bubble line, and stayed long enough to pose for a brief photo. Without exception, every grayling I have caught has reacted as though it had been injected with a dose of adrenalin the second it was removed from the water.

The Disserth beat flows through a tranquil agricultural valley with cattle and sheep in the adjacent pastures. A bellowing bull was the only distraction of the day which illustrates the escape on offer. A Heron flew overhead emitting a sound not dissimilar to a hoarse dog bark. When I next looked up into the sky a large Red Kite was circling directly above me. A little later a brown specked Falcon or Sparrowhawk hastily flew up river and into the leafy cloak of a large oak tree.

Making my way upstream, I caught a handful of small grayling between 4” and 5” in likely looking drifts between ranunculus. They had voracious appetites for the dry fly and not wanting to damage the fragile little fish I pushed on searching out larger specimens.

Some way upstream a rise revealed the presence of a fish in a different weight category to the little tiddlers. As I watched, it rose again in the same place, next to a clump of ranunculus in the centre of the river. I nipped off the small PTN nymph and approached carefully. It took me several casts to land the fly in the right place but when it did the fish rose to the emerger slowly and confidently, showing a good length arc to its back in a humping rise. I struck… to fresh air! Fighting down the disappointment of missing the rise I recast and again the fish rose confidently to the fly. I struck… again to fresh air! Cursing under my breath, I cast once more thinking I had blown my chance when the hungry fish rose to my fly for the third time. This time the hook set and I lifted my rod into its substantial weight and brought it to hand after a tense, tippet straining fight. I estimate it at 17” and it ranks as one of my best fish this season.

That was it for me – the day couldn’t have got any better. After releasing the fish I watched it swim back to the same spot where it was caught, next to the ranunculus. I observed it for some time and it appeared to be in sound condition.

Can you see the grayling? [click on the photo to enlarge]

The river was very shallow upstream but I managed to bring two little trout to hand, both eagerly taking the Terry’s emerger within seconds of hit landing on the water.

Wales once again delivered a fine day of fly fishing.


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