Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Escley Brook, Wales

If medals were awarded for small stream fishing, I reckon I earned one yesterday. I fished the middle beat of the Escley Brook in Wales, a tributary of the Monnow and one of the many roving voucher beats in the area offered by the Wye & Usk Foundation. This popular beat has achieved consistently good reviews in the past for its generous 2½ mile length, scenic upland setting and teeming head of wild fish and I was looking forward to fishing it for the first time all week. The stream would be diminutive at the wettest of times, but given the lack of rain this season we were faced with its bare bones. A local farmer commented that he had never seen the river so low, and the exposed tree roots along the stream’s course suggested that he was probably right. As you can imagine, the low, clear water conditions made for extremely challenging fishing.

The stream flows over concrete-like bedrock in most places making the stream bed a featureless open one, which is probably the last place you would want to live if you were a nervous trout in half the water you were used to. In other places the stream bed was littered with flat slabs of bedrock in varying sizes, torn away thousands or millions of years ago by geological disruptions. I spotted many trout, but most saw me first - most often it was the tell tale arrow dart of a spooked fish that I would notice, all too late. The trout were extremely skittish and leopard like stealth was required to get anywhere near close enough to casting range. I spent more time casting on my knees and haunches than upright and in some cases that wasn’t even enough! It also didn't assist that the pools were as still and calm as the water in a bathtub, not my favourite kind of fishing at the best of times. I much prefer fishing the riffles and faster water but that water looked far too shallow and exposed for all but the tiniest trout.

I mentioned last week that I was growing quite partial to small stream fishing. This was another level reached, smaller, wilder and far more challenging than anything I had done before and I enjoyed the experience.

It started to rain just as my fishing partner, Laszlo, and I arrived and rigged up our rods, but it soon passed and the remainder of the day was a tug of war tussle between the sun – when the fishing became even more difficult – and the clouds. The very first pool upstream of the road bridge is probably the best of the beat. It’s formed after a series of cascading waterfalls and in the drought conditions has enough depth to fish a nymph below the dry. The pool has a high rocky bank on the right, down which water was trickling from the recent rains, and the left has trees which completely shroud the pool, making casting difficult. On my third roll cast into the bubble line, the klinkhammer with bright red post disappeared as an 8” fish took the size 22 bead head pheasant tail nymph below it. The fish came to hand after a brief but spirited fight and it's the first time I can remember catching a fish on such a small fly. A few casts later in the same pool I lost another fish which had also taken the small nymph.

There were a few mayflies about but the fish largely seemed disinterested in them. It was the birds that were the most excited in the hatching mayflies, pouncing on them from their tree perches in aerial acrobatic displays as the defenceless mayflies lifted from the water. Not all of the mayflies went unnoticed to the trout though, and I did catch my second and largest trout at just about 9” on a large mayfly pattern. I even saw an agile little trout come clean out of the water in an arcing dive and catch a mayfly fluttering almost a foot above the water’s surface. He must have been watching the birds.

In most places the river was too low to fish a nymph without getting snagged on every drift. But when I could I added the size 22 bead head PTN below my dry fly and the fish seemed willing to take it. I lost count of the number of fish I lost on the nymph – I’d say I could have counted them on two hands – but I did land another trout and a little grayling of about 8" with it. The grayling came from the pool I described earlier - almost at 9pm - as we made our way back to the car at the end of the day. Neither of us had taken a watch with us and we were a little surprised at the time when we made it back to the car!

Another little trout, my fourth of the day, sipped a size 18 black klinkhammer almost as soon as the fly touched the water.

Laszlo making good use of the cover
It was a day of hard uncompromising fishing and I was grateful that I had some success to show for it. Little stream, light rod, fine tippet, tiny flies and fish of wild Lilliputian brilliance to match. This must surely be one of the most enchanting and rewarding methods of fly fishing.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The River Lugg, Wales

This trout had an azure blue sheen to its gill cover and some of its red spots had faint blue haloes
I had a great day out yesterday, fishing the Pilleth beat on the River Lugg. It’s as far upstream this little river one can go on the Wye & Usk Foundation’s “roving voucher scheme” and offers 1½ miles double bank fishing against a backdrop of the hills of the Radnor forest. The river is small and intimate, flanked by tall, shady trees and meanders gently, rather than with any force, through farmland and forest.

As I learn more about river fishing I'm beginning to realise that I quite like small stream fishing. I enjoy the extra effort that’s required in stealthily deceiving canny, wild fish that inhabit little slips of clear water, and thinking through the cast before it’s made. “If I can get my back cast in that tiny gap between those two branches and flick it into the current underneath that low hanging branch...”  More regularly than not this is followed by an expletive and a lost fly, but it is extremely rewarding when it works. It was a perfect opportunity to properly test my 6’ 2wt rod, used only for the second time. I enjoyed its ability to delicately present a fly. It has a much slower action than my 5wt and, whilst strange at first, I quickly got used to the slower, more relaxed, rhythmical style required to cast it.

The weather was wholly changeable. One second the valley would be bathed in sunlight, the next in cloud. Generally, as the day wore on the weather worsened and we experienced light drizzle. The strong blustery down river wind, however, was a constant and it made casting light lines a challenge.

We started fishing just after 11.30am and my second cast with a size 16 black klinkhammer induced a rise and brought a 9” trout to hand, a great way to start the day. Almost simultaneously my fishing partner, Laszlo, had a trout on the dry fly in the next pool up. A little later on mayflies in different shapes and sizes started to hatch, none more eye-catching than the large Ephemera danica (closest match in my new pocket book guide), which sent the trout into a spin. In one pool I watched a little trout, probably no more than 5”, doing its best to gobble up hapless mayflies, although I noticed in its splashy efforts it seemed to miss more mayflies than it ate.

Laszlo's size 10 fly which accounted for several fish

This was my first experience of trout rising to mayflies of this size. I had nothing quite so large in my fly box but Laszlo came to the rescue with his large size 10 patterns. Before yesterday, I wouldn’t have given such a large fly much hope for little fish in a little stream. It went against every instinct of mine, but then, I hadn’t counted on the size of these mayflies! The trout ignored my other, smaller, dries but locked on to the large mayflies with much enthusiasm.

In all, I caught and released eight trout between 6 and 11” and lost a fair few too. The best of them came out from under a fallen tree in a flash to swallow the mayfly as it drifted past in fast, riffle water, before darting back under the branches in alarm. It took some side strain to extricate and its power surprised me. Once released it shot off like a streak of lightning back under the submerged tree.

This little trout seemed to have more red spots than black

The only dampener on the day was slicing my waders open on a barbed wire fence. I spent the afternoon with one wet leg sploshing around in a bit of cold water.

If you’re interested in history the river flows very near to the site of the Battle of Bryn Glas, a resounding Welsh victory in 1402 over a larger English Army. Any good tale of battle is not without treachery and it is said contingents of Welsh archers in the English force defected and fired arrows into the rear of the advancing English army. Interestingly, the leader of the Welsh rebels, Owain Glynd┼Ár, was the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. William Shakespeare wrote of the battle in Henry IV, Part 1:

“A post from Wales loaden with heavy news;
Whose worst was, that the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower,
Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered”

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The River Usk, Wales

I fished the River Usk yesterday for the very first time. I was lucky enough to have the company of experienced local angler Geraint Meadows, who showed me around a private stretch of river just a little way upstream of the town of Abergavenny. 

The river was running clear after some welcome midweek rain, but still low. Even so it’s a big, powerful freestone river that requires some care whilst wading. Geraint mentioned that someone he fished with recently slipped over, fell in, and drifted off downstream (with a little less grace than a drifting dun, I’d imagine) and I can see why - there’s enough force in its current to have you concentrating completely on every footfall over the smooth stones (rather than on the juicy looking honey hole of slack water behind the big boulder upstream). Having read some critical reviews, my new Vibram soled wading boots did an admirable job I thought.

The section we fished was hemmed in tightly by forest, not too dissimilar from pictures I have seen of rivers in Vermont, USA. But then, the combination of forest and trout river is hardly a rare thing. Getting to our downstream limit required a bit of crashing about through the woods and we spooked a couple of feral forest dwelling sheep in the process (rather them than the trout). It reminded me of the story of Shrek the wily sheep who became something of a national icon in New Zealand after avoiding capture for 6 years, apparently by hiding in caves, and ultimately becoming blinded by his own unshorn wool growing over his eyes. He became so famous in New Zealand he was flown – after his eventual capture – to the Parliament buildings to meet the Prime Minister. But wait, it doesn’t end there for this special sheep whose only desire was to be left alone. On his 10th birthday he was treated to a flight to an iceberg drifting in the Antarctic Ocean, fitted with custom made “sheep crampons” (cloven hooves not being designed for icebergs) and shorn of his wool for the TV cameras. What use would a sheep have for a thick fleece of warm, cosy wool on an iceberg anyway? Well I know of at least two sheep living in a forest next to a river in Wales just itching to meet David Cameron.

Back to the fishing, we emerged from the woods at the head of a good looking pool, with a spit of shallow water bisecting it. I tied on a “klink and dink” as Geraint calls it, a small klinkhammer with a nymph tied below it, in this case a size 16 bead head Zak nymph, a hugely successful South African nymph pattern. I was interested to know how the Zak would do in the UK. My Zak patterns are tied with distinctive purple breathing gills as recommended by the fly’s creator Tom Sutcliffe. Geraint was immediately drawn to these, saying purple flies do well on the Usk. We waded down the spit with the current so that we could cast back up river. I was surprised that the fish wouldn’t have been spooked by us wading downstream so near to them but Geraint didn’t seem to mind. And right he was, within a few casts the klink disappeared and I lifted my rod into a good fish which had taken the nymph. The 10” fish came to the net after a good fight – a fight only a wild fish can put up – and was quickly released. I was pleased the Zak had worked but probably happier to have put any chance of a blank behind me. I lost a few more fish on the nymph in the same pool.

A little way upstream, in a fast pool under the branches of a shady Alder tree I caught my best fish of the day, an 17” brown trout that left my arms aching from the fight. It too fell to the Zak and I could sense Geraint’s excitement when we both caught our first glimpse of it from the depths... “it’s a stonker!” A good Usk fish apparently. Usk brown trout look slightly different to others I have caught in the UK. I appreciate that no two brown trout are the same but these appear to have a greater density of black spots. The pale halos encircling each black spot merge into each other. The largest specimen also had a faint but discernible band of burgundy to its flanks. Quite beautiful wild brown trout.

Photo © Geraint Meadows

Photo © Geraint Meadows

In all I caught seven trout between 5” and 17” and lost countless more, fishing a combination of the faster water and the slow, deep pools. I was amazed at the abundance of fly life. Most of it was caddis but Geraint had a bemused look when I exclaimed “holy *&%$, what is that?” when a creature the size and colour of a small canary lifted from the water. “It’s a yellow may dun.” In the main though, the trout don’t appear to have switched on fully to the mayfly yet, but they will soon. Possibly the best fun I had all day was casting a small elk hair caddis at rising fish, three of which I brought to the net and double that number which were deceived but lost.

All too soon we had to call it a day so I could catch the train back to Birmingham, a good two and a half hour journey. I had a good book, which helps the time pass. The chapter I was reading touched on the famous green drake hatch on Henry’s Fork, and had me hatching plans for another trip down to the Usk when the mayfly truly join the party.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Travel Plans and New Books

This week two books arrived for me in the mail. Tom Sutcliffe's "The Elements of Fly Tying" and a little pocket guide book to "Matching the Hatch" by Peter Lapsley and Cyril Bennett. Having skimmed through both books Tom's will no doubt go a long way to adding some respectability to my novice fly tying creations and the latter I hope will assist with my understanding of UK fly life and those times when the fish become a little more selective than usual (which, I might add, seems to happen quite frequently here in the UK!). I'll let you know what I think of them in due course but given their nature these books will require a fair amount of practical use for any review to do them justice. After reading "Trout Bum" I have also just ordered a copy of Gierach's second book, "The View from Rat Lake". I'm at a complete loss as to why it has taken me so long to make Mr Gierach's acquaintance but I'm relishing the prospect of working my way through all of his books, making up for lost time.

You may recall that thanks to your votes I was destined to make a fishing trip out to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco this year, in search of the southernmost strain of naturally occurring brown trout in the world. Well, just as I was starting to make some headway with my plans (there is very little information available on the net) a bomb exploded in a busy Marrakesh market last week tragically killing 16 tourists. Significant parts of North Africa have recently been or are currently still embroiled in civil strife and I have had to put safety first and consider alternative options. I think I have settled on a great choice, the Tuscany region of Italy, where I have arranged a day on the Lima River (about a 1.5 hour drive from Florence) in early June. I am really looking forward to spending both fishing and non fishing time in Florence, Pisa and Cinque Terre. Sadly Morocco and its unique trout will have to wait until things get a little safer.