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.

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