Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Secret Places are the Soul of Fishing

John Gierach said "The secret places are the soul of fishing." I recently discovered a river so impressive yet so obviously under fished that I’d like to keep it that way, especially as it is a very publicly accessible place. I will refer to it only as "River X". The photos below were all taken away from the main access point. If you recognise the river from the photos chances are you are already in on the secret and will decline from revealing any details.

I shared this discovery with Spencer, a fellow West Midlands based fly fisherman. Last year, as the season was drawing to a close, I spent a day fishing with Spencer on the River Onny. Almost a year to the day I received another invitation from Spencer to go fishing. Keen to make the most of what little time was left of the trout season, I had little hesitation in accepting.

River X must be fished now and again by others - it's in too obvious a place near a town and main roads to be completely ignored. However, the distinct impression I get after fishing the river on consecutive weekends is that the trout and grayling are mostly left in peace to grow fat on the stream's abundant fly life. The fish are free rising and far from shy. The trout appear to be larger on average than trout in other rivers nearby. We visited the river in good weather on weekends at the end of the trout season, when you might expect to bump into another angler, yet we saw no other person.

The fish below was Spencer's best trout over the 2 days, estimated at about 15". I was nearby at the time and helped him release it whilst he took a quick photo.

Below is my best trout over the 2 days and of the year. Heavily spotted, it measured 14". When I released it, it swam to the bottom and held in front of my wading boots. I stood very still and watched it for a few minutes whilst Spencer fished the remainder of the pool. When it was time to leave I carefully took a step to the side which made the trout dart off towards the safety of the bank. I was pleased to see it swim away so strongly.

The first Saturday was overcast. A cold downstream wind made casting a little tricky. There had been a very heavy rainfall during the week and the surrounding meadows were littered with puddles of rain or flood water. The bank side grasses and vegetation were pressed flat to the ground in the direction of the river current so most probably the latter. The river was the colour of kola tonic but cleared marginally over the course of the day. The current was swift so I tied on a large #10 black stonefly nymph, brutal and ugly looking, in tandem with a small #20 beadhead Endrick Spider PTN. I didn’t expect the stonefly nymph to do anything other than sink the tiny nymph in the fast water, but very soon I caught a feisty little trout which surprised me by taking the stonefly pattern. Spencer had already caught his first fish, a grayling, and we knew then that we were in store for a good day’s fishing.

A little higher upstream I experienced what was probably the most enjoyable bit of trout fishing I have had all season. In the shady glide below, where the bubble line flows up against the left bank, past gnarled tree roots and under the low hanging branches, three trout were rising in a line to either autumn duns or blue winged olives. Spencer offered me an olive CDC pattern of his own creation, a pattern he calls the CDC Illusive. A few side casts to find my range under the branches and I rose and landed the rearmost holding, and smallest of the three. Next cast, a little higher up, I rose and landed the middle holding trout. Whilst releasing it the third and clearly largest of the trout rose clear out of the water at the head of the small run. Holding the prime lie for a reason, it smartly refused the Illusive.

The second Saturday was a glorious autumn day, warm and still. I fished the same pool hoping to tempt the third trout which had been clever enough to avoid my attentions the week before. The trout outsmarted me again but I did catch a smaller trout from the pool as a consolation prize.

Grayling dominated the catch on the first Saturday with small bead head nymphs being particularly successful. Trout dominated the catch on the second Saturday. They were plentiful and I lost count of the numbers.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hindwell Brook, Herefordshire

We arrived to find this little Marches river full to the brim and running as swiftly as an amusement park log flume. The weather was good and the water clear, so Laszlo and I decided to post our vouchers in the box and give the river a go.

The river must have seen a remarkable change from last year. This year's Wye & Usk Passport says the Hindwell "suffered from very low flows" in 2011. Fortunately though, there is one constant feature in all of the change which sees us continue in our pursuit of trout come high or low water - fish must eat!

The Hindwell Brook is a tributary of the River Lugg. I fished the Lugg last year at nearby Pilleth and the two rivers share many similar features. They both have some of the most strikingly handsome brown trout I have seen with prominent red spots the size and colour of ripe lingonberries. Perhaps the most noticeable similarity is the very fine, loose gravel of their riverbeds which is quite distinct from the bedrock and boulder riverbeds of the other Marches streams and rivers I have fished. The gravel crunches noisily underfoot making a sound very much like footfalls on fresh snow.

The swift current made the fishing a little trickier than usual. I had no success except in only the slowest of the water, in the deepest pools where my weighted nymph had a chance to sink to the level of the fish. Admittedly, this is not my favourite type of small stream fishing, but it was fun nonetheless particularly as most of these pools yielded more than one or two fish. A scruffy looking hare's ear pattern with a black beadhead (#16) proved the most successful pattern, accounting for 10 of the 11 trout I managed to bring to hand.

I had the added bonus of briefly spotting a kingfisher, the first time I have seen one in the Marches. It capped off a pleasant day's fishing.


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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Monday, 27 August 2012

River Honddu, Wales

I haven’t done much fishing this year, mostly due to the wash-out of a summer we have had. It’s been a strange summer with completely rain free days few and far between and seemingly never on the weekends. Parts of Wales have seen some serious flooding this year. Contrast this to the position last year when much of Britain was experiencing a drought. The rivers of Wales were very low then and the fishing was difficult for very different reasons. It definitely seems that our weather patterns are getting more extreme. If it isn’t the driest summer since records began it’s the wettest and if it isn’t the coldest winter since records began it’s the warmest!

During the week Laszlo got in touch and we decided to go fishing on the weekend come what may. It was good to hit the road again and eat up the miles between Birmingham and Wales, high in spirit as is always the case on the outward leg of a fishing trip. Part of the fun of fishing is making the trip. However, upon reaching the border of England and Wales, the River Monnow, our hearts sank in dismay. The Monnow was the colour of a double thick chocolate milkshake from Wimpy. The wet roads and soggy countryside attested to what must have been a heavy overnight rainfall.  We decided to make for one of the uppermost tributary beats on the Monnow system in the hope that the water would have cleared a bit. We set course for the River Honddu in the heart of the Black Mountains, just upstream of the small village of Llanthony.

Laszlo’s satnav decided to throw in some adventure and took us along a small and very muddy farm track over a mountain that in places better resembled a cow path. A large brown puddle held us up for a while as we debated whether Laszlo’s car would make it through or not. Laszlo put on his Wellies and walked through the sea of mud to test its bottom whilst I had visions of having to soon knock on a farmer’s door to politely ask for a tow out by tractor. In the end, unable to turn around or reverse back up the wet track the way we came, Laszlo floored the accelerator and we made it through surprisingly easily. Descending the mountain we came upon two horse riders coming in the opposite direction. The road was too narrow for them to pass and they had to grumpily turn around and backtrack for a distance before finding a place to pull over and let us pass. Needless to say, we didn’t follow the satnav on the way back.

The small track had brought us into the beautiful Honddu valley. A mix of woods and farmland, this once glaciated valley is flanked on either side by a range of steep, level topped mountains that continued into the distance ahead of us. Tiny specks of white sheep were discernible on the summit of the range and I wondered whose job it was to fetch them down from there. Someone incredibly fit. We had fleeting glimpses of the river through the trees as we followed the road, but we couldn’t yet tell whether the river was in a fishable state or not. We parked at the designated parking space a little way from the ruins of the Norman built Llanthony Priory, and walked down to the river hoping we hadn’t made a wasted journey. Despite having some colour, the colour of iced tea rather than chocolate milkshake, the Honddu looked good enough to fish and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The fishing was excellent. It turned out to be one of those days when the fish were switched on and feeding hungrily, one of the rare days when you expect rather than hope that a good cast in a likely run will result in a fish. I fished the NZ duo style with a black klinkhåmer and a size 18 bead head flashback PTN. The klinkhåmer was completely ignored until much later in the afternoon but I was happy to leave it on as a sight indicator to mark the frequent takes of the nymph. The fish were small but willing with a few decent fish in the 10 to 11 inch range. In a glide just above an island which split the river in two, I caught about 4 or 5 trout in about as many casts. I didn’t finish fishing the glide. I didn’t want to be greedy and I didn’t want the fishing to be too easy. I sat down on the sun dappled river bank, avoiding the nettles, and ate a sandwich, watching and listening to the sounds of the river. I pictured the trout that must have been feeding cheerfully in the brown tinged water up ahead in the remainder of this Shangri-La of a fly fishing glide and left them to it.

I think the slight colour to the water made the fishing a bit easier. I was surprised at how close I was able to get to the fish without having to crawl on my knees. Normally on a river this size there is very little chance of approaching so near to fish in an upright walking position but that is exactly what I was able to do and I think the colour to the water concealed me (and spared my knees).

After a brief spell of rain at 2pm I saw, and lost, what looked to be the best fish of the day. With no interest in the Klinkhåmer at all until then, the fish came up in a surprisingly shallow and exposed piece of water in an exceptionally fast and ferocious rise, and I missed it. Suspecting that the fish had felt the sharp end on my hook and that the chance had been missed, I cast again in any event and watched the fly drift past where only a moment ago the fish had shown itself. Disappointed, I was about to lift the fly from the water when a much smaller fish hit the fly in an equally brutal rise. This time I was prepared for it and the strike was a good one. The bigger fish clearly had the prime lie at the head of the little run of water but I was surprised a fish of this size (about 12 or 13 inches) was even there in the first place.

Bullhead (aka Miller's Thumb)

The beat is not very long but it was enough for two anglers to divide up and enjoy for a good few hours. Laszlo and I both had successful and enjoyable days. I had read a number of accounts which had suggested that the Honddu can be quite a fickle mistress so it was great to have caught this river on a good day.


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Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Wild Rainbows of the River Wye, Derbyshire

A very special population of wild rainbow trout exist in England, in the River Wye in Derbyshire. By a strange quirk of nature rainbow trout introduced to Britain from North America appear unable to successfully sustain themselves in British rivers. The typical rainbow trout stocked in stillwater fisheries across Britain today are the progeny of generations of hatchery reared ancestors and are no match for the rigours of the wild. There are however a few limited exceptions, no more than a handful of populations countrywide, where rainbow trout are known to spawn successfully in rivers. None are more successful or more renowned than the wild rainbows of the River Wye. A popular theory is that the rainbows found in the Wye, first stocked in the 1890s from an initial batch of ova imported from the States, are a different strain of rainbow trout from the Shasta strain which dominated later ova imports of the early 20th century. Wye rainbows spawn in the spring whilst I understand Shasta strain rainbows spawn in the winter, and much less successfully in Britain. The Wye is only 15 miles in length from its source near Buxton to its confluence with the River Derwent. The rainbows have been in the river for over 100 years and are largely confined to its waters which they obviously find very compatible. Whilst I wouldn't favour the idea of rainbow trout colonising other rivers in Britain and competing with, or even displacing native fish, as they have done in other parts of the world where they have been introduced, there is clearly little risk of this from the Wye rainbows - it would have happened already. As such, I view them as a peculiarity to be treasured for the diversity they bring to British fishing.   

I received a very welcome and kind invitation to a day’s fishing on the Wye from fellow West Midlands based fly fisherman Steve, a member of the Peacock Fly Fishing Club which has access to a 7 mile stretch of water on the Haddon Estate. The rules of the club stipulate dry fly only and no wading. After a quick coffee and shortbread biscuit at the Peacock Hotel Steve and I drove out to the river. We parked on the banks of the Lathkill River where it joins the Wye and observed it running high and fast, but clear. We spied a fish from the stone bridge spanning the small river, effortlessly maintaining station in the fast current with an occasional flick of its tail. The weather was gloomy but as we made up our rods the sun emerged from behind the clouds and bathed the valley in warmth and colour. We followed the Lathkill downstream to its confluence with the Wye, and then followed the swift flowing waters of this great limestone river to the downstream limit of the beat. We walked slowly, looking for signs of feeding fish, but saw none.

Casting was by no means easy and I found the going tough at first. Trees and vegetation made conventional casting difficult in places, exacerbated by the fast current and a gusty wind which played havoc with my fine tippet. I am so used to wading that at first it was frustrating not to have the option, but it was stimulating having to approach fishing in an altogether different way, using different methods. In most places the conditions allowed only for a rod to be threaded through the vegetation or poked over the bank side reeds to enable a fly to be dropped on to the water and drifted close to the bank. Within barely a drift or two in this fashion I spotted a fish move from under the bank to intercept my fly. The fish lifted in the water, tracking and scrutinising the size 16 Royal Wulff for a moment before sipping it in ever so gently, hardly causing a ripple to the water’s surface. It looked like a brown trout but I couldn’t be sure. I lifted the rod and the fish was on, stripping line for a second or two before the fly came loose. It was an auspicious start to the day, I felt, and a lesson not to ignore the water close to the bank – had wading been permitted I most likely would have charged straight into the water and would never have known that fish was there.

We fished the rest of the beat back up to the car without any joy. The wind had picked up and it started to rain. Unperturbed, Steve and I jumped in his truck and drove upstream to the next section. Here, again, the fish were disinterested in the dry fly and we spent at least a good two hours covering the water with our dry flies, to no avail. In one pool I did provoke three quick fire rises to a Caperer pattern, which I have since learned is a caddis which usually emerges in August and September. The fish didn't seem to know this. In a display of particularly poor fly fishing, I missed all three rises and sent the fish to sulk for a while. Then it really started to rain. Steve made for the truck and a flask of hot coffee whilst I soldiered on, determined to catch at least one of the Wye's renowned wild rainbows.

I continued to fish my way upstream. In one pool of turbulent water, I could see about 5 fish feeding on nymphs with reckless abandon. There were one or two very large fish amongst them too. I threw almost every dry fly in my box at them, but they were too transfixed on whatever hapless insects there were beneath the surface to notice or care. After a while I reeled in my line and just watched them, marvelling at the energy they were expending on such small morsels and the fluidity of their movements. The rain abated and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. I had been fishing for about 4 hours with nothing to show, and was acutely aware that I was receiving a fishing education. I sat on a memorial bench next to the river, sipped a cup of coffee, ate a chicken sandwich and watched the long grass blowing gently in the wind. I listened to birdsong and the trickle of water through the reeds. Re-energised and revitalised, I approached the river afresh, flicked the Caperer over the reeds and within an instant a rainbow trout consumed it in a splashy rise. I brought the fish to hand and admired it, my first wild rainbow trout from a river in Britain. I was impressed with the strength and fighting prowess this little fish had shown. I released it after a quick photo or two, and the clouds covered the sun and it started to rain again. That was my most enjoyable fishing moment of the year so far.

My very first Wye rainbow.

After that breakthrough moment a few fish started to rise to blue winged olives on the surface and the fishing improved a great deal. I coaxed another five rainbows to take the fly and all of them impressed me with the electric enthusiasm of their fight, the profusion of black spots on their flanks and tails and the ivory white markings on their fins. They were all perfect little specimens, the best of them about 12 inches in length. There can surely be few better fish than wild rainbow trout to catch on a fly.

Steve playing a Wye rainbow in the rain.  

We fished till late, packed up and drove home through the town of Bakewell. Steve wanted to show me the large trout that live in the town water, fattened by bread. The fish appeared to congregate just upstream of the pedestrian bridges, waiting to be fed, and I was stunned by their size. Behemoths without fear of man, they reminded me too much of the stocked rainbow trout synonymous with British fisheries. It made me appreciate my experience of fishing a truly wild and special section of the Wye even more.


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