First published in the April edition of the South African magazine Flyfishing, this article was written with the visiting South African angler in mind. I hope it will be as just as useful to everyone else.
DISCOVERING A FLYFISHING PARADISE IN THE WELSH BORDERLANDS
Mention flyfishing in the UK and most South African fly fishermen will instantly turn their thoughts to the famous chalkstreams of the southern English counties of Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire. These chalkstreams, particularly the Test and the Itchen, are the jewels in the crown of British flyfishing. They are rich in history and steeped in tradition and provide an unforgettable, if expensive, fishing experience. The cost of fishing the Test or the Itchen in trout season can range from £150 to £750 per rod per day whilst others such as the Bourne and the Avon can be cheaper. For the visiting South African angler, or any within the horde of South Africans who have made London their temporary home, the chalkstreams are conveniently within reasonable travelling distance of London, a little over an hour by train or by car. However, given the prohibitive cost and a weak exchange rate, a visit to the Test or the Itchen will, for most, be an infrequent event at best or remain an unchecked bucket list goal at worst.
The visiting South African angler need not despair however. The UK offers a plethora of flyfishing options. If you know where to look, inexpensive fishing for wild brown trout and grayling in remote rural locations can be found, not an altogether easy feat in one of the most densely populated countries in Europe where fishing rights are privately owned and typically expensive. One such place is the border region between England and Mid Wales, known as the Welsh Marches. Many rivers drain this lush, green land and almost all have trout in abundance. The attraction to the visiting angler is that the majority of the region’s rivers are publicly accessible through the Wye & Usk Foundation (“WUF”). The WUF is a registered charity concerned with restoring the habitat and improving the water quality of the two major rivers of the area, the Wye and the Usk, and their many tributaries. No hoops are jumped through to obtain access to the fishing, no waiting lists or extortionate fees.
The region’s rivers present a completely different flyfishing experience to the chalkstreams of the south. They are freestone rivers and therefore not as abundant in aquatic insect life as mineral rich chalkstreams. They are prone to rise and colour in flood and fall dramatically in times of drought whilst chalkstreams generally maintain a stable flow. Other than the removal of fish migration barriers such as weirs and the infrequent coppicing of trees, the WUF waters are left untouched and unspoiled, as nature intended them. By far almost every fish caught will be as wild as those that have occupied the same rivers for millennia, hard fighting and fit. Most of the rivers and streams flow through working farmland - sheep and cattle pastures - but in line with local regulations river channels are cordoned off from agricultural activities typically resulting in a natural "green belt" of oak and alder trees where wildlife can flourish. Sightings of herons, kingfishers, otters, dippers and threatened red kites (the national bird of
are common. It is unlikely that you will see another soul when fishing,
certainly not when fishing most of the tributaries, other than perhaps the
farmer who will inevitably come over for a friendly chat.
The Wye is the fifth longest river in the UK and much of it forms the border between England and Wales. Both the Wye and Usk are rivers which were once famous for their Atlantic salmon runs but, like most other rivers in the UK, have seen a steady decline in the numbers of returning salmon in the 20th century. Having said that, a local angler fishing the Usk in 2011 caught and released what is reportedly the largest Usk salmon for 62 years. Caught on a fly, the salmon in question weighed in at a staggering 42lbs and measured 50 inches. With fish of this magnificent stature returning to spawn, there is hope for the Wye and Usk’s future salmon stocks. To me at least, the WUF is a much better trout and grayling fishery than it is a salmon fishery. It is arguably the finest grayling fishery in the UK and an extremely underrated wild trout fishery. For the purposes of this report I will therefore leave aside any further talk of salmon and concentrate on the salmons’ smaller but no less significant cousins, the trout and grayling.
Travelling from London, the gateway to the region is the city of Gloucester, a 180km drive from the centre of London or a 2 hour direct train should you prefer to hire a car in Gloucester. Most of the available fishing is contained within the rough rectangle formed by Gloucester and Leominster in England and Llandrindod Wells and Brecon in Wales. The change in topography from mostly flat England to the rolling hills and mountains of Wales is dramatic and the rivers change character and lift their tempo from smoothly meandering lowland streams to steep, rocky torrents and everything in between. I always feel my spirits lift in correlation with the increased ruggedness of the landscape. Trout and mountains go together like popcorn and salt and the brown trout of the Marches’ valleys are hardy, beautiful little creatures. Bilingual traffic signs featuring English and unpronounceable Welsh text and sheep covered hills announce your arrival in Wales. This is the land where English kings once relied upon powerful Marcher lords to protect England from the “wild and unruly” Welsh and twice this past season I have fished small streams flowing through fields of a bloody ancient battle and a skirmish between English and Welsh armies. The region’s history adds an interesting aside to the fishing.
The sheer variety of fishing available in the Marches will satisfy even the most demanding and particular of anglers. In the spectrum of running water - from big, powerful rivers which demand precise line control and care when wading, to tiny brooks which can be stepped over with little effort yet require patience and supreme stealth - I can confidently say that you will find a stretch of river to your liking. Of the big rivers, the Usk has a reputation for being the best for trout and some say one of the most outstanding trout rivers in the entire UK. Trout average around 1lb but fish of up to 6lb are rumoured to be caught every now and again, with others in the 3lb – 5lb range being reported a little more regularly. I have fished the Usk only once, in May last season, and have vowed to return again as soon as possible. My best fish on that day was a fine 1½lb brown trout caught on a Zak nymph tied with purple breathing gills in the fashion recommended by its creator. I later learned that purple is a successful early season fly colour on the Usk, embodied by a traditional local pattern which dates back to the 1950s called the Usk Naylor. Caddis, mayfly, midge and stonefly are usually present across the region and the dry fly is fished with some success. My preferred tactic is to fish a small nymph beneath a dry fly “klink and dink” style, although most of the popular mainland European styles of flyfishing are also practised successfully by local anglers.
In my opinion it is the small streams of the region that are the real drawcard. Access to the myriad of lightly fished streams is conveniently presented by what is known as the "roving voucher" system. One simply buys a booklet of vouchers in advance and chooses from over 60 fishing beats ranging from just over half a mile in length to over 2 miles. No advance booking is required, the beats are available on a first come-first served basis (although in reality I have yet to find a beat 'taken' on arrival). The freedom to explore and choose from such a substantial smorgasbord of small stream fishing is quite alluring - often I end up fishing a different beat to the one I had in mind when setting off from home early in the morning just because river conditions may be significantly different between one valley and the next. Light equipment is the order of the day. My preferred weaponry is a 6’ 2wt rod capable of casting in the most cramped conditions and delivering gentle presentations to the ever wary fish. Aquatic and terrestrial food is relatively scarce in these streams and I have found the trout to be opportunistic feeders and unfussy in the main. They freely rise to the dry fly by default, although sometimes they can be unpredictable creatures, prone to prefer the nymph. Pattern and colour appear not to be as important as presentation and keeping out of sight. An over eager approach will see the fish scatter like pinballs and the best advice when tackling these streams is to slow right down and spend more time on your knees than on your feet. Should you hit the winning formula the brilliance and beauty of these little brown trout will take your breath away. The prize will measure on average between 6-8 inches but there are “monsters” of 12 inches lurking in the depths.
The region will also offer the South African angler the opportunity of landing a fish known locally as "the Lady of the Stream", the grayling. Once considered a nuisance species because they compete with trout, grayling are now treasured as a worthy opponent and are pursued in largely the same manner one goes about fly fishing for trout. Grayling are not found in the Usk catchment, but are very much a colourful part of the Wye and her tributaries. The rivers Irfon and Ithon offer arguably the finest grayling fishing in the country and lived up to their reputation by producing my best grayling of last season. Both were hefty lumps - the biggest from the Irfon measured 18" from snout to tail fork whilst the fish from the Ithon rose to a claret and orange Klinkhammer and measured 17". While most rivers are closed to fly fishing outside the trout season, some beats remain open through the winter for grayling fishing. If you are visiting the UK during the cold midst of winter, grayling will mostly be taken on heavily weighted nymphs trundled along the river bed. Grayling are suckers for a pink shrimp pattern, often the only fly to have any success on any particular day. In the worst of the weather it is not uncommon for the fly line to freeze to the rod guides so remember to pack and dress warmly!
The Welsh Marches is a truly exciting fly fishing destination and one that will not break the bank balance to visit. It is not a million miles away from London and a trip is highly recommended to any visiting South African angler looking to pursue the wilder, more natural side of British flyfishing. If you do happen to visit, the beauty of the valleys and the quality of the fishing may just haunt your memories forever.
FISHING THE WELSH MARCHES AT A GLANCE
• Fishing Season
The brown trout season starts on 3 March and finishes on 30 September. Grayling fishing continues on some beats between October and the start of March (when fishing in the winter exercise care not to tread on trout and salmon spawning redds when wading).
• Best Times
Late May and June are peak times (because of mayfly hatches) and September. July and August can be quite hot and the fishing slows down as the temperature rises and water levels drop.
• Recommended Tackle
For the larger rivers I would recommend 4 or 5 weight 8½ - 9 foot rods. For the smaller streams, where casting can be a little more claustrophobic I would recommend 2 or 3 weight 6 - 7½ foot rods. Bring tippet in sizes 4x to 7x, the latter necessary when fishing small streams at times when water levels are low and the fish spooky. Even in summer the water can be very cold and breathable waders are a must.
The following dry fly patterns in hook sizes 14 to 18 should cover the basic needs: CDC & Elk, Parachute Adams, Black Klinkhammer and Olive Paradun. In late May and early June you will need a mayfly pattern in sizes 10 and 12 (my favourite being the Silhouette Mayfly). As for nymphs, beadhead PTNs, GRHEs and Copper Johns in sizes 16 – 20 should suffice. If targeting grayling, make sure to bring weighted Pink Shrimp patterns (sizes 10 – 12) and the Red Tag dry fly.
• Wading Safety
Many of the rivers in the region have a mixture of stone beds and bedrock. Bedrock can be incredibly slippery so extreme care is needed when wading, particularly on the powerful Usk and Wye rivers. Wading boots with studded soles are a must.
• Permits and Costs
Beats on the main stems of the Wye and Usk and some of the beats on the larger tributaries of the Wye such as the Lugg, Arrow and Monnow must be booked in advance with the WUF at a cost of between £15 and £35 per rod per day depending on the beat (known as “the Booking Office” system). Over 60 beats on the tributaries of the Wye and Usk are available at a very reasonable £7.50 (3 vouchers) to £12.50 (5 vouchers) per rod per day depending on the beat (known as “the Roving Voucher” system). Booklets of 10 vouchers are purchased in advance from the WUF and selected outlets at a price of £26 and the relevant number of vouchers are posted in a post box at the start of each beat. More information is available at www.wyeuskfoundation.org.
Anglers must also be in possession of a valid Environmental Agency rod license at all times whilst fishing. Presently, rod licenses cost £3.75 for 1 day, £10 for 8 consecutive days or £27 for a full calendar year, with concessions for anglers aged 16 and younger. They may be purchased at any Post Office or online at www.environment-agency.gov.uk .
Gareth Lewis (www.garethlewisflyfishing.com)
Frank Williams (www.frankwilliamsflyfishing.co.uk)
Andrew Cartwright (www.acgameangling.com)
• Where to Stay
A comprehensive list of local accommodation options including hotels, B&Bs, inns, self-catering and camping has been compiled by the WUF and is available at www.wyeuskfoundation.org/fishing/accomodation.php.
• Local Reading
For an overview of the history and ecology of the rivers, brooks and streams of the area and a thorough description of 225 trout and grayling flies whose origins can be traced to the region, read Roger Smith’s recently published book “Flyfishing the Welsh Borderlands” available from Coch-y-Bonddu Books (www.anglebooks.com).