Saturday, 22 June 2013

River Don and tributary, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

Urban fly fishing has been something of a craze in the UK recently, in large part thanks to Theo Pike’s book "Trout in Dirty Places". Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if British rivers were not the cleanest they have been in decades, if not centuries. Trout and grayling have returned to many city centres across the country and there is a pleasing incongruity about this. You just do not expect to see or find salmonids amongst litter and waste and human design. In the case of the River Don in the centre of Sheffield, I discovered that trout and grayling are present in very healthy numbers.  It was here that I experienced my first taste of urban fly fishing, walled in by pre-industrial brick and post-industrial modern glass, a Holiday Inn and busy road bridges. The sounds of general human commotion were never far away but momentarily forgotten when watching olives and caddis lift from the water or when a trout or grayling would take the fly.

I came across a delightful quote in George Orwell’s 1937 book "The Road to Wigan Pier". Clearly, Orwell was no fan of Sheffield! It does provide an insight into the sights, sounds and squalor of industrial Sheffield, the "Steel City", including a brief mention of a city centre river.

"But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas. Even the shallow river that runs through the town is-usually bright yellow with some chemical or other. Once I halted in the street and counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them, but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by smoke. One scene especially lingers in my mind. A frightful patch of waste ground (somehow, up there, a patch of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London) trampled bare of grass and littered with newspapers and old saucepans. To the right an isolated row of gaunt four-roomed houses, dark red, blackened by smoke. To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney beyond chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made of the slag from furnaces. In front, across the patch of waste ground, a cubical building of red and yellow brick, with the sign ‘Thomas Grocock, Haulage Contractor’." 

Today, you couldn’t imagine a more different picture of the river (and the city) from that described by Orwell. I was immediately surprised by the water’s clarity. The only evidence I could see of an industrial past were two large mill stones wedged in the river bed and, in places, ochre from mining activities. I was even more surprised to see fish rising! Despite being canalised the presence of large boulders mid stream, wild flowers, ubiquitous bank side nettles and a small island lent the river a hint of a natural feel.

Thanks to a Monnow Rivers Association auction lot win, I was accompanied and guided by Dr Paul Gaskell, Sheffield resident and Wild Trout Trust employee. Paul is a very knowledgeable angler and it’s fair to say I learnt a great deal on my visit. Paul is also a tenkara fanatic and I was really interested to see this method in action. The presentational advantages of tenkara were very quickly apparent.

We entered the river at 10.30am to grey skies and a few drops of rain. Fortunately the rain held off for the day but I noticed a few storm drains discharging surface water into the river. One or two fish were rising and my second cast with a small black klinkhamer brought a good sized grayling to the surface and to the net. A delivery truck driver nonchalantly watched the action from the top of the brick embankment. A jogger ran past without a sideways glance. Otherwise life in the city carried on as normal.

Fish continued to rise sporadically and when the klinkhamer failed to elicit further interest I changed patterns to one of Paul’s self tied olive emergers. The change in pattern soon worked and I brought a couple more grayling and a broad shouldered trout of about 13 inches to Paul’s circular tenkara net. The fish, and the trout in particular, had clearly been feeding well suggesting the Don has a healthy invertebrate menu on offer. Every now and again a passer-by would shout out “have you caught anything?” or “can you eat fish from this river?” One gentleman with a thick Yorkshire accent said “when I was a boy there was nowt in here.” He watched as I tempted two trout to take a small bead headed pheasant tail nymph from a delightfully “trouty” looking run.

In the afternoon we moved to a small peaty tributary of the Don, no more than a 10 minute drive from the city centre. A small stream shrouded by trees and within a ravine, the sounds of traffic and people were soon forgotten. Even here, away from the city centre, we came across the signs of an industrial past - an artificial pond above the river, previously used to power a mill. A few splashy rises signalled the presence of mayfly and I soon hooked a dark coloured, peat-stained trout of about 9 inches on one of Paul’s mayfly patterns. Paul caught a perch, his first from this stream. I realised rather wistfully that these were probably the last mayfly I will see this year. We fished up the small stream until 4.30pm again learning a lot from Paul who was happy to show me a few tricks. I landed another trout on an olive paradun pattern and lost two which took the nymph, before we called it a day.

I normally go fishing to get away from the city and human commotion so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was in truth pleasantly surprised by my urban fishing experience. It’s great to see these once abused rivers now clean enough to sustain trout again.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The River Swift, Warwickshire

A few weeks ago I came across an impassioned plea for help on a fishing forum. What drew my attention to the post was mention of the River Swift in Warwickshire which I had previously identified as one of the closest trout streams to Birmingham, where I live. Thirty miles due east from Brum, in the heart of the generally troutless West Midlands region, the river had piqued my interest. On offer was a day fishing the Swift in return for a bit of advice and hopefully helping a fly fishing beginner - Oliver - catch a fish. 

I met Oliver at Rugby train station and we drove to the stream. Since making our arrangements Oliver had managed to induce a large mayfly gorging trout to take his dry fly before seeing his line part and the fish disappear. So close to landing his first trout on the dry fly Oliver was keen to return to the scene to have another go. We parked at a tiny hamlet of houses hidden behind an industrial estate and walked down to the river. Along the walk we passed a puddle in the gravel road littered with spent mayfly spinners.

The Swift is a lowland stream with a predominantly clay bottom. At first blush it looked nothing like a trout stream, slow moving and in some places almost still. The river could not have been given a more misleading name! There was no sign of any rises at the spot where Oliver had hooked the large fish, and no reaction to prospective dry fly or nymph, so we walked back to the car and drove upstream to the club's waters near the church topped hill village of Churchover. We only had a few hours to fish the river because Oliver had another engagement later in the day, and my heart stopped a little when I saw here too another slow, meandering, reed choked stretch of the river that looked perfect for coarse fish but not trout. We walked upstream a little way, seeing no fish but being followed by a herd of curious cows on the opposite bank. The pressure was firmly on to find Oliver a fish!

With just under an hour to go we drove to the top section of the club's waters, near the busy A5 road. We pulled over into a lay-by to peer over the bridge crossing the Swift and were encouraged by the sight of mayfly, although noted no sign of fish. Oliver mentioned that this section of the A5 is built on an old Roman road from Kent in the south-east, through London to Wroxeter near modern day Shrewsbury. Nearby to the Swift is High Cross, the meeting point of the two main Roman roads which connected the four corners of Britannia. I love the little bits of history that are sometimes part and parcel of fly fishing in Britain.

It was soon pretty evident that this top section of the river is vastly different to the stretches below. The flow is faster and there is gravel on the riverbed testament to the work put in by the club to transform this marginal trout water. Flowering ranunculus added to the aesthetic trouty charm. With mayfly emerging in small numbers I felt optimistic of finally seeing a trout show itself.

Walking downstream it was Oliver who spotted a rise in a deep pool in a bend of the river. Excitedly we got into position at the tail of the pool but faced straight into the teeth of a strong wind which proved difficult for Oliver to cast into (as it would any for any beginner). I offered to cast the line for Oliver and as I took his rod a trout rose at the very tail of the pool, no more than a few yards in front of us. I stealthily clambered down the bank and into the water below the pool where I could make a cast to the fish. I flicked the mayfly pattern forward and watched as a trout duly emerged from under the weed hugging the left bank and purposefully moved two feet to take the fly. Hooked close in the fish was soon subdued and Oliver helped me to net the fish from the bank with a telescopic net. A good number of brown trout are stocked annually into the river, and this must be the most handsome stocked trout I have yet caught. At about 10 inches it was stocked too young to have worn down its fins in a concrete hatchery sluice. My joy was tinged with a little disappointment that it was not Oliver who did it, as we only had about 20 minutes left. With me back up on the bank we moved a few feet forward to cast further up in the pool where one or two fish continued to rise. With no lull in the wind I cast again and handed the rod to Oliver. Within a second a trout engulfed the fly and the moment came to be - Oliver's first trout from a river and on a dry fly too! The first of many I'm sure. Well done!       

A picture of happiness!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The River Gwash, Rutland

The East Midlands of England would not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a region with an abundance of trout streams. For international readers, the East Midlands comprises of the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. There is of course the wonderful trout fishing in the Derbyshire Peaks on the very western edge of the region, but what I have in mind is the flat, low lying expanse of land to the east of the peaks where rivers of the kind preferred by trout are rare.  Instead, most of the fly fishing opportunities are focused on a cluster of large man-made reservoirs such as Rutland Water, Grafham, Pitsford, Ravensthorpe, Eye Brook and, by all accounts, they offer excellent fishing if stillwater fishing is your cup of tea. There are only a handful of trout streams, most if not all locked away in the hands of private owners or fishing clubs with long waiting lists. It is not the easiest place to gain access to river trout fishing.

One such river is the Gwash in Rutland, which was dammed to create Rutland Water reservoir in the 70s, the largest reservoir in England by surface area. Rutland Water is a very popular fly fishing venue with rainbow and brown trout stocked in their thousands each year. The outflow from the reservoir is through an underground pipe so there is no chance of any grown-on fish of 10lbs or more escaping into the Gwash! Fishing for wild brown trout is downstream of the reservoir in what is effectively a tailwater fishery before the Gwash spills into the larger River Welland. Much of the fishing is in the hands of a fishing club but a couple of miles are held privately by Andrew Flitcroft, editor of Trout & Salmon magazine. I snapped up a rare opportunity to fish this private section with Andrew through the Wild Trout Trust’s annual auction. Interestingly, I recalled reading the name Gwash in an online snippet at the time I fished the River Wye in Derbyshire last year. The Gwash was named as one of eleven rivers in Britain with a spawning population of rainbow trout in E. Barton Worthington’s 1941 survey of rainbow trout in Britain (commissioned due to concerns that rainbow trout were ousting brown trout in British rivers). It would seem that any population of self-sustaining rainbow trout in the Gwash, if ever one existed, has long since disappeared. Perhaps swallowed up by the construction of the reservoir?

Andrew is down-to-earth and clearly very passionate about fly fishing, and I enjoyed his company. He was an obliging host and a skilful fly fisherman to boot. Whilst enjoying a pretty authentic American diner breakfast Andrew mentioned that his section of the river is divided into an easier beat downstream, with generally smaller fish, and a more difficult beat upstream, guessed it... generally larger fish. We headed for the upstream section first. Parking near to the river, it became clear that the temperature forecast of less than 10 degrees was hopelessly wrong. With relatively clear skies it promised to be a beautiful, warm day with good prospects for a decent hatch. The river was hidden by a sinuous slip of green vegetation at the basin of the shallow valley. The fields on the near bank were recently ploughed between the hedgerows whilst the fields on the far bank were awash in the yellow of blooming rapeseed. I was immediately struck by the blissful absence of any man made sound, interrupted intermittently by low flying light aircraft and an audible bird scare device in a nearby field.

The Gwash is a small river with a gentle flow. Andrew commented that the river was showing a little more colour than usual, but it was still clear enough to spot fish easily enough. We carefully walked upriver, looking for signs of fish and places where a cast could be made to them. Eventually we came across a feeding fish holding position in a place where I could enter the water downstream and cast to it. I quietly slipped down the nettle covered bank and into the silty bank ooze. Wading in the stream caused blooms of watery dust to billow downstream. The level of silt is a by product of the reservoir upstream - the volume of the outflow is regulated and the lack of flooding means that the river is not flushed clean as nature intended. This upstream section has not yet been worked on by Andrew and his syndicate members, but later I would see the good work done to combat the silt in the downstream beat. At that moment in time however my concentration was squarely focused on the trout rising in front of me. My first and second cast saw my 7x tippet coiling like a tightly wound spring around my leader without spooking the fish, so I changed it to 6x and waited a while for the fish to rise again. When it did I cast again, this time the leader unfurled properly and delicately landed on the water, and the trout obliged by sipping in the small olive CDC pattern. It proved to be a good fish of about 12 inches, beautifully marked and wild.  

As the day started to heat up mayflies started to emerge and with their appearance the fish noticeably became a little less cautious. As did I when I waded a little too carelessly in the silt next to the river. I became stuck and a little apprehensive when I realised that I was slowly sinking. I threw my rod, backpack and chestpack on to the bank and tried to dig myself out to no avail. Andrew, who had wandered off to spot fish, came to my assistance when he realised I had been gone awhile but couldn’t pull me out either. I had visions of Andrew having to call a local farmer to bring a tractor to drag me out and the ensuing embarrassment. Eventually I was able to free my right leg from the mire and use it to dig a funnel for river water to flood in and dilute the ooze ensnaring my trapped left leg. My left leg finally loosened and became free and Andrew pulled me out whilst I grabbed a handful of nettles – anything – with my free hand to pull myself up the bank. Muddied, out of breath but free, we both laughed with some relief at my recent predicament.

Very soon it was all business again as we spied a good fish feeding next to our bank just a little way upstream. We watched it feed for a little while and I enjoyed adopting the patient and visual approach to fishing that Andrew employed. I changed patterns to a mayfly, slipped into the water – after Andrew assured me that the bottom was hard – and crept into position. I overcooked the first two casts and was too wide to the left with the third. Andrew suggested that I hold off for a few minutes to see if the fish was spooked or still feeding. Within a few minutes, the fish rose again and I breathed a sigh of relief. My fourth cast was perfect and confidently swallowed by the trout. I lifted my rod and could immediately tell by the bend that it was a good fish. Andrew helped me to net it, a good fish of about 14 inches, with bold vermilion spots on its flanks. Another trout had been rising a little way upstream and a further cast saw this fish come to the net too. Again, this fish was a good size for the size of the stream, about 12 or 13 inches. Andrew later enticed a similar sized fish from the upper limit of the beat to conclude a successful “morning session” (it was closer to 3.30pm when we checked the time).

We drove down to the lower beat and it was immediately evident the work that has been put in to the river to make the trout habitat better and improve the fishing – tree clearance, narrowing the river channel, creating bends, the insertion of groynes. The fish did prove to be a little smaller, but no less fun to catch and I managed to tempt another seven trout to take the dry fly. In the low evening sun it was sometimes possible to see into the water and observe the fishes’ reaction to the dry fly, which must be one of the most exciting moments of dry fly fishing.

It was a real privilege to have fished this private river and I will savour the experience for some time to come.