Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Clochfaen River, Wales

I pretty much blinked at the start of 2014 and before I knew it, it was August and well into the trout season before I found myself getting excited for my first fly fishing trip of the year. My work had kept me occupied during a busy period and I missed the mayfly in May and June which is a shame, for there is no more enjoyable time to fish for trout than when they fling themselves about in careless abandon during a hatch. It had been far too long but at least I got to watch the Natal Sharks play rugby on TV most Saturdays. Having said that, the Sharks are possibly the most frustrating sports team in the world to support and another semi-final exit after yet another Super Rugby season of so much promise leads me to wish I could have spent my Saturdays fishing instead.

I had plans to travel by train to "River X" on Saturday, but a rain warning in Wales and a snap decision at 6am on Saturday morning put paid to that. I may have been suffering fishing withdrawal symptoms but I didn't fancy fishing in the rain all day. The decision was made easier in the knowledge that I had another fishing trip lined up the next day with Laszlo, and having a car meant the freedom of finding a river in a suitable condition if the weather was still playing up. As it turned out the forecast for Wales on Sunday was fine and so it transpired that the day dawned warm and mostly cloudless. I couldn't find my camera in the morning after much frantic searching (even with the additional 20 minutes afforded by Laszlo's now customary text of "Morning, I'm running 20 minutes late") I thought to myself that if ever there was a day to catch a memorable fish Murphy's Law would see it happen today. A bittersweet result, if you know what I mean.

We made our way to the River Clochfaen between the village of Llangurig and the town of Rhayader in Wales. Wikipedia tells me that Llangurig is reputed to be the highest village in Wales at an altitude of 1,000 feet/300m which doesn't seem especially high. Despite rain the previous day the Clochfaen was running clear and as we gazed over a road bridge the surface of the water rippled because of a stiff gale and I had to hold on to my hat. We spotted two trout rising, lending promise to the day. We headed down to the lower end of the bottom beat which is described in the Wye & Usk literature as presenting wading and access difficulties. The riverbed is mostly bedrock with deep gutters and holes with the distinct possibility of a dunking if not careful. The banks were mostly tree lined but Laszlo and I are used to this and don't expect manicured lawns when we visit Wales. The wilder the better, the greater the challenge and enjoyment and we hoped the trees would shield us from the wind. The water looked perfect and as we rigged up Laszlo and I both felt that all the signs were pointing to a very good day's fishing ahead.

An hour later when we met up again neither of us had caught a fish nor seen a rise. I had at least seen what looked to be a good fish but only when it darted away, spooked by my clumsy presence. I had to conclude that the fish were very spooky, especially in the bright light and this caused me to slow everything down and spend more time on my knees. My fortunes changed in the afternoon when I approached a pool and sat and watched it for 5 minutes and spotted a rise on the opposite bank. I crawled into the water on my knees and waited another 5 minutes for the water to settle. There wasn't any further sign of the fish but I covered the area where it had previously risen with an olive CDC pattern and sure enough, the fish sipped in the fly and I broke my trout duck for 2014.  The fishing improved thereafter without it becoming easy. There were still very few rises and no interest in the nymph whatsoever but the olive CDC pattern did seem to garner enough interest from a few trout here and there. I lost what felt and looked to be an enormous trout, certainly over 3lbs. I cast to what I had thought had been a small fish that had just risen, judging by the small splashy rise type, and was faced with a huge snout which emerged confidently, casually and almost disdainfully to engulf my fly. I struck and immediately felt a solid resistance which reminded me of hooking into an immovable boulder. My first thought was salmon. In a split second I felt the fish realise its predicament and start to move in the opposite direction and then my tippet parted ways with the leader. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. If anyone had been in earshot they would have heard some choice language. Fish of that size don't come along too often. It left me thinking about leaving my camera at home more often.

My disappointment didn't last very long though as a little way upstream I managed to hook and land my best Welsh trout to date, a beautifully spotted and chunky trout which I estimate at 2.5lbs and somewhere between 17 and 18 inches. Rises had been rare throughout the day so when I spotted a rise in a near impossible lie guarded by three separate overhanging trees I accepted the challenge and spent the best part of twenty minutes attempting a cast. I eventually landed the fly in just the right place upstream of a boulder on the opposite bank. The shaded water looked too shallow to hold a good trout and I was expecting a little fish to be holding station. After a brief drift the trout rose to the dry fly when it passed the boulder and sipped in the fly and again as soon as I lifted my rod and line I realised I was into a good fish. The fish turned into the pressure and presented its generous flank and I prayed this time that the tippet would withstand the trout's weight. With the hook set and the trout stripping line whilst running upstream I had to play the fish with side strain under the low hanging tree branches. I shouted for Laszlo who by this stage was only about 50 metres downstream and he came running over just in time to snap a few photos with his phone. I'm glad to have a photographic record of the catch. There may just be something in leaving home without your camera next time you go fishing. Why not give it a try (but make sure your fishing buddy has a camera at the ready)? After that trout I didn't have any further joy but then I didn't really try too hard or mind at all.  

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Litton Beat, River Lugg

Again, catching up with a brief report of some fishing I did last year on 13 July 2013, this time on the Litton beat of the River Lugg. In what was a busy period with a bit of transition in my life I had completely forgotten about this trip until I stumbled across the photos recently. My notes show I had started to write about it in July last year and got as far as the paragraph below.  

"The British summer normally disappoints, but not this year! We are currently in the midst of a "heatwave" with temperatures in the high 20s/low 30s centigrade. Rain hasn't been seen for weeks, but after last year's washout of a summer, I'm not complaining. Laszlo and I decided to head out last Saturday to fish the Litton beat of the River Lugg with reports that it would be the hottest day of the year to date. The Litton beat is just over the English border with Wales, where the street signs and road markings change to dual language to signify the crossing of the boundary. It was for us a happy return to the Lugg, the venue of our first fishing sojourn together a couple of miles upstream at Pilleth. That had also been our first visit to the Wye and Usk Foundation's streams, just over 2 years ago."

That's as far as I got. It did transpire to be a very hot and bright day in the 30s but the water was shaded and refreshingly cool. The river level was obviously very low, the trout extremely skittish and the vegetation very green and dense. In some places the low water was evident by tree roots left high and dry and sun bleached river stones. I recall swathes of stinging nettles much taller than me lining the banks in places which made for interesting access to the river. The trout were had in the deepest of the pools, all on nymphs. It wasn't the easiest of fishing or the most exciting but it called for an abundance of stealth and some effort given the bank side growth and barb wire fencing. I recall catching about 6 or 7 little trout including my first trout on a self-tied fly, a bit of a milestone in itself. Laszlo provided the lunch, simple fare customary in his homeland of Hungary – pork meat, bread and tomatoes - duly washed down with a river chilled beer. Here are a few photos from the day.

It was a glorious summer last year, followed by one of the wettest winters on record in the UK. Going by the measure of fishing seasons, seasonal weather extremities do seem to be becoming the norm.  That's the last of my catch up reports from last year.    

Monday, 4 August 2014

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA

In the last week of September 2013 I drove the stunning Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park in the state of Virginia, USA. I've only just had a chance to post up a few photos and write a few words now. Better late than never I guess.

The Park is perhaps most famous for its annual display of autumnal yellow and red when its trees change colour before shedding their leaves at the onset of winter. We were about two or three weeks too early to catch the full extent but we did see the very early signs of this attractive spectacle.

I pretty much had two goals upon arriving at the park – to find brook trout and to spot a black bear. I'm happy to report that I managed to accomplish both!

The Skyline Drive runs 105 miles in a north-south direction along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National Park and is the only public road through the park. We entered at Rockfish Gap, at the very southern end of the drive with two nights scheduled in the park before we were due to head on to Washington DC. We checked in to our rustic log cabin at Skyland Resort after a pleasant drive of about 2 and a half hours taking in the views along the crest of the ridge. The speed limit is 35 mph, and the road winding, so the going is slow but you wouldn't want to drive any faster in a place like this. Deer, wild turkey, squirrel and chipmunks scurrying across the road also act as effective traffic calming measures.

Having set aside that afternoon for fishing I needed to find some water. Park maps show countless blue lines descending the hollows of the eastern and western slopes. Some streams are more accessible than others and are conveniently reached from the road or hiking trail. The most easily accessed are heavily fished. Other streams require a bit more adventure and effort to reach but what they all have in common is a walk of varying degree and strenuousness down the slopes to the stream and then back up to the road. Trying to decide where to fish in a limited time and avoid a wasted hike presented a bit of a mild headache. I found Harry Murray's book "Trout Fishing in the Shenandoah National Park" (available from park stores) instrumental in making the decision a little easier. I briefly consulted Murray's book on the porch of our log cabin and settled on the Rose River, a short distance away. The fact that the access point was a parking area at "Fisher's Gap" was taken as a propitious sign. 

We parked at Fisher's Gap and crossed the road to descend the eastern slope to the river, leaving the bright sunshine and noise of passing traffic behind as we entered the cool forest. After a short walk into the trees we encountered an elderly couple hiking up the road who told us to look out for a group of five black bears about 100 metres down the road. This brought about a mild panic – we had expected to see bears from the relative safety of a car with the opportunity of a swift getaway! Do you play dead if attacked? Wait a minute, that's only for grizzly bears, right? What are you meant to do if a black bear attacks you? The couple seemed pretty relaxed about the proximity of the bears and mildly amused by our panic and advised it was perfectly safe unless we happened to surprise the bears. If by unfortunate chance we did happen to surprise them, we were told all manner of bear-fury would unleash itself upon us, so best not to. We set off down the track trudging along as loudly as possible and it's probably no surprise that we encountered no bears by the time we reached a small stream about a mile down the path. A waterfall carving a course through a lichen and moss spotted rock face provided a dramatic backdrop to a series of small cascading pools at its base which all looked inviting for a dry fly and I assumed it was the Rose River. As it turns out, I realised afterwards that this was probably the Hogcamp Branch, a feeder stream of the Rose which is described in Murray's book as "a nice stream, but due to its easy access from the drive it receives heavy angling pressure." I later gathered the larger Rose River was about a mile further down the path. It mattered not though as I enjoy fishing little streams and I set up my rod excitedly and soon caught a perfect little brook trout from the shallow pool next to the path. The next hour proved the theory that "stealth + dry fly = brook trout". My few experiences of catching these little fish has taught me that a well-presented dry fly is irresistible to them. It amazed me how many fish lived in these tiny, clear pools and despite Murray's warning of heavy interference from anglers they were eager to take a fly.

My first Virginia/Shenandoah trout!

On the walk back up the hill, my appetite for brook trout slaked, we did see a black bear with two small cubs a short distance into the dense trees and it was a fascinating experience in the complete quiet of the woods to observe them (nervously at first it must be said). We went unnoticed for minutes until the mother bear eventually saw us and cleared off rapidly with her cubs. It was reassuring to discover that the bears appeared more nervous of us then we were of them. The fully grown bear was also much smaller than I had expected.

The best photo of the bears - you will have to take  my word for it that they are there!

We chose to hike down to Rapidan Camp the following day, the scene of Herbert Hoover's presidential retreat between 1929 and 1933. It turns out Hoover was a keen fly fisherman who saw much of virtue in the sport. When Hoover found the Depression too depressing, he went fishing (I unashamedly borrowed this phrase!). In a speech delivered in 1929 Hoover stated:
"Moreover, [fishing] is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility, and of human frailty - for all men are equal before fishes. And it is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact - that the forces of nature discriminate for no man."

When selecting his retreat Hoover had given his aides three criteria: the location had to be within 100 miles of Washington DC, it had to be more than 2,500 feet above sea level to avoid the summer heat and mosquitoes and, most importantly, it had to be on the banks of a trout stream. Not much is left of the presidential retreat today but the unimpressive looking main house (referred to as "The Brown House") has been fully restored and one or two outbuildings remain. The next president, Franklin D. Roosevelt found the Camp too rustic for his wheelchair needs and established Camp David during his administration which serves as the country's presidential retreat until this day. Hoover's camp fell into a state of disrepair. Jimmy Carter was the next and only other president to visit and fish the Rapidan.

The Camp is on the headwaters of the Rapidan River where the Mill Prong and Laurel Prong meet and where Hoover and his guests would go fishing for stocked and wild trout. It's a 4 mile round trip hike down to the Camp, mostly along the banks of the tiny Mill Prong. The Mill Prong gains enough volume before the Camp is reached to cast a fly and I was able to tempt a brookie or two along the descent. We saw more black bears along the way, and were now completely relaxed in their presence! 

The best of the day 2 bear photos... the black object in the centre... again you will have to take my word for it...

After a guided tour of the Brown House I fished the Rapidan for about an hour and a half in complete solitude and caught a number of good sized brook trout. It's not an easy stream to fish, overgrown, swiftly flowing and boulder strewn there is often only a small area of water to land your fly on before the torrent whisks it away. The trout strike hard and fast. Even in the last week of September the heat had a sticky oppressiveness to it. A small brown para-ant worked best.

The Rapidan

It was an enjoyable experience made all the more memorable by the thought of following in the fly fishing footsteps of American presidents.