Trout & Grayling Report
by Oliver Burch
Normally we expect the fishing to improve steadily as the spring advances and April can be a pretty good fishing month as a flush of new green spreads up the wooded sides of our river valleys. This year it wasn’t clear at times whether the spring was advancing and we experienced a confusion of weather – a very cold snap with some mountain snow, followed by the Easter heat-wave, high pressure and east winds, and then Storm Hannah with associated showers and a small flood on the Usk with a larger one on the Wye. Low, clear rivers and a bright sun are never very good for fishing and the high water certainly improved our fishing for a while. I suppose the showers at the end were what we should expect for April, but nature seemed slightly confused by it all. Instead of a progression of spring flowers, we seemed to have primroses, daffodils and bluebells all out together. In the rivers, hatches of aquatic insects also seemed more jumbled than usual. Through the month, grannom sedge were around in small numbers and trout reacted at times. I personally did not witness a really big hatch of grannom, although others did. The faithful large dark olives continued to trickle off and there were some intermittent hatches of March browns, which seem to be becoming more widespread geographically – making their way up the Monnow now.
Later in the month I was gratified to see falls of hawthorn fly, smaller olives are already up and yellow mays and olive uprights along with a few large brook duns are with us already. Nevertheless, there were also days in April with nothing much hatching and nothing much rising. The small streams seem to have been slow to wake up and nymphs were usually being deployed by the successful anglers. Despite some notable exceptions, many of us had difficult or unproductive days to report. Having stated all those reservations, the mini-flood produced by Storm Hannah seems to have cheered the Usk up no end and there were some red letter days at the end of the month.
I was lucky enough to see a few spectacular March brown hatches on the Usk during April.
These are exciting occasions on which you get to see just how many trout and of what size live in your favourite pools. The problem is that these hatches are not totally predictable, although sometime between 12 and 3 on a day with just a little sun-shine should be a reasonable expectation. I find myself torn between two strategies at this time of year. The first is to go down to the river late morning with a dry fly rod made up ready, sit down by a known good pool, watch and wait. Don’t start casting until you see the fish come up and be careful about it when you do. In truth, you might have a long wait and this idea might not suit those who have bought a day ticket, travelled some distance and want to explore the water. On the other hand, if your time is your own and you are on a regular club or syndicate water near home, this way you might learn something about the pool and its inhabitants. Recently on a middle Usk pool, I waited nearly 3 hours after arriving (and wished I had brought a book along) before March browns began to come off and fish to show at the surface. I caught just three of modest size during the next half hour, but I noted a place on the far side where big fish were showing regularly. Unfortunately I could not cover the spot properly from my position and it was not possible to ford the river nearby - but the knowledge should be of future value. I know where they live!
The second idea and probably the more effective one is to start earlier with one longer rod made up with a team of spiders and the other ready as a spare with a dry fly, and cover plenty of water prospecting likely runs and pools with the spiders. It’s surprising how many fish you can pick up this way although no rise is visibly in progress. The dry fly rod remains safely stored on the bank until rising fish are seen, in which case you swap tools and try to take fish from the surface (although bear in mind the spiders are also quite likely to take these risers if presented correctly). All this can keep you busy through a spring day and will probably produce a larger catch overall.
It’s worth mentioning as an aside that the latest type of trout net with a very fine fish-friendly mesh is also rather good at picking up insects drifting along on and below the surface. Make use of this tool while looking for hatches; try holding it in a run for a minute or two at intervals and see what you catch in it. Most of us are familiar enough with looking for duns on the surface but the hatch has already been underway for some time by then. At times you might just pick up empty nymph shucks from hatches which occurred earlier. However, a series of half-emerged nymphs drifting downstream mid-water and caught in your net will give you early warning of a hatch which is about to occur on the surface and to which the trout are already reacting below the surface.
Here are some late reports from the end of March. On the 29th LK from Warminster with a companion caught 14 trout from the Usk at Dinas. RH from Broadwas, also fishing with a friend, reported 10 trout to 2 pounds fishing with Czech-style nymphs on the Wye at Ty Newydd. PK from Billingshurst with a companion had a very good day at Ashford House on the Usk, reporting 22 trout from 0.75 to 2 pounds taken with dry flies during an afternoon March brown hatch. On the following day the pair moved to Penpont where March browns were also hatching, but few fish were rising naturally. Nevertheless they managed to catch 11 by prospecting with dry flies. CT of Cardiff and a companion had half a dozen from the Abergavenny Town Water with a few grannom around on the river.
On the 31st, TH of Brecon had 6 trout using nymphing tactics on the Breconshire Fishery. GN from London had 9 from the Dinas fishery on 1st April. AP from Dudley had a good day on the Edw at Hergest, taking 13 trout with the duo method. It was good to hear that this small stream is waking up. On the following day, AP moved to the Llynfi Dulas middle beat, where he took 6 trout with heavy nymphs. Also on the 2nd ST from Galway City with a friend had just 4 trout from the Glanusk Ty Mawr / Canal and Rivers Trust water of the Usk; however, this catch included a brace of good fish at 2 and 2.25 pounds.
At this point adverse weather moved in to spoil the fun, although many angling days had been booked in what should be one of our prime months. The 3rd was a very cold day with showers of rain and hail and the fish reacted as you might expect. The 4th was worse, very cold with more rain and snow too in some parts of the catchments. Overnight showers were localised but unexpectedly heavy and our waters quickly became affected by very high and dirty floods. The lower Wye was running bank-high and a sort of livid orange colour, while the water gauges for the Monnow and Lugg disappeared completely from view for a while. Only the upper Usk came into fishable condition by the 6th, although the water was high, cold and stained a sort of peaty brown colour. TB from Pontypridd fished Talybont Reservoir on the 6th and during an overcast spell with a good ripple took 8 trout on dry flies. On the 7th TM from London with a friend fished at Dinas and they had a 17 inch fish in a bag of 6. BP from Pembridge found the little Duhonw tributary of the Wye in reasonable condition and got 8 trout with the duo method. PT from Kidderminster enjoyed himself on the Bideford Brook where he got 5 on dries and nymphs. The weather remained rather cold, although the Usk was fishing well when the hatches were on. MN from Bristol fished at Penpont on the 8th and noticed large dark olives, but no March browns. He got 5 trout to 16 inches using a size 14 Olive Para-Emerger. DR of Bristol had a fine time on the Forest of Dean’s Cannop Brook on the 9th, taking 24 little trout from 6-10 inches using a nymph under a dry fly (duo method). This was a miserable wet day, although all to the good as far as DR was concerned, because he found there were no dog walkers/swimmers on the bankside path. JC from Barry had 15 trout at Dinas on the 10th. HEE of Swansea extolled the virtues of Port Talbot’s Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir on the same day, when he caught just 3 rainbows. However, he reported many big catches being made by anglers off the Borg Warner Wall by fishing teams of buzzers and Diawl Bachs just under the surface. (This fishery came to mind a few days later with news of the explosion at the nearby Tata steelworks, fortunately with no serious injuries reported). Moving away from my reporting remit to the matter of salmon for a moment, Simon Evans had a large cock fish at the bottom end of Llangoed on the 12th. This salmon was the highest caught on the Wye at that time. The fish took a Black and Yellow tube fished into the gutter on a fast sink tip and after being hooked ran off 100 yards downstream before being brought to the net. I’m wondering – and I’m sure Simon must be wondering – if this is the same fish which gave him a good hard pull in the same place the previous evening.
AP from Dudley fished the Bideford Brook on the 13th – a chilly Saturday morning on which he just beat me to the designated parking place!
He went on to get 7 trout on nymphs…and AP, I’m more than glad you enjoyed yourself. The 14th was even colder, with an icy wind blowing down from the Gulf of Finland. I recorded a temperature swing from 2 degrees to only 8 degrees during a difficult day on the upper Wye with very few rises. IG from Pontypridd with a friend caught 8 trout at Dinas, but remarked also on the new price of the beat and how unfriendly the weather was.
JC from Barry had 6 trout from Dinas on the 16th. On the same day Hugh Young of London, one of our teen-aged anglers and a regular visitor, had 14 trout, most of them around 10 inches, fishing spiders at Ty Newydd.
SC and JT had 15 trout to 14 inches, also using spiders at Ty Newydd on the 17th. On the 18th, with the weather now warmer, AS of Newent found some action on the Olchon Brook, taking 13 trout from 7-13 inches on nymphs. AW from Salisbury had 6 on spiders from Abernant while KG from Bath made the long trek up to Llyn Bugeilyn, where he caught 7 trout on wet flies in a big wind.
KG reminded that if you are going to take a car down the Llyn Bugeilyn track, you need one with a good ground clearance. It is the last bit by the ruined farm which is tricky.
Now came the Easter holiday, with bright sun and a heat-wave which pleased most of the country, but wasn’t so good for anglers although there was a considerable fishing effort. The problem was that we were still having big temperature swings, with single figures at night, but up to nearly 25 degrees by the middle of the afternoon. AS of Newent was out on the middle Llynfi Dulas beat on the 19th and had 14 trout fishing nymphs in the fast water at the heads of pools. FC of Bristol was salmon fishing at Chainbridge, unsuccessfully I’m afraid, but he did see a rare goshawk over the Rock Pool during his day. PT of Kidderminster tried out the new Hindwell beat at the Rodd. He caught 5 trout but commented that the access for anglers needs some work.
AC from Walsall reported a good brace from Pantyscallog. AW of Salisbury was another who did well at Ty Newydd on the 19th, taking 14 trout on spiders. Also on the 19th, JE from New Malden with his 15 year old son drove the 400 mile round trip to fish the Edw at Hergest and they had half a dozen trout. I do admire these visitors, refugees as you might think of them from the great trout deserts of central and southern England, who are determined to travel such distances for our fishing and the scenery of our river valleys. Some of the salmon anglers also make huge journeys - I know one coming regularly from Surrey. By comparison, those of us who live nearer seem rather spoiled.
On the following day JL from London had three fish from 13-14 inches at Fenni Fach on dry flies while BP from Pembridge caught half a dozen to 10 inches from the Edw at Cregrina using a Deer’s Hair Emerger. The Dinas fishery of the Usk performed again, producing 6 trout for GN of London on the 22nd and 7 for JC of Barry on the 24th. Penpont fished well about the same time also – JL from London with a friend had a modest bag of 8 between them on the 23rd, but one was a 17 inch fish. AB from Colchester led a party of 4 anglers to the same beat on the 24th and they had 23 trout in total, mostly on nymphs. The following day the same party booked the adjacent Dinas and Abercynrig beats and scored 46 trout altogether, again mostly on nymphs. The Dinas and Abercynrig pair, to my mind, would benefit from being marketed together as they used to be. The joint package used to make a wonderful piece of private middle Usk fishing. TC from Exeter had 5 from Chainbridge on the same day.
The 26th and 27th gave us the Hannah storm and very high winds. Down on the Severn Estuary where I live we had the howling gale coming up the Bristol Channel but almost no rain; the Forest of Dean streams were unaffected. However, rain was certainly heavy in Wales to our North and West. The Wye rose up very quickly into a dirty flood which affected the whole river for several days. In contrast the Usk had one of those quick up and down floods, which washed several anglers off on the 27th but only lasted a few hours. HD from Abergavenny went off to fish Talybont Reservoir and got 11 trout as a fall of hawthorn flies drifted onto the lake by the old bridge pillars. It’s a reliable one, the hawthorn fly. I think Mark must be a particularly potent saint because while other insects may waver about timing and be early or late, Bibio marci always turns up punctually in time to greet the apostle’s name-day on 25th March. AB from London fished at Glan yr Afon with colour still in the water of the Usk and had 7 trout to 15 inches. SJ of Herefordshire (I think we all know who that is, Seth) got it just right at Abercynrig as the high water dropped off and caught 22 trout to over 2 pounds, nearly all on the dry fly.
AS of Newent fished the Cannop Brook on the 28th and got 11 trout on nymphs. In answer to his query, a lot of work at Cannop has recently been done by the Forestry Commission thinning trees, and also by local villagers opening up a bankside path. PJ of Newport fished the Abergavenny Town Water and took 11 trout with dries during a large dark olive hatch. The same angler visited Talybont Reservoir on the following day and caught 8 trout with a Coch y Bonddu dry fly, noting again that hawthorn flies were on the water. PJ queried that other anglers were on the water, knowing that he was the only one who had booked online. The answer is that this fishery is also available without booking to members of the Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association and in this case the WUF does not have exclusive access. Still on the 30th, final day of the month, the middle Usk really seemed to be improved by its recent flood. AK from Blakeney caught 9 trout to 13 inches at Glan yr Afon, all on a blue winged olive dry fly pattern. Seth and Chris from the Foundation shared a glorious day at Ashford House between themselves and had 38 trout to 1.5 pounds, all of them on dry fly.
The subject of losing fish is one which I tend to think about in terms of newspaper headlines. It’s a bit like the famous “Dog bites Man” versus “Man bites dog.” A headline “Man catches Record Fish” seems appropriate enough, particularly if accompanied by one of those “grip and grin” hero photographs which the undiscerning media and public seem to expect. But how do you feel about “Man hooks Huge Fish but then Tragically Loses It?” This would not be likely to make the newspapers at all, would it? And yet, how poignant, how sadly familiar, that very situation is to any angler worth his salt. Believe me, an angler who tells you he doesn’t lose many fish doesn’t hook many. And if you really have the bug it takes a lot of fish under your belt before you can lose a good one with a smile. I can remember near heartbreak as a small boy when I lost a chub which came unhooked. Up to that point I had only caught gudgeon, jolly little fellows with whiskers which took a piece of bread paste and made the float bob before being swung out of the water, but here was a grey monster pulling down my rod top and, almost as quickly as he appeared from the depths, he shook his head on the surface and was gone for ever. Losing a nice fish, in those early days, seems to be the ultimate personal failure. And yet, as the years go by, it is those fish which were lost, not the ones which were caught, which continue to glide mysteriously through the shadows of the ageing angler’s memory.
The novelist Ernest Hemingway (as I’m always mentioning) famously had a passionate interest in fishing and introduced the sport into many of his works. The Sun also Rises (Fiesta) includes a charming vignette of summer trout fishing in the Pyrenees during the 1920s. Here angling is a pastime, not too serious, something which forms part of a memorable and romantic mountain landscape along with the country wine and the great stone-walled Basque farm-houses. A decade later, To Have and Have Not portrays the life and troubles of a sport-fishing skipper in the Caribbean. The story begins with the hero scratching for a living, irritated by, but dependent on the whims of the very rich who can afford to pay him for big game fishing. (Never mind feeling too sorry for him because he will eventually be played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie and Lauren Bacall turns up). In 1951 Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea, a short story which is probably more widely read than anything else he wrote. An old Cuban professional fisherman, after a long streak of bad luck which causes his fellows to turn their backs on him, hooks a marlin which is apparently, improbable as it sounds, 18 feet long. After an epic battle during which his small boat is towed far from land by the great fish, a fish of courage and dignity with which he feels he has a mystic bond, he succeeds in killing it, which is to the fisherman an act of the greatest reverence. But while towing the fish to land it is found and attacked by sharks and, despite the efforts of the exhausted old man, when he reaches harbour little more than a skeleton tied alongside his boat remains to show what might have been. It is a story of success, failure and redemption, of honour and of human kindness.
Islands in the Stream, also set in the Caribbean and which was published posthumously after Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, is definitely not regarded as one of his best novels. However, the part I always liked is the first section of the book which is dominated by a great fishing failure and how that affects all the characters aboard a private big game fishing boat: the rich artist father who clearly personifies the writer, friends, crew, and the young son who fought a very big marlin for many hours and lost it. All the big game fishing drama is there: the heat exhaustion, blistered feet and hands, helpers pouring water on the reel drag to cool it. On reflection, I’m not exactly sure that it does describe a fishing failure. “16 year-old Boy catches World Record Marlin” would have made a good headline. But there again, apart from the obvious and general jubilation, in that case Hemingway the writer would not have had much subsequent material to play with. Instead, his reflections on the great fish lost and how human beings deal with what seemed immediately tragic are much more interesting. I always thought to myself that, after all, where would a teenaged boy go in fishing after catching the world record marlin? Everything afterwards would be an anti-climax to him.
Sewin are fish that, in darkness at least, can lend themselves to the foundation of legends. Soft mouthed as they are, they often come off. You may not see them, but you certainly feel them. I can remember more than a few heart-stopping encounters (and I hope for one or two more if I am spared). Long ago there was a September night on the Loughor – which turned out to be the last night of that sea trout season for me – when I experimented with a surface lure for the first time. The fly was called the Towy Intruder and the hook consisted of a flying treble well behind a body of black deer hair built on a dummy shank. The night was dark, thickly clouded, with rain obviously coming. Just before midnight I cast across a quiet, triangular shaped pool without much current, aiming in the general direction of a splash which I had heard earlier. It was so dark that I could see nothing, but as I began a steady figure-of-eight retrieve, suddenly there came a tremendous wrench which pulled the rod down to a horizontal position. An enormous surge of power followed, but after a few seconds the line suddenly went slack. I retrieved the fly, my heart pounding at double speed. A couple of minutes later, when I had recovered some of my composure, I cast out again into the same general area of darkness. Another violent wrench followed, but this time the fish was even more quickly gone. I kept casting, there and into other parts of the pool, but something had changed. The river seemed to have died; not a sound was to be heard and not a touch to be felt on the line. About that time the expected downpour began and rain was soon streaming down my face and neck. I went back to the parked Landrover where I eventually rolled into a sleeping bag to spend the rest of the night, but not before I had switched on the lamp and looked at the lure. Of the three prongs on the treble hook, two of them had completely straightened out. When constructing my lure, I had obviously selected hooks made of wire too fine for the job.
I could and did blame myself for that experience, but it was not the last tackle failure and lost fish which I might have avoided. One night on the same river, I overcast slightly and got properly hooked up in a tree on the far side. I was using a small tube fly with a size 10 Kamasan treble hook in it, and it clearly was fairly well embedded – it just did not want to come clear. So I put the rod aside, averted my head as protection against the hook coming suddenly free and pulled directly on the line which was attached to a strong 15 pounds leader. I distinctly felt something give slightly and duly got the fly back. I had the sense to switch the red beam torch on for a moment to check the condition of the hook, found that one of the points had opened slightly and so tied on a new treble. I was ready to fish on and did so without event until about one in the morning, by which time I had worked my way up to join Lyn Davies in the Gutter Pool. This pool often gives you a chance of a late fish, and it was due to be our last shot before heading for home. Sooner or later one of us would surely get tired and suggest “whisky at Cragg Cottage?” Among our group of friends this is a Falkusian code for “let’s give this up, go back to Lyn’s kitchen and drink a glass or two of single malt.” Lyn and I fished side by side that night and I was casting up and across – the Gutter Pool has an unusual swirling eddy – and after a while the line tightened and I got into a sewin. It went round and round, while Lyn got a sight of its silver side in star light and reckoned it was a good one. He prepared his net ready for the final moments, but unexpectedly my rod sprang straight and, just like that, the fish was off! I felt my way up the line to see what was wrong at the business end and found – nothing at all. No fly, no leader …. and no braided loop, which had slipped off the end of the line. Obviously the strain put on the loop when pulling out of the tree earlier had moved it slightly, super glue notwithstanding. I had checked the fly and hook after the incident with the tree, but had failed to check the rest of the leader. Some might also remark that a 15 pounds breaking strain leader is very strong to use with a single handed 7 weight rod and a size 10 hook; consideration needs to be given to where the weakest point of the tackle will be. I have very rarely had a braided loop fail, but since that sad event I have made a point of using salmon size braided loops on my sewin lines.
We all have stories to tell. Eifion has a tale of an encounter with a very big Loughor sewin, which he did see for a moment. It was hooked on the Golden Mile, a tight and dangerous place under high banks, and it tore up and down before he made several attempts to net it. He couldn’t get it into the net, so eventually he switched his head torch on and had a momentary view of how big it really was. He describes the adipose fin as the size of his palm. And then, of course, it came off.
The stories of lost salmon are legion. The one which I think I regret most was the fish which my son hooked in the Lines at Goodrich Court while I was attending him. We never saw the fish, although I had the idea that it was a big one for some reason, but we seemed to be well in contact when the fish made a steady run diagonally downstream for a distance. My son worked it back, seemed to be making progress, when suddenly the hook let go. Malcolm didn’t seem to mind, took it like a man and just gave a rueful grin. I was upset for a while though, on his behalf, because I had been all ready to net what would have been his first salmon and a delight for us both. Of course this sort of thing happens all the time.
You can almost lose a fish without actually hooking it. Once, while working at the staff college in the middle of a military training exercise, I invited a colleague back from Shrivenham for the weekend. He didn’t fish, but expressed himself as very keen to try it. I took him to the upper Wye’s Pwll y Faedda on the Saturday and he had a great time wading around the pools and practising on trout. It was early July and the river was not at salmon fishing height, but my friend was also interested to see how the big double-handed rod worked. With this in mind, towards the end of the day I made up a 15 foot salmon rod with a floating line and an Irish shrimp pattern, sat him on the steps over the House Pool and began to demonstrate some casts. To be honest, I was showing off a bit. I certainly didn’t think anything would happen. “Now this cast is called a single Spey,” I told him, and threw a long line diagonally downstream. “There’s a hot spot down there, in the deep water just in front of that rock, which the fly will cover, but I don’t want it to come round too fast. So this movement I’m making now is called an upstream mend, which will have the effect of slowing it down.” I extended my arms and demonstrated the named semi-circular movement, and by doing so managed to pluck the fly away from a large silver shape just as it rose to the surface to take. “Hell! Did you see that?” The fish didn’t come again either.
Pwll y Faedda and the House pool was the scene of another sad loss. The river was running very high on this occasion and I was spinning with a single hook Flying C. There is powerful suction in this pool tail as the water accelerates into a constricted gutter below, and my own wading position was somewhat precarious. I got into a fish and, probably through good luck rather than judgment, managed to keep it away from running down the gutter and out of the pool. However, there was an extended period, really much too long a period, when it was just hanging below me in the surface of the fast-streaming current. It looked wonderful down there in the sunshine, the dorsal fin breaking the surface and the big tail beating steadily. I’m loathe to put a measurement on a fish I didn’t catch, but it was a cock fish and looked like a good one – OK, not a 48 inch monster, but more than 36 inches, I would have said. And yet I knew as I watched it, that this situation was a terrible strain on the hook-hold. I just couldn’t seem to persuade the fish upstream of my own position. The inevitable happened just as the fish came over the rim of the net: one last head-shake and it was gone.
Grayling often come off the hook of course, particularly if contacted at long range downstream in a big winter current. They have soft mouths, so this isn’t surprising. However, I can’t recall being particularly upset by the loss of a good grayling. This must be because there is usually the chance of another one, so if a fish is lost I keep hopeful and fish on. Perhaps one of the big Lugg or Arrow grayling, hooked on a difficult winter day in a deep hole, might cause some extra anxiety. A big grayling is a wonderful prize but on reflection, grayling hooked at close quarters with a soft rod tip usually stay on the hook. I refuse to take stocked rainbow trout too seriously these days; they can be great fun, but whether they release themselves at long range or I do the job in the net and say goodbye is much the same to me.
Wild brown trout can break your heart, however. A big brownie, hooked on the sort of light-weight tackle we normally use on the rivers, can move with tremendous speed and power in the early stages of play. I think it’s fair to say that if you survive the first couple of runs, you have a good chance of eventually netting the fish. On the other hand, big brown trout are rare and prized creatures, even on the Usk.
I can remember a couple of lost fish from the top of the Irfon which caused me some regrets. I used to make a point of fishing the upper Irfon at least once a year, with the idea of assessing stocks which in those days suffered from regular flushes of acidic water caused by upland conifer plantations. The WUF have done much to improve this situation in recent years, but in those days the acid episodes would kill off the smaller fish, including salmon parr, while a few big brown trout would survive. For this reason, everybody was always interested to know exactly what was to be caught on the uppermost stretches of this fascinating tributary. I can remember one summer session on the WUF’s Wild Stream beat (Upper Irfon) during which I caught little or nothing over the first mile.
Then, in a certain pool, I caught sight of a very big brown trout slipping downstream past me. Apparently it wasn’t alone; a little further up I spotted a steady riser under my own bank. I was fishing a little 7 foot 3 weight rod at the time and, after a bit of manoeuvring to get the angle I wanted, I managed to pop a dry fly up there. The fish sucked it in on the first pass. I set the hook, the fish jumped, just the once so that I could see its impressive dimensions, and then of course it came off! That was the main event of the day, as it turned out.
Another time, again in a mood of experiment, with Jeremy Jacquet (former owner of Pwll y Faedda), I fished even higher up the Irfon, right in the Abergeswyn Pass. The river here cuts down through the rock to make swirling pots and there are almost subterranean channels where you have to listen for the water gurgling below. I think some of these strata must be of soft limestone, so easily does the water cut through them. We caught nothing all morning in what seemed like a barren stream until, in one of the deepest and darkest of these pots, something powerful seized my Tungsten Hare’s Ear nymph. I found myself playing a large and really handsome-looking brown trout, which made determined lunges for the depths before eventually shaking the hook just before the net. There have been several more incidents like that, especially on the Monnow, now that I think back. In fact, it doesn’t really matter, does it, because all I had wanted was a photograph in these cases – another kind of trophy hunting, and a habit which perhaps, with sufficient maturity, I should outgrow. “San Fairy Ann,” as my maternal grandfather used to bark at me in his harsh Norfolk accent, meaning that I shouldn’t worry. Grandad was deaf, so that the family had to shout at him and he would shout back, but he had a heart of gold. And in case you don’t get this reference, this was because he had served in the trenches of the First World War where, apart from being partially deafened for the rest of his life by high explosives, he had heard French soldiers say “ca ne fait rien” for when something really didn’t matter very much at all. “San Fairy Ann,” I say to myself now, for all lost fish.
Like many of us, I’ve been watching parliament during the evenings lately with a sort of horrified fascination. “Parliament must have a voice” was the cry I seem to remember hearing a couple of years ago. It certainly has been doing that. However, looking on the bright side, I’ve been truly impressed by the new interest my Forest of Dean neighbours are taking in our nation’s democratic processes, which as we all know are the envy of the world. That is true, isn’t it? The other afternoon, my wife, daughter and I decided to pop into the Rising Sun for a quick drink. I was looking to see if there was any frogspawn in the pond (amphibians seem to have failed this year) but a bellowing could be heard from inside even before we reached the door. “Jimmy’s here,” I said. “Come to think of it, where else would he be?”
The thing about Jimmy is that somewhere back in the mists of time my family used to rent his family a couple of small fields. On the basis of this tenuous connection, he seems to think that I owe him a drink when we bump into each other. And it’s frankly difficult to go into any of the local pubs without bumping into Jimmy at some point. I remember his old pick-up rolling one day into the car park of the Miner’s Arms. It was still moving at walking pace when he stepped out, a diminutive figure dressed in clothes faded to a sort of indeterminate colour by years of exposure to weather, a roll-up stuck to his lower lip and an irrepressible grin showing under the same battered and ancient cap he always wears. “Hello old butt,” said Jimmy. His abandoned pick-up hit the wall at the bottom of the car park with a sort of “crump” as the front bumper collapsed a little further. “Hand-brake’s gone” explained Jimmy as he headed for the bar.
Jimmy and his mates are what are called in the local dialect “ship badgers,” which means they have commoners’ rights on Forest land. You can read sheep for “ship.” The general pattern of their day is that they spend the morning trying to work out where their free-range animals have wandered off to, after which they withdraw to whichever of the local pubs is open through the afternoon and drink whisky and chasers. By 3 o’clock they are usually singing. Only today it was not so much singing as bellowing. “Division! Clear the lobby!” Jimmy was shouting as we walked in through the door. “Ayes to the right, Noes to the Left!” his mates chorused merrily in unison, waving their glasses in time. The bar-maid looked exhausted. Forest landlords, of course, have the option of opening during the day in hope of attracting some extra custom. What they usually get is Jimmy and crew. “Unlock!” went Jimmy. “Order, order! Whose round is it?”
May is to come, and who cannot get excited by the idea of mayfly fishing? It’s the one occasion (except perhaps for the March browns), when you can use a proper big artificial pattern on our streams. In recent years the hatches have come early and we have being seeing the big white flies on Wye tributaries – Monnow, Lugg, Arrow, Llynfi etc – by the middle of the month, so they may already be up when you read this. Enjoy and tight lines!
Oliver Burch http://wyevalleyflyfishing.com
It’s become a tradition with me to try for a salmon on opening day, 3rd March. According to known statistics from past opening days, this attempt might be rather a long shot, but I have the idea it somehow shows willing, a sort of homage to the god of the river, and maybe will turn out to be a good omen for the rest of the season. Who knows, pouring a shot of whisky in (to the river) might help too? I had a fish on the second day of the season a few years back. Last year we were blocked by snow; this year we were confronted by the coming of Storm Freya with predictions of rain and high winds. I hummed and hawed about the idea for a while, but at the last moment I made my mind up and booked on at Goodrich Court. I was glad I did; the river height was about ideal (0.55 on the Ross gauge) and running relatively clear. I didn’t mind a morning fishing in drizzling rain, which is at least better than a day of bright sunlight in mid-summer.
The V, the Stones, Dog Hole, Island Stream, Gabions, Maddox and the Vanstone were all covered as assiduously as I could, but without a touch. Never mind, it was good to be out casting again with the big rod. I noticed sprays of hawthorn already in leaf on the bank, which seemed very early for the first days of March.
The day became more difficult later as the storm came in. At lunchtime I had to turn the Landrover round to shelter from the wind blowing heavier rain into the open tailgate and once back on the river my casts started to go all over the place. I don’t fancy my chances much when I can’t deliver the fly or mend line properly. A change to the spinning rod didn’t help either as Freya in a full rage now tossed the lure back in my face. Eventually the water did start to rise and colour up as the rain affected tributary streams and ditches. So I was eventually defeated, but later that evening, when I checked the results for the river, I realised it hadn’t been such a bad idea to try. No less than four salmon had been caught on the Ross AA water just a couple of miles upstream (one of them with the fly), then a small one from the Dean and Chapter pool, a fish of 15 pounds at Courtfield downstream, while Stan Turner and Lawrence Birkin had fish of 13 and 18 pounds up at Aramstone. Best of a very good opening day was a salmon of 31 pounds taken with a Red and Silver Flying C by Nathan Jubb from Coedithiel at the bottom of the river. Not many of us were out trout fishing, but conditions were (briefly) just about perfect around Brecon. MH from Stourbridge had 5 at Fenni Fach. I had a nice day at Brecon on the 5th fishing with spiders before the Usk also flooded.
After that quite reasonable start for 2019’s game fishing, everything seemed to go wrong. I had a feeling we would be made to pay for that easy and sunny weather in February. A series of storms with heavy rain now swept in from the west and they kept on coming.
These not only created floods, but kept them going. There was no good trout or salmon fishing to be had on any of the rivers, although rainbows could be caught on still waters and buzzer fishing worked well on the pools. Coarse anglers on the Middle and Lower Wye struggled on through the last days of their season and a few fish were caught: a barbel here and a couple of chub there. This was mainly a matter of attracting fish by smell to baits lodged in the slacks at the edge of muddy currents and far from easy fishing. By 17th March the river levels had reached their peak, while the weather seemed to have settled at last into a dry pattern. Further north there were some serious floods, but hopefully it would now just be a matter of waiting for the levels to fall to enable fishing again. While we waited for the rivers to drop, trout fishing was confined to the reservoirs. On the 17th MG from Hereford had 8 rainbows spinning at Usk Reservoir, while NM from Hergoed had 5 at Llwyn On. MJ from Treorchy had 6 at Llwyn On and TW from Kidwelly had 6 more from Usk on the next two succeeding days.
We usually have to wait for the uppermost tributaries and small streams to come into condition. The higher the altitude, the later the start, is the general rule. The Forest of Dean streams, which are not far above sea level, fished well with the nymph from their opening day (18th March) and the trout seemed surprisingly plump and healthy for so early in the year. I suppose they had taken advantage of that mild weather in February. Meanwhile sprouting green leaves, new grass and flowers gave us every indication that the spring was well advanced. On the 19th AM from Bromyard fished the tiny Pinsley Brook and queried the access and its described similarity to a chalk stream. “Not a managed beat,” was his comment. I can only respond that Pinsley Brook is absolutely not a managed beat, it is a Wild Stream and a challenging one at that. The comparison with a chalk stream (which it is not of course) was not suggested because the banks are regularly mowed, but because of the PH value and clarity of the water, the nature of the flow and the marginal vegetation, and because it can grow large trout. They are certainly difficult to get at, though!
The main rivers were dropping slowly. Simon Evans from the Foundation was out on the Wye’s Rectory beat with the salmon rod on the 21st (after work, I’m guessing). The gauge at Llanstephan was still showing 2ft 7 inches. That is a big river by any standards, but he managed to cover Bridge, Ty Mawr and Gravel Catch pools. By the 22nd AL from London was able to fish the Usk for trout at Dinas where he found some flies hatching and took 13 to 1.5 pounds. RO from London tried the Taff at Merthyr and was depressed by the amount of rubbish in the river. He caught three trout on spinner however, and had some more the following day. Meanwhile, SJ from Crickhowell had half a dozen trout on dry fly from the Usk at Fenni Fach with a few large dark olives and March browns hatching.
A few miles upstream, AS from Newent fishing with nymphs had 8 from Penpont.
Over on the Wye at Abernant, SF from London had 8 trout on dry flies, so it seemed our sister river was waking up also. SM from near Leominster made the trip west to Lyn Egnant on the 24th, fishing loch-style flies on an intermediate line. He didn’t succeed, but sent us a picture of this mountain lake. So far, there is very little sign of spring up on those bleak moors. Salmon angler JP from St Davids encountered illegal canoeists on the Wye at Gromaine, as did DJ from Evesham on Llangoed and Lower Llanstephan immediately below. That particular problem has started early this year. On the 25th IG from Pontypridd had 8 trout on nymphs from the Usk at Penpont and commented negatively on the rise in ticket price, as did AP from Cheltenham who fished at Glan yr Afon on the 26th.
I was rather pleased to see that AP used a Kite’s Imperial dry fly to catch a nice trout during a spring olive hatch – see photograph.
AH of Swansea fished the Breconshire Fishery on the 26th and noted that the vehicle access by lane to the lower end of the fishery on the Showground has been barred off. I am not sure what advice to give day ticket holders on this access, but I do know that season ticket holders have been given the code for the padlock. AH also queried the Foundation’s administration charge for selling the 15 pounds ticket. I should make the point that the WUF’s website and ticket office need to be paid for and there is the alternative of buying the ticket on the day from several addresses in Brecon, including the Westend Service Station or the Fishtec shop. Or why not buy a season ticket from the WUF in any case, which is very good value at 40 pounds for a non-resident? Make three visits and you are already ahead!
GC from Worcester took 5 brown trout on dry fly from Gromaine and Upper Llanstephan on 27th March. The following day RB from Redditch had 9 trout on the Rectory beat just downstream. RW of Worcester with a friend fished at the Breconshire beat of the Usk for 11 trout to 1.5 pounds while March Browns and large dark olives were hatching. JG from Monmouth tried the Dore at Chanstone Court where he got 4 trout from 9-12 inches by various methods. He thought this beat could do with a trim. JT and SC from Bristol made the same comment about Pandy (Honddu) on the previous day. On the 29th MN from Bristol fished the top of the Usk at Trallong and Abercamlais and had 6 trout from 14-17 inches on a size 12 March Brown Emerger. JR from Innsworth fished the Forest of Dean’s little Cannop Brook and had half a dozen trout from 5-7 inches on a Pheasant Tail Nymph. On the 30th AF from Nailsworth caught 5 trout on dry fly and spiders from the Wye at Abernant. BW from Abergavenny saw an otter on the Llynfi at Pontithel on the 30th, caught five trout – and two poachers, spinning. I am not clear from the report what was done about that at the time? TH of Brecon fished his local town water (Breconshire Fishery) on the 31st and caught 6 trout to 12 inches with nymphs.
To summarise March, we lost half the month to floods, but that was followed by a couple of weeks of high pressure and sunny days. Days which change from an early frost or fog to a bright midday sun at 15 or 16 degrees are not exactly ideal, but the fish were not totally discouraged and some really quite good surface fishing on the Usk and the upper Wye followed. Water conditions were about right for spring and I saw some wonderful hatches on the middle Usk at the end of the month. Large dark olives kept going every day, while the big March browns were also a regular feature, seemingly on all parts of the river. It’s strange to think that only a few years ago we had given up on the March brown as extinct on the Usk. Also the grannom sedge came early this spring, just as happened last year. I think it’s fair to conclude that the dark olives quite like cold, dull weather, even with a chilly wind blowing, but the March browns and grannom appreciate a bit of warmth and sunshine. A Welsh spring can provide all of these conditions in a morning!
There is everything to hope for in April on the main rivers, although the hatches will gradually change. The grannom should continue for a while. Dark olives will gradually fade from the scene to be replaced by some of the smaller baetis species. March browns will also continue for a bit before being replaced by the large brook dun, which is more or less the same thing from the angler’s point of view, because the same fly patterns should work. At some point the olive upright, a most important fly in our area, is going to put in an appearance. If you find yourself stymied on a cold, grey day, with fish rising to something but no hatch obviously visible, look closely at the surface. The little iron blue, easily missed by the human eye but apparently sweet-tasting to trout, could be responsible. Try a very small F-Fly. It’s easy to jump the gun on small streams – they take longer to come to life – but some warm April weather should do the trick and we should see some rising fish there too.
There are two very interesting articles in the April edition of Trout and Salmon. One is about the big grayling caught on “a southern chalk stream” by Neil Stephen of Maidenhead. If anybody wants to know what a really big grayling looks like, have a glance at the for once uncontrived photograph which accompanies this article. The fish, which took a Killer Bug, was 21 inches long with a 14 inch girth and weighed 4 pounds 3 ounces – not quite a British record. The colour of the beast is almost black with a very slight peacock blue tinge.
The other article is about the remarkable 87 year old Maurice Hudson who has taken so many salmon from the lower Wye. At 2,400 odd fish, I imagine his score from the river must be greater than that of any other living angler. And he is still doing it, every summer – look out for MH of St Briavels in the fishing reports.
He mainly fishes his own water by Cadora Pool just above the tide and his success, as is so often the case with older anglers, seems to be rooted in a deep knowledge of the river and the lies. He doesn’t wade, but uses various cribs and perches which suit his water. His equipment is no more than workman-like and his flies look quite straight-forward, even old-fashioned some might say, but he deceives fish after fish with them, particularly using small patterns in summer. Maurice likes an Usk Grub, he tells us. Interestingly he objects to Spey casts and the noise they make on the surface, but generally prefers to make overhead casts square across the river with a double tapered trout line. This certainly started me thinking. I enjoyed my hot summer day on Cadora Backs, casting over deep water from various cribs and overhanging rocks. I could see a number of residents I was covering which weren’t in the mood to respond. But what was I doing there with a 15 footer and a 38 gram shooting head? Maurice, no doubt, would have dropped his little fly lightly with his double tapered line and then hand-lined it across in front of the fish to provoke a response.
Maurice was interesting on the Wye’s famous run of very large salmon, fish which were particularly significant during the early years of the 20th century, although much rarer today. By “very large” we are speaking of 40 and 50 pounders here, the kind of fish which modern anglers are unlikely to see in a long lifetime of fishing. You sometimes hear a romantic theory that this strain of large Wye fish originated from the 1869 introduction by the eccentric naturalist Frank Buckland of smolts taken from the Rhine. According to different versions of the story, Buckland may have introduced anything from a couple of dozen to 700 juvenile Rhine fish, but whichever it was, it doesn’t seem likely that the whole genetic structure of our river was so quickly altered. As Maurice recounts, the Duke of Beaufort’s netting rights on the Wye from 1890 to 1901 were rented by Alexander Miller and his sons, who came from Scotland to live at Llandogo. These rights involved 30 miles of river, from Symonds Yat to the Bristol Channel and the Miller family were energetic and skilled netsmen, taking a huge toll of the river’s salmon over the next decade. In their best year (1892), they seemed to have caught and marketed 12-13,000 fish, sent by rail from Chepstow to Billingsgate, although the number fell off rapidly as the run declined. It was by then obvious that the river was being over-netted. In 1901, the end of the Millers’ lease, the Wye (and other) netting rights were sold by the Duke of Beaufort to the Crown, but on condition that a new 25 year lease should be made to the Wye Fisheries Association. In a stroke the rights had been transferred from commercial netsmen to the conservators and this act by the Duke made possible the resurrection of the river in the years which followed. Returning to the period of the Millers, they were able to net efficiently and probably cream off most of the year’s run while water conditions were normal. However, the nets were necessarily withdrawn during heavy spring and autumn floods. As a result, the grilse and two sea winter salmon were being taken during the summer, but many of the three and four sea winter large fish were able to run through to the spawning grounds. Maurice argues that this was, therefore, a positive selection system favouring the survival of large fish genes and the effect on the overall population lasted for many years after freshwater netting had ceased. This is almost like a Just So story. And that, children, is why there were so many big salmon in the Wye 100 years ago!
The Foundation has announced that the office will marketing tickets for the Abergavenny Town Water of the Usk this year.
This seems like good news. Like most of the regulars on the river, I have fished the town waters a fair bit and have had a great deal of pleasure from doing so. Town waters are effectively clubs, set up to give local anglers good fishing at very reasonable rates, and most of them nowadays are keen to sell day tickets also. Clients for guiding, I have found, become a bit dubious if I suggest a day on a town water, but I am not sure why. Maybe this is because of a wish for exclusive access on what for them might be a carefully arranged holiday. The fact is that in the case of the Usk, and the Wye too, the town waters include some of the best parts of the river and while you certainly might meet other anglers, it’s unusual to feel crowded. It’s a social kind of fishing and a cup of tea from the flask and a yarn with another angler met on the bank is all part of the day. You might need to grit your teeth and smile a bit while walkers swim their dogs near you on a sunny day, but you can avoid that by getting on the river early or picking a quiet corner. And this is not urban fishing or anything like it. You generally have a mile or more of a classic game river to play with and the same possibilities of hatches and rises that more expensive beats offer. I can’t think of a nicer place to fish in spring than the Breconshire Fishery, the lower end of which shares a pool with Dinas. Abergavenny, newly added to the Passport, is also really excellent with very productive pools below the bridge alongside the Town Meadow. This part is quite busy in a friendly sort of way – occasionally there is even the excitement of hang gliders landing on the meadow from the mountains above – but very good fishing also. The lower section is much quieter and more intimate and adjoins with some fishing of the Merthyr Tydfil Alliance on the other side of the A40. Usk Town Water has a different character with extensive wading on wide gravel flats and it’s a wonderful place for fishing spiders. In that case you buy the tickets from Sweet’s Tackle Shop in Porthycarne Street, which is a pleasure in itself.
“Don’t the town waters put in stock fish, though?” people ask. Well, they do at times, but of course some of the private fisheries do that also. The town water committees naturally enough respond to the demands of their members for consistent sport. Usually there is a single stocking and this might go in at the beginning of the season. A more usual and I think better approach is that towards the beginning of the summer, when the best of the spring fishing is naturally starting to slow down somewhat, some appropriately sized brown trout are introduced to keep the water lively. There might be some “silly” fishing for a few days but the new trout seem to naturalise and grow on quite readily. By this time many of us will have moved on to other options such as mayfly waters, small streams, club waters and private beats on the main rivers. What you will find in the town waters by the following March will be wild fish mixed with a few overwintered stock fish, which after many months in the river are good-looking and doughty opponents.
We have another new offering on the passport for this year. This is the Eglwys Nunydd Reservoir, a fishery which I can pretty safely claim is like no other. Everybody passing Port Talbot on the M4 gets a view of this one: acres of water stretching below the road in the direction of sand-hills and the coast, but with a backdrop of British Oxygen, the Tata steel works and other large enterprises, gantries, railway tracks and chimneys, one of which often sends a burning plume of fire and smoke drifting into the sky. In the late hours of the night I used to drive back from sea trout fishing on this road and the fires of Port Talbot shining across the water were a memorable beacon on the way home. Steel and therefore money was being made. The reservoir surrounded by concrete banks was originally built as a cooling pond for the steel works and I used to look down at it from the dual carriageway, wonder whether it was really fresh water and think to myself that surely it must be polluted. Well, the fact is that it is not polluted at all and, being relatively shallow, grows a remarkable crop of invertebrates of all the usual kinds. The summer hatches of caddis are particularly memorable. Tata Angling, the steel company fishing club, control the fishing and stock it with rainbows at around 3 pounds, which quickly grow on if they evade capture. There is excellent top of the water dry fly and nymph fishing to be had during the warmer months and fishing for fry-feeders later in the year. A day on the water in front of the smoke stacks is recommended.
We also have some new beats in the Wild Stream section. It was good to see the Honddu beat (an Usk tributary, not to be confused with the Monmouthshire Honddu) is back on the list. This one, a mile or so above Brecon town, has some deep pools and there certainly used to be good trout in it. (The private beat immediately below it is known as the Cathedral Water and I always imagined encountering the ghost of an old angler in clerical garb pottering away down there in the woods with a wicker basket and a split cane rod – just as you might on the Wye’s Dean and Chapter Pool). Further upstream on the Usk, Parc Fishing at the bottom of the Cilieni is likely to be worth investigating. Oakfield is a new offering at the top of the Ithon and over in North Herefordshire, the Rodd is a new Hindwell beat.
I’m fussy about tapered leaders. Not so fussy as to go back to making the butt sections up from spools of thick nylon again, but I’m convinced selecting a tapered commercial leader to achieve the right turn-over and presentation is quite important. For river trout and grayling fishing I’m currently fond of the Varivas (standard trout version) leader, although they are becoming difficult to find. For lake fishing I have recently gone back to using Airflo’s well known Poly-leaders. I was using tapered braid leaders on still water, but the trouble with those if used over a very long period is that I am almost certain that they lead to accelerated wear on the tip ring. They holds grease nicely, which is excellent if you use the wrinkles in the butt section as a take indicator, but in the final phases of playing a fish you can almost hear the braid sawing away on the tip ring. Poly-leaders are made by encasing a length of strong nylon or fluorocarbon in soft polythene, running from thick to thin in order to achieve the taper. The problem with them used to be that the loop connecting to the fly line was so clumsy as to make a nasty bump when passing through the rings. Recent versions are much improved however and the thick end of the leader has been considerably neatened. Poly-leaders are slightly flexible, achieving the same shock absorber protection against a smash take as a piece of Power Gum would provide. The 5 foot version (standard trout size) is claimed to turn over 10 feet of tippet. I would go further than that and suggest that it will turn over nearly 15 feet, making a total 20 feet leader length, if the flies in the team are well chosen and cast carefully. There is a 10 foot version also.
Gwent Angling Association are going to hold an open day on the Usk at Ty Mawr on 8th June, including demonstrations, instruction – and a barbecue they tell me. Details can be found and tickets at 40 pounds (with various concessions) booked at: https://gwentanglingsociety.co.uk/gwent-angling-society-2019-open-skills-day
Which of us is not interested in the subject of big trout? What exactly do I mean by a big trout? Let’s say 2 pounds and above. A few years ago I was somewhat upset to read a report about a very nice one taken from the middle Usk.
It was apparently something over 4 pounds, took a dry fly on a spring evening, and was very nearly lost at the net, having been secured with a frantic scoop by the angler just as the tippet broke. And then I read that the captor knocked it on the head, “…because it was obviously a cannibal and better out of the water.” Now the angler hadn’t broken the rules of the fishery in any way (you are allowed to take a brace there if you wish), but the idea that it actually benefits the fishery to kill larger trout on the basis that they eat a disproportionate amount of smaller trout is one I had thought belonged to the earlier part of the 20th century. Halford and most of his accolytes, who killed large numbers of stocked trout on the chalk streams, would have accepted this policy almost without question. However, in the case that a challenge is still needed to the theory that trout in a river can be divided into insectivorous (and therefore desirable to the angler) smaller to medium fish, and large fish only interested in eating smaller trout (and therefore harmful to the fishery), I’m going to try to rationalise that response now. Firstly, I would suggest that the fact that the big Usk trout in question was taken on a dry fly should have given the angler some sort of clue as to its proclivities. Secondly, I am convinced all trout are by nature pretty aggressive creatures and certainly cannibals if given half a chance. Oliver Kite certainly believed so and wrote: “…all trout from yearlings upwards are merciless cannibals by nature.” Every experience I have had certainly confirms that. Any decent trout even looks the part, spotted like a leopard and with “born killer” almost written across its jaws. Those teeth are there for a purpose. (Only the pike looks more deadly, because she has assassin’s eyes along with bigger teeth and is more than prepared to eat her own children). And thirdly I would like to remind that on most waters it takes a long time to grow a large brown trout, and therefore there is a case for regarding it as a rather rare and precious creature.
Back in schoolboy days on the upper Wey (a Thames tributary with a mixture of coarse fish, trout and a few grayling), I invariably performed autopsies in my parents’ kitchen when cleaning trout for the pot. This was a time when, I blush to admit, we killed everything over the size limit with an adipose fin. Most of these were half pounders, but there were few of them which did not contain some small fish, at least a couple of bullheads, along with the caddis cases and the remains of other larvae. Sometimes there were the remains of minnows, small dace and very often there were trout parr. Come to that, on occasions I also found tadpoles, frogs, snails and worms. I had the impression that these trout, nearly all of them wild, were prepared to eat pretty well whatever they could find. During the more recent years of catch and release, there haven’t been so many opportunities for autopsies or the use of the marrow spoon – although I appreciate that these can be very instructive. But many and many a time I have netted a fly-caught fish only to have it cough up a half-digested loach or baby trout. On a couple of occasions I have caught a grayling which disgorged a grayling parr.
I was thinking of the minnow and bullhead munchers one day when I was sitting with a pint outside the Dog Inn at Ewyas Harold, enjoying the sunshine and a clear view of the little Dulas Brook beneath my feet. I realised there was a little trout down there, barely 6 inches long, and it was behaving in a rather odd way. I looked closer and saw that it was trying to eat a bullhead tail end first. However, just when it almost had the smaller fish’s flat head engulfed by means of convulsive swallows, the victim would make an effort and struggle forward until it had almost escaped. But not quite. The trout would make a renewed attempt and again the bullhead would almost disappear. While watching this, I had in mind that bullheads themselves are pretty aggressive little creatures. Occasionally one gets caught up during the regular kick-sampling of invertebrates I do for the Riverfly Partnership. You would think that, having been trapped in a net and then turned out with everything else into a white plastic sampling dish, the little fish would be at least nervous if not traumatised. Not a bit of it; invariably a bullhead released into the dish quickly proceeds to eating the rest of my sample, a small heptagenid here, a gammarus there, until so stuffed up with insects that it can get no more in. Nature is red in tooth and claw! As for my Dulas Brook drama outside the Dog Inn, the rather grisly sequence of efforts by predator and prey went on back and forth for some 20 minutes, when I finished my beer and left and so never did see the end of the story.
Unlike the relatively short-lived and fast-growing salmon, European grayling and American rainbow trout, slow growing brown trout (including sea trout) can live for a dozen years or more and, if conditions are right, eventually grow to a considerable size. The British record for brown trout is currently 31 pounds 12 ounces, from Loch Awe, and for the sea-faring variant, 28 pounds 5 ounces from Calshot Spit off the mouth of the Test. If you take the jaded and cynical view of international politics, which is to say that large nations behave like gangsters while small nations behave like prostitutes, you are well on the way to understanding the pecking order system which governs the growth of trout and other aggressive species in nature. In fact the Mafia and Camorra tactics make a very good analogy for the behaviour of trout in a pool. Mr Big gets the best feeding lie with the best access to safe cover, and thus gets to survive and eat and thus grow even bigger. Any smaller fry who feel inclined to disagree had better watch out because there is no socialism in the river, at least, not among the trout!
Most rivers and even brooks seem to be capable of growing the odd big one in this way, and the stories about them turn quickly into legends. Fifty years ago on the Hampshire Wey we considered ourselves lucky to get anything much over a pound, but there was the story heard in the school yard of the 4 pounder taken one day from a private mill pool above the shallow stretches where we fished. Supposedly it was ugly and almost black with a great hooked lower jaw, studded with long sharp teeth. Of course it was, we all thought then, because it was a cannibal - must have been. More recently and more locally, we all know that the Usk is capable of producing big fish: 2 pounders are relatively common, 3 and 4 pounders turn up every year and fish larger than that have been recorded on occasions. But what about the Wye and the legendary 6 pounder from the Irfon tributary a few years ago, another 6 pounder reported from a hole in the Worcestershire Frome, and the fish of 10 pounds from the Monnow taken back in the 90s before the mill dam at Skenfrith was washed away? I am sure there is some truth behind all those stories.
The biggest trout I caught on the Wye – I don’t know how big, because I didn’t measure it – took a Flying C intended for salmon, came in like a log, and then when I tried to unhook it exploded in a fit of head-shaking fury, neatly transferring the treble of the spinner from its jaw into my hand.
The accepted view of what makes a trout turn to cannibalism, and supposedly away from supping on flies on the surface like a properly behaved fish, and thus in the process making itself unfortunately invulnerable to the angler with an artificial fly, was the onset of age and infirmity. Frank Sawyer wrote that if a two legged, four legged or winged predator doesn’t get it, the end of an old trout is a rather terrible one – blindness followed by starvation. On stocked rainbow lakes, you can sometimes see the sad condition of old fish like this, not far from death. The conventional view used to be that a cannibal trout is at a stage in this ageing and dying process. It loses condition rather like an old lame tiger which has lost most of its teeth and can no longer chase down deer. Instead it has turned to man-eating, waiting on the edge of the forest for easier prey. The idea is that the cannibal trout, poorly conditioned, black, large of head, toothy of jaw but thin of body, is in the same condition as the man-eater. In this case it is eating other trout while waiting for some angling equivalent of Jim Corbett to take it out of the river and put it out of its misery. I can see no objection to a fish which is obviously old and sick being despatched as an act of kindness. However, I haven’t seen any evidence that such ageing fish, usually very ready to seize any kind of fly or lure, are particularly more efficient predators of smaller trout rather than any other food. I think they are just hungry, understandably so. They might be able to take advantage of sick or injured smaller fish.
There are other reasons for streams being inhabited by a few large trout only. Periodic acidic flushes, such as may be caused by extensive conifer plantations on high land, tend to kill off small fish, fry and parr, while bigger fish survive.
This is a problem which we have struggled with at times on the upper part of the Irfon, where I have encountered some surprisingly large trout in stretches which otherwise seemed relatively barren. A different matter altogether are the Ferox trout of lakes like Loch Awe in Scotland, which seem to have evolved a lifestyle of switching to specialised fish predation when they reach a certain age and size. This switch, almost like a gear change, is nothing to do with old age or infirmity, and such fish continue to grow at an increased rate for a considerable number of years. Meanwhile, I believe, most trout of all sizes in rivers and lakes continue to feed opportunistically on what is most conveniently available to them, from fish to insects to frogs and even mice and voles. It has been suggested that the ratio of 1:3 is important when considering the risk of predation; in other words, when a smaller fish gets too close to another fish three times larger than itself, it is definitely at risk of being attacked.
The largest trout I ever saw in the Wye was at Abernant, one day in September and quite a few years ago. I was near the end of an excellent day of fishing for myself, mostly using a team of spiders and mostly catching grayling. I had come to the tail of Lady Alexander Catch where there are some projecting rocks and made a decision I would have a last cast. Might be a trout there, I thought to myself, as the flies swung through the swirls made by the boulders, and sure enough the line tightened. I could feel a quick rhythm of tugs after I set the hook. It certainly felt like a trout rather than a grayling, but a fish big enough to play and perhaps at the end to need the net. But in a moment, everything changed. The rapid jolts gave way to a big heavy pull and slow head-shakes. I could not now feel anything but a distinctly large, slow-moving fish. Had a salmon grabbed one of the other flies on the leader? I decided that rather the fish which I had first hooked had been grabbed by a predator. I could rule out pike in this fast-flowing part of the river. Perhaps it was a chub, I thought, having several times had the experience of a chub attacking a hooked trout. While I was thinking all this through, the line suddenly became lighter and I could once more feel the panicked tugging of the smaller fish. I played it nearer to my position, and eventually I got a very good view of the trout which I had hooked on the point fly. It was being followed inches behind by a huge grey shadow and as it went back and forth I saw two more attacks made on it. The pursuit went on right to the net, where the predator turned away, but not before I had a close up view of a very large hen brown trout in what looked like excellent condition. The rather fortunate prey fish, wounded by teeth on its flanks, and which I measured accurately before releasing, was 13 inches long. I am not claiming any particular length for the attacker, but what price the 1:3 ratio now, I thought? Needless to say that I went straight back to the car for my box of rarely used streamers, which I then used to work carefully through the whole area. And probably also needless to add that I never saw that big trout again.
There is a theory or perhaps an assumption that large or prey-fish imitating streamers will surely result in a big trout. I can’t claim that my own experience bears this out. An unwanted brown trout which makes an attack on a 3 inch tube fly during early spring salmon fishing is as likely to be a half pound fish as anything larger. Looking at the other end of the scale, a size 16 dry fly has caught me some of my best trout from the Irfon and other Wye tributaries.
And my best Usk trout, taken near Brecon, took a size 14 Tungsten Hare’s Ear nymph. My colleague Frank Williams once told me that he had spent a lot of time working out the best way to fish lures for brown trout and had come to the conclusion that a heavy nymph on the point and the streamer on a dropper about a yard above was the best approach. “And then you mostly catch 6 ounce trout with the streamer,” he added rather ruefully.
In rivers which possess a run of sea trout, there is sometimes doubt as to what, exactly, a fish might be. True sea trout are rare in the Wye, but one turns up occasionally.
However, some of the brown trout after a long winter of muddy floods become quite washed out in colour and a sort of silvery grey. I suspect some of these caught in the spring are incorrectly identified as sea trout. The Usk has more of a sea trout run, especially as the season draws on, and I remember catching two in a row while salmon fishing in high water at Brecon. However, the same river has a strain of rather silvery brown trout as well and I dare say that mistakes are made by those who are not familiar with the river. The late Stuart Jarvis, gillie at Glanusk Park, certainly used to think so and believed that Usk sea trout are much rarer than claimed. He recalled being out with Prince Charles, who was using a double hander. His Royal Highness didn’t catch a salmon that day, but enjoyed himself and at the end remarked “…that was a nice brace of sea trout, anyway.”
“Did you tell him?” I wanted to know.
“You must be joking! Would I contradict our future monarch?”
About 10.30 one September evening we were curled up on the sofa watching a movie and thinking about a night-cap before bed, when the phone rang. It was Eifion, who was at that moment standing with his brother Gwynlais in the River Loughor, and he sounded excited: “Oliver! I’ve just caught the most beautiful brown trout. At least I think it’s a brown trout. It’s about 6 pounds.” The fly-caught fish was still being held for recovery while we talked. A few minutes later a couple of photographs came over, admittedly not perfect, but then they were taken in darkness with a mobile phone. These pictures, reproduced here, have since been the subject of much discussion.
We talked on for some minutes more while the undeniably handsome fish continued to be held in clear knee-deep water, breathing steadily as it recovered. Eventually its strength returned and it was released to wind itself away from the torch-light into the darkness. There are several points to make about this catch. The Loughor is a relatively acidic river and its brown trout are not large. A pounder is rare and a two pounder is very unusual, although not totally unknown. However, like other such rivers with a population of undersized brown trout, the Loughor has a reputation for producing very large sea trout, or sewin as they are known in Wales. The club’s record sea trout weighed 17 pounds. Now Eifion is a man who ought to know a sewin when he sees one; in a life time of chasing them by night he has caught a number of large fish up to 13 pounds from the Loughor. However, in the case of this particular trout, he admits to confusion. He hadn’t seen another quite like it. The fish was taken about 5 miles above the highest point which the tide reaches. The general colouration and the number of spots on the fish are what is mainly at issue. Sewin of course normally come into the river quite silver in colour and with a much smaller number of spots. Was it a late season multi-spawner? Old females which have made a number of spawning runs generally have a larger number of spots than usual. On the other hand, such old fish which have led long and dangerous lives coming and going from the sea usually bear the scars. I have a photograph of a hook-jawed old male sewin caught by Lyn Davies which looked not unlike a ferox, but it had clearly been in the wars. Eifion’s fish, as you can see, looked to be almost pristine in condition. A scale or two for reading might have answered some questions, but they weren’t taken. Could the little Loughor really have produced a trout in fresh water which would compare in size and condition to the great brown trout of the Irish limestone lakes?
You might conclude this is all a matter of splitting hairs; after all we know that a sea trout is nothing more than a brown trout which has decided to improve its prospects by migration – like a rich American as an Irish countryman once put it to me! However, just how long and how far this trout had been into the salt to spend its time, if at all, continues to be discussed. Could it be some sort of estuarine fish? The Loughor has an enormous and fertile estuary, but strangely enough “slob” or “bull” trout which have put on their weight in brackish water, common enough in the north-east, aren’t known here. I have been shown some photographs of very large trout taken in recent years from the Valleys rivers of South Wales, particularly the Taff and the Ebw. Are they wild fish or grown-on stock fish? There is a theory about the large Taff trout, which is that some of them may take advantage of the brackish water inside the Cardiff Bay barrier to feed on prawns and crabs, before returning to the river quite a few pounds heavier. Modern research has shown that brown trout migrate up and down rivers much longer distances than previously believed. The general conclusion now is that Eifion’s fish must have been a sewin, but a very unusual looking one. What do you think?
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com
February was a rather disappointing fishing month, starting with a cold spell, after which two weeks of fishing were wasted due to heavy rain and high water. The rest of February, which we expect to be a wintry month, was a real surprise with warm days and no rain at all. After morning frosts, record afternoon temperatures of 20 degrees were recorded in both England and Wales. Something looked slightly wrong about it; maybe it was the angle of the sun's rays which gave a smoky appearance to the light. Still, I must say it was all very pleasant, drinking coffee on the terrace in hazy sunshine and relaxing in warm air drifting up from Africa. Along with almond blossom crocuses and daffodils were out in every garden in town and rooks were gathering at their nesting sites. Forest pools looked glorious and there was some decent fishing for rainbow trout. However, the grayling seemed to have another view and although the rivers eventually came down to what looked to be excellent fishing levels, the results were on average quite poor. The coarse fishermen trying to take late pike, barbel and chub from the middle and lower Wye seemed to be struggling also.
PB from Cheltenham fished at Lypole on the 3rd February during that initial cold snap and took 8 grayling, mainly on Pink Shrimp and a Red Tag nymph. Those Lugg fish do appreciate a bit of colour in the fly! The DM, SW and SB team from Hereford were out on the Wye at Craig Llyn, but the usual heavy nymph methods produced no results at all during the morning. Somewhat disgruntled and wondering if the cold weather was to blame, they went off for a brew of tea in their little wheeled hut. Suddenly they were delighted to see grayling rising right in front of them. I can imagine this very well - I know the place and I think I might even know the shoal, having had some nice dry fly fishing there in October. With fish continuing to rise, they were able in the next period to take 8 grayling from the surface, despite the low temperatures. God bless the large dark olive!
But conditions changed; a lot of rain was delivered by successive fronts and all the rivers rose in flood. Even when sunny weather followed in the middle of the month, we were waiting quite a while for water levels to fall off. A few people tried to fish, but without much success at first. RW of Portishead was one who climbed into the high water of the Llynfi at Pontithel on the 14th, but with the gauge at Three Cocks still showing 0.55 it must have been very difficult. AG of Cardiff managed 8 from the Irfon's Cefnllysgwynne on the 16th. Using both fly and trotting methods MH of Llandrindod Wells fished the GPAIAC water of the Wye on the 18th for 6 grayling, and GG from Wotton under Edge had 5 more by trotting at Cefnllysgwynne. The following day JB from Chepstow managed 9 from the Colonel's Water of the Irfon, concentrating on the deep holes with nymphs. On the 23rd AS of Newent spent a day of warm sunshine on the Lugg at Lyepole and had 6 grayling to 14 inches.
RW of Hereford with a friend fished at Craig Llyn on the 24th for just a couple of grayling and watched a flotilla of canoes passing on their way downstream. This was fine, or seemed to be; Craig Llyn is not on the navigable section of the Wye, but canoe passage during this winter season is in accordance with the agreement. Who minds if they slip quietly past and downstream while only the grayling season is open? But when the two anglers went to the big pool at the bottom end, they found the same boating party were racing up and down it, using poles to propel themselves against the gravel bottom. Quite apart from the fishing, the risk to salmon redds is obvious. This sort of behaviour and the conflict it creates seems so unnecessary. I am reminded of one very cold January afternoon at Pwll y Faedda when I was standing in the river catching a few grayling, when two young fellows in a double canoe appeared above and hailed me. Did I want them to come down behind me, they wanted to know? I thanked them very much and told them yes please, because I had a shoal of grayling in front of me. They told me they were doing the whole Wye, source to mouth, this in the depths of winter. "Good for you," said I, genuinely impressed at their spirit of adventure. They wondered if I could tell them whether there was any kind of inn with rooms downstream at Llyswen. I told them I thought there were two and they seemed much relieved to hear it. Off they went with a wave. They were doing their thing and I was doing mine; I can happily share the river with such people.
On the 26th MD from Barry was out on Lower Glanwye - that's the one we used to call Llyn Em - and also saw canoes, but no grayling. He remarked on the difficulty of getting up this beat and I can only echo that. The middle and upper sections are mostly rock slabs and gutters, very good for salmon for those who know how to fish them, but it is slippery going with overhanging branches and no room for a path along the bank - the main road is close above. On the other hand, at the bottom of the beat is a nice gravel pool and run which can hold some good grayling and is easy enough to fish.
While out and about in the winter months, we sometimes come across the sort of farming practices which we believe are steadily eroding our aquatic invertebrate and fish populations. It hasn't always been easy to prove the connection, but the scientific evidence is building. Quite apart from worries about slurry spreading, and when and how it is done, over-grazing is another major concern. Fields today are often used to hold much more livestock than in the past, and in extreme cases are allowed to be poached right down to trampled mud. Once that has happened, any pollution leaches over the surface straight into the water without any filtering effect from roots and turf. Smaller rivers and tributaries are obviously more at risk than the main stems. Livestock need access to water of course and usually create some mud in the process, but one drinking station per field is all that is needed. The accompanying photographs taken during January of severely poached land beside the Arrow in Herefordshire illustrate the point.
For around a decade now, discussions have been going on about what should be done with the old eel trap weir in Blakeney village on the edge of the Forest of Dean. This obstruction on the Blackpool Brook is close beside the A48 and a little above the village post office (which is actually built on a bridge over the stream), and it involves a drop of about 5 feet. Below the post office the water flows in a tunnel under the main road and joins with a stream from Soudley to form the Bideford Brook which then runs across pastureland to reach the Severn estuary about four miles away. Both Blackpool and Bideford Brooks include beats participating in the WUF Wild Streams portfolio and are known for their healthy populations of small brown trout. What is mainly known to locals, however, while it remains a matter of surprise to many others, is that salmon find their way from the estuary into this tiny system. Above the reed-fringed tidal section running through the salt marsh is one final dam, created for a mill now long disappeared, and which a spring tide will just over-top. This enables salmon to get in and run up the Bideford Brook as far as Blakeney. Thus from this part of the stream we sometimes catch salmon parr and smolts in season. A few winters ago I found the body of a spawned out hen salmon, about 8 pounds, lying on a gravel bank. However, although waiting salmon have been seen in the village by post office customers during November and December, they never run the Blackpool arm above the weir in question. The reason is not the height of the sill, but the wide concrete apron below it. There is no pool below the fall with any depth of water for fish to accelerate from. All this seems a great shame, because the weir today serves no purpose. I don't think anybody imagines there will ever be a possibility to fish for salmon in this brook, but I certainly like the idea that the big fish could exploit it as far upstream as possible.
Some year ago a local employee of the EA along with friends in the village spent much time trying to drum up funding for a salmon passage scheme. Essentially this plan consisted of fitting concrete obstructions intended to increase the depth of water for a few yards on the sill, so that fish would be able to make the leap. Once beyond this obstruction, it was calculated fish would be enabled to travel a long way up the valley, despite the presence of a former undershot mill in the village (the mill-race under the building, now a private house, is open) and a couple more small dams left from iron industry trip-hammers and forges up the valley. Although the river at the weir is confined in a stone channel well below the level of the road, the main problem with the fish pass scheme seemed to be concern about the risk of flooding because there are houses all around. Another difficulty, quite apart from finding 40,000 odd pounds, was the number of agencies which became involved in the matter: Parish Council, Highways Agency, Natural England, Forestry Commission, EA, WUF, Severn Rivers Trust, Severn Trent Water Company and more. As anybody familiar with committee working will appreciate, invariably and at every stage, somebody was taking the cautious approach. Inevitably, time went by and nothing was agreed.
Then last year I bumped into an EA representative who beaming told me: "Good news, we are going ahead with the pass at Blakeney." However, my rejoicing was short-lived. It would be a pass, not for the salmon, she went on to explain cheerily, but for brook lampreys. I suppose, if you are an all-round conservationist rather than an angler, one species helped is as good as another. It's just that I can't get quite as excited about brook lampreys as I do about salmon. To be honest, I have never seen a lamprey in the Bideford Brook, but I dare say they might exist. There are certainly small eels and no doubt any kind of easement will increase the eel population. This week the contractor started work, fitting a clever little covered flume zig-zagging up the side of the weir. Water runs down it continually. It is full of little plastic brushes, rather like artificial grass, up which the elvers and lampreys will wriggle, and covered with stainless steel plates which open for maintenance.
Health and safety precautions continue to obsess us these days, or at least the risk of being sued on such grounds do. When was it that our society became so risk averse? Or when was it exactly that we got the idea that there is no such thing as an accident, but that everything which goes wrong must be somebody else's fault? I just received one of my regular fishing tickets for the coming season, which this year has an added three extra pages of safety advice to anglers about how to conduct ourselves and avoid injury while on the river. Nothing has been forgotten. One line in particular caught my eye: "Snakes. Do not touch snakes and do not place any part of your body into burrows, holes, stone walls or other similar openings." Right chaps, I hope you have all got that? However did we manage before being supplied with such essential advice?
The WUF's new online passport magazine came out this month - see:
Volunteers, present and former WUF staff, the Sportfish boys, visiting anglers, I think we all chipped in with something for this one and it's certainly well worth reading. I learned to my surprise that we now have trout fishing on Anglesey lakes and salmon fishing on the Scottish Don in the portfolio. I especially enjoyed Joe Alexander's piece on fishing small streams. Joe's reports are always bubbling with enthusiasm and I learned here that, likely as not, he goes fishing on the brooks straight after a night shift. I often think that, should old age, infirmity or lack of funds force me to give up any of the various aspects of fishing available to us on the WUF passport, it's the small stream angling I will cling to most doggedly. There is also a valuable article by Dave Collins of Gwent Angling Society on the more common fishermen's insects and when and where they are likely to be met with on our waters. This piece is illustrated with some superb photographs (and in fact all the magazine's photography is impressive and makes me think I should buy a new camera). There is more information from Dave about anglers' insects on the Gwent Angling association site – see:
Referring again to the Merthyr Tydfil Angling Alliance report on salmon runs featured in last month's letter, Guy Mawle of the Usk Local Fisheries Group wrote suggesting that I should clarify the remark about hatchery stocking having ceased in 2013. This point refers to the Taff, and not the Usk where stocking has not been undertaken since the 1990s. Nor is there any particular evidence that the cessation of stocking on the Usk many years ago has had a detrimental effect on the salmon runs. In the case of the Usk, there has been an increase in the number of larger multi-sea winter fish for some reason. Getting accurate salmon catch statistics for the Usk has always been difficult, and we assume that the NRW report figure will understate the total. However, while we may never know the overall total, by getting accurate returns from a number of fisheries (including the three MTAA beats), and matching them up with the fish reported to the NRW, it is certainly possible to establish a ratio and compare one year with another. It is not the case that the Usk figures indicate a steady decline - the result is more nuanced than that. The numbers have been up and down, although 2008 and 2012 were good years. Everybody agrees that the 2018 results were pretty bad. Since 2015 there has also been concern about the survival of fry and parr in different parts of the system. Mr Mawle, by the way, is another angler concerned about the numbers of trout and grayling in the lower part of the main Monnow. His submissions about Usk salmon stocks to the current bye-laws inquiry for Wales can found via the links below:
March can be a wonderful fishing month, not only on the rivers of course, but on the lakes as well. I have been meaning for some while to write something about buzzer fishing and so here are some ideas for still-water anglers in these coming days of early spring. Oddly enough, I'm remembering a story once told to me by an old Welsh sewin angler. This was one summer evening on the Loughor while we were waiting for dark together and he was shaking his head as if still bemused. Sea trout fishing, as my pal Lyn frequently reminds me, is a skilful and difficult branch of the sport, but also quite a narrow one. There are people in our club who have never done any other kind of fly-fishing. In fact there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Lyn's uncle Gwynlais in a long fishing career has never cast a fly in day-light. Anyway, the story here is that this old chap, experienced as he was in all matters connected with sewin and salmon, had that spring been taken by his nephew to a still water and introduced to rainbow trout fishing for the very first time. He had found it all quite strange, particularly when he was given something called a Superglue Buzzer to tie on his leader. "It didn't look like anything really. Just like black thread wrapped round the hook and some varnish on it. All the same, this trout grabbed it, God knows why, and went tearing off. It must have run 50 yards. Quite exciting it was." He shook his head again in the wonder of it all while knotting a size 6 Black and Silver to his 12 lb leader, ready for the coming night. You had the idea the business in hand now was something he did understand.
You may have read this before, but it's reckoned that trout in still waters, taking the year round, probably obtain upwards of 80% of their nourishment from various species of just one diminutive creature: the chironomid or non-biting midge. It's also generally acknowledged, by the way, that the same little creature is an important source of trout food in the slower moving reaches of some rivers, although most anglers do not pay so much attention to them on moving waters. "Buzzers" is the more colloquial angling term for these little creatures and this goes back to the days when they were so numerous that on warm evenings a distinct hum could be heard from what looked like columns of smoke above the bushes on the banks of reservoirs, each column representing millions of recently hatched insects. I honestly can't remember when I last saw buzzers collected in numbers quite like that, but that decline is also true of many of the insect hordes which used to obscure the windscreens of our 1960s automobiles.
The problem I used to have with buzzers or aquatic midges lay in trying to identify exactly which species they were, something which was first encouraged in me by reading John Goddard's Trout Flies of Still Water. That idea of exact identification and imitation was pretty problematic, particularly for someone as impatient as me; the number of British Chironomidae identified by science is now over 400. In fact Goddard came up with a list of 10 which he thought it worthwhile for anglers to imitate. After a while I came to the conclusion that even this might not be as useful as the author intended, and certainly it was slanted towards reservoirs which he fished personally, such as Blagdon. I have the same problem with the sedge or caddis flies, of which there are more than 200 species and of which Goddard decided to deal in depth with 16. Still too many, I think. In this case I came to the conclusion that, apart from some famous ones known to everybody such as the grannom and the caperer, it would be possible to deal with sedges merely by colour and size. As this idea seemed to work, it seemed logical to do the same with midges - size: large, medium, small - and colour: black, olive, and occasionally brown or claret.
I suspect I'm not the only one looking for a simple solution here, because many of the flies commonly used to catch midge feeding trout - Diawl Bachs, Crunchers, various Irish Duck Flies - are anything but exact imitations and rely on creating an impression to work. Never mind, they do work and I'm a great fan of fishing Diawl Bachs, particularly during the summer months when trout are near the surface. However, midges of different sizes and types, varying from the near inch-long green giants found in some reservoirs to almost microscopic olive and grey specks found in ponds, hatch on almost every day of the year. Rainbow trout seen rising to a trickle of small midges in a brief hour of January sunshine after a frost will almost certainly require a tiny fly to fool them. When the midge hatches really get going, by March and April, you will be showing them patterns tied on size 10 and size 12 hooks. This is when spring fishing on still waters can get really exciting; overwintered fish are in the prime of condition and feeding hard now to pack on weight.
The life cycle of the midge is a simple one in comparison with the up-winged flies and the main requirement is a bottom of soft silt and water of less than 20 feet deep. Lakes made by flooding former pasture-land are usually very fertile during the early years and commonly produce huge midge hatches for a while before they mature. Silty bays in the larger lowland reservoirs can be equally good. Eggs laid in the water produce larvae known as blood worm, occasionally olive in colour but more usually red, which live in the mud and are of great importance to the winter angler. The pupae form the next stage and the one which is most interesting to imitate, characteristically hooked and then straight as they wriggle to the surface and then slowly fall back in the water column, eventually hanging directly at the surface as the skins split and the adults struggle to emerge. Once the midges are free of the shuck, they usually take rapidly to the air ready for mating and egg-laying. However, before that stage is reached the pupae are extremely vulnerable to fish which cruise around sucking them down one after the other. Be in no doubt that there is some wonderful fishing to be had by imitating midge pupae on their journey from lake-bed to surface. Of course it is possible to imitate the adult on the surface with a dry fly but, generally speaking, the trout tend to put more effort into attacking the slow-moving and relatively helpless pupae. When it comes to getting a meal, trout usually take the easy option and we should accommodate that tendency.
The idea of imitating a buzzer pupa on its way to hatching at the surface goes back a long way, at least a century. Of course John Goddard had his Suspender Buzzer with its tiny polystyrene ball to hang in the surface - although I note that Neil Patterson regularly claims a part in inventing that one. Geoffrey Bucknall gave us the Footballer. As long ago as the 1930s, Dr Bell of Blagdon was experimenting with midge pupa imitations for use in that great lake. Even earlier, in Fly Fishing: Some New Arts and Mysteries (1921) Dr JC Mottram, better known as a chalk stream angler, gave a dressing for a pupa imitation made with a sliver of cork to keep it hanging vertically below the surface of still waters. All these were "light" buzzers made with fine wire hooks, often going so far as to imitate each turn of the segmented body, the bulky thorax, the orange colour of the wing cases on either side about to burst during the emergence of the adult and even the feathery breather filaments at head and tail. These light-weight imitations made with herl and fibres of polypropylene yarn still have their place on the leader. However, what has made modern buzzer fishing really interesting was the invention a couple of decades ago of the so-called "super-glue" heavy buzzers which dispense with the addition of the breathers and which are covered with a transparent coating. Tied on heavy hooks and fished on a long leader, they go down like a bomb and pull any lighter flies down with them. Initially they were used in match fishing, cast in front of a drifting boat in order to create a situation in which, when the boat caught up with the line, the angler had a chain of flies going down vertically from the surface to a depth of 20 feet or even more. Takes, when they came, were famously violent - a hard pull down on the rod tip from a fish which had probably hooked itself.
At the time, this new idea made quite an impact on the match fishing scene. It was dawning on anglers that trout could be very interested in flies of the right colour and shape which were hardly moving at all, hanging there in fact, just like the pupae which they were supposed to be imitating. Quite quickly it led, where legal, to the idea of hanging one or more buzzer pupa imitations below an indicator, a method still much used on hard-fished commercial fisheries. Then we had the "washing line," in which a very buoyant dry fly on the point, doubling as an indicator, is used to keep buzzer patterns tied on droppers just below the surface. John Goddard had already suggested a leader design for three pupa imitations very like this, including the idea of having the buzzers tied directly into the main line rather than on droppers. Alternatively, the dry fly could be used on the top dropper while the pupa imitations were fished at different depths towards the end of the leader. However, there is much more which can be done with light and heavy buzzers, from the boat and especially from the shore. A very important aspect of those experiments of 20 years ago was that in those days many still water anglers had been involved in lure fishing and moving their flies quite fast. The fact is that midge pupae make little kicks, bending and straightening their bodies to move up and down, but they never move fast. This and the fact that light floating lines were usually employed made the new method of fishing attractive as a refreshing change. Buzzer fishing is rarely very hard work and, carried out correctly, it does produce the most impressive and confident takes from fish which seem to be cruising fast. It does seem remarkable that a hard, sharp fly covered in glue, doubtless unpleasant to the touch, is not quickly ejected, but the strong takes usually result in a very good hook-up rate.
My own favourite buzzer method is that known as "straight-line nymphing" and in the right conditions, perhaps on a warm morning in March or April with a few trout showing intermittently at the surface, it can be absolutely deadly. If I can describe my perfect day of spring fishing, it will be one in which the newly arrived martins will be dipping low over the lake. This is always a very good sign, because they too like to eat midges. Ideally, I would like a warm breeze running left to right in front of me, and I will be casting off the shore with a 10 foot 6 weight rod and a floating line. The leader, including the tapered butt, is nearly 20 feet long, weighed down with a size 10 Black and Copper Heavy Buzzer on the point and with a lighter pair of size 14 Grey Goose Midge buzzers on the droppers. There is a gap of nearly five feet between each of the flies. I make a long cast out, let the point fly dig well in while counting down, and then let the wind grab the floating line and carry it round in a curve, retrieving only just enough to stay in touch. When a trout hits one of the flies there is a sudden and very definite tensing of that curve, so that it is only necessary to sweep the rod tip up-wind and play the fish. In my experience, a spring fish hooked on a midge pupa imitation will fight as strongly as any lake trout you will experience. Never be tempted to use over-fine tippet material when fishing a team of buzzers, because it is very easy to be broken.
If you are fishing a weedy lake, it might be unwise to use a full team and of course you can use two or a single fly quite effectively. I well remember fishing with my son Malcolm on an unusually warm day in late March. It was a wonderful morning, full of birdsong and sunshine, and we were on a clear Gloucestershire pool which had been flooded by building an earth dam across a little valley a few years before. In fact the water level was very nearly up to the top of the dam and in the corner thus formed, quite close to the edge where a few sedges poked up from the grass, we could distinctly see a rainbow of about 3 pounds swirling in circles, obviously feeding hard. Note that nobody had walked along the margin yet that morning. Malcolm was using my sweet little Greys Platinum X 9ft 5 weight rod and just a single size 14 Olive Buzzer on a long fluorocarbon leader. He approached the situation circumspectly, staying well back on the reverse side of the dam (only his head came above the level of the water) and flicked a few cross-country casts over the grass and into the corner. After a few minutes I distinctly saw the line twitch across the grass, Malcolm struck and after some thrashing on the surface the fish was his. We killed that one, and half an hour later took it home where I cleaned it before Sunday lunch. It was full of little olive buzzers, just like the fly pattern and some were still alive and wriggling.
There is a mass of heavy buzzer patterns to select from, almost as many as there are nymph patterns for grayling. There are even some quite weird ones involving colours like pink or bright holographic blue. You can choose between making them with a straight body using a hook like the Kamasan B175, or with a curved body using a grub hook like the Kamasan B110. The real pupae adopt both positions at times, and I have experimented with both types and can't find much difference in effectiveness between them. Common features are generally a black or olive abdomen, made with either tying thread or stretched flexifloss, occasionally stripped peacock quill, segments indicated by a rib of fine wire, a thorax built up with tying thread, wing buds indicated by orange goose biots or strips of gold tinsel as cheeks, possibly some glitter on top of the thorax provided by pearl tinsel. Sizes are normally 10, 12 or 14. The variations are almost endless and I smile to remember one called the "Crisp Packet Buzzer." In that case we made the cheeks from bright orange strips cut from a packet of Golden Wonder crisps. As you can imagine it was a great excuse to consume a pint of cider and a packet of cheese and onion crisps while sitting and philosophising by the pond outside the Rising Sun, and then bring the empty packet home for fly-tying. We used to add head and tail breathers of white fibre, but I have come to the conclusion that such a detail is superfluous. Incidentally, it isn't strictly necessary to use super glue to cover these flies. Clear nail varnish does the job just as well. Years ago I found a product called Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails, and a couple of coats of this applied by the brush in the cap does the job nicely.
Here are a couple of buzzer patterns, which I will vouch to be as good as any, and culled from recent copies of Trout and Salmon:
Black and Copper Heavy Buzzer
Hook: 8-10 heavy grub, Kamasan B110
Rib: Medium silver wire
Body and thorax: Black thread
Cheeks: Fine copper Mylar
Varnish: Hard as Nails over whole fly
Grey Goose Light Midge
Hook: 14 medium wire grub, Kamasan B100
Rib: Fine copper wire
Body: Greylag goose herl (or any grey herl from a large feather will do)
Thorax: Peacock herl
Thorax cover: Greylag goose herl
Grayling fishing ends on 14th March although I have to say that I never found the last couple of weeks before the fence season arrives to be particularly exciting. Somebody might prove me wrong. Instead a new trout and salmon season starts on 3rd March and I for one will be looking at trout fishing on the Usk with a team of spiders and maybe some dry flies. Note however that the start date for trout fishing on Severn tributaries is 18th March. The sunshine in late February has been pleasant, but the angler in me is not so keen on clear skies and big temperature swings between night and day. I think some cloudy weather would suit me better for my March fishing. It's not my job to predict salmon catches, but remembering that extended flood we had in early February, it strikes me that any slow running springers from the estuary will have had the opportunity to move fairly well into the Wye, perhaps to Hereford and higher. However, low water temperatures would probably prevent their ascending falls further up. If I were a betting man, I would put my fiver on a first fish coming from the middle river. Salmon on the Usk are usually a little later than on the Wye, although with the trout it seems to be the other way round!
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com
We had some pretty good winter fishing during the first half of January. High pressure weather predominated, there was little rain and some days were surprisingly mild. The high water experienced before Christmas dropped off steadily and there were some nice grayling catches on the Wye and tributaries. I think I saw large dark olives on every afternoon I was out. The second half was much more difficult, as low pressure weather combined now with lower temperatures brought a series of fronts with both rain and snow. I am writing this on the last day of the month with a hard frost on the ground and snow in the hills, while the rivers are relatively high and turbulent.
KJ from Abercynon and a friend had a good day at Ty Newydd on the 30th December, taking 25 mostly small grayling with heavy nymphs. On New Year's Day, with the weather still warm, TA from Gloucester managed a nice bag of 20 grayling from Cefnllysgwyne on the Irfon and enjoyed the sight of an otter on the water. On the 5th AS of Newent, one of several very good nymph fishermen who ply their skills on our waters, had a 17 inch grayling in a leash taken at Lyepole. The 9th was a cold day by recent standards, but SW from Oxon enjoyed himself at Abernant, taking 17 grayling to 15 inches by trotting. Dave Collins of Moccas was also trotting on the 11th, a mild day this time with large dark olives hatching, and he caught 14 grayling to 1.5 pounds from the GPAIAC (which stands for Grove Park and Irfon Angling Club, quite a mouthful) water at Builth Wells. We are seeing a good average size of grayling from the upper part of the main river at the moment. MH from Llandrindod Wells and a friend were trotting the same water that day and accounted for 26 grayling to 2 pounds. Meanwhile GG from Wotton under Edge trotted at Cefnllysgwynne where he caught 7 grayling and a chub of 4 pounds. SW from Hereford fished Dolgau on the 13th with French leader tactics and caught 9 grayling. On the 16th we had some heavy rain, the first for a while, but CB from Droitwich fished on through the bad weather to catch 8 grayling on nymphs at Lyepole. He was surprised to find the fish lying in the Lugg's fast gravel runs rather than in the deep holes. GG of Wotton under Edge fished at Abernant this time and also took 8 grayling to 15 inches, in his case by trotting.
During all this time the rivers had been steadily falling and were running relatively clear. The middle of the month marked a change to low pressure and Atlantic fronts; we then began to experience bands of rain and snow on high ground, while at the same time the air became colder. River levels were now higher. DM, SW and SB from Hereford - I find I type these initials so often I'm tempted simply to call them the Three Amigos... wonder if they would mind - fished at Dolgau on the 20th and had 16 grayling between them using French leader techniques in the gravel runs. Some visitors to Dolgau have described it as more of a late season salmon beat than anything else. I can see why that might be said; a lot of attention has been paid to improving access to the salmon pools on this fishery. However, Dolgau, Craig Llyn and Doldowlod are all of them excellent upper Wye grayling beats in their own right, with difficult wading in some places, but good access to the river bed in others. For those who don't know this part of the Wye, it's much smaller and more intimate than the river at Builth and below as it lacks the major contributions from Ithon and Irfon downstream. Recently a "specimen hunter" from Kent called and asked where he might find a really big grayling on our waters. I suggested this section. On the 21st JA from Leominster had three grayling including a good one on nymphs at Court of Noke. PB from Leicester had 7 grayling to 1 pound 13 ounces trotting at Abernant.
AH of Swansea fished the Monnow at Skenfrith on the 25th for just one grayling. This was his third trip there this winter, none of them particularly successful, and he wondered if the new 25 pounds price ticket is rather high, considering present concerns about catches on the main-stem Monnow. I must say in its defence that the Monnow always seems to me to be at its best as a dry fly river and one where the trout predominate over the grayling. The remarkable thing about the Monnow grayling, elusive as they often are, is that handsome bluish tinge many of them have for some reason. Everybody who visits the Monnow finds the valley and the river beautiful. However, I looked back through the reports to work out when somebody last had a really good fishing day at Skenfrith. In fact I had to go back 18 months, as far as the mayfly season of 2017. On the 17th May that year TM of Bristol and a friend had 20 trout between them on a rainy day, probably perfect mayfly conditions. And a couple of weeks later on the 31st of May, JT of Macclesfield had 14 trout on a Deer Hair Emerger, also with mayfly hatching from the river. I think any of us would be happy with results like those if we can see them again. 2018 was a very bad year for many of our fisheries and hopefully will not prove to be typical. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem an ideal time to bring in a price rise - if there is ever an ideal time! Meanwhile, some of the Monnow tributaries higher up continued to fish very well last year.
While on the subject of Skenfrith, there is also the slightly vexed matter of the parking. Some while ago, an angler reported that the Bell Inn at the top of the beat had taken over the allocated parking space for anglers by the river and placed table and chairs there. But apparently he was told it would be acceptable for anglers to use the main pub car park instead. Oh well, fair enough, I thought to myself when I heard this. Without wishing to go into the ins and outs of ownership of a patch of river bank, provided anglers can park somewhere and make up their tackle in peace, I'm happy. However, last time we were there, the new landlord came over from parking his Bentley and queried our use of his car park. Apparently we should have knocked on the door of the pub and asked permission first. My suggestion instead is to drive over the bridge and park in the long public layby immediately on the other side, where there is always plenty of room. And I know a watering hole on the way home where a pint of beer doesn't cost five pounds!
January came to an end with a really hard frost combined with high water on many of our rivers. There wasn't so much fishing to be done in these conditions and reports of success dwindled away. However, the volunteer team managed to work on the upper Lugg at Middlemoor near Presteigne and trimmed obstructing branches ready for the new season.
We already know that 2018 was a bad year for migratory fish with Wye catches down to about a third of normal (there are a couple of anomalies involving individual fisheries). On the other hand, we have a lot of data about Wye results and we know that the overall trend in recent years has been upward. Information on salmon numbers from rivers further west has never been quite so accurate, but the annual report from MTAA (Merthyr Tydfil Angling Alliance) still came as a shock. 2018 was the club's worse salmon fishing year since the MTAA first took on Usk water in 1979. In 2018 the club had just 10 fish in total from their three Usk beats, while Kemeys Commander, which is my own favourite one on the lower river, accounted for only three of them. I blanked on the few mornings I fly-fished there this year, even when water conditions looked reasonably good. There was a time, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago as I recall it, when I was routinely doing rather better at Kemeys, a beat which holds travelling/resting fish rather than residents. I am not claiming that I caught a salmon on every outing - we can hardly expect that in this day and age - but every two or three trips there would be a hit, especially as the season drew on. I used to visit early in the morning, hoping to find a new arrival had shown up overnight, and quite often, sure enough, one was there. More recently I have found myself putting the odd accidental trout back at Kemeys while assuming that I was just being unlucky with salmon, or was it the case that winter floods had destroyed the old lies in the gravel pools? It also crossed my mind that, with advancing years, I was quite simply losing my touch - a depressing thought, but likely enough! However, the fact is that three good MTAA waters on the Usk were fished through 2018 by quite a number of club members, some known to me as pretty skilled anglers with spinner and bait as well as fly, for a result of just 10 salmon. Not so long ago, the score for these three beats would have been around 100. Other Usk fisheries have declared similarly poor results for the season past. Llanover had 6 (85 in 2017), Swan Meadow had 3 (26 in 2017) and Chainbridge scored 2 (20 in 2017). Jean Williams at Sweet's Tackle Shop had just 78 salmon reported for the season (typically the number recorded there would be between 200 and 300).
The news from the Taff above Cardiff was even starker. There is a fish trap at Radyr Weir which is normally working three days a week. When the trap is visited, the fish are counted and then released to continue upstream. After 2011 the numbers reported at the trap "fell off a cliff." I think that is the fashionably dramatic Thelma and Louise phrase to use these days when you plan to frighten people, but in this case the problem has proved to be real. For 2011 the trap reported 376 salmon, but the catch has fallen consistently since then and in the whole of 2018 up to late December, there were just 10. The drop in numbers on these rivers more or less coincides with the closure of salmon hatchery programmes in 2013. That proves nothing in itself and does not exactly coincide with the Wye experience. Other factors must be considered, including the number of predatory birds now present everywhere on the water and of course the awful year of drought which was 2018. But it is certainly food for thought. As the old Scottish gillie remarked: "It's verra difficult to catch them when they're no biting. And it's even more difficult to catch them when they're no there."
Last month's remarks on trotting for grayling and associated loose feeding provoked some correspondence. Several writers pointed out that of course there are alternatives to the usual local choice of red maggots for winter grayling. There are white maggots for a start, although personally I have a great faith in the grayling's predilection for the colour red. On the Severn and on the chalk streams, sweet corn is sometimes used. I don't have experience with this bait for grayling (although I remember it as very effective for crucian carp), but some anglers apparently do very well with it. On the other hand, I don't see grayling as naturally vegan and I have read advice to avoid loose feeding them with too much corn as they don't digest it well. And of course there are worms, and traditionally in the North a small worm was regarded as the winter grayling bait par excellence with no need for loose feeding, just the possibility of roaming with the hook bait. There may be some reluctance to use worms on the Wye, because years ago they were banned for salmon angling and nobody wants to be accused of nefarious practices. Today it is legal under the bye-laws to fish with a worm for grayling on the Wye after 1st November if you want to try it (but note, however, that most WUF beats insist on maggots and the WUF coarse fishing regulations also exclude worms). If fishing elsewhere and if you are sure you are within the rules, I would suggest that if you use a fairly small worm or maybe half a lob-worm, you are not very likely to attract the attention of out of season salmon. However, it isn't totally unknown and a salmon will occasionally grab a couple of red maggots also, so be careful if the big fish are near.
If you choose to fish with worms, you will also have a reason to go worm-hunting. As boys we used to think this was a great sport in itself. Some may choose to buy worms from the same tackle shop which sells them maggots by the pint, but I think this is missing most of the fun. You can dig for worms of course, but digging in the wrong place in dry weather can be depressingly unproductive. What you need to do is go out on the lawn on a damp night and look for the lob-worms which will then be lying on the surface. There is hardly a fish which swims which won't take a lively lob-worm. A wet night is excellent, or one with a heavy dew, and you need a lawn or a playing field with cut grass so that you can see what you are doing. You need a torch, but not one with too bright a light, or at least showing dim light at the edge of the beam pattern. Walk quietly on the grass and you will see the shining outlines of worms of different sizes lying on the surface half out of their holes. Not completely out, you will note, because the tails are always engaged in their subterranean burrows. Approach as gently as you can and pick a likely worm to attack. Do not shine the bright torch directly on your victim, because worms are light sensitive and it will retract back into its hole with a sudden muscular spasm and be lost to you. Instead, just keep the edge of the beam on the worm so that you can keep the body in view while you slowly lean down until you can suddenly trap its head or middle against the ground with your fore-finger and thumb. The worm's muscles will immediately retract and try to pull itself back into the ground using the tail as an anchor. Pull back in turn, but not suddenly or you will break your worm in half. Just keep up a steady pressure and after a few seconds the muscle will relax, the tail come loose from its grip on the sides of the hole and you have a complete worm bait. Triumph! Pop him in a bait box full of moss and go on to get your next one. It's all a bit like tailing a salmon; that is to say, when you make your move, be firm about it! It's quite surprising how many you can collect in an hour or so.
Of course there are a few stories about worm-hunting anglers who have been approached by policemen perplexed at apparently dubious activity by night on the local sports ground: "What's going on here then?" Have your explanation ready and try to sound convincing. Back in the day, the famous Abercothi keeper Cyril Fox reckoned to have an improvement on this hunter-gathering method. He used to collect his worms for Towy sewin from his own lawn, but had a method of shocking them out of the ground. This involved an electric cable clamped onto the metal tine of a fork stuck in the lawn, and then plugged into a live socket in the house. He would wait for 10 minutes watching the lawn from a window, before switching off and going out to collect his stunned victims on the surface. Then he would move the fork to another place and repeat the procedure. He had friends who wouldn't even switch the power off, but made their worm collection wearing rubber boots, braving the occasional jolt of an electric shock. I could imagine various fuses or even a power station blowing during these antics, but apparently not. Nevertheless, don't try this trick at home, children; I'm sure it is dangerous and definitely not recommended.
Quite apart from the cost of fishing tickets, the price of fly rods seem to be increasing by leaps and bounds, whether they are imported or home-made. Even allowing for the obvious exchange rate movements, it's sometimes difficult to understand why the marketing people have made the decisions they have. I suppose it's a matter of what they think sections of the angling public might be prepared to pay. For example, there seems to be a tendency at the moment to hold down prices of double handers, while prices of single handed rods are allowed to run away unchecked.
Take the matter of the long fine-tipped rods, usually 10 or 11 foot in 2 or 3 weights, popular now for heavy nymphing in the European style. Let's consider what you need for this work. I would argue that the main attributes needed are lightness, reach and a sensitive tip. Note that the kind of 10ft 4 weight rod used for spiders is not quite the same; there is a significant difference between a 4 weight and a 3 weight tip. As I do a limited amount of this fishing, I'm reasonably happy with the Greys Streamflex 10ft 3 weight I have been using for a while. However, a few years back Rob Evans and I persuaded Sportfish to import a Sage ESN (European Style Nymphing) 10ft 3 weight for him. I thought it might be a little heavy, but Rob loves it and fishes with it all the time. Our friend Lyn Davies now has one also. Sportfish now carry a range of the Sage ESN in stock, but note that they all retail for 839 pounds. That strikes me as a lot of money for a single-handed fly rod, even one built to the excellent Sage standards. Apart from the Greys Streamflex I mentioned, which currently sells for around 270 pounds, a cheaper alternative to consider might be the new Loomis and Franklin 10ft 6 inch IM12 nymphing rod, which is rated at 2/3 weight. (Loomis and Franklin, I understand, is a Taiwan-based company which Gary Loomis originally had a hand in founding). This one retails at 229.99 pounds and is supposed to be very good.
You may be an experienced fly-fisherman, but can you identify by eye every insect or bug you come across on or in the water? No, and if truth be told, neither can I. To be more accurate, I think I can recognise with a level of certainty some of the famous species which are of main concern to the trout, and therefore the angler. These would include the adult large dark olive, March brown, olive upright, iron blue, blue-winged olive, the true may-flies, yellow may, willow fly and a few more. But when it comes, for example, to sorting out the many British species of caddis flies, I am on much more shaky ground. I know what the grannom looks like and probably the big caperer. But for most of the rest I have tended to resort to such crude classifications as size either large, medium or small, and then colour brown or black. For fishing purposes, this was good enough, or so it always seemed.
It also seemed to be good enough to take part in the Riverfly Partnership, a survey carried out by volunteers which aims to provide a nation-wide data-base of the invertebrate creatures which live in our rivers and to monitor their health and distribution on a regular basis. Along with many others, not all of us anglers, I did a one-day course on the techniques of sampling and counting. At the end of this we were each equipped with a net, simple lens, pipettes, collecting containers and a timing device, all of which allowed us to "go forth and monitor." I have been visiting Gloucestershire's little Bideford Brook near my home for a few years now, making the count and sending the results in to the central data-base. It is not a particularly onerous task, involving a couple of hours every month or two. The kick sample process counts larvae and nymphs which are of course much easier to record than the short-lived adult insects. This sampling activity, strictly speaking, does not require much more detailed entomological knowledge than my angling does, because many of the subjects are counted in broad groups. These are currently cased caddis, caseless caddis, true mayflies Ephemeridae, flat-bodied stone clingers Heptageniidae, blue-winged olives Ephemerellidae, olives Baetidae, stoneflies and Gammarus shrimps. I can summarise that Gammarus always seems to be doing well in the Bideford Brook together with a variety of olives and mayflies, but we don't have much in the way of stone flies or blue winged olives in the stream. Occasionally a bull-head or a baby eel appears in the sample to liven it up.
One angler who decided long ago that an amateurish approach such as I have described would not be good enough for him is Stuart Crofts. Many of us will remember the Dave Calvert and Stuart Crofts fishing articles of a few years ago, which explored with more and more detail exactly what the trout and grayling they caught were eating, how the creatures lived and how they might be imitated. In the case of Stuart, I think his use of the microscope and what he found to examine with it, has almost overtaken the fishing rod in his affections -but not quite! Stuart has fished for England on a number of occasions and runs Pennine Guide Services which rather nicely combines fishing with bug-hunting. In fact, quite apart from the fishing, he is prepared to visit your stream and show you in detail what lives there. I was one of the monitors invited by the River Fly Partnership to undertake a two-day species level identification course to be given by Stuart. The class, which was organised by Tony Bostock of the Severn Rivers Trust, was held in a grey stone-walled inn - I still can't pronounce the name of the Welsh village, Llanrhaeder ym Mochnant - in the valley of the Tanat, which is an upper Severn tributary.
Initially I imagined that this work would be very difficult for me in particular due to my deteriorating eye sight at close range. Using a simple hand lens before, I had been worrying quite enough about whether I could recognise a blue winged olive nymph at all. However, I hadn't realised what can be done with an illuminated dissecting microscope having x 40 magnification and in the event I was very pleasantly surprised. In fact I was surprised altogether at the ambitions which Stuart had for our group. As anglers, we might pick up a live fly from the surface of the water, maybe put a hand lens on it, come to a conclusion and drop it back. In our routine monitoring of streams we hadn't really advanced much further than that, with the exception of counting numbers in a systematic way. Now Stuart proposed to us a system by which we could identify any invertebrate which might be found in a UK stream, right down to individual species level. He proved this to us, several times over, by making us do just that for ourselves, using some samples of quite obscure creatures which he provided.
Unlike our counting, this is not an activity to be undertaken by the stream-side using live creatures. Samples are invariably killed, usually by dropping in alcohol. They are subsequently stored in a test tube containing a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water - vodka will do at a pinch. Everything else takes place in the laboratory and there is no real need to explain here the paraphernalia of pipettes, petrie dishes, brushes and probes used to manipulate samples in front of the lens. Watkins and Doncaster of Leominster, who have catered for insect collectors for over 130 years, should be able to help with these. The laboratory standard dissecting microscope is the first of the two essential tools for this work and there is no getting around the fact that a good one is expensive. I gather that, should we be asked to undertake specific tasks, the loan of equipment such as this from the EA may be possible.
The second essential item is a book called Guide to Freshwater Invertebrates by Dobson, Pawley, Fletcher and Powell, published now by the Freshwater Biological Association. This is a modern update of the original A Guide to Freshwater Invertebrate Animals by TT Macan, which was published in 1959 by Longman. The FBA is a charity, founded in 1929 and with a base by Lake Windermere, which for 90 years has fostered research into a fascinating subject about which surprisingly little is still known. As Stuart confirmed, this is a field in which an amateur might well find something quite new. TT Macan, who died in 1984, was one of the pioneers on the FBA staff, typically seen roaming the streams with his collector's knapsack and a faithful Labrador as companion. His Guide is not a book which you could read as such. Instead it is an identification system, which assumes you have a sample and a microscope, and works with what are called keys, couplets and endpoints: "This guide is based mainly on dichotomous keys, meaning that at each point you are given a choice of two options, which either leads you to another numbered couplet or to an end point." Essentially you have to answer a series of questions, depending on what you see, and follow the answer to the next questions. Normally there are two possible answers, but in some cases three or four. Simple line illustrations of the feature which you are looking for are provided. You may be required to manipulate the specimen, for example to change a dorsal for a ventral view. The path may be long or short, but eventually you reach an end point which is effectively the sixth level of classification, the actual species.
The course was quite hard work, but it was reassuring to know that, with the right equipment and a preserved specimen, definite species identification is almost certain in every case. You might find an insect in a river where it has not been recorded before - this sort of thing happens quite regularly. Of course, it's also possible that you might find a new species altogether or even get your name on it! Think of that - you might imagine yourself in company with the likes of Burton and Speke, looking for the source of the Nile! Otherwise, I believe the Riverfly Partnership would still appreciate volunteers for their regular monitoring scheme. It's interesting and useful work, and a monitoring visit takes little more than an hour or so. However, bear in mind you will be expected to monitor regularly and the year round, so you would be wise pick a stream near home or one you fish regularly - see contact below.
Riverfly Partnership www.riverflies.org
Severn Rivers Trust www.severnriverstrust.com
Stuart Crofts www.stuartcrofts.co.uk
Watkins and Doncaster, Leominster www.watdon.co.uk
Freshwater Biological Association www.fba.org.uk
Messages arrived thick and fast after my peevish comments on punctuation and grammar last month. Now we are on to syntax and even beyond English to other languages it seems. I was reminded about Harry Plunket Greene's wonderful example of old German in Where the Bright Waters Meet. I studied German, rather unsuccessfully, for a couple of years in school and I never could get to grips with the idea of putting the verb at the end of the sentence or dividing it in other strange ways. Plunket Greene fished in the sunny south of Germany during the golden years before the Great War and in his book he translated this gem from a local newspaper:
"Yesterday there broke, in the town of Urach, the famous health spa patronised by his Serene Highness the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar on his hunting expeditions and famous for its wine-grapes and cider-apples, at half-past seven in the evening, at the house of Johann Schlegel, the much-respected butcher, formerly member of the town council and greatly beloved of his fellow-citizens, at the corner of the Alt-Markt, where the Ochsenstrasse enters, fire out."
A British example? In these politically charged days, this header from a newspaper was pointed out to me: Mrs May says Jeremy Corbyn should resign. Or should it perhaps have read: Mrs May, says Jeremy Corbyn, should resign? A plague on both their houses! Clearly somebody is supposed to resign, but which one? A couple of commas and maybe speech marks would make all the difference to the meaning. Meanwhile my English-teaching sister, who obviously feels I treated her unfairly on split infinitives last month, sent this message:
Let me turn around and say to you, I'm, like, COOL with split infinitives. Ever since "to boldly go where no man went before."
February is usually our coldest month but, fear not, the grayling usually don't seem to mind if the water levels are right. And probably they don't worry about syntax or split infinitives either. Tight lines!
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com