Trout & Grayling Report
by Oliver Burch
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