Charles Inniss – A one-river man

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Charles Inniss
Charles Inniss

Charles Inniss – A one-river man

I met with Charles Inniss in 2011 to interview him for my forthcoming book on fishing in North Devon since then Charles has been awarded an MBE for his tireless work with the River Torridge Fishery Association and extensive work within the local community.

On April 10th 1932 an angler cast into a pool on the Madeira beat of the River Torridge below Beaford Bridge and between 10.00am and 1.00pm landed six magnificent salmon weighing 106lb the heaviest 32lb. 

I met with Charles Inniss at his home in Sheepwash in early April 2011 eager to hear about Charles and his years beside the river Torridge. I had been privileged to read the draft of his enthralling recollections of life beside the River Torridge. The stories of people, fish and wildlife had engrossed me for several evenings and my appetite was whetted for an evening chatting about the Torridge and its history.

Charles moved to Devon with his family in 1949 and fished the Torridge for the first time at the age of six. Eight years later Charles father bought the Half Moon Inn and it’s fishing for the princely sum of just over £10,000. This was the start of a life of fish, fisherman and friendships entwined with the passing seasons beside the wonderful river Torridge that wanders through deepest Devon before entering the Bristol Channel in Bideford bay.

The scrapbooks at the Half Moon tell many tales of salmon and of historic catches. In the early part of the last century a weir at Chapel restricted the upstream migration of salmon at Beaford Bridge. Salmon would not pass this weir until May and would congregate below this obstruction in the early season. It was from here that the historic catch I opened this chapter with was landed. Madeira was the Torridge’s most famous stretch of river its reputation founded many years ago. This deeply wooded stretch of river beneath Beaford Bridge is certainly an enchanting place where time seems to have stood still.

I first fished at Madeira on an evening in 2009 and almost hooked a salmon on my first cast into Abbot’s Hill Pool. Far from the intrusive roads and the roar of traffic I was immersed in a scene of tranquillity with just the gentle sound of running water and the evening birdsong.

I asked Charles if he had fished many other rivers and he told me that he was primarily a one-river man. Since 1972 the river had basically been his side of the family business and from March until the end of September each year each day was spent looking after the anglers who came to fish the Half Moon waters. After seven months of fishing and talking fishing it was time to lay the rod down for while.

As a very young child Charles had fished the River Wensum in Norfolk for coarse fish. When he arrived beside the Torridge in that summer of 1949 it was dace that gave sport beside the Post Office in Weare Giffard . There are still dace in the Torridge as I write this though they are not as prolific as they once were. I asked if he had ever heard of roach from the Torridge. He told me that the Taw was known for its roach and the Torridge for its dace some of which grew to a good size. I asked how big the dace grew and was surprised to hear that fish of over a pound were not considered rare. Many had in fact speculated that there could be record-breaking dace within the Torridge. Charles told me that the largest concentrations of dace were to be found in the Sheepwash area. These dace would often provide good sport on the dry fly challenging the angler with their quick rises. Whilst there are not the vast numbers once seen in the river at the time of writing they are still to be found in the Upper areas of the Torridge above the point where the Okement joins.

The river also has a population of gudgeon and minnows. In the lower reaches there are also the occasional allis shad caught by anglers seeking other species.

Since discussing the dace with Charles I have also heard rumours of chub being caught from the river.

Charles had fished on Norfolk’s River Wensun at the tender age of only five or six. In that bygone era it seems it was not unusual for children to be left alone beside the river to fish, a practice that would seem ludicrous in today’s protective society. Charles feels like myself that times have changed and today’s young people are far more restricted by silly rules and what are to some extent unfounded fears.

Reading through the book I was buoyed by his eternal optimism and heartened to realise that the rivers fortunes had taken a turn for the better despite all the doom and gloom talked by anglers. During the eighties the Torridge and many rivers in Devon were hit by numerous problems. Excessive water abstraction compounded pollution from both agriculture and industry.

The closing down of the Dairy Crest factory at Torrington and a major fire at the North Devon Meat Factory were undoubtedly beneficial to the well being of the river. In 1992 Roadford Reservoir came online and brought an end to the need to abstract from the river Torridge. Research during the lead up to Roadford being built highlighted the fact that the Torridge is particularly vulnerable to low flows during the summer months far more so than the Taw.

The factor of low flows and the river not holding its level for long inevitably means that the window of opportunity for salmon fishing is often a small one that should be grasped whenever conditions permit. This is not a recent phenomenon as the lack of prolonged flow is discussed in Lemon Grey’s classic tome, “Torridge Fishery” published in1957.

I asked the inevitable question; how does the river compare to that of past days when it was perhaps closer to its prime? During the late fifties as a fifteen-year-old boy mad keen on fishing the Torridge had much to offer. The big difference was that back then there was a significant spring run that prevailed until the outbreak of salmon disease (UDN) in the late sixties and early seventies. Another major factor in catches of fish was also the introduction of restrictions on fishing methods.

The majority of salmon fishing on the Half Moon waters was spinning with thirty to forty salmon often landed by anglers by the end of April. Typically salmon fishing was conducted during March, April and then again in September as the season neared its close. This fishing pattern was and is influenced greatly by the weather patterns and water flows. Charles remembers that in those far off days the river would hold up well after a spate with good fishing lasting for perhaps ten days in comparison with modern times when three to four days is more typical.

Another change in the river is frequency of trout rising to take flies from the surface. Spring and summer nights when the entire river seemed to bubble with rising trout. This is possibly as a result of a change in feeding habits for there is still a very healthy population of trout within the Torridge. Lack of fly life is a worrying factor for it surely tells of something drastically wrong with the environment?

During the 1960’s Roger Rowe; of the Black Horse Torrington controlled several miles of fishing in the Torrington area. It is recorded that by the end of April it was common for up to a hundred salmon to have been landed from these beats. Phillip Martin who lived in Beam House controlled the fishing below Beam weir. He moved there in 1950 and on March 1st, opening day of the season he fished the weir pool catching four salmon during the morning which he considered reward enough for the day. Typically by the end of April the beats below Beam Weir would have produced in excess of one hundred to one hundred and fifty salmon. In 1954 that was a particularly wet summer the Brightly Beat produced over one hundred salmon. It was reported in a fishing magazine of the time that a Mr Lister had landed his 100th salmon of the season on August 14th 1954 Truly a dream salmon fishers summer!

Sea trout fishing on the Torridge peaked during the 1960’s with the river reported to be full of peal. Though during the 1970’s and 1980’s sea trout catches declined, but in 1987 there was a huge run of peal in the Torridge, which corresponded with similar reports on the Taw and Lyn.

Charles biggest salmon from the Torridge weighed 16lb and his fathers biggest salmon was a fine fish of 27lb 8oz. In 1994 a large run of salmon came into the river in June and Martin Weeks was fishing the lower river and heard a commotion whilst night fishing the river for sea trout. Huge numbers of salmon were pushing into the lower reaches of the river. For several days following guests of the Half Moon enjoyed some exciting sport as the salmon waited in the lower pools for a spate. To protect the vulnerable salmon Charles declared the pools sanctuary areas.

Afters a September spate the salmon forged on upstream with fifty-eight salmon landed by Half Moon Guests in just a fortnight. At this time the Half Moon had three days a week fishing the Devon Wildlife Trust Water at Halsdon. David Sheriff fished this beat and landed a salmon estimated at between twenty-seven and twenty eight pounds. Each season sees salmon caught in excess of twenty pounds. A twenty-three pounder was landed in 2009.

In recent years a large sea trout estimated at 19lb was found below Beam Weir by a guest staying at the Half Moon. The largest sea trout Charles could recall was a sea trout of 13lb 8oz that was caught by an angler spinning near Sheepwash. In recent seasons there have been several double figure sea trout landed certainly more than used to be caught from the river. So as is often the case as fish numbers decrease so the size increases. This is strange for such a phenomena can be understood where lower fish stocks equates to more available food but with sea trout that do not feed in freshwater there is no logical explanation.

On sea trout fishing Charles stated that in contrast to the advice given on many rivers to wait until full darkness descends on the Torridge many sea trout could be tempted in the last hour of light. This could be in part due to the fact that the Torridge is seldom gin clear. Charles told me that one should fish for the sea trout with care and stealth. Save the favourite spot until that magic moment when the light fades from the day; “the operational time”.

Fly size for sea trout on the Torridge should in Charles view be on the small side with size 8 to 10’s typical, his favourite fly being a silver butcher and a small black and silver on the lower river. Charles related to me how Martin Weeks and his friends had started fishing the Lower Torridge in the early nineties and employed the large lures and techniques laid out in Hugh Falkus’s classic tome “Sea Trout Fishing”. Surprisingly they enjoyed little success but after talking with Charles and other local sea trout fishers they employed the small traditional sea trout flies employed by local anglers. Their success rate immediately improved dramatically and they started to catch fish.

As to Charles favourite salmon fly this is the Thunder and lightning or silver stoats tail generally dressed on a double hook that fishes well as it transcends the stream.

The fishing on the Torridge is now of course fly only but in the past spinning was by far the most popular method of fishing. Charles told me that when spinning was first banned there were fears that it would be the end of fishing on the waters of the Half Moon. There was despair and anger amongst many local anglers when the byelaw was introduced during the early eighties. This was in part due to the fact that whilst the net fishery was reduced it was still allowed to continue depleting stocks.

The vast majority of guests fishing the Half Moon Waters employed spinning tactics to tempt the salmon and looking at the water this is understandable as many of the deeper pools are far from ideal fly pools. Records show that up to 90% of salmon caught pre nineteen eighties were caught using spinning tactics. This fact undoubtedly clouds any statistics relating to numbers of salmon caught. Perhaps painting a far gloomier picture on stocks than is truly representative?

I expressed to Charles that my own view is that the introduction of fly only has been a good move as it has made salmon fishing on the river more sustainable. In addition to this fly fishing is far more in keeping with catch and release tactics causing far less potential injury than a spinner.

The restriction on methods has impacted heavily on many local anglers who have given up their sport having no inclination to adopt fly tactics. When conditions were right for spinning following a spate several anglers would descend along the upper reaches of the river with their spinning tackles and enjoy fine sport. Charles felt sad that these anglers were suddenly denied their sport.

One of anglings greatest joys is undoubtedly the people that one meets along the way and in Charles case this is certainly true. During many years at the Half Moon Charles made many friends and shared his love for the river with many characters. Even after the sale of the Half Moon Charles continues to advise on the fishing spending many hours encouraging guests with words of wisdom and tales of previous successes. I am sure that the most valuable gift he gives to guests is that of confidence for I am a firm believer that this is an angler’s greatest asset.

The Half Moon in its heyday was undoubtedly a thriving fishing Inn and Charles tells of days when he would send up to eighteen rods a day out onto the rivers beats. Many of these were trout fishers. There has been a big decline in the numbers of anglers fishing the Half Moon Waters. In its heyday the Inn would be fully booked from early April until the middle of June. Seven days a week; fully booked for three months a wonderful period of angling days and socializing.

The decline in fishing Inns throughout the West Country is certainly sad and I chatted at length with Charles on this and how many famous fishing Inns have closed.

In 1958 when the Inniss family moved to the Half Moon Inn there were at least six fishing Inns on the Torridge. The Black Horse Inn in Torrington, , The Devils Stone Inn at Shebbear , The George at Hatherleigh, The New Inn at Meeth and Woodford Bridge at Milton Damerel all of these were fishing Inn’s with their own fishing beats. This decline in fishing Inn’s is reflected across the region and is a sad loss to the West Countries sporting heritage.

There are numerous factors that have contributed to this, one of which has been the decline in fish stocks. The restrictions on fishing methods, early season mandatory catch and release and of course the fluctuating economic climate. Another factor is that people can now travel to foreign climes in search of their fishing.

On catch and release I was interested to hear Charles view. He told me that his views have changed over the years. He now returns all of the salmon and the majority of sea trout he catches. There are many views on catch and release with many people totally opposed to the practice.

As the evening with Charles drew to a close I felt privileged to have talked with him and to have been given a glimpse into a life that has undoubtedly been greatly enriched by the love of the River Torridge over many seasons. The Rivers health has certainly improved over recent years with otters now far more numerous than they were during the eighties when they had all but disappeared. One angler fishing at Brimblecombe a couple of years past actually had a sea trout stolen from his line as he played it. The angler later relayed the tale to Charles of how he had departed to see the otter looking across the river munching upon his sea trout.

Charles Inniss’s book “Torridge Reflections” was published in the autumn of 2012 and launched at the annual Torridge Fisheries dinner on October 13th. The first print run of 350 copies sold out within weeks with many of the purchasers collecting their books from the Half Moon on the launch day where Charles spent several hours signing copies. Peter Lapsley was a special guest on the day having written a foreword in the book. Peter was a guest at the Half Moon on numerous occasions when he used his skill with the fly rod to tempt the Torridge’s wily trout. Torridge Reflections is a tome I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who has an interest in people, fishing and the countryside.