Return to the River

It was good to once again wander the river bank and swing a fly in the hope of a spring run salmon. The seasons come and go so quickly and it is hard to believe that twelve months have flashed past. Once again the wild daffodils are decorating the banks as natures calendar turns its pages.

The water is cold and fairly clear  running at a perfect height. Several years ago on March 7th I netted a fresh run Springer of around 9lb so I am optimistic that success could come with any cast. I drift the Fly across familiar water and on one cast there is a brief tightening of the line followed a second later by a heaviness. Too gentle to be trout it could be a snag in the river. Repeated casts over the same spot rule this out so I change my Fly and cover the lie again. There is a brief tug and a flurry of spray as what was a good sized trout shakes the hook free. Im not convinced that it was the trout that intercepted the fly first drift. Salmon takes can be so subtle at times feeling like a drifting leaf has brushed the hook. I contemplate what might have been and fish on content that I have a full season ahead.

Blakewell Features in Trout & salmon

I always tend to associate Spring with trout and salmon fishing so when picking up the Tesco shop I indulged in the April Edition of Trout and Salmon Magazine. Browsing through its pages of pleasing images I was delighted to come upon local fishery owner Richard Nickell’s familiar smiling features.

The magazine has another excellent feature on trout fishing on Dartmoor with local cane rod builder Luke Bannister.

A pleasing brace of doubles taken on my last visit to Blakewell back in December.

Salmon Season Starts

March 1st is the first day of the salmon season on North Devon Rivers and both the Taw and Torridge are looking good running high and clear.

I took my rod the bottom of the Taw at midday and had a few casts to greet the new season. This was on the Barnstaple Club Water and I suspect any fish that have moved in will have pushed up river with plenty of water and big tides. It was good to wade out into the cool water once again and flex the rod. I can remember the river on opening day when I started fishing for salmon back in the late seventies when club members would have been out in numbers hoping for that first fish off the season. Sadly the number of anglers have dwindled along with the spring salmon. Another major factor is the mandatory catch and release that is now enforced along with a spinning being discouraged despite being legal for the first month of the season.

I  am always fascinated at the amount of debris brought down by the winter spates. It is hard to imagine the ferocity of the waters that carried this so high onto the bank. It is also fascinating to see how the river changes each year as nature moulds its path to the sea.

Big Bulldog Browns

It’s an exciting time of year as winter passes with new fishing adventures on the horizon. Today was the last day of winter yet at this time of year the seasons seem to fluctuate from day to day and even from morning till night.  There was frost on the grass when I looked out of the bedroom window as the moon sank beneath the tree line and the sun rose from the opposite direction illuminating the fields as the frost  melted away in a warm dawn glow.

I was fishing at Bulldog fishery which is less than five miles from my home so truly local. The lane to the fishery winds down through woodland and between the remains of the old Lynton to Barnstaple Railway. The Fishery is located beside the Barnstaple Yeo that was running high and clear its sparkling water flowing into the  top of the lake. I have been meaning to pay the fishery a visit for sometime after seeing some stunning images of its big brown trout.

I set up and walked the fishery bank peering into the clear water. The shaded far bank proved an ideal vantage point with the sun behind me I could see clearly into the lake. The downside of course was that my shadow could also be cast onto the water alerting the fish of my presence.

The trees would hopefully break my silhouette. Half way down the Lake I glimpsed two very large trout just a couple of rod lengths from the bank. I pulled a few yards of line from the reel and wetted the damsel nymph in the margin. The line was carefully flicked out in front of the trout; my heart was in my mouth the fish turned towards the fly eyeing it with intent for a moment before turning away showing disdain at my offering.

Such chances are often fleeting but it was an exciting start to the trip. I moved along the bank and put a long line parallel to the bank. After a couple of pulls the line drew tight and a trout pulled back. An impressive brown trout its spotted sides showing clearly in the gin clear water. The trout close to five pounds was certainly a great start to the day.

A few casts later a rainbow chased the olive damsel nymph close to the bank where I saw its mouth open and engulf the lure.

With two trout on the bank I was pleased to take a break from fishing and chat with the fishery owner Nigel Early about his exciting plans for the fishery. The trout lake is due to be considerably enlarged to provide far more bank space making it an ideal venue for visiting clubs or small groups of anglers. This is an intimate Stillwater trout fishery that contains some huge brown trout up to 15lb that are undoubtedly wily and worthy targets. The fishery policy is for all browns over 5lb to be returned carefully to the water preserving a valuable asset and ensuring that visiting anglers have the chance to catch the fish of a lifetime. There are two day ticket options; four fish £30 or five fish £35. Large returned browns do not count as part of this bag.

Nigel is no stranger to big trout and was proud to tell me that he had provided stock fish from the trout farm that have set English, Scottish and Welsh records Including rainbows of 26lb 9oz (Welsh) and 24lb 6oz ( Scottish).

Another project underway is a carp lake of several acres that has been stocked with ten carp over thirty pound and another 120 carp ranging from low doubles to mid twenties. There will be ten swims on the lake that should open in early May and will undoubtedly provide some exciting fishing. I feel sure that the lake will mature nicely over the coming years to bring a valuable carping venue close to Barnstaple.

After leaving Nigel to continue his work I returned to the trout lake where I managed to spot another huge brown trout that once again frustrated my efforts swimming at my nymph before turning away and disappearing into the depths of the lake. Several good sized fish were showing near the inlet and followed my olive damsel before turning away. With the sun beaming down from a clear blue sky it was undoubtedly time for a little finesse. A bead headed nymph was flicked out and the lines tip twitched. A 4lb plus rainbow was added to my bag. With Sunday dinner waiting I reeled in and headed for home thoughts of big browns etched on the minds eye.

A Stubbornly Buoyant float

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I fished in hope of perch today suspending half a juicy lobworm beneath a sliding float. The six hours passed by all too quickly with the float remaining stubbornly buoyant throughout the day. It was sheltered in the old quarry as gale force winds roared above, the trees swaying vigorously too and fro. The dark and moody water hiding its secrets. Fallen trees lay rotting at the waters edge. It has been several years since I last fished here and it was good to be back finding that it was reassuringly familiar. Waters are like old friends that never seem to age.

Reports from lockdown

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For those who don’t buy the Journal here are a couple of recent angling reports written during lockdown. With a reduction in angling news it’s been liberating to have the freedom to write something different beyond the normal catch reports.

ANGLING REPORT – January 11th 

FISHING IN LOCKDOWN

            The Angling Trust have done a sterling job in lobbying government to allow angling to continue within the present strict lockdown rule. Angling can be practiced locally as daily exercise and whilst angling would not generally be considered as cardiovascular exercise it is undoubtedly beneficial for mental health. Anglers must make their own judgement regarding the ethics of fishing during the lockdown and whether it is within the spirit of public good. Angling is without doubt as COVID safe as is possible the only issue could arise if an accident arises whilst fishing or travelling to the water’s edge. This could of course impact upon the busy emergency services as can virtually any activity.

As a result of the lockdown angling reports are few and far between so I will take this opportunity to look back at angling in North Devon during the past. It is generally accepted that fish stocks have declined dramatically in recent times and I would certainly concur with this view. I would however add that the picture is not always as bleak as it is painted.

I have over recent years raised serious concerns regarding the all too frequent pollution incidents that impact upon our local rivers. Fortunately I feel that there is a ground swell of concern across society for the health of the planet that could bring renewed hope. Since I have been casting a line in North Devon’s rivers I have seen a dramatic decline in salmon numbers. There are many reasons for this but it is not the first time in our history that salmon have been endangered by human activity. During the Victorian era many rivers were dammed for water mills and effluent was frequently discharged into the regions rivers that were treated as open sewers.

I came across an old newspaper cutting recently that reflects upon fishing the Upper Teign. “ When I called, in the dim light of a December evening, Mr Perrott was putting the finishing touches to a red Maxwell. He last went fishing on April 5th 1930, but as the water was very high and the weather very cold he only got two trout. On his eightieth birthday he walked eight and a half miles and caught eighteen. “Trout are not so numerous as in the good old days” said Mr Perrott. “They were more plentiful when the lead mines at Christow prevented the salmon from getting into the upper reaches. I on one occasion killed one thousand trout in ten days and one day one hundred and twenty-two. I started at 5.00am and finished at 2.00pm. It is not necessarily the neatest fly that kills. The modern fly is too small. Fish rise to them but do not take.”

The above extract from the Western Times Newspaper, January 1st 1932 raised several interesting facts. The first observation is that whilst the River Teign was considered a top class salmon fishing river in recent times it was not always so as pollution from mine workings undoubtedly had a significant impact upon the rivers migratory fish population. The apparent abundance of wild trout is on the other hand quite staggering.

The book ,Exmoor Streams By Clave.F.Wade published in 1903  has many mesmerising tales of tumbling streams with abundant wild trout and salmon. The author recalls  “They are at times so plentiful that I remember a boy once catching between seventy and eighty in the same pool fishing downstream with flies. I admit I have eaten them and they are even better and sweeter than the trout.” To my horror I realise that he is referring to salmon parr! That the River East Lyn survived such overfishing is testimony to the resilience of the salmon.

ANGLING REPORT

Mysteries of the past

The lockdown has inevitably impacted heavily on angling with travel restricted in line with national lockdown guidelines. There has been widespread debate regarding what is deemed local with angling permitted as daily exercise on a local basis.

This is perhaps the quietest time of year for angling with most looking forward to the Springtime that will bring longer days and hopefully an easing of the COVID situation.

I once again take this opportunity to reflect on angling in North Devon in the past. In 2019 I was privileged to have a book published entitled; “ I Caught A Glimpse” that includes a mixture of my own recollections and those of others.

The Bristol Channel was once the home of huge common skate that were frequently landed from deep-water marks. The largest of these weighed in excess of 200lb and were boated using tackle far inferior to that available today. Earlier this Winter Combe Martin SAC member Jamie Steward was fishing from a shore mark near Weston-Super-Mare when he hooked a rare blue skate. Whilst the fish was not large in skate terms at 8lb 3oz it confirmed that these fish still swim within the murky waters of the Bristol Channel. The reason the large skate disappeared was undoubtedly as a result of overfishing in past decades. These huge fish support a recreational fishery off the West Coast of Scotland where a strict catch and release policy has resulted in a thriving population. Perhaps these fish could re-populate North Devon’s local waters if conservation measures were introduced.

It is not just off the coast that species have disappeared as North Devon has also lost freshwater species. The River Taw renowned for its game fishing also has a population of Coarse fish including roach and dace. Whilst dace  still abound the specimen roach that were once abundant have all but vanished. These fish were caught to over 3lb and interviewed anglers who caught these fish on a regular basis up until the late seventies when the population appears to have collapsed. The reason for this is unclear as the water quality enables a thriving population of wild brown trout that are generally considered to be less tolerant of poor quality water than roach.

It is likely that other species of fish once swam in the Taw and Torridge including perhaps mighty sturgeon that have become extinct across the UK.  There are occasional reports of twaite shad caught from both the Taw and Torridge during late spring. These fish are protected by law and must be returned immediately to the water. Large shoals still migrate up the River Severn and Wye each Spring seizing lures intended for trout and salmon.

It is testament to man-kinds disregard for the natural world that many species of fish have swum into the history books. As we witness the dramatic decline in salmon and sea trout stocks I worry that future generations will reflect upon the treasures that we have allowed to dwindle and die during our watch.

A Sunday morning brace of trout

It was good to be beside the calm waters of my local trout fishery as a weak wintry sun peeped through the morning clouds. I threaded a five weight floater line through the rings relishing a quiet couple of hours searching the water. I tied a buoyant fly from barbless flies https://www.barbless-flies.co.uk/products/stillwater-dinkhamer-selection  and suspended a couple of small nymphs beneath it. I stretched the line out across the water retrieving at a slow pace focussing on the floating fly. On the second cast the fly disappeared and I tightened and felt the pleasing resistance of a rainbow trout.

I spent the next half an hour enjoying the motions of fly fishing. The swish off the rod and pleasing settling down of flies and line one upon the calm water. With no further action I pondered upon the fact that a trout so often falls on the first couple of casts at the water. It is as if the catching of that first fish transmits a warning to the lakes residents?

A change of tactics is called for and I tie on an olive damsel removing the buoyant Dinkhammer and cast out allowing the bead headed lure to sink deeper into the lake. After a couple of casts the line draws tight and a vividly spotted full tailed brown trout is brought protesting to the net.

With a brace of trout secured its time to stroll back along the lakeside taking note of the daffodils pushing forth in a promise of the coming spring.

I return home for Sunday dinner and still have time for a walk around the village on a quiet winters day with thoughts of better times ahead.

FISHING IN LOCKDOWN?

I have had several anglers message me regarding fishing in lockdown and what the position is. The Angling Trust have successfully lobbied Government resulting in angling being allowed within the lockdown guidelines. See updated guidelines below from the Angling Trust.

Lockdown fishing: updated guidelines published

The problem with the guidelines is that it leaves a certain amount of freedom to interpret for example what is local. Local is within your town or village, though you can drive a short distance to access an open space. I have reluctantly decided to hang up my rods until after lockdown as I live ten miles from the coast. Could I justify travelling ten miles to go fishing? Is it essential travel? Everyones circumstances are of course different and angling could be a lifeline to many giving valuable exercise for both body and soul. The sooner we can get on top of this COVID nightmare the better and staying home for a few weeks is surely worth the long term result.

In the mean time I will be enjoying a couple of books I received at Christmas that will hopefully inspire me in the coming spring and summer.

I will also be sorting through my fishing gear putting new hooks on old lures, tying rigs and having a general tidy. Might even stock up on a few flies, lures and bits and pieces. In the mean time I will try and write a few features on North Devon Angling plus report on any catches reported to me from those fortunate enough to live close to  fish filled waters.

FISHING HUTS

There was an old hut on the pier at Ilfracombe where I used to fish along with many local anglers. I had forgotten all about the hut until joining a discussion reminiscing about fishing from the old pier that was demolished close to twenty years ago. The pier could be fished at all states of the tide and being high above the water was a safe place even during winter storms.

During those cold winter nights as the waves pounded against the pier’s concrete pillars, the hut gave  a place to shelter. Huddled within anglers would pour a hot drink and enjoy a smoke as they glanced frequently at their rods resting upon the ramparts. The hut and its surroundings had a strange aroma of stale bait and urine. Despite this there was a certain comfort in this old hut. The camaraderie of anglers enduring the worst of the weather whilst sharing that dream of big fish and embellishing stories of battles won and lost over past seasons.

The talk of the old hut on the pier stimulated me to remember other fishing huts and lodges I had visited over a lifetime of angling adventures. At Stafford Moor trout fishery during the late 1970’s I recall the large fishing lodge. Its stark breeze blocked walls and large windows that allowed in plenty of light. Old leather chairs and sofas encircled a scruffy old wooden coffee table that was strewn with old copies of Trout and Salmon magazines. During the cold days of early spring the lodge gave a welcome respite from the cold winds that swept across the windswept moorland. Back then many trout fishers still tended to fit a certain stereo type of upper class gentlemen who talked in that distinctly old English way. As a young long haired youth, I soon learnt that fishing is a great leveller with the shared interest melting any barriers of class or age.

On North Devon’s rivers there are many splendid fishing huts my favourite being an old Tudor styled hut that sits beside the River Torridge at Little Warham. The hut is situated well above the flood line and looks out over the ever flowing river. It is not grand but has a certain timeless charm and has undoubtedly been a place of refuge for anglers over generations and I can imagine the Majors and Generals contemplating the complexities of wartime as they took a break from the pursuit of the once prolific salmon. The tranquillity and perpetuity of the ever flowing stream must have brought solace in those troubled times.

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On the River Test in Hampshire I joined two friends for a days fishing from its manicured banks. The immaculately decorated hut was plush and clean in contrast to that grimy old hut on the pier. Further up river we came across an old wooden shelter with an old bench on which were carved the words, “ Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits”.

On the Lower reaches of the River Taw there are the remains of the Barnstaple & District Angling Clubs hut. Its corrugated sides and roof were painted green. Today it is in a sad state of decay and most of the club anglers who gathered there have long since departed. The rod rack remains empty and ivy and brambles have encroached taking back the old hut. The river still flows majestically past through the seasons though sadly the once prolific salmon are few and far between. There is something about angling huts that is hard to put into words.

FISHING AS PERMITTED – STATEMENT FROM THE ANGLING TRUST

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The Angling Trust have in my opinion done a sterling job in getting angling allowed as legitimate exercise within the present lockdown. As always there are going to be contentiuos areas of debate as there is within the Government guidance. Angling itself is a relatively safe pastime in relation to COVID so going fishing in itself is not an issue in my view. The travel to and from is probably the most risky exercise as is driving on our roads at anytime. I personally will try and be discreet with my fishing as I am aware that there are others whose activities have been taken away will feel deprived.
   I suggest that anglers check before visiting any fishery to ensure they are open for business.
STATEMENT FROM THE ANGLING TRUST
Good morning everyone
The Government have now formally responded to the representations made by the Angling Trust. We have promoted the huge benefits of fishing on individual health and wellbeing and have been able to present a case to which the Government have listened. On this basis I am pleased to announce that fishing will be permitted during the third national lockdown.
The DCMS Sports Team confirmed the following;
“fishing is allowed as exercise so long as participants adhere to the rules on staying local, gathering limits, social distancing and limiting the time spent outdoors”
This has also been confirmed by DEFRA;
“Cabinet Office have now officially confirmed that angling / fishing (incl. sea fishing off private boats, water sports) can be considered exercise and are hence permitted.”
We have worked extremely hard to reach this position and we as anglers have a duty to abide by the strict conditions under which fishing is once again permitted. With infection rates and death tolls rising we must stick to the Government’s rules and ensure that angling remains part of the solution and does not cause problems.
Please bear in mind these key points which will be reflected in the new Angling Trust guidelines which we will publish shortly:
– This is a strictly limited resumption of LOCAL fishing and very different to how we have been allowed to operate since May
– We are in a National Lockdown and this must be respected. The law requires a ‘reasonable excuse’ to leave your home or penalties will apply.
– The government has recognised that fishing can be seen as exercise, which is expressly permitted under the lockdown rules, although outdoor recreation is not.
– Organised sporting gatherings are prohibited so no match fishing.
– The exercise is limited to once a day so no overnight fishing whatsoever.
– To remain within the law you should follow the government’s guidance, and only fish locally within the district where you live. If you have no local fishing available then you will have to take your daily exercise in other ways.
We are once again able to enjoy the sport we love at a time when many others can not and we must ensure that every angler adheres to the rules.
I would ask all anglers who are not members to join the Angling Trust and give us your support. We have worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome and that is only possible thanks to the support of our new and existing members. I would ask all anglers who value their ability to go fishing to make the same commitment as your fellow anglers have and join the Angling Trust. We are stronger together!
Membership – Angling Trust https://anglingtrust.net/membership/
Stay safe and very best fishes
Jamie Cook
CEO – Angling Trust