A Meandering Winter Stream

       I joined Dulverton Anglers Association in 2023 intending to explore the waters of the Exe and Barle that wind their way through the wooded valleys around Dulverton. As is often the case ambitions are not always met and I failed to make a single trip to their waters in 2023. We do however visit Dulverton on a regular basis and generally call into Lance Nicholson’s Tackle and Gun Shop to talk of the river or buy a few flies.

       Having already sorted my 2024 subscription I was determined to start exploring their waters and pledged to pursue the grayling of the Exe and its tributaries as soon as conditions allowed.

       Grayling are true fish of the winter months and give a great excuse to visit the water. The South West is not known for its prolific grayling fishing with just a handful of rivers supporting stocks of these enigmatic fish often referred to as the ladies of the stream.

       The grayling of these Exmoor streams have been lingering in my mind for many years. Several decades ago, my wife and I attended a fishing event at the Carnarvon Arms. The Carnarvon Arms was a renowned Country Hotel that hosted many visiting anglers and country sports enthusiasts. A stand at the event was hosted by an elderly gentlemen who talked of grayling enthusiastically and fondly. Sadly, the Carnarvon Arms has now been converted into flats its legacy now just a distant and fading memory.

       Fortunately, time has been kind to these rivers and whilst the salmon are in steep decline there is an everlasting and deep character that still flows. Negley Farson waxed lyrical about the Exmoor waters in his classic tome ‘ Going Fishing’.

“ I think the best thing to call it is a certain quiet decency. This almost unchanging English scene, with its red and green rolling hills, holds a romance that wild rocks, and wild flowers, or snow capped volcanoes could never give you. It has a gentleness, a rich rustic worth, and an unostentatiousness that is like the English character. An imperturbable      scene which fills you with contentment.”

       These streams are still inspiring authors to this day with Michelle Werrett’s latest book ‘ Song Of The Streams’, maintaining a rich literary vein that links the past to the present.

       It was -5 degrees when I left home to drive across Exmoor. There was no hurry as I left home at around 9:30 hoping that the worst of the ice would have melted. The sun was well up in the sky as I drove across Winsford Hill yet the road glistened with white frost.

       I arrived at Dulverton at around 10:30 and called into Lance Nicholson’s to get detailed instruction where to park to access my chosen beat on the River Haddeo. I purchased a hot pasty in Tantivy’s; a shop and café that I assume gained its name from the late Captain Tantivy an old English squire who rode with the hunt as mentioned in Farson’s “Gone Fishing’.

       At the fishing hut I assembled my tackle whilst munching on a Cornish pasty and hot sweet coffee from my flask. I set off to the river unsure of the route to take. The Haddeo starts its journey high on the Brendon Hills its route punctuated by Wimbleball Reservoir that has become a mecca for Stillwater trout fishers.

       The beat I was to fish runs through a Private Country estate and walking across the frosty field to the water I heard the volleys of shots from the shoot. The convoy of guns vehicles were parked up in the field across the valley. The pickers and their dogs worked away further up the valley and a team of beaters were undoubtedly working the woods and cover beyond.

       The river was running fairly low and clear. I descended into the cold water carefully negotiating the barbed wire that will rip waders whatever the price tag!

       And so, the search began with two gold headed nymphs carefully flicked into the rushing stream. It is a delight to explore a new water especially if it is wild and characterful as this beat is.

       As I waded upstream a gamekeeper attired in traditional  tweeds wandered across the field and made a friendly enquiry as to my success. I explained that it was my first visit to the water and that I hoped to catch a grayling. I don’t know if he was a fisher but he gave me encouragement telling me that there were some lovely looking pools up through the river valley.

       I waded on clambering through the arch made by an ivy clad fallen tree. Icicles gripped the branches as they caressed the clear and icy water.

       The river tumbled over a stony bed meandering through the valley. The signs of pheasant rearing were all around and I caught the occasional whiff of cordite from the shoot drifting in the cold frosty air.

       I carefully made my way upriver searching each likely looking pool methodically. I was using a long rod adopting Euro Nymphing tactics. I focused intently upon the bright orange leader as it entered the water tightening the line each time it twitched as the flies bounced the rocky riverbed.

       Luck was certainly on my side for the flies came free each time they snagged the bottom. And even the trees failed to rob me of the expensive nymphs that were tied to gossamer thin 3.5 b.s fluorocarbon that tested my ability to focus through lens of recently prescribed varifocals.

       As I wandered the river bank I observed the occasional wren flitting through the branches and the ever present red breasted robin.

       A buzzard mewed above the trees and cock pheasants strutted arrogantly in the frosty fields safe for a few days now  and with just a week of the shooting season left likely to survive into the warmer days of Spring.

       I peered into the flowing water hoping to glimpse my quarry but the river seemed devoid of fish. I knew that grayling were present yet connection seemed less probable as the number of fruitless casts mounted.

       I flicked my flies into another likely spot struggling to see the leader as strong sunshine shone into my face. I perceived the pausing of the line and lifted the rod to feel the magical and delightful pulse of life. The grayling gyrated strongly in the water and I took a step downstream releasing the net from my back in anticipation. The prize was just a few  inches from the nets frame when the hook hold gave, the silver fish disappearing back into the clear tumbling water.

       Would this be my only chance? Grayling are shoal fish so I figured that there could be more in this small pool. I retraced my steps dropping the flies into the pool again. After a couple of casts, the line tightened and after a short tussle I netted a grayling of perhaps 8oz.

       I admired silver flanks and crimson dorsal fin, grabbing its portrait before letting it flip away into its home water.

       I fished on contentedly a blank averted and confidence restored so that I fished with belief and conviction. Covering some promising lie’s, I strolled until I came close to the top of the beat.

Woodsmoke drifted up from the chimneys of cottages across the valley. I savoured the rural scene as I worked my way back downstream revisiting promising pools. In a deep slowly moving pool the leader stabbed down and once again I connected to another grayling. This one was bigger than the first a fish of perhaps 12oz that was once again admired before slipping back into the Haddeo.

       As the sun began to sink lower into the sky I fished on down with no further action. I reached the bottom of the beat and clambered over a style that allowed access to the river beside an old stone bridge. I descended into the river and waded beneath the old bridge contemplating the cars above racing around the troubled modern world.

       I arrived back at the car poured hot coffee from my flask and reflected upon another perfect day beside a meandering stream.

A GREY AND GLOOMY DAY WITH FROME GRAYLING

            “Fancy a day  trotting for grayling on the Frome in Dorset ?” Asked my good friend Bruce.

Sounds good I replied and booked up the adjacent beat on the estate hidden away between Dorchester and Wareham. Weather looked good, dry and cold.

            A week later on the eve of our trip; severe weather warnings in place. Sleet ,heavy snow and strong North East winds. We were to be right on the border of the severe weather with potential heavy rain instead of snow!

            The call of the river  is strong and at 6.30am I was on my way to meet Bruce at Honiton; a convenient half way meeting point on the journey. As I drove over Exmoor trees coated in heavy snow and roads slippery with slush and heavy snow falling I questioned our sanity.

            After a short delay in Honiton as we arrived at different car parks we eventually converged and I loaded my grayling gear into Bruce’s capacious van.

            The higher ground was snow covered  but as we got closer to the river the snow turned to rain.

            Arriving at the river bank we were relieved that the rain had eased and the temperature had climbed to a balmy 3 degrees!

            There was a bit of colour in the water but it looked Ok and running a little fast. The prospect of a good grayling had us both buzzing with excitement as we threaded line through the rings setting up with crimson topped floats, size 14 hooks and 3lb hook lengths.

            Bruce walked the Upper beat with me showing me some promising swims where he had enjoyed success on previous visits.

Wrapped up warm I set off for the river. No such thing as bad weather I was dressed for the occasion.

     

      I set the depth to allow the maggot or corn hook baits to trip over the gravel bottom. The fishery has produced grayling to over 3lb with 2lb fish highly likely.

After half an hour of trotting I hooked a powerful fish that fought hard in the strong current. I was disappointed when the flanks of a two pound plus out of season brown trout appeared. I netted the fish and slipped it back. This was followed ten minutes or so later by an almost identical trout. It might even have been the same fish.

            I fished various swims as I fished slowly down river trotting baits through likely looking runs. It was good to be beside the river despite the damp gloomy conditions. I noticed the wrens flitting to and fro amongst the bank side reeds. Flocks of long tailed tits flew about in the adjacent trees.

            The float dipped from time to time as the baits caught on the bottom but grayling were proving elusive. In a promising run the float dipped and I was delighted to feel a satisfying resistance and glimpse the dorsal fin of a good sized grayling. At 1lb 14oz it was a pleasing result.

            By now it was gone 1.00pm and I was almost back at the van. I dropped Bruce a message and we met up for lunch in the back of the van. Comparing notes, it was obvious  that the grayling were not in a cooperative mood. Bruce had tempted two grayling one of over 1lb the other a little smaller. He had also caught a brace of trout.

            After the short break we set back out onto the river. I returned to the swim I had caught the grayling in before dinner. After a couple of trots the float dipped and a second grayling of around 1lb 8oz was brought to the net.

            I spent the next couple of hours searching the beat with a couple of brief hook ups and another out of season brown trout. As the light faded my expectations waned and I headed down to see how Bruce was getting on.

            Bruce was trotting his float expertly through a fast run and had just lost a good fish. The light was fading fast, as I watched the float shot under and Bruce was into a good grayling of around 1lb 12oz. I had packed away my rod and enjoyed watching Bruce fish until the float was barely visible.

A pleasing grayling for Bruce of around 1lb 12oz in the fading light of the day

            It had been a good day’s fishing. Hard going in cold gloomy conditions with the grayling hard to tempt. The strong east wind forecast had not arrived and the heavy rain held off. We will be back next winter for sure.

            We drove home through heavy rain  with sleet on the high ground. I arrived at Tiverton to find the link road closed resulting in an unwelcome diversion over the snowy moors. I arrived home at close to 10.00pm a long but enjoyable day at the water’s edge.

A Rare Devon Grayling

Grayling are scarce in Devon with the River Exe and a few of its tributaries the only stronghold for these ladies of the stream. When I saw that well known South West Angler John Deprieelle had acquired a stretch of fishing on the Exe near Tiverton I was keen to try for the grayling that resided within the fishery.

See below link to video of the fishery produced by John Deprieelle.

Trotting a float down a river seemed the ideal opportunity to catch up with my good friend Martin Turner so on a cold and frosty morning Martin and I both full of cold set off for a stretch of river below Tiverton. Thick mist lay in the river valleys as we travelled to Tiverton stopping off at Wetherspoon’s for full English and a couple of coffees. This was no intensely serious fishing trip just two mates catching up putting the world to rights and hopefully catching a rare Devon grayling.

The fishery consists of around a third of a mile of river much of it difficult to access with steep wooded banks that added a sense of mystery and wildness I had not expected so close to the town. It is always exciting and perhaps slightly daunting to visit a fishery for the first time. John had described a salmon pool in the centre of the stretch that had a deep run that produced grayling on a regular basis.

We scrambled down the bank having located a well-worn fisherman’s path. This was no manicured fishing location but the river and the deep pool looked promising. We fired  a few maggots to the head of the pool and set up our trotting tackles. Both of us had elected to use centre pins, mine an ancient Grice and Young Avon Royal Supreme. I paired this with a15ft Dr Redfin roach rod. https://cotswoldrods.co.uk/product/dr-redfin-15ft-float-rod/

I threaded a crimson topped grayling float onto the line, Martin set up with a more streamlined stick float. I waded out onto the rocks at the head of the pool whilst Martin fished from the rocks at the base of the bank. A steady trickle of maggots were introduced and we searched the deep water trotting maggots beneath floats that we struggled to see as the bright sunlight beamed through the trees.

After ten minutes or so my float dipped delightfully and the rod pulsed in my hands. A grayling of perhaps 8oz was guided into the net. Ten minutes later Martin’s float sank and he too enjoyed the plunging of a grayling as it used its large dorsal fin to sail to and FRO in the strong current. The grayling was probably close to a pound and crowned the day a success as we had both caught our target species a rare Devon grayling.

We fished on savouring the delights of trotting a float as dippers flitted past and warm winter sunshine shone into the swirling clear waters of the Exe. From time to time, we managed to tangle our lines as we fished a swim that was really only suitable for one; a good job we are good friends.

We missed a few bites but eventually decided to move on after a couple of hours. We moved to a faster shallower stretch in the Open fields where we could explore a few new swims. I hooked an out of season brownie of around 12oz and lost a reasonable fish hooked at the end of a long trot.

The sun slowly sank beneath the hills and a chill air descended upon the valley. Expectation had drained away and we were both content with our day having caught our target fish. We viewed a spectacular sky decorated in red and golden hues as we headed for home plotting further forays to waters both old and new.

AN AUTUMN GRAYLING

In these troubled times time with the rod is so precious bringing a sense of stability to life that is in the shadow of ongoing uncertainty. To the East of Dorchester there are a number of small quintessential English villages nestled in the Upper Frome valley that exude that reassuring essence of continuity we perhaps need during these unprecedented times.

The River Frome is a chalk stream that rises in the Dorset downs passing through Dorchester and numerous villages before converging with the tide at Wareham before entering Poole Harbour.

For an angler the Frome has a rich and varied variety of fish to pursue with the upper reaches dominated by game fish and the lower reaches more suited to coarse fish that grow to specimen sizes. Salmon and sea trout also migrate throughout the river their dwindling numbers of concern as they are throughout the land.

The autumn and winter months are grayling season on the Upper River with the spring and summer trout season. John Aplin is custodian of several stretches of the Frome and carefully nurtures the river to provide a thriving habitat where wild trout and grayling reside within the crystal clear flowing water between swaying fronds of ranunculas.

Pauline and I were staying at the Dairy House West Stafford a well-furnished and comfortable Self catering http://www.chalkstreamflyfishing.co.uk/accommodation/

The accommodation is situated just a short walk away from an exclusive beat of the River Frome that has a reputation for producing huge grayling. It was these grayling that I was hoping to connect with and a day fishing had been booked to coincide with our stay.

The Autumn weather preceding our trip had been unsettled with weather fronts rushing across South West England from the Atlantic. I hoped that the rain had not rendered the river out of sorts as had happened on my previous two visits to the river in search of grayling.

We arrived mid-week and walked the river in late afternoon as the light began to ebb from the day. The river had a tinge of colour but was at a good height and certainly fishable. A herd of Sika deer were grazing in the meadow a large stag in attendance with his harem of fertile females. In the river a pair of swans searched for food gliding gracefully upon the water. Rooks swirled above the trees and leaves fluttered to the ground as the mild westerly gale swept the valley.

Rain pattered upon the windows overnight driven by the westerly wind. I slept fitfully through the night my mind full of weighted nymphs, running water and grayling.

After breakfast I assembled the tackle and chatted with John who told me that the river had dropped slightly and should be in good order despite the overnight rain.

I headed eagerly for the bottom of the beat the path winding its way through dense woodland. The river was slightly clearer than the previous day and at a good height. I was using a 10ft 3 weight nymphing rod, and  two weighted nymphs on a 4lb fluorocarbon leader.

Whilst with polaroid’s I could glimpse into the river spotting fish would not be easy. My tactics were to wade carefully upstream searching likely lies trundling the nymphs over the gravelly runs and probing the deeper darker lies. Reading the water is a skill that is learned over many trips to the river though it is fair to say that  all rivers share many characteristics and the language of the chalk-stream I waded now was not that different to the River Umber I explored as a child angler many decades ago.

Searching the water is a wonderfully cathartic experience requiring total concentration as the bright tip of the line traces the progress of the nymphs bouncing the gravelly runs. Each flicker of the line as the hook catches weed required a tightening of the line in case it is a fish that has been deceived. The wind conspires to send each cast astray, tree branches reach down to ensnare and tangle the nymphs that I have collected after succumbing to tempting emails and posts from https://www.barbless-flies.co.uk  I hoped the grayling would be equally impressed!

After half an hour of searching I lifted the rod to flick out another cast but there came a pleasing living resistance. For a moment I was almost spellbound in disbelief as the rod plunged over, the line moving purposely upstream. The fish hung powerfully in the strong current then used the flow to gain a few yards of line heading down river. I caught sight of a silver flank and the distinctive sail like dorsal fin. Tense moments followed before the fish was safe within the folds of the net. The tiny pink nymph fell from the fishes underslung mouth, I gazed in wonder at the lady of the stream, put a number to it weighing in quickly in the net

(2lb 12oz) and took its portrait before holding the fish in the current relishing the sight of the fish swimming strongly away into the stream of memory.

I sent a picture to Pauline who was relaxing back in the Annexe. I fished on up through the beat immersed in the contentment of success. An hour later I broke away from the river for a late morning coffee.

Shortly after midday I was back in the river Pauline close at hand to take a few pictures of the river as I flicked my offerings into the stream ever expectant now having had my confidence boosted by success. One more grayling succumbed in early afternoon a feisty fish of perhaps 12oz. I caught a glimpse of a couple more grayling that had undoubtedly seen me before I had focussed upon them in the ever running stream.

The day passed away far too quickly as most days beside the water do and I packed away the rods and waders as the light faded. I will return to the river again in search of grayling and maybe even in the height of summer when the water meadows will be lush and green, the river running crystal clear and wild browns will be supping mayfly as the river meanders quietly on.

The following day we headed for home two more anglers were on the River undoubtedly spurred on by news of my grayling. The grayling of the Frome grow to record proportions with fish caught in the past to over four pounds. This autumn has seen at least three fish of over three pounds tempted but these are not prolific fish. Such a grayling is hard won and I look back upon my success contemplating how small the margin is between catching the dream  or not. There are many hundreds of casts in a day on the river and with these rare and precious fish there is often only one cast that will connect with the top prize.

Grayling just over the border.

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Sadly we don’t have any grayling in North Devon but there are a few just over the border in Somerset where Nick Hart operates out of Exe Valley Fishery.

Nick Hart takes a lot of photos of people with fish but every now and again something a little bit different happens like this one today. Here a mate (Phil) holds the net while his mate (Alan) displays his first ever Grayling caught on a #16 cdc elk dry during a session on the River Exe. Just love their expressions, shows the buzz to be had from fishing.