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.

RIVER EXE – SALMON A River Full of Fish ( Once Upon a time)

RIVER EXE – SALMON

            Lanacre Barn Gallery is situated  in the heart of  Exmoor a short distance from Lanacre bridge that straddles the River Barle. The gallery is hosting an exhibition focusing on fish and life within water. https://moorlandart.com

‘Fabulous Fish’ will run daily from 25thMarch – 8th April 2023, from 11am-5pm, at Lanacre Barn Gallery in Withypool, Exmoor, TA24 7SD. It will be open to the public, admission is free, and refreshments will be available.

            As part of this event a talk was held with Phillip Turnbull Fisheries Technical Officer with the Westcountry Rivers Trust. The talk entitled The River Exe – A River Full of Fish, gave a fascinating insight into the history of the river Exe and the fish that have swum within.

The River Barle at Tarr Steps

            The Westcountry Rivers Trust aims to enhance and protect rivers across the region with the long term survival of fish at the heart. Phillip listed the fish that have been recorded in the Exe including migratory and non-migratory species. Migratory species include salmon, sea trout, eel, lamprey ( sea, brook and River) Allis/ twaite shad, Atlantic Sturgeon. Non migratory fish include brown trout, grayling, bull head, stone loach and minnows.

The River Barle

         The salmon are of course the most iconic of these species and much of the talk focused upon salmon and their past and future. The story of salmon on the Exe is an all too familiar tale with a dramatic decline in recent decades. Salmon are believed to have been harvested from the Exe since before Roman Times. Records from 1771 tell of  a catch of 1000 salmon in Exeter in one week, A river full of fish indeed!

            The largest salmon recorded from the River Exe was caught in a net at the mouth of the River in 1924 and weighed 61lb 4oz. I believe a cast of the fish can still be seen in the museum at Topsham.

Migratory fish (all species) have declined globally by 76% and 93% in Europe alone.  This is reflected in global Atlantic salmon populations with a steady decline since the 1970s, with an estimated 50-70% decline in the past 40-50 years.  River Exe salmon are classified as ‘At Risk’ meaning we need to work together to reverse the decline.

                       Salmon are seen as a keystone species the proverbial ‘Canary in the mine’.

An ambitious  five point plan has been implemented to reverse the decline in stocks.

  1. Improve Marine Survival – Missing salmon alliance https://missingsalmonalliance.org
  2. Reduce exploitation – Catch and Release, Netting ban
  3. Remove barriers to Upstream migration
  4. Improve Water Quality
  5. Safe Guard Flows

  The present focus is to deliver bespoke fish passage improvements at all remaining weirs on the river, whether this be removal or installing site-suitable fish passes.

A similar initiative was undertaken on the River Taw and has resulted in some promising signs.

The River Barle has been identified as the prime spawning area on the Exe system and is an SSSI with good water quality and significant redd capacity.

            Climate change is having a significant impact on river flows and weirs are impacted upon with times of optimum flow reduced. Salmon migration both upstream as adults and downstream as smolts is impacted upon by high and low flows. Up to 50% of smolts are thought to perish in the rivers. The slowing descent of smolts disrupts their marine feeding time, water quality is impacted by low flows and predation is increased.

            The weirs can be removed or modified to incorporate fish passes. The project involves a great deal of research to determine ownership and complex negotiations to deal with abstraction licences and use. RETA ( The River Exe & Tributaries Association) Is working in partnership with Westcountry Rivers Trust, which is supported by the Environment Agency and South West Water.

            The talk also highlighted many factors that can impact on salmon and river life some of which do not immediately spring to mind. The redds are vulnerable to disturbance during the winter and early spring and care should be taken when entering the river at this time. Veterinary products used to treat dogs such as Spot On are highly toxic to invertebrates living within the river. Wild swimming is also a concern with sunscreen highly toxic especially during  times of low  water when dilution is minimal.

            AWARENESS of the river environment is key with education essential.  Citizen Science can play a significant role in highlighting issues with regular monitoring of water quality a key initiative. The  underfunded EA does not have the resources to carry out adequate monitoring.

            The River Fly Monitoring program can also play a significant  role in identifying and highlighting problems. https://www.riverflies.org

            Connection with our rivers is vital in helping us to understand their delicate and unique eco systems.

            Nicky Green gave a talk on the Invasive signal crayfish that are now to be found throughout much of the Exe system. These crustaceans carry a plague that kills the native white tailed crayfish. They predate heavily upon invertebrates, fish eggs, fry and lichens. They also burrow deeply into banks resulting in siltation and erosion.

The crayfish were introduced during the mid 1970’s as part of a failed food industry plan.

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.