18 May – River Tavy

The Dartmoor rivers had risen a few inches and were slightly coloured. The Walkham, flowing through the village, looked distinctly cloudy from road washings and would have to wait a day or two. Just below the bridge a trout rose for a midge among the tree debris in an attempt to distract me but I had planned a morning on the Tavy.

The Tavy was coloured but not cloudy, I could see the rocks on the bottom in midstream. I sat beside the river on a shingle beach at the top of the Beat and watched the flies hatching. Mayfly duns hatched from the shallow water infront of me, olives filled the air and midges buzzed over the surface of the water. There were so many flies that I didn’t know which pattern to start with. A small brown nymph, then a spider and finally a GRHE nymph, no response to anything. A fish rose in midstream under a tree so I tied on a small dry olive and drifted it under the branches. I missed the take.

Further downstream I missed another trout on a dry fly and had a slow draw on a nymph that might have been a submerged leaf. Light rain caused me to pause on the seat under the big oak tree. The lean on the tree was a bit intimidating and I continued my walk down to the end of the Beat.

Heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon and as the weather deteriorated, I made my way back to the Defender. Although I hadn’t caught a trout, the mass of wild flowers, the bewildering numbers of flies hatching and the tranquility had made it a memorable morning.

16 May – River Walkham

Monday, rain, no spaniels. Definitely a fishing day. I left the cottage in the rain, confident that it would ease off and to give the Defender a wash. As I walked down the side of the valley, through the woods, the rain stopped but every gust of wind shook the tree tops creating a mini cloudburst.

The upstream breeze helped me work a nymph through the first pool but I wasn’t happy with the presentation. I wondered if I had lined the trout and put them down.

I walked to the top of the Beat through the bluebell woods. Keeping off the path and well back from the river soaked me to the waist.

The top pools and riffles meant crawling around under the tree tunnels. The long rod helped me roll cast and dangle a nymph behind rocks. The water was very clear and quite deep, the weighted GRHE nymph trundled around nicely but there was no response from the trout.

Millions of midges were hatching and buzzing around in clouds over the river. The tiny flies gathered under the far bank where the air was still but I couldn’t find a rising fish.

I climbed over boulders and weaved around the bankside trees, keeping well hidden, expecting a tug on the rod tip at any moment but something was not right and the rod stayed straight.

I had nearly reached the weir when I heard a trout rise. I stopped and watched from behind a stand of mature trees. The water flowed slowly over a long, shallow pool. A fish rose close to the far bank under a mist of midges. Several other fish rose further down the pool. At last, a fish to target. I flicked a small black gnat across the top of the pool and it was taken but the fish slipped the hook. Nevermind, that was progress. The other trout moved further down the pool where I couldn’t reach them.

Further downstream I found another rising fish. I stood behind a tree trunk and gently cast the fly upstream, I saw the fish take. It was a very dark fish which had the cheek to snag me in the tree roots. I eased it out and quickly returned the angry little trout to the river.

Mill Leat

As I walked back up the path out of the valley, I was tempted back into the woods by the Mill Leat. I saw a couple of fat little trout in only 6″ of water. I made no attempt to hide and they darted off upstream, disappearing in the weedless, crystal clear water. How do they do that ?

The walk out, back to the Defender, was glorious. The dappled sunlight on the freshly watered greenery highlighted the leaves and the various coloured woodland flowers. I hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon. No cars, people or spaniels, excellent.

Bob Southwell

Probably the best split cane rod designer and builder that fly fishing has never known.

He is famous for his carp rods. His split cane carp blanks were built for various well known retailers in the 1960’s. Completed rods were also sold at his father’s shop with the ‘Captain Croydon’ inscription. Signed rods are rare and they command very high prices. Consequently, there are lots of unsigned rods attributed to Bob that have no provenance. Wishful thinking or market hype. Collectors glass cabinets contain a lot of Bob’s rods, too rare and expensive to fish with they are hedges against inflation and pension fund supplements. Shame.

I have been unable to find much information about Bob or his family. He lived before the internet was invented.

Bob Southwell fly rods

I am not a collector but I seem to have acquired four of Bob’s fly rods. For fishing, not display. They are very rare, he didn’t make many fly rods compared to his output of MkIV carp rods. I came across the first rod (left) by chance. The gold label above the handle gives the shop address without a STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing) phone number dating the rod to between 1959 and 1966. The rod is 10′ 6″, 2 piece. The cane is very dark, the nodes are hot pressed and the rod furniture dates from that period. The rod rings are Low Bells and the rod bag looks suspiciously like that of a MkIV !

The rod feels steely in the hand and the compound taper delivers a satisfying kick to the fly line as it unfurls, a characteristic of all four rods. The MkIV carp rod has a compound taper that produces a hinge effect just above the ferrule to aid casting light baits long distances, a requirement defined by Richard Walker who designed the famous carp rod. Bob’s fly rods also have that characteristic.

The second rod (middle left) came to me in a very used condition, in fact it was unusable. ‘The Blagdon Rod’ is 10′, two piece and has all the correct fittings. A light refurbishment enabled me to catch a few trout with it. The rod has the power to fish from the bank of a lake such as Blagdon.

The third rod (middle right) ‘The Chew Valley’ is 9’6″, two piece and is my favourite of the four rods. It is at home on a mature lowland river and a tiny moorland stream. Very versatile.

The fourth rod (right) is unsigned and a bit of an outlier. It has a Pezon et Michel reel fitting, is 9’6″ and was ordered at the shop in Croydon as a custom build by the previous owner’s father. It has hardly been used and is in very good condition.

Bob Southwell visited Peter McVey at the Corbett Lake Country Inn, British Columbia. Peter was the owner of the lodge and was a very accomplished split cane rod builder. Bob was Peter McVey’s mentor. In 1980 Bob built a rod at the Inn, he finished the rod in a weekend. There is a video of Bob Southwell building a rod at Peter’s workshop, just search on YouTube for ‘bob southwell rodmaker‘ (sic).

10 May – Keepers Bridge

This would be a serious day, no mucking about with vintage rods. The trout would be hard work and I needed to be on pole position. Hardy carbon fibre, a long leader and a GRHE nymph sat on the grass beside me as I looked upstream and downstream from the first bend. It was a short wait, a fish splashed just above Keepers Bridge. It was not the rise of a feeding fish but it was somewhere to start.

As I walked downstream towards the rise, I realised that I had left my landing net leaning against the car. By the time I fetched the net and settled into position the fish had departed. I worked the nymph beside the weed beds and along both banks but there was no response. I heard a fish rise upstream but couldn’t see anything. I crept back to the line of alder trees and saw another rise. I sat on the grass and worked the nymph down and across under the trees.

GRHE nymph

While concentrating on the leader, my peripheral vision caught a gentle rise among some floating branches. The target was only a square-foot patch of water in the middle of tangled flood debris. Very risky. I was about to dismiss the temptation but auto-cast kicked in and I flicked the fly about 10 feet to my left. It landed perfectly and a few seconds later a golden flash and an open mouth signalled the start of the battle. I dragged the fish to my right and forced it into snag free water, it was taken by surprise. The trout was about 2lbs and left the landing net with a burst of speed.

Alder beetle

The plan was working and if I could find another fish, I would persevere until it was hooked. I visited all the alder trees and ran the nymph under the branches, close to the roots. As I approached a bend there was a tremendous splash under an alder tree, beside a raft of flood debris. It was such a commotion that I expected to see a moorhen or duck emerge. I waited for a few minutes, impatient to start casting and eventually a fish rose. I wondered if they were taking alder beetles, the trees were full of them and the wind was gusty. I flicked the nymph just upstream and used the long rod to work the leader around a near-bank bush. I induced a take by hanging the fly and lifting occasionally. Another golden flash and thump on the rod had me struggling to stand up while keeping a tight line. I was high above water level and I could watch the fish as it attempted to find refuge in the roots. It was a better fish, about two and a half pounds.

After returning the trout I contemplated a drink and a sandwich. I’d chosen a lightweight Barbour in the early morning drizzle but the overcast had burnt off and in the jacket, I had become hot and dehydrated. Just one more fish. I walked downstream to a favourite pool. A branch on the alder tree hung over the river and a big willow bush forced the current along the far bank. A trick-shot side cast under the branch was required. A flick of the rod tip as the line uncurled would put the fly close to the willow. All or nothing.

As I was summoning courage to cast, a big brown nose surfaced, followed by a brown fin. It looked like a chub or carp. I waited. An alder fly fell into the water and fluttered on the surface. The nose and fin reappeared. I cast the GRHE under the branch and curled it nicely. Not getting snagged in the tree was pleasing. The fish showed no interest and I changed the fly to a wooly brown nymph with a ginger hackle and tail. The back eddy below the willow bush helped me work the fly and inducing a take produced a third satisfying thump on the rod. The fish stayed deep and went for the bushes, a typical chub response. It was another trout, about 2lbs, in extremely good condition.

I walked down to the New Riffle and fished through the fast water but the heat got to me and I lost concentration. Back at the car I felt that I had worked hard for the fish and that persevering with the tactics had paid off.

7 May – Luffs

Saturday, warm and humid with a gentle breeze. Not the best day of the week to go fishing but I ignored the hoards of pensioner Lycramaniacs cluttering up the roads and drove south to the privacy of the Estate where the trout were waiting. The Rother valley landscape looked spectacular, the clouds billowed up over the South Downs and threatened rain.

Pezon et Michell, 1939

I had two vintage split cane rods with me and I decided to use the Pezon et Michel, the Bob Southwell stayed on the bench as substitute. My fascination with the lightly restored French rod centered around the time it was made. The rod was built at Amboise in late summer 1939 just before France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. What on earth were the French thinking about ?

Hackle mayfly

Luffs is a mystery, the fish are spooky and despite the rich flora and fauna, the trout are unpredictable and feed sporadically. I sat on the grass in the corner of the lake and flicked a mayfly at a cruising fish which promptly disappeared. I repeated the process with a selection of my best imitations, all of which were rejected. The fish moved away and of course, I followed. I should have waited. The fish returned, downwind, to a corner of the lake where the surface film trapped thousands of flies among the dust and tree debris.

I dropped the quill and badger hackle mayfly pattern infront of a trout which bow-waved towards the fly and grabbed it confidently. Trout 1 was soon released from the landing net. Trout 2 took the same pattern but was much bigger and surged up the lake towing most of my fly line. Trout 3 also liked the imitation. Most of the long, one-sided battle was fought far off in deep water and I expected a 6lb-er. It was foul hooked in the dorsal fin and slid into the net sideways.

Ephemera danica, male spinner resting

I stopped for tea and sat watching the mayfly spinners. When the breeze strengthened they dropped to the ground and rested, fluttering back into the air when the wind eased. I stretched out on the mown grass and looked up, the male and female spinners were pairing.

Male and female spinners pairing

I found a lot of male spinners in the short grass but no females. Presumably they had returned to the water to deposit their eggs leaving the smaller males to expire.

Resting or dead ?