River Derwent, Cumbria

Every five years I have a memorable holiday. I don’t fly. I stopped flying twenty years ago, Ryanair was the last straw. I didn’t bother to renew my passport and was happy not to clock up any more air miles.

I’d never been north of Manchester. I’d worked there for six months, it was a war zone. Gangs of feral girls roamed the streets of Wythenshawe trashing off-licences. A colleagues new car was firebombed the first day he drove it to work. I had a short walk from the fortified compound that used to be a multi storey car park, to the Forward Operating Base that was the TSB office. I felt vulnerable in a suit. A gang stealing cars to order worked from my hotel lounge bar. When I finished my tour of duty I resolved not to return. I gave Manchester a wide berth on the journey up north.

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In November I’d booked the Armathwaite Beat on the River Derwent downstream from Ouse Bridge at the northern end of Bassenthwaite Lake. The Keeper recommended a farm house beside the river so I booked that as well. Job done. I looked forward to five days on a Cumbrian river early in the trout season, what could go wrong?

I went for a ‘drive’ around the area on Google Earth and searched YouTube for videos of the river. In 2009 the flood water was up to the door handles of the farm house and a black BMW had drowned by the front door. I knew I would be out of my depth on a strange spate river but hopefully not to that extent.

The journey north was long and boring. The eurobox hire car had remained with Enterprise. At the pick up they had revealed hidden extras and my booking was more than double the original quote. Bastards. My BMW ground away at the motorway miles, minor electrical issues, a leaky exhaust and the noise from a suspect wheel bearing were ignored. Brexit and London-Europe were left 350 miles behind.

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Wordsworth didn’t like tourists. In his ‘Guide Through the District of the Lakes’ published in 1810, he wrote of “the tedious tasks of supplying the Tourist with directions“. He didn’t like Larch trees either. Or railways. He liked daffodils.

On Sunday evening I crossed the field infront of the farm house and walked the top part of the Beat. I saw a small fish rise but there was no hatch, the wind was too cold. The river was much wider, deeper and faster than I had imagined. It reminded me of the Wye but with bigger scenery. The top of Skiddaw was covered with snow and dominated the area.

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Monday – early in the morning I was given a guided tour of the Beat from the South side of the river. I was advised to fish around noon and in the evening. I was impatient to get on the water and started well before 12:00. A few insects fluttered around the river, under the trees, but nothing I could identify. I started behind the island in a tangle of undergrowth below the mature Oaks. The river sped past, over boulders and between overhanging bushes. Casting was an issue but I persevered, flicking the nymph across the river and quickly mending the line. I saw a small trout jump, something had a nip at the nymph and then, after a few casts, I connected with a fish. It was a beautiful wild fish with very little colour, a Sea Trout smolt. It took a Pheasant Tail nymph heavily ribbed with copper wire.

I worked down the run catching three brownies. They slammed into the fly and fought well above their weight. I rescued a newly born lamb separated from its mother and twin by stock fencing. I lost a couple of fish and returned to the house for a late lunch. The downstream wind had made presentation tricky and I planned to return in the evening after the wind had dropped.

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At 6:00pm I walked across the field to the top of the island and after a couple of casts, had a take from a small brownie. Then I cast into a tree and lost the tippet that I had so carefully crafted in the sitting room. I moved down to the end of the island and had two fish in midstream on a size 14 heavily weighted Hare’s Ear. I lost a couple of fish and landed a couple, including a Sea Trout smolt with a chewed tail. I had caught four fish in the morning and four fish in the evening, including a Sea Trout smolt in each session. Spooky. The first day had been a success, I’d avoided a blank and learnt a little about the river.

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Tuesday – the day started bright and sunny with a strong wind. The clouds rolled over the top of Skiddaw like the cloth on a mini Table Mountain. I had planned a change of scene, a different stretch of river. I had more than a mile to explore. I walked down the North bank trying different flies and varying the hook size. I tried Black Spiders with a dropper but quickly tired of the tangles. I experimented with my plastic nymphs after covering the water with other flies. No takes. The temperature rose to 18 degrees.

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I moved down to the big pool with the green fishing hut and caught a 1lb 8oz brownie on a big black fly fished deep. It shot out of the deep water and took the fly as I was lifting off to cast. I walked back upstream and caught a fish about 1lb and lost a couple of others. I caught a Chub about 1lb in the bridge pool, near the bank in the deep water. I ended the day with four trout and a chub. I didn’t fish in the evening, we went to The Pheasant for a meal with friends.

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I concluded that a small fly meant small trout. A big fly produced fewer takes but bigger fish. I had cautiously started wading in wellies, being careful not to scuff the stones or fall over. I had also started to notice fish moving, making subtle disturbances in the riffles. If I found a fish rising, I was confident that I could cover the rise and get a take. There were many distractions. I saw a Kingfisher, heard Oyster Catchers piping and spent too long watching the lambs misbehaving; larking about and headbutting each other.

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Wednesday – at dawn there was a mist on the river and frost on the car roof. The plan was to fish until lunch, visit the distillery, have a siesta and awake for the evening rise. I thought that I would use my old Hardy #5 rod to help combat the wind. I started on the South bank behind the island where I had fished on Monday. I had one nip in the middle of the run under the Ash tree then nothing until I reached the middle of the big pool below the island. There were fish dimpling the surface. I caught a little brownie on a Black Spider then switched to a copper ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph. I had lots of takes but missed all of them. I eventually caught a Sea Trout smolt and realised that there was a shoal of the migrating fish nipping at my flies.

I moved down past the wood and fished the deep water on the outside of the bend near my bank.  The scenery was spectacular but the sun was high and the water crystal clear. It was 16 degrees. The old Hardy rod felt dead, it was a handicap. I visited the distillery, just across the field from the farm house and after a tasting, bought a couple of bottles of Scotch. My siesta lasted longer than I had planned.

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In the evening there were clouds of midges along the river and everything looked promising. I used a 5lb bs fluorocarbon tippet to help sink the fly and started in the pool below the island. I carefully covered the channels between the weed and caught a small brownie on a Hare’s Ear. Another fish took in mid river, ran very fast upstream, then across the pool. It fought like a two pound fish but shrunk in the landing net to about one pound. I had three more fish from the long shallow stretch down to the bend. The fish were active for about an hour until the light faded. I’d switched back to my normal rod, the fast action Hardy Sintrix #4 was perfect. I’d covered some runs between the weed beds down the far side of the big pool, which were about 25 yards away. The length of the rod had also helped me mend the line in the fast water.

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Thursday – the morning was cloudy and warm, the wind was very light, perfect conditions for fishing. I decided to explore the long stretch in the middle of the Beat which was only accessible from North bank. Mature Oak trees lined the steep bank opposite and the water on that side was too deep and fast for wading. I started at the pool below the island, nothing moved but in the fast water around the bend I hooked and lost a good fish.

As I was covering a wide riffle I saw an Osprey glide overhead, searching the river for lunch. Osprey Number 14 had arrived from Africa a few days earlier. It flew low overhead, it was used to seeing fishermen in the river. I caught two more small Trout and lost another good fish. A Eurofighter screamed overhead, banked in a tight turn to the right and roared away up the valley. A minute later another pilot repeated the manoeuvre. I recalled the jets that buzzed me at Luffs and wondered if they had followed me to Cumbria.

In the evening I caught a fish on the second cast and then lost four small fish. I searched all the runs down to the big pool. I knelt on the dry grass, half-sitting on the heel of my right welly. The sole split away from the upper. Later, while paddling, my boot slowly filled with water. I caught a second small fish on the way back at to the farm house. It had been an excellent day, ending with a glass of scotch. I binned the wellies.

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Friday – the last day on which I would fish, was very sunny. The river level was down a bit and the water was crystal clear. Not ideal. I walked down across the fields towards the South bank having left the car beside the road. I fished hard. Trashing my wellies turned out to be a good thing. I wore my lightweight waders which gave me confidence to edge further out along the shingle spits. The fish were not rising but a few upwing flies hatched, they looked like Olives. I fished to the very end of the Beat, wading in midstream and running nymphs under the trees along the far bank. The fast jets put on another show, it was great to see and hear them. It was a long fishless walk back to the house for lunch. I hoped there would be an evening rise for my last session of the holiday.

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The evening was very quiet, the wind had dropped and I felt confident that I would catch a few fish. My waders gave me access to a tree lined run, just below the first bend, that I had not fished before. I caught three fish all from the channel down the centre of the river. One Trout threw up a bow wave as it chased the fly. I missed several takes before a very cold North wind sprang up and drove me back to the warmth of the farm house. It was a relaxing evening and I was pleased to finish the week on a high.

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The river had little aquatic life, there was nothing under the stones. It’s a harsh environment for the Trout. There are lots of predators; cormorants, gooseanders, otters, ospreys and anglers. The spates are extreme, it’s a miracle anything survives. The average weight of the Trout was low but the beauty of the wild fish and their strength more than compensated for their small size. The fishing was demanding, it was hard to read the continually changing riffles and threads of water.

My traditional approach was probably not the most productive but it was satisfying. Fly selection was critical. A natural pattern imitating a small nymph was important. A size 14 copper ribbed Hare’s Ear took the majority of my fish. A weighted nymph was essential, the fly had to sink quickly. Mending the line as soon as the cast landed avoided skating the fly across the surface. It was indeed a memorable holiday, the highlight was seeing Osprey ‘Number 14’.

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3 April – River Opening Day

The river was a perfect level and colour on Monday, with a green tint and only slightly cloudy. As I went to bed the level had risen 0.001m and it held steady overnight despite the showers. I woke at 6:30am, an uncivilized hour at which to go fishing. The dawn mist was burning off by the time I fired up the Defender and had completely disappeared by 10:00am when I arrived at Coultershaw Bridge.

I started at Rotherbridge and walked upstream to the New Riffle. The gravel had been scoured during the winter and streaks of sand had been deposited down the centre channel. It looked good. I tied on a heavily weighted Black Spider and carefully explored the top of the pool. I was confident that I would get a take, the Trout hadn’t seen a fly since October. I shuffled down the pool casting down and across. The grass was untrodden and there were no muddy footprints, I was the first to fish there. I tried the deep pool by the landing stage and all the usual the fish holding places on the way back to the bridge. The river gave nothing, it was lifeless. A shower of rain presented an opportunity to move Beats and I drove to Keepers Bridge.

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I sheltered under a tree as a snow shower passed over. I watched the river for ten minutes, nothing moved. There were no flies hatching or birds in the trees. The river valley was quiet except for the gas guns protecting the newly planted crops. I walked downstream hoping to find a hungry overwintered Trout. It was not to be. I reached the Tree Tunnel and decided to retrace my steps. The conditions were perfect and it was good to be beside the river for a few hours, I was not disappointed to leave without catching a Trout.

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1 April – Little Bognor

The sky was Wedgwood blue, cleared of clouds by a stiff BBC East wind. From the North. As I drove through the country lanes I planned my day. Tea at the hut, a walk around the big lakes and a relaxing afternoon at Little Bognor in the shelter of the valley.

Thousands of small Roach were shoaled on the surface of both lakes at Springs. They were mainly last year’s fry, about three inches long. No Trout moved on either lake but it was good to sit in the sun with a cup of tea and wait for a sign. A Grannom and a lone Olive fluttered past, both evaded my attempts to catch and photograph them.

I knew that Little Bognor had been fished earlier in the day but the clear, spring fed lakes were a better option than the other lakes on the Estate. A member was fishing the bottom lake so I walked up the slope and found a sheltered seat beside the Willow tree. Buzzers were hatching and fish regularly slashed through the ruffled surface to snatch a morsel. The breeze swirled around the top of the valley like the downdraft from a helicopter, disturbing and flattening the water. It continually shifted direction and let me drift the line across different parts of the lake. I caught a small Trout on the third cast, close to the bank. An unweighted black spider worked just under the surface was a good choice.

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The fish continued to feed despite the disturbance from landing the little wriggler and I had several takes, all missed, before they moved to the other side of the lake. I changed fly and rested my arm. Several times. Another member arrived and fished the deep end of the lake. The wary Trout moved towards me and I caught three fish in three casts. The fish moved into the centre of the lake and kept rising for buzzers. I swapped to a cut down dry fly that hung under the surface film. I missed a few takes, mainly because I’d lost concentration.

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I decided to have a dabble in the bottom lake before I left. I spent half an hour trying to drift the fly to a fish under the branches of the Chestnut trees. It moved away to the deep water by the stone steps. I crept along the bank and flicked the leader into the margins. The line twitched and I lifted into a small trout that had been caught before. The tip of its nose was marked.

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It had been a relaxing afternoon with no pressure. The Trout had been difficult but not impossible. The weather had been kind to me and as I drove home, I thought about the river. Showers were forecast but it should be in perfect condition for my first visit on Wednesday.

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The unacceptable face of farming. Courgettes under acres plastic sheets, all of which will be sent to landfill when it’s removed from the fields. I drove home behind a giant tractor, third gear from Billingshurst to Clemsfold.

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28 March – Farlows Christening

I’d completed the restoration of the Farlows ‘Holdfast’ months ago but it had not been Christened. The long, lithe loch rod was designed for roll casting before a drifting boat not double-hauling from the bank of a large lake. I planned to fish the moorland lakes and make the most of the Spring sunshine, flicking a nymph into the deep margins would suit the rod.

I left the Defender at Great Springs and wandered through the woods. A woodpecker was rattling a tree and a couple of buzzards were mewing from just under the cloud base. I sat on the newly mown grass and chose a lightly weighted black nymph. The water was slightly cloudy and black seemed a good choice. Roach fry attacked the nymph but moved away when they discovered the deceit. I used the Rio WF line and slowed my action down, the rod would not be hurried.

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I moved around the lake exploring the margins and the shade under the trees. I expected the line to tighten at any moment but it remained slack. I saw a fish rise close to the bank on Lower Figgs and crept across the bracken carefully avoiding clumps of primroses. The water was clearer so I tied on a weighted green nymph and worked it across the breeze. It wasn’t until I reached the bay downwind of the Willow bush that I had a take. Just as I was lifting off. Nevermind.

Several small Trout swirled around the fly as it rose in the water at the end of the casts. Eventually a Trout took hold but came adrift after a few seconds. I rolled the fly downwind parallel to the bank and there was a solid thump on the rod. I kept a shallow bend in the rod and gave line freely. Every twist and lunge of the fish was transmitted up the rod. I released the fish without handling it and walked slowly back to the hut for a celebratory cup of tea.

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My arm ached but I had a few casts at Luffs. The sun was bright and only the Roach fry moved. They dimpled the surface in shoals down the centre of the lake. After a chat, tea and biscuits I felt refreshed and decided to explore Luffs properly. I swapped rods and retrieved the landing net from the roof of the Defender, forgotten during the short drive from the hut.

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As the sun went down the Trout started chasing the fry. Big swirls and waves revealed fast moving fish all over the lake. Showers of tiny fish boiled at the surface as Trout circled around. The tatty green nymph had a long tail and looked like a very small roach. A fish took the fly close to the brickwork and came to the net without much of a struggle. It had Cormorant scars behind its dorsal fin but swam off strongly.

I saw a large bow-wave to my left and dropped the nymph along the cruising line, a couple of yards ahead of the fish. There was a savage yank on the rod and a Trout between four and five pounds became airborne. Three times it leapt. I held on tight during the first reel screeching run. I tightened down on the rim of the reel as the monster tore up the lake. A member at the other end of the lake heard the reel scream and may have heard me curse as the fish escaped.

I moved along the bank to the centre channel and saw a pod of fish. I cast ahead of a Trout, hooked it and after a long scrap, realized I had caught the Cormorant marked fish again. The marks were very distinctive. Having been pecked and caught twice, the fish was not in good shape so I kept it for my dinner. Better me than a Cormorant. I caught another small fish and decided to stop fishing, I’d had sufficient.

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After putting my rod away and while checking the days photos, an earth shaking roar got louder. A Eurofighter screamed overhead, along the line of the National Grid pylons, only a few hundred feet up. As I was recovering from the shock another pilot broke all the rules and roared up the valley along the same line. It was a fitting salute on which to end a great day.

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As I drove away I paused at Stag Park and watched the sun dip down behind a line of clouds over the South Downs. It had been an eventful day.

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25 March – Little Bognor

I was a glorious Spring morning. The bright blue sky held a few fluffy white clouds encouraged along by a chilly north-westerly breeze. I wanted to sit in the sun, watch the water and absorb the atmosphere at Little Bognor. If a Trout or two interrupted my afternoon that would be a bonus.

I visited the river at Rotherbridge and smiled when I first saw the water. It looked perfect. A slight green tint couldn’t quite hide the starwort in the slack water near the bank. Fresh debris hung in the trailing Willow branches giving over-wintered fish somewhere to hide. The high pressure system settled over the country for the next few days should ensure a couple of days on the river before my trip to Cumbria.

Little Bognor was deserted except for a Woodpecker and a serial pigeon killer banging away with a 12 bore in the woods above the old stone quarry. The sun illuminated the steep bank under the Beech trees and for once I knew exactly where to fish.

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Trout were occasionally rising to buzzers and a few Grannom were fluttering across the surface and along the bank. I tied on a skimpy Pheasant Tail nymph with extra copper wire which I thought was a good compromise. I could swing it round in the breeze and search along the bank in the deep water under the trees.

On the second cast the line tightened and a fish raced out into the middle of the lake. As I readied the landing net it shook the hook. Nevermind, it was time to rest the water and relax in the sun. The beech mast was crunchy and in thin trousers, was slightly uncomfortable to sit on. I slumped to my left and lay on the moss while watching the water under the trees.

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I waited patiently until a fish rose within easy casting range. I flicked the nymph upwind of the rise and let it blow round. As the line swung close to the bank the tip hesitated and I slowly lifted into a fish which gave a good imitation of a waterlogged branch. The Trout was unaware of the situation but eventually woke up. It was a plump little fish that shot away from the net, lesson learnt. A lot of Grannom were skittering across the lake so I changed the fly to a weighted, shaggy green nymph that I had tied for the Derwent.

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I moved along the steep bank to the stone steps and hooked two large twigs in successive casts. Dragging them from the water ruined the chances of another fish and I moved to the southern end of the lake. I cast parallel to the bank and let the fly sink while I took a few photos. Lifting the fly vertically close to the stonework produced a confident take. I repeated the process along the wall and caught three lively trout. They all swam strongly away from the net having returned the barbless hook to me. As the sun dropped behind the Beech wood on the western side of the lake, the air temperature and light levels plummeted and the fish stopped rising.

It had been a very relaxing and enjoyable couple of hours.

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