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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