15 March – Heavy overnight rain drifted upcountry leaving Devon drizzle hanging in the trees. It was a perfect trout fishing morning, time to explore a river. In February I had walked miles along the banks of several rivers on the western edge of Dartmoor. Fast flowing, peaty torrents in wooded valleys. Each river had it’s own character.
The top beat of the Walkham hurried along between stunted Oaks, their branches wrapped in bright green lichen. The surrounding moor was a uniform beige, the aftermath of a cold wet winter. The Walkham river valley broke the monotony of the barren landscape, a green artery winding it’s way around the base of Great Mis Tor. Each pool and back eddy probably held a small brownie.
In contrast, the grander Tavy thundered around rocks the size of a mini and swept past a cliff face below the dark entrance to a mine shaft. The steep sides of the valley were covered in mature pine trees and Buzzards circled the tree line on the updraft. It was a harsh, unforgiving riverscape, not for the faint hearted. Salmon and sea trout would rest in the deep pools later in the year. The Tavy scenery looked more like Scotland than Devon.
I put my reel, a spool of Stroft ABR and a tiny box of nymphs in my jacket pocket and walked away from the village, upstream on the Walkham. I left the lane and walked down a bridle path beside an old mining leat towards the weir. I saw the weir through the trees long after I’d heard the water crashing into the pool. It was a washing machine, unfishable. The rod was redundant but I walked the river bank, looking into the eddies, noting the deep runs and watching the birds. A tiny tree creeper inched it’s way up an oak, picking at the lichen, working it’s way up the trunk in a spiral. Each time it’s foraging took it behind the tree I stepped forward and waited for it to reappear. I got quite close before it noticed me
The overnight rain had run off the saturated moor and filled the river but the water level would drop as quickly as it had risen. I realised that timing is everything on these spate rivers. I returned to the cottage without wetting a line and had a couple of pints in the Leaping Salmon while planning my next trip.
16 March – In contrast to yesterday the morning was bright following an overnight frost. From the cottage I could hear the weir but the roar of the water had subsided to a murmur. I decided to visit the Walkham again, a stretch I had explored in February. The extra foot of caramel coloured water passing over the weir sill had reduced to a few inches and there was a chance the lower, broader reaches of the river would be fishable.
I was relieved to see the river was in good condition. It had a slight honey colour but I could see the river bed in the deep runs and pools. Most of the holding areas were on my side, the left bank. I started exploring the water with a black spider, working it down and across and holding the fly over the deeper water with a mend in the line. I expected a tug on the line every drift but although I saw a couple of golden flashes near the fly, it was probably just the shafts of sunlight catching the white stones.
I fished a long pool on the far bank, running the fly under the leafless tree branches and gradually extending the cast to cover every lie. I lost a couple of flies and moved downstream. A kingfisher whizzed past and returned a few minutes later, a good omen. A badly fenced mine shaft distracted me for a few minutes and I wondered about the working conditions and the devastation that would have been caused by the heavy metals and arsenic.
I experimented with heavier flies, different sizes and colours but couldn’t get a take. I fell over while clambering around a rock pile, then encountered a dog walker along the river’s edge. It was a sign to turn back. I’d fished for three hours and not reached the end of the Beat. The walk to the car was longer than I expected, I must remember to stop fishing before I’m exhausted. Although I had not caught a trout or even come close, it had been good to flick a fly around and walk beside the river in the spring sunshine. A great improvement on yesterday.
17 March – In contrast to yesterday the still grey morning was warm and compelling, there are no better conditions for fly fishing. Later in the day the southwesterly would be upstream, ideal for presenting a tiny fly to the moorland brownies. It had to be done. The walk to the Beat was daunting, two kilometers over broken ground on the flanks of Great Mis Tor. The OS map and a compass would take some of the risk out of the trek, contouring around the tor would avoid a steep climb.
On the moor freezing fog cut visibility to fifty yards. I filled my pocket with toffees, essential energy boosters, slung the rod over my shoulders and set off at a steady pace. I walked about five hundred meters before I turned around and headed back to the car. Frozen and soaked. A lesson forgotten, it can be sunny in the village and a ‘white-out’ on the moor.
19 March – A memorable day, it wasn’t raining. The high moor was shrouded in mist but I hoped the hazy overcast would blow away or burn off as predicted by the BBC. I chose the River Cad for several reasons, access to the river was easy, visibility on the lower moor was good and the open moorland would not restrict my backcast.
The wind was downstream but as I would be fishing a nymph down-and-across that was not a problem. I fished the pool at Cadover Bridge, confident of a take. After changing the size and weight of the fly a few times I left the pool, slightly puzzled by my lack of success, to continue my walk upstream. Each riffle had a slow glide above and deep channels below. None of the glides or channels produced a take. They looked so inviting, there must have been trout hiding beside the rocks.
At about midday upwing flies started to hatch. The were small, pale olives with blue wings. Blue Winged Olives? I had never seen the flies before and made a mental note to check the reference books to confirm my identification. I changed to a heavily weighted size 14 GRHE nymph and concentrated on a long far-bank run. The water was crystal clear, I could see the rocks on the bottom clearly in four feet of water. The east wind cooled me and helped with casting, the sun was warm in the shelter of the gorse bushes. I fished a pool where a brook entered the river via a three foot high waterfall but snagged a rock and lost another fly.
During the long walk back to the car I wondered if the water temperature had been a factor. Perhaps the icy cold water had deactivated the trout. I shall take a thermometer next time.
It had been a strange week, I felt out of control. Different rivers and weather conditions contributed to my confusion. With so many moorland rivers to fish, it will be a long time before I can catch trout consistently. There’s lots to learn, starting all over again is a great feeling.