Fly Culture – Fantasy Fishing

My trout fishing season is over and five months of impending boredom threaten my sanity. I’ve read a few old fishing books, cleaned my reels several times and tied hundreds of flies. I still have flies that I tied over forty years ago. The rows of Peter Ross, Dunkeld and Invicta look lovely in my classic Wheatley fly box. Works of art that have never caught a trout. They never will. It’s the scruffy nymphs in the tiny plastic hook box that catch the trout.

Buying another rod interrupts the monotony of winter. The heart-pounding guilt as I click on the ‘Confirm Payment’ button. Waiting for the postman. Wondering if I can sneak the rod tube into the corner of the study without being caught. The excitement is short lived. The rod arrives and I practice casting at the windfall apples on the lawn. They ignore my offering. It’s not as satisfying as a chalk stream. Winter drags and my impatience grows. Grayling fishing is an option but it’s just an excuse to catch trout out of season and not for me, I’d rather wait until April.


As a nipper I kept a fishing diary in a school exercise book. I drew secret maps and noted the weights of all my record fish. I vaguely recall some of the entries, days spent carp fishing beside the lake in the forest when my monsters weighed 3lbs not 30. I wish I hadn’t thrown it in the bin, de-cluttering is not always a good thing. A belated pang of conscience and the boredom of early retirement, prompted me to start another diary which has added the fourth dimension to my fishing. Time. I am more observant, always looking for photo opportunities and making mental notes about the wildlife. I sit beside the river watching the water, in no hurry to cast a line. Slow Fishing.

Each year I battle with Microsoft Word and transform the text into a format fit for the book binders. While editing my 2019 diary I recalled the long hot summer, the beautiful scenery, wild trout and sunsets. Three hundred pages and forty thousand words of memories to browse while the rivers are out of bounds and the lakes frozen over.
My old fishing books take me to rivers and lakes but the memories are not mine. The authors and some of the rivers are long gone. The fishing classics are a pleasant distraction but nostalgia is a form of neurosis that I can do without. I search for something to occupy my thoughts, something I can look forward to. Something to dream about. Nevermind the past, what about the future ?


A bottle of single malt is the answer. A comfy armchair, two fingers of scotch and I settle down and begin my dream. I have chosen my fantasy destination, the River Derwent in Cumbria. I packed my bag and left the house before dawn. Pure fantasy. The car doesn’t break down, the three hundred mile journey on the deserted M6 only takes a few minutes and I’m there in time to see the sun rise over Skiddaw. The river looks beautiful and I have miles of the swiftest flowing river in the country all to myself. The Herdwick sheep ignore me unlike the bolshy heifers down South. They stand and stare. They intimidate me into moving on. There are no cattle here to bully me.

I nervously thread the fly line through the rings of the Sage 10′ 6″ 3# that I found in Oxfam for £5 and walk downstream through the morning mist. The trout are rising, I knew they would be. A few upwing flies are hatching and I catch several beautiful wild fish on a dry fly before adjourning to the pub for lunch. After a long siesta in the afternoon sun, the evening rise produces a few more trout. The journey home is brief and uneventful, a lorry driver smiles and waves as I hurtle past. There are no muddy boots to clean or nets to dry. As I relax with another scotch, I recall a memorable day. The difficult fish behind a rock, the Osprey drifting overhead and the distillery just across the field. I threw perfect loops all day, hooked no trees and only lost a couple of trout. A perfect day.


I might go to the Derwent again tomorrow evening and try for a sea trout. Alternatively, I’ll hunt barracuda with a fly rod on a sandy beach in Barbados. I might see you there, I’m the guy effortlessly casting to the edge of the reef some fifty yards offshore. On the other hand I might drive to Cornwall in the Defender and fish for trout on Bodmin Moor. No, that’s stretching my imagination too far, I’d only get as far as Winchester before I had to call the RAC.

I am spoilt for choice. I can flick through the volumes of my diary and recall the memories of seasons past, or close my eyes and transport myself into the future beside the river of dreams. The fantasies are so real I become confused, my memories and dreams merge. It’s a long winter, I’ll need a case of scotch.


This diary entry was published in the Winter 2019 edition of Fly Culture magazine, probably the best fly fishing magazine in the world ! While we are ‘locked down‘ and unable to fish, I have more time for memories and dreams.

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Devon – Opening Week

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.




Devon – February

Spring arrives early in the West Country. I felt warm in the bright sunshine but in the shade of the steep river valley, the cold north wind made me shiver and pull up the zip on my Barbour. The trees were bare, only wisps of bright green lichen on the branches and moss on the sunny side of the trunks, brought splashes of colour to an otherwise monotone underwood.


My first sight of the river was a shock. The crystal clear water raced along, washing over rocks, cleansing every pebble. There were no floating twigs or leaves, no rafts of flotsam. The floods in late January had removed all foreign bodies from the river’s course. Small streams and leats tumbled down each side of the valley and bubbled into the river. The sphagnum moss on Dartmoor had filtered the water and made it slightly acid, suppressing the growth of weed.


A thousand feet above sea level Dartmoor looked intimidating, dangerous. The grass had been shorn and looked like an uneven lawn dotted with stunted gorse bushes. It was squelchy underfoot, the turf saturated by the winter rain. The moorland pools were full, overflowing into tiny streams which fought their way between granite boulders towards Plymouth Sound. The weather changes quickly on the moor and looking west towards Bodmin, I could see Storm Ciara approaching. Heavy rain and gale force winds had been forecast. The big Atlantic storm darkened the horizon and I left the moor to seek shelter in another river valley.


A kingfisher zoomed between the arches of the 13th century bridge barely a foot above the water. The cutwaters carefully separated the flow, diverting the water between the granite pillars, sliding it over the ancient bridge’s foundations. Below the bridge the water swirled into a deep holding pool, the floor of which had been swept clean to expose the bedrock. Further downstream there was a fast run over multi coloured shale. I leant over the bridge parapet but saw no fish, they reveal themselves only when they change position.


I’d fished on Dartmoor and in it’s valleys more than forty years ago, catching a few fish but not consistently. Spate river fishing is different, it’s way outside my recent experience. The river was reminiscent of the Derwent but not as wide. It would be a challenge. I would have to use natural imitations, small heavily weighted flies that would sink quickly. Definitely no beads, just lead wire. Upstream nymphing might be the answer. The water was too fast and clear for ‘down and across’, the trout would see me before they saw the fly. A Devon fly box will need filling before the season opens in March.


Storm Ciara arrived in the village that evening at opening time. I had a pint, a nice steak and a glass of Shiraz before falling asleep infront of the wood burner. The following morning the river was in full spate. There should be plenty of water in the rivers throughout the summer.



2020 Plans

The first day of a new decade is a good time to make plans. Not resolutions, they can be negative. Holidays, fishing trips and other positive stuff needs careful thought.

I have a couple of months to edit my 2019 diary, print each section and take it to Otter Bookbinding in Midhurst. I like to read each entry as I format the text, it sets the scene for the new season.


My fishing was reduced by a third last season. The heavy rain kept me away from the Rother and the extreme summer heat limited my time on the lakes. Nevertheless, 2019 was an eventful year and I plan to make 2020 even more memorable.


The season opens in mid March. It will be good to wander around the Estate lakes and see how the winter has changed my favourite places. The Rother opens in early April and the constant flooding of the last three months will have changed the contours of the river bed. Last years debris will have been washed away only to be replaced by this winters fallen trees.


I am excited about my first season as a Rod on the Itchen. It will be a new world to explore even in the most extreme weather conditions. It will be interesting to see how the Mayfly season varies across a chalk stream, a lowland river and the lakes.


Dartmoor beckons. I plan to explore some of my old haunts on the moor and in the steep wooded valleys along its western edge.

I will take more time, slow fishing is best. There will be more cane, less carbon.

It’s time to clean my fly line, oil the reel and tie a few more flies, only ten weeks to wait.


Southwell III

I had been searching for a Bob Southwell rod called the ‘Blagdon‘ since discovering a 2014 auction photo. A proper auction, not online. The fuzzy shot revealed a long rod with green whippings and the correct period fittings. I left a random note online asking for information about Southwell rods and after several months, up popped an email offering me a ‘Blagdon‘. I bought it the next day.

This was not the auction rod, the inscription was different. There’s another one still to find. My initial impression was that the rod I had bought would need a light refurbishment. I always start with preservation in mind, it never works out that way. Horrors are invariably discovered under the magnifying glass and so it turned out.


Unlike the other Southwell rods I have, this one had been fished-to-death. The rings were worn out. Expensive fly line destroying half moon bites inside each of the full open bridge rings consigned them to the bin. Why didn’t Southwell use snake rings? Even the Agate butt ring had several grooves and was bent. The cork handle was chipped, the tip section had lost a few inches and the cane had a slight set.

The many scars in the varnish were witness to a hard life. Definitely not a collectors piece. My biggest concern was a suspicious looking whipping near the tip, was it concealing a fracture? The marks in the varnish, the mangled tip ring and missing cane suggested that the rod tip had probably been trodden on. Unlike my other Southwell rods this would need a full refurbishment, it could not be used otherwise.


I repurposed a natural cork from a traditional bottle of wine. It matched the old cork handle very well. I was given an original black button from the Southwell era. I found a gem of a butt ring that had been crafted from real Agate and looked more like designer jewellery than a rod fitting. It cost as much. I even found some Pearsalls silk of the correct colour.

The handle restoration is complete but the full restoration is a winter long project. It’s fiddly and time consuming. The intermediate whippings are widely spaced but need good light and a steady hand. The rod will be ready in the Spring. Probably.