25-26 June – River Walkham

25 June – The Village

I wished the little fish ‘Good Morning‘ from the top of the cutwaters, they were regularly dimpling the surface inspecting floating debris, testing to see if it was food. That might be why I miss so many fish. The forecast decreed temperatures in the high twenties, much too hot for fishing, followed by thunderstorms.

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The rain arrived at 8:00pm and I popped across to the flats above the weir with just my rod and a small box of dry flies. The fish were rising and I had high hopes. Each time I presented the fly, upstream, the Trout melted away. Even a fish beside the near bank, close to a bed of weed, disappeared. I persisted until the rain became to heavy to see the rise forms. It was a quick evening experiment, perhaps I should have used a lighter tippet.

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26 June – Dartmoor

It was an overcast morning with a gentle southerly breeze, there would never be a better day for visiting the moor. My last two attempts to fish the upper reaches of the Walkham had both been abandoned. The first because I hadn’t found the Beat and the second because of freezing fog.

This would not be a leisurely stroll, the Beat was deep in the moor and miles from the nearest road. I took the bare minimum, a box of dry flies and a few nymphs. No landing net, the fish would be small. I stupidly decided to wear wellies, big mistake. I also forgot to take a flask of water. I did remember the map, my phone had a compass and OS grid references.

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I walked uphill for nearly an hour, the top of the Tor was only half way to the river. The fog cleared as I contoured around the clitter and scrambled down into the valley. There were Sky Larks everywhere and a pair of Buzzards wheeled on the thermals generated by the warm rocks.

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I sat on the soft dry grass beside the river and relaxed. The gruelling two hour climb and descent had taken all of my energy. The valley ran north-south and the upstream wind helped with presentation. I experimented with various dry flies and nymphs in the first pool to get the hang of it, nothing responded.  I worked my way upstream dropping a nymph into pools and had a couple of tweaks but I was too slow to connect. I came to a shallow flat and as I crouched down, I saw a Trout turn, it hadn’t seen me. I flicked a sedge into midstream and the fish immediately rose. I missed. I missed it again five minutes later when it rose under the far bank.

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Further upstream I saw a fish rise just below a narrow riffle. The presentation was good and the fish responded. Twice. I missed again. I made a note of a rock on the far bank for my return journey. I walked upstream, occasionally checking the weather behind me, I didn’t want to get caught in fog or rain. On the way back I stopped at the rock, the fish obliged but I failed to connect. Again.

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I packed up the rod and carefully chose a route back along a boundary wall, climbing the Tor once again. I stopped frequently, taking in the stunning scenery and the cloudscape while watching Bodmin Moor on the western horizon for any signs of bad weather.

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It was a tough walk out. Nearing the summit I had a second wind but I still struggled to make it back to the car. I had a long cold drink and sat in the soft leather drivers seat with the aircon on maximum blast for thirty minutes before I felt I could drive home. I had walked about seven miles over rough ground which is surprising at my age. I probably won’t do it again. Particularly in wellies.

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24 June – River Tavy

It had been a roasting hot day, kids played in the weir pool until the evening, shouting, screaming and having a great time. The breeze was warm and the sky cloudless. I watched the children wading around on the bedrock from my vantage point high on the old bridge. The fish were not unduly worried, they drifted away from the little white feet and hid in crevices or behind stones. The water level had dropped about a foot in four days and the water was clearer than a chalk stream.

I waited until the sun went down before leaving the house and thought about the Beat on the short drive to the valley. The journey had become familiar and the final plunge down the rock strewn track held no fears. I’d walked the Beat in March and remembered the long straight valley, the sides of which were covered in an old pine forest. It looked like an advert for ‘Consulate‘ cigarettes filmed in the wilds of Alaska. There were hundreds of Grey Wagtails on the rocks and a kingfisher zoomed upstream. The darkness of the fir trees somehow enhanced it’s electric blue plumage.

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I walked upstream and tried some tricks with the silk line. Spey casting and roll casting don’t present a dry fly well. I rose a couple of fish but I was not quick enough. I’m used to the slow motion rise of an Itchen monster or the yank of a Rother two pounder. The little moorland brownies were very quick to eject a fly. Olives were hatching all along the river but although I persisted with with a size 14 Olive, the fish were more interested in the Iron Blue.

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I moved downstream to the fishing hut and spent the rest of the evening trying to tempt a fish from the long wide pool under a big Oak. The small resident fish moved away as I encroached on their lies. A couple of Sea Trout leapt but as darkness fell I left the pool and walked back to the car. Although I hadn’t caught anything, I was content that I was on the right track.

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23 June – Rivers Walkham and Tavy

The River Walkham

My intuition told me to fish the River Walkham, the river level had dropped and the water was crystal clear. From the garden I’d watched Trout taking Olives in the soft evening light, zooming around over the bedrock and rising to intercept the flies with a little splash. Grey Wagtails were flitting from rock to rock, wagging and picking off the larger insects.

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The river at Grenofen looked spectacular, it was reminiscent of a BB water colour. However, I felt out of place amongst the dog walkers, boys on rope swings, inflatable boats, picnickers and swimmers. To my surprise the fish were rising and were obviously used to the commotion. I sat on a flat rock and watched a fish rise a few times at the tail of a small pool. It took the Iron Blue and dashed around in the fast water.

After I had released it a black spaniel launched itself into the pool, that was too much. I considered whacking it with my rod tip but it’s young owner appeared and I decided to leave the river. Trout were rising but I’d had enough. I made a mental note not to fish there until late, preferably when it’s raining.

The River Tavy

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I drove to the Lower Beat on the Tavy, there were no spaniels in sight. It was a long steep descent into the river valley. Fish were rising all over the long wide pool beside the towering rock wall. I crouched on a small croy and flicked an Iron Blue into the seam at the edge of the main current.  A fish rose but I missed it and that sequence of events continued for an hour as I moved further down the pool.

I walked up the Beat and was content to sit and watch the water as it raced through narrows, scoured the base of the rock outcrops and dashed off towards the old water mill. On the return I heard a nightingale and stopped to listen. The peace of the valley was in stark contrast to the earlier bedlam, it was a relaxing end to a long, hot and exhausting day.

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22 June – River Tavy

I arrived at the wettest place in England, even wetter than Manchester, to see a raging torrent thundering under the ancient bridge. The water was the colour of London Pride and even the foam had a brown tint. Moorland rivers rise and fall quickly and by the next day it was fishable. I watched the pool above the bridge and was amazed to see a fresh run salmon attempt to leap the sheer face of the weir having ignored the fish pass on the opposite bank. It was a good fish and I returned to the bridge several times but there were no more leapers, only a giant eel squirming under a sunken log. That evening the local pub telephoned to ask if we would like a take-away pizza and draught beer, the ultimate in customer service. Olives were hatching at 8:30pm on the longest day, a surprising evening rise for an acid moorland river.

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I had an OS map and had visited the Beat in March but I managed to turn a fifteen minute journey into an hour touring the narrow Devon lanes. The track down into the steep sided river valley was rocky and I was relieved not to have grounded on the granite boulders. It was early evening and I planned to explore the Beat for an hour or two. I took the wrong path and got lost in the forest where I discovered several mine shafts and the remains of two lost souls.

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By the time I’d returned to the car, had a drink and a snack, the sun was below the tree line and the wind had eased. I flicked a nymph about and experimented with several dry flies. I was caught off guard when a fish took the dry fly, the stunning scenery had distracted me. I walked slowly to the top of the Beat scanning the deep pools for movement. Olives and sedges were hatching and several small fish were rising. A few bigger fish snatched flies, leaving swirls not dimples, the splash echoing around the pools.

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I sat on the arsenic laden spoil from the mine and cast a small parachute Iron Blue to a rising fish. It took the fly, was hooked but fell off. It was progress. I moved down a few yards and targeted another Trout. It fought well above its weight. It was a fat fish with colours so bright they were unreal. The fish was the first I had caught from a Dartmoor river in 45 years.

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I rose several more fish but my timing was out. As I rested by a large pool, admiring the cliff face opposite and the gaping mine shaft, a chrome silver Sea Trout exploded through the surface, hung in the air, then crashed back into the pool. It was taunting me. I had already decided to leave before dark, the steep rocky ascent out of the valley was on my mind. I celebrated my Dartmoor Trout with a Cornish pastie and a glass of Yalumba ‘The Cigar‘ my favourite red wine.

 

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The Road Westwards

In 1961 Dennis Watkins-Pitchford, using the pseudonym ‘BB’, wrote “The White Road Westwards” and I am lucky enough to have a lovely first edition. The book tells of his journey, 60 years ago in May-July 1960, to Lands’ End.

In late May he stayed briefly in the Savernake Forest and then, on 3 June, continued his journey via Selborne, Dorchester, Taunton, Ivybridge and Liskeard, regularly stopping overnight along the route to Lands’ End. He returned via the North Cornwall and Devon coast. BB used ‘Winston’ his tilt Series II Landrover and his new white ‘Willerby Heron’ caravan. BB was a naturalist and countryman, he despised the trippers in their “vulgar, chromium-plated motor coaches“. The book was one of a series about the wildlife and scenery that he encountered on his journeys around the UK. My journey would start further east and would not reach Lands’ End. My destination was Dartmoor and I would focus on fishing.

I considered taking the Defender but decided that it would be enough of an adventure without dodgy electrics and worrying noises. I loaded up the boring, reliable motorway cruiser with tackle and headed west. I took BB’s book with me.

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River Itchen – 18 June

I made a short detour at the start of my journey to stock up with sausage rolls and cake from the farm shop, all neatly wrapped in brown paper. No plastic. I would need the calories on such a long day. The road westwards was black and wet not chalky. The fields of the South Downs, where I played as a child, had not changed much since BB’s holiday.

A warning of thunderstorms had accompanied the usual non-committal weather forecast but I had taken no heed. I thought a shower-proof Barbour jacket would suffice. I arrived at lunchtime and admired the silky green river beside the track as I drove to the top Beat. The trees and bushes had been washed clean by overnight rain and a big Willow had been toppled by the gale force winds earlier in the week. The weed cut had been completed and the cuttings swept away. There was no debris on the surface of the water and a lot of the Ranunculus in the carrier had gone. Everything looked perfect.

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I felt obliged to use the silk line, it deserved a fair trial. As I was setting up my rod a Trout rose in the fast water just above the bridge. I walked up the true right bank to the little corrugated iron hut, searching for fish. The swirling pool at the top of the Beat looked good and a fish drifted towards cover at the top of the carrier. It didn’t respond to my fly other than to hide under a bush. I returned to the start of the Beat and peered into the first pool. Several large fish were cruising in the deep water below a midstream riffle, revealing themselves when they passed over a patch of chalk. I fished hard for an hour, when the thunder and heavy rain started I ignored it. A shower-proof Barbour was insufficient and I quickly became soaked. My lucky fishing hat became heavier as the rain collected in the crown. I retreated underneath a tree and waited, bright red umbrella in hand, for the rain to stop. It lasted an hour and when I finally emerged the long grass soaked me to the waist.

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I sat in the car, had lunch and felt restored. Wet but restored. There’s nothing worse than putting on a cold wet jacket but like a wetsuit, it soon warmed up. I crept along the open left bank, peering over the marginal cover, looking for targets. I found a couple of good Trout under my bank in an eddy below a bank of chalk. The faster water passed over their heads and they occasionally shifted position to intercept food as it fell. Each time I changed the fly I expected a thump on the rod but the fish sidled away, sometimes taking a loop downstream, to return a few minutes later.

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Thunder clouds gathered, the water coloured a little and light rain fell. I’d steamed myself almost dry and I wanted to avoid another soaking. Moreover, the raindrops on the surface of the water meant I could no longer see the fish. I left earlier than planned to continue the journey westwards. The track had deep puddles but the chalky splashes were washed off by the biblical storms that persisted through Dorchester and Bridport until I reached Tavistock. BB never seemed to get wet.

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