Three Devon Rivers

While having lunch in the garden a Blue Winged Olive landed on my arm and I took that as a sign to go fishing. I waited until the sun had gone down before heading to the river. I was undecided about where to fish. The intimate, fast flowing River Plym, the slow shallow water of the Abbey Beat on the River Tavy or a rocky stream on the open moor. The solution was obvious, fish all three, but where first?

23 June – River Tavy

The Defender rattled along the lane towards Buckland and down the never ending forest track to the valley floor. It knew the way. I was surprised at the depth of the puddles but Dartmoor had soaked up most of the rain and the Tavy was low and crystal clear.

Fox gloves filled the open space where I left the Defender. I filled my pockets with fly boxes and fought my way through the wood to the river. I sat watching the water while I set up my rod. A Buzzard drifted overhead and settled in a tree on the opposite bank. Blue Winged Olives, midges and a few sedges gave me plenty of fly choices. I chose a nymph and the gentle downstream breeze helped me drift the fly down and across the central channel. I tried all the usual flies with the usual response. Nothing.

I walked from the Grassy Bank upstream to the Bridge Pool, fishing deeper water carefully and anticipating a take. I returned to the Grassy Bank and hooked a small trout but it fell off after a few seconds. A fish swirled at a Black Gnat as I was lifting off to cast. The river is wide, the far bank is out of reach and the water very shallow. A poor cast immediately puts the fish down. It had been a demanding and frustrating evening.

24 June – River Plym

The wet suit warriors and walkers were out in force. The area was rammed but once in the private woodland, the soft carpet of leaf mulch deadened my footsteps, silence descended and I forgot the real world. The unspoilt river valley was free of litter and parents shouting at wayward offspring.

Blue Winged Olives were everywhere and midges filled the gap between the water surface and the overhanging branches. Yellow Wagtails flew along the river, occasionally stopping on a rock to wag. The water had a slightly cloudy tint but the gravel and bedrock were clearly visible even in the deepest pools. I started in the pool immediately below the bridge, the cutwater midstream split the river which reformed in a wide pool with a back eddy. A fish saw my nymph but shied away, very odd.

I fished each pool, working downstream from the bridge, keeping close to the waters edge. I had three fish, all on a GRHE nymph. I saw two fish come to the nymph and shy away, never to return. Surely they cannot be educated, that stretch of the river is very lightly fished.

I reached the rock wall and attempted to cross the river. The water was deep and fast, the boulders slippery. It was too dangerous. I looked back along the bank but the sheer rock face stretched way back and I decided to call it a day. It had been a great day, the polar opposite of yesterday evening on the Tavy.

25 June – River Walkham, Dartmoor

I was excited about the fishing but nervous about the walk. My last trip to the Beat had left me dehydrated, exhausted and barely fit to drive home. I travelled light and took a packet of Jelly Babies and a can of Red Bull to give me energy.

It was a long walk to the start of the Beat. It took over an hour, north over broken ground, up the slope of Little Mis Tor and then west along the boundary wall, before I could sit on a rock and have lunch.

The first pool was exactly as I remembered. Coch-Y-Bonddu beetles covered the ferns and the tiny white flowers. I had never seen these beetles before and I didn’t have a Black and Peacock Spider in any of my boxes ! I flicked a Black Gnat into the pool and gradually extended the cast until the fly fell into the fast water. I was surprised by the rise and much too slow to react.

I worked my way upstream and saw lots of trout. Unfortunately, most of the fish saw me first. I had several splashy takes, all of which I missed. The cool north-west wind blew downstream and made it difficult to present the fly. I crept nearer the pools and shortened my cast.

The moor was green but quite dry, even the boggy bits were easily crossed. I found a deep pool behind an enormous boulder which demanded a weighted nymph. On the first cast the leader twitched but, once again, I was too slow.

I was conscious of the walk back and didn’t want to fish until I was tired. It was a long climb up the north side of Great Mis Tor, over the granite clitter, contouring around the peak towards Little Mis Tor.

Two and a half hours walking for an hour fishing, was it worth it ? Yes, of course. It’s not something I will do very often but I will return at least once a year.

Three days fishing on three completely different rivers. I need to learn the secrets of the Tavy, fish the middle reaches of the Plym and tie some Coch-Y-Bonddu beetle imitations for next season.

15 June – Elgar Day

Each year since the centenary of Sir Edward Elgar’s first fishing trip to Little Bognor, I had remembered the day by catching a fish or two at the spring fed lake in the woods near his cottage. At dawn on 15 March 1918 Sir Edward and Lady Alice walked through the woods to the lake. I drove to the lake at 6:00am. Dawn was 4:45am, much too early for me.

I listened to Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor as I drove south, along the narrow Sussex lanes towards Fittleworth. It was his last major work. Lady Alice died in April 1920 shortly after the first public performance of the concerto and a lonely Sir Edward lost his creative spirit. He wrote the concerto while staying at Brinkwells, walking through the woods and fishing between bouts of inspiration. WWI changed Europe and this is reflected in his music. The slaughter and sorrow cast a shadow over the outcome of both the war and his music. The public didn’t like the music, Elgar was no longer fashionable. Jazz had replaced Rag Time as the dominant style. I don’t like jazz.

The hot weather was a problem. On the plus side, everyone had gone to the beach over the weekend and not much had been caught. I don’t like fishing in the early morning, the conditions deteriorate as the day warms up. Whereas, in the evening the chances of a fish improve with the passing of time. The plan was to catch a fish at Little Bognor and then visit the river before retiring to Great Springs for lunch.

Sir Edward probably used a float and a worm, I used a Bob Southwell creation that I had failed to christen on several previous trips. Using the rod was tempting fate but somehow carbon fibre didn’t suit the occasion. I used the Rio small stream line with an over rated front taper which I thought would match the compound taper of the old rod.

I tried the usual selection of buzzers, nymphs and dry flies. I had one tentative pluck at the line but I think it was a sunken twig. I remembered my last visit when the fly had to be presented to a rising fish. Prospecting didn’t work. Out of the blue a fish rose on my left, I flicked the nymph out and it was taken immediately. The Trout fought hard and I expected it to throw the hook but I carefully drew it towards the landing net and the pressure was off. Mission accomplished. Rod christened.

Fish started to rise all over the lake but I knew the feeding spell would be short lived so I packed up and drove to the river. The sunlight filtered through the woods and illuminated the path to the river. The early morning sun slanted across the river and everything looked good. While I was choosing a fly a fish rose several times beside an overhanging bush. I presented a parachute Pheasant Tail perfectly and was confident of a take. Nothing happened and the fish moved further downstream. It rose again and I pestered it with a couple of different patterns. It went down and I marked it’s position for later. I found another rising fish but that also disappeared.

I walked down to the New Riffle but as I went downstream the water clarity deteriorated and the riffle was decidedly muddy. On my return journey I tried the fish I had marked earlier and although it was still rising, it soon disappeared. I was hot and tired, the cars air-co was very welcome. The fields at Stag Park were full of black plastic bales, buzzards and red kites were circling over the tractor and baler. The Estate roads were fittingly lined with wild rememberance poppies.

The lakes looked beautiful but the water temperature was high and the Trout were distressed. I had a long lunch and walked around the lakes. A few mayfly were hatching, damsel flies covered the water surface and the marginal plants were alive with bees. Large dragon flies were feeding on the Mayfly as the duns headed for the trees.

I had achieved all of my objectives by 2:00pm. I was tired and looking forward to the journey home in a cold car. On the way home I listened to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, fourteen portraits painted in music during happier times at the end of the 19th century. The first Variation was for Lady Alice and the fourteenth for himself. His Enigma Variations were popular and established his reputation as a composer. They remain very popular, particularly Nimrod, the hunter or inept person depending on the context. Quite appropriate for me ! It had been a good day.

7 June – Abbey

Although I had walked the Beat several times I had never fished the wide, slow stretch of the Tavy. It was a long drive through the woods, down a deeply rutted and rocky forestry track but the Defender rattled along confidently. As I sorted through my fly boxes a Buzzard mewed high above the valley and a raven croaked from the top of a tall fir tree.

I wove my way through the waist high nettles and low hanging brush into the intense sunlight. As I sat beside a tree lined pool and threaded the fly line through the rod rings, a Trout took a fly from the surface only a few yards away.  It was an encouraging sign. The water was crystal clear and a light upstream breeze ruffled the surface delaying the passage of debris and hatching  insects.

Olives, midges and the occasional Mayfly provided a feast for the fish and noisy, splashy rises every few minutes revealed their position. Usually along the far tree line or in midstream, way beyond my casting range. The slow, deep water was littered with the sunken remains of mature trees, washed downstream by the winter spates. It was impossible to wade and my backcast was restricted but I managed to work the big pool with a heavily weighted nymph. The fish were not impressed and gradually the rises petered out.

I wandered downstream,  stopping occasionally to watch the water and to explore some of the holding pools. The sun was sinking but it was too bright for both me and the fish. I walked back along the path and stood under an old Oak close to the waters edge. A Trout was rising frequently below an overhanging Willow bush, gentle, sipping rises for either emerging Mayflies or buzzers. I circled around, using the long grass as cover, to position myself just below the bush. A parachute Pheasant Tail was a good choice of fly but I missed the take. I rested the fish which resumed feeding but it wouldn’t respond and eventually went down.

I moved upstream, checking the pools and faster water. It was too bright, I should have waited a couple of hours longer but as usual, my impatience had lead to an early start. An electric blue Kingfisher whizzed past only a foot off the water and disappeared into the tree tunnel. I returned to the feeding Trout and gave it the choice of a tiny midge imitation and a Mayfly to no avail. A clumsy cast ended my chances and I fought my way back to the Defender through the undergrowth.

It had been a demanding trip. The sun was too bright and the fish were sheltering out of reach. I will return late one evening and try again.

3 June – River Tavy

After yesterdays jungle fishing on the Plym I fancied an evening in the open air on a bigger river. The weather had been Mediterranean all day and the village was deserted, everyone had gone to the beach. The Defender crept down the rocky track in 1st gear and emerged from the trees beside the river. The engine died in a clatter and peace descended on the valley.  There were no noisy kids or barbeques, I had the Beat to myself.

Clouds of Olive Spinners filled the air and midges buzzed around my head. The sound of rushing water encouraged me to set up my rod quickly but I paused to check for missed rings. I tied a heavy tippet to the new leader and walked upstream to a long wide riffle where I could have a few practice casts and check the weight of my fly.

I could see every rock on the riverbed and the crests of the broken water were pristine white, perfect conditions if I kept a low profile. I concentrated on the long run below a deep cauldron of foaming water convinced that a Trout lived somewhere in the fifty yard stretch. Cast, mend, hang and step carefully along the marginal sand. Nothing. A Sea Trout jumped in the flat water on the far side of the current and raised my expectations. It didn’t react to my carefully presented flies.

I found some slack water off a spit of granite. The rock was hard but warm and as I fidgeted about, trying to get comfortable, a smolt took the GRHE nymph. I released the plump little fish into the shallows and it arrowed back into deep water none the worse for visiting me.

The Hut Pool deserved my full attention. I used the ridges of granite to avoid sky-lining and waited for a sign. An insignificant rise in the back eddy on my left was repeated several times. A feeding fish was well within casting range. I presented a parachute Pheasant Tail, a good imitation of an Olive Spinner, to the satisfaction of the Trout which seized it immediately. It was a feisty little brownie. I was pleased to have caught fish on both a nymph and a dry fly.

Major Kenneth Dawson ‘West Country’

On previous trips I hadn’t ventured further downstream to Major Kenneth Dawson’s rock, weariness from the long walk had usually kicked in. Thanks to ‘Land-River’ I was still strong, I climbed the gate and dropped down to water level along a culvert and stood where, over a hundred years ago, the Major is said to have caught many fish. I fished a weighted, flashy fly down and across and hooked a fish but it summersaulted off the barbless hook. The light was failing and I’d had enough. The Defender rattled back up the track which had become even more deeply rutted by the heavy rain a couple of weeks ago.

The fine weather is coming to an end, am I fit enough to fish the high moor?

2 June – Bluebells

The weather was perfect; warm, overcast and a gentle breeze. How could I continue with chores when the Bank Holiday crowds had dispersed and the fish were waiting? I had planned on fishing my favourite Tavy pools but I realised that I had misread the rota. I eased the Defender out of the garage and headed south towards the Plym. A column of sunburnt 42 Commando Royal Marines marched back into barracks as I dropped down into the deep river valley and found a parking space by the bridge. The river looked beautiful, a few inches up with a hint of colour.

The water temperature was 14 degrees and upwinged flies were everywhere so I started in a fast run with a dry fly. The line curled out nicely and the fly rode the current convincingly back downstream towards me. The likely holding places, crevices in the bedrock and behind stones, failed to hold anything and I moved upstream to the first deep pool. As I approached quietly through the trees, a Sea Trout leapt and noisily splashed back into the water. I swapped the dry fly for a Teal, Blue and Silver and slid down the rocks at the head of the pool on my backside. The fast broken water and rock ledges hid me from the spooky fish and as I rolled out the first cast I had high hopes of a take. I worked the pool methodically, gradually extending line without a response. I’d try again in a couple of hours.

The bluebells were a distraction as I made my upstream along the riverside path. A combination of anglers, deer and badgers had crushed the stems and leaves which enhanced the flowery perfume. I sat beside a fallen tree at the head of a long pool where a culvert joined the main river on the far bank. The eddy had produced fish for me and I swapped the fly for a weighted nymph which would drop into the deeper water quickly. No bead, just a few turns of lead wire. As I was about to cast a lone Mayfly fluttered into the air and passed close over my head into the trees behind me. I was surprised to see a Mayfly on an acid moorland spate river, it lifted my spirits.

After exploring the eddy and the main pool, I rose from behind the ferns and turned to leave just as a good Trout rose close to the near bank. It was mocking my efforts, telling me that I should have used a dry fly, not a nymph. I fished the first pool again with a heavier fly but I had a feeling that the Sea Trout had seen me and retired to the safety of the tree roots.

It had been a lovely walk, I hadn’t seen anyone and fishing was a bonus. My tactics had been wrong, I would return late one evening with just a box of dry flies.