23 May – Keepers Bridge

The warm, humid and overcast weather was perfect for the mayfly and therefore fishing on the Rother. The mayfly hatch at the lakes appeared to have ended. The warm breeze from the south west would be downstream at Keepers Bridge and a slight ripple would help the emerging mayfly escape the surface tension.

Prototype mayfly

I parked under the trees and walked down the slope, the river looked beautiful and was deserted. I stood on the outside of the first bend looking upstream towards the willow bush and downstream to beyond the bridge. I could see about two hundred yards of river, lined with alder trees and overhanging bushes.

I was confident that I would see a few fish rise and I didn’t have long to wait. A trout splashed at a mayfly just upstream of the bridge. A couple of minutes later another trout rose closer to me. A good fish rose continually among the debris hanging from a tree branch. I recalled a fish that rose there on 10 May and wondered if it would be a repeat capture. I stood watching the river for about an hour and satisfied that I had marked sufficient targets, returned to the car to get my rod and net.

I acted as ghillie for a couple of hours, pointing out rising fish and giving tips on presentation. We walked downstream, watching the water and only casting to rising fish. A tractor the size of a small house arrived to mow the grass and we switched our attention to the upstream pools. Several fish were rising along the Sandy Pool. I cast to a rising fish which promptly rose again, a yard above my mayfly ! I lifted off and flicked the fly further upstream. A few seconds later it was gulped down and a strong fish about 2lbs eventually slid into the landing net.

We tempted another trout from under the far bank at the top of the pool. An accurate cast was essential as there were large numbers of duns floating down the bubble line and the fish didn’t have to move far to find a tasty mayfly snack.

The resident trout under the tree branch had recovered from the tractor earthquake and was rising every minute to intercept duns funneled into midstream by the willow bush and flood debris. There was a gap in the alder branches less than a yard wide and the drift was only a couple of feet. Throwing caution to the wind, I kept the rod from deviating off its arc and set the mayfly down perfectly. Several times. Without hooking the tree. I rested the fish for a few minutes while I dried the fly, it took on the next cast. I bent the Hardy into a loop, dragged the fish out of danger and played it under the near bank. It was my friend from two weeks ago, easily identified by a slightly deformed jaw.

The prototype mayfly had been a success, it floated on the organza wings much longer than a conventional pattern and didn’t twist the tippet during the cast. I must tie some more.

19 May – River Tavy

The Tavy had dropped a little and looked perfect, the trout would be hungry after the mini-spate. I decided to spend more time watching the water and less time prospecting. Sitting on a warm patch of coarse sand beside the top pool was relaxing. The occasional mayfly hatched from the shallows, Blue Winged Olives drifted past and the dense clouds of midges hung over the water when the breeze permitted.

There was no sign of trout, in the broken water it was difficult to be specific about any surface movement. The pool was deep and rocky, four to five feet of water rushed around submerged boulders the size of dustbins. The crevices held trout but they were not rising. A long leader and a weighted GRHE nymph was the answer. I had a tap on the rod first cast, along the bankside drop-off and a gentle pull on the line second cast. Slightly further down the pool in slack water, a trout grabbed the nymph and went airborne. It looked like a sea trout smolt which I released without touching the fish. I wished it well. A good start to the day. As I stood up to walk downstream a fish rose only a rod length from me. I sat down and drifted a dry fly over the fish but there was no response.

I remembered a day last season when the trout were on the shallows intercepting emergers and adults in the faster water. I sat on a rock and watched a glide in midstream which ended under trees along the far bank. A small fish rose out of range downstream. A good fish rose opposite me only ten yards away. I dropped a parachute GRHE above the rise and the rod hooped over. The fish took line downstream and then upstream. It fought like a 2lb-er but it shrunk as I drew it nearer. It was my best fish from the Dartmoor rivers, about 1lb and fin perfect.

I sat on the short grass beside a pool and watched the river. Fingerling trout were darting around in the warm, shallow water. A big shadow passed across me and I looked up to see a buzzard drifting down the tree line along the far bank. The hot sun and dehydration got to me and I left the river. The Defender carried me out of the valley despite the state of the track which had washed out during the recent rain. The steep slope, pot holes and rock outcrops tested it to the limit.

18 May – River Tavy

The Dartmoor rivers had risen a few inches and were slightly coloured. The Walkham, flowing through the village, looked distinctly cloudy from road washings and would have to wait a day or two. Just below the bridge a trout rose for a midge among the tree debris in an attempt to distract me but I had planned a morning on the Tavy.

The Tavy was coloured but not cloudy, I could see the rocks on the bottom in midstream. I sat beside the river on a shingle beach at the top of the Beat and watched the flies hatching. Mayfly duns hatched from the shallow water infront of me, olives filled the air and midges buzzed over the surface of the water. There were so many flies that I didn’t know which pattern to start with. A small brown nymph, then a spider and finally a GRHE nymph, no response to anything. A fish rose in midstream under a tree so I tied on a small dry olive and drifted it under the branches. I missed the take.

Further downstream I missed another trout on a dry fly and had a slow draw on a nymph that might have been a submerged leaf. Light rain caused me to pause on the seat under the big oak tree. The lean on the tree was a bit intimidating and I continued my walk down to the end of the Beat.

Heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon and as the weather deteriorated, I made my way back to the Defender. Although I hadn’t caught a trout, the mass of wild flowers, the bewildering numbers of flies hatching and the tranquility had made it a memorable morning.

16 May – River Walkham

Monday, rain, no spaniels. Definitely a fishing day. I left the cottage in the rain, confident that it would ease off and to give the Defender a wash. As I walked down the side of the valley, through the woods, the rain stopped but every gust of wind shook the tree tops creating a mini cloudburst.

The upstream breeze helped me work a nymph through the first pool but I wasn’t happy with the presentation. I wondered if I had lined the trout and put them down.

I walked to the top of the Beat through the bluebell woods. Keeping off the path and well back from the river soaked me to the waist.

The top pools and riffles meant crawling around under the tree tunnels. The long rod helped me roll cast and dangle a nymph behind rocks. The water was very clear and quite deep, the weighted GRHE nymph trundled around nicely but there was no response from the trout.

Millions of midges were hatching and buzzing around in clouds over the river. The tiny flies gathered under the far bank where the air was still but I couldn’t find a rising fish.

I climbed over boulders and weaved around the bankside trees, keeping well hidden, expecting a tug on the rod tip at any moment but something was not right and the rod stayed straight.

I had nearly reached the weir when I heard a trout rise. I stopped and watched from behind a stand of mature trees. The water flowed slowly over a long, shallow pool. A fish rose close to the far bank under a mist of midges. Several other fish rose further down the pool. At last, a fish to target. I flicked a small black gnat across the top of the pool and it was taken but the fish slipped the hook. Nevermind, that was progress. The other trout moved further down the pool where I couldn’t reach them.

Further downstream I found another rising fish. I stood behind a tree trunk and gently cast the fly upstream, I saw the fish take. It was a very dark fish which had the cheek to snag me in the tree roots. I eased it out and quickly returned the angry little trout to the river.

Mill Leat

As I walked back up the path out of the valley, I was tempted back into the woods by the Mill Leat. I saw a couple of fat little trout in only 6″ of water. I made no attempt to hide and they darted off upstream, disappearing in the weedless, crystal clear water. How do they do that ?

The walk out, back to the Defender, was glorious. The dappled sunlight on the freshly watered greenery highlighted the leaves and the various coloured woodland flowers. I hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon. No cars, people or spaniels, excellent.

Bob Southwell

Probably the best split cane rod designer and builder that fly fishing has never known.

He is famous for his carp rods. His split cane carp blanks were built for various well known retailers in the 1960’s. Completed rods were also sold at his father’s shop with the ‘Captain Croydon’ inscription. Signed rods are rare and they command very high prices. Consequently, there are lots of unsigned rods attributed to Bob that have no provenance. Wishful thinking or market hype. Collectors glass cabinets contain a lot of Bob’s rods, too rare and expensive to fish with they are hedges against inflation and pension fund supplements. Shame.

I have been unable to find much information about Bob or his family. He lived before the internet was invented.

Bob Southwell fly rods

I am not a collector but I seem to have acquired four of Bob’s fly rods. For fishing, not display. They are very rare, he didn’t make many fly rods compared to his output of MkIV carp rods. I came across the first rod (left) by chance. The gold label above the handle gives the shop address without a STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialing) phone number dating the rod to between 1959 and 1966. The rod is 10′ 6″, 2 piece. The cane is very dark, the nodes are hot pressed and the rod furniture dates from that period. The rod rings are Low Bells and the rod bag looks suspiciously like that of a MkIV !

The rod feels steely in the hand and the compound taper delivers a satisfying kick to the fly line as it unfurls, a characteristic of all four rods. The MkIV carp rod has a compound taper that produces a hinge effect just above the ferrule to aid casting light baits long distances, a requirement defined by Richard Walker who designed the famous carp rod. Bob’s fly rods also have that characteristic.

The second rod (middle left) came to me in a very used condition, in fact it was unusable. ‘The Blagdon Rod’ is 10′, two piece and has all the correct fittings. A light refurbishment enabled me to catch a few trout with it. The rod has the power to fish from the bank of a lake such as Blagdon.

The third rod (middle right) ‘The Chew Valley’ is 9’6″, two piece and is my favourite of the four rods. It is at home on a mature lowland river and a tiny moorland stream. Very versatile.

The fourth rod (right) is unsigned and a bit of an outlier. It has a Pezon et Michel reel fitting, is 9’6″ and was ordered at the shop in Croydon as a custom build by the previous owner’s father. It has hardly been used and is in very good condition.

Bob Southwell visited Peter McVey at the Corbett Lake Country Inn, British Columbia. Peter was the owner of the lodge and was a very accomplished split cane rod builder. Bob was Peter McVey’s mentor. In 1980 Bob built a rod at the Inn, he finished the rod in a weekend. There is a video of Bob Southwell building a rod at Peter’s workshop, just search on YouTube for ‘bob southwell rodmaker‘ (sic).