Written by: Clark Colman
Orvis Harrogate’s fly fishing specialist Clark Colman revisits a little-known river only a stone’s throw from where he grew up, and reflects on how a bit of creativity in fly selection proved that good wild brownies can still be found there….
As a fly fisher, I’ve always been drawn towards more forgotten or remote trout streams, rivers, lakes and tarns. Such places, which I usually come across in the pages of musty old books and journals, probably see less than half-a-dozen anglers in a year nowadays – if that. No-one ever seems to know a great deal about them anymore, and the mystery, anticipation and excitement that comes with finding out whether wild brownies still swim there is, for me, the very essence of fly fishing itself.
A-Hunting We Will Go
My early explorations of one particular river in northwest Cumbria are a case in point. I first discovered it over a decade ago in a vintage copy of Where To Fish; however the most assiduous of online searches failed to uncover anything about its current possibilities as far as trout are concerned. It soon became apparent that no angling association or club controls the fishing rights here, so obtaining permission for a speculative reconnaissance with appropriate fly gear hinged on a willing farmer or two.
Scrambling down the steep bank beside the lay-by where I’d parked my car, I struggled to keep both my head and the tip of my 8ft 6in 4-weight rod safe from overhanging branches. Below me lay a small, natural weir; a shallow affair resulting from boulders and rocks stretching across the river at a roughly forty-five degree angle. Trees shrouded the water on both sides, forming a green-roofed tunnel in which the air was thick with the refreshing scent of earth, bark and foliage – all still damp from recent rains. Some branches, either long dead or broken off by high winds, had fallen into the river, and now formed hazardous snags just waiting to ensnare a misplaced fly.
These surroundings, and the lack of casting space they afforded, rendered a tapered leader even more important than usual. At 9ft, and tapering to a 3.6lbs tippet, this constituted an appropriate half-way house between manageability, strength and effective fly presentation. But what fly to offer? There was no hatch or fall in progress, and the riverbed looked brown and stony, suggestive of easy wading but little promise in terms of plant growth and invertebrate life.
The weirpool itself was a cauldron of turbulent, barely knee-deep water. From this, two or three fixed-line flicks, tracks and twitches with a size 14 Goldhead Hare’s Ear Nymph produced a bright little trout. Only seven or eight inches in length, he was nevertheless well-nourished and punched above his weight before coming to my wetted hand. As I slipped the barbless hook from his mouth, the fish coughed up the half-digested remains of a minnow before darting back to his home among the rocks.
Intrigued, I looked up towards the long, narrow run above the weir, whose surface was relatively calm and unbroken by anything save a large boulder. I waded ever so slowly up it, tight into the high left-had bank, until I reached the point where a tree stretched its overhanging branches further out across the river than any other. The water was deeper and darker here – around waist deep – and not far above lay the neck of the run, where the current ran from left to right over large rocks before carving an undercut along the far bank. It was just the sort of place where a larger, resident minnow-eater might be lurking.
The Makeshift Minnow
After beefing up my tippet to 5lbs, I selected a black, slimline, marabou-tailed creation of my own design. Originally intended as a black damsel pattern for stillwater use, it also made a passable representation of a minnow – the only reason I could think of as to why it had found its way there in the first place. Using the branches in front of me as camouflage, I inched out into the deep water as far as I dared, and aimed a bow-and-arrow cast upstream into the current above the undercut. As the rod tip sprang forwards, the fly arced away in a tiny blur and found its mark with a faint, reassuring ‘plop.’
Nothing happened on the first two casts, but on the third the line swung tight within seconds and the tip pulled satisfyingly round to the left as I struck sideways. Another plump brownie – not the monster I’d hoped for, but very welcome all the same – came fussing and protesting to my hand, with the makeshift minnow firmly embedded in its scissors. Two more followed in quick succession, including a slightly bigger and beautifully-marked fish of perhaps ten inches.
My enclosed surroundings, and the concentration I’d been applying, had excluded all other sensations save the sound of the water and the birds. Now, as I took a quick break, a lone car passing by atop the bank to my left reminded me that I wasn’t as far from civilisation as this secret little spot might otherwise suggest. However, once I made my way further upstream, I became truly lost among the fields and trees beyond.
The river I encountered here was a low, clear, sparkling and magical place, surrounded by colours very much akin to the ‘forty shades of green’ that Johnny Cash saw in Ireland. There was also infinite variety of water character around every bend, and my tapered leader, with its weighted fly, certainly paid dividends among the more difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies, and when faced with a stiffish downstream breeze. Given how well it had performed earlier, I’d decided to stick with the ‘Makeshift Minnow’ (as I’d now christened it) in the hope of finding more and potentially bigger trout.
Stay tuned for part 2 on Thursday 4th May!