Because it is the San, again, in the spectral chaos of autumn, the change of season, and the blue winged olive hatch. Wojtek is here, of course, and other friends. It has been almost a year for me, longer for Neil and Lawrence, and even more so for Nick and Paul. For Kevin, our young Ireland international friend, it is both his first visit and his first encounter with grayling. What a place to catch one’s first grayling! Clear waters, dropping from the pristine Bieczszady forest and the Ukraine frontier. She is a potent mistress, when the other drugs don’t work anymore, or barely so. For a week, I fish a plume tip, just a plume tip, among the blizzard of the BWO. It reminds us of just how lesser are all other European rivers to San, how in the esoteric sport of fly fishing, all else is less. Heady this, during which we can hardly come to terms with the super abundance; the early trickle, then afternoon swarm of BWO, with trout and grayling up at them, in impossible numbers. It is a question of scale, you think? It is one of the natural wonders of the world, I say, and in fly fishing, an all time high. That climb, up the staircase of those other worthy places; Eden, the French chalk streams, the clear waters of southern European rivers. Finally we are here, where, I think, we fly fishers were always meant to find. It is where the sublime simplicity of the plume tip was discovered, among these countless foam lanes. It is where I realised the ultimate refinement in this odd, hinterland of human cultural activity. And grayling, liepien, des ombres, the ladies of the stream, well, the ultimate game fish, whatever you hear of other species. And on San, we find the limit of possibilities in a sport, of grayling, of invertebrate biomass diversity, culminating in the BWO. It is that magnificent, and that simple. This river that flows from the forest in the mountains, and through the forest of an immense valley where nature can still work as she should. We do no more than perturb this place. And yet, you know, don’t you, that the high cannot last forever? You have to come down; cannot remain for long at this altitude of nature’s frontier. Once a year is probably enough for me, now. To reassert all that is good about what survives in Europe, to share the experience with a few good friends. And yet, we northern Europeans cannot possibly really understand it all. Every time I go back to San I find myself in wonder, adjusting to it. Yes, there are similarities, consistencies, even, from a fly-fishing perspective, an invariance with rivers to the north and west; but this is a place where the contrasts are simply staggering. There are still bears and beavers, wolves and lynx, while the river’s fly hatches and population of trout and grayling are utterly incomparable with anywhere else. There is a moment, among all of them, that echoes with me now. I am fishing during the hatch cascade at about two in the afternoon. I am alone in the enormity and have settled on a stream within the thousands of streams amidst the ‘no kill’ tailwater. For over an hour almost every targeted rise has been a trout. Accuracy on these aggressive feeders has not been important; they seem to take as many of the naturals as they can reasonably reach from their station, surely expending almost as much energy as the food value of their prey. And yet not, because that cannot work in nature. Nonetheless, there is an abandon of feeding activity before, at last, I can pick out more subtle rise forms. In a very short period of time there has been a metamorphosis. Abruptly, the river has changed and, now, grayling dominate the feed lanes. Now I have to be extremely accurate, drifting a fly almost centimetre-perfect to the rise form, and with good timing, because a grayling does not take every fly that passes overhead. It is such an efficient feeder and to cast at it when it has just risen can do no more than spook it. We learn this much, anyway, and it is a delightful invariance between San and Sava, Eden and Aa, or anywhere that big grayling exist. And finally, the plume tip entices the ultimate fish and I realise that I am, right here, at the very limit of this narrow field of activity that might allow a man to embrace nature.
I want it to last forever. This summer, this glorious summer. Slightly uncomfortable, September, isn’t it? On the one hand still warm and humid, with hints of autumn, and on the other, knowing we are nudging at the closing of the trout season on these beautiful chalk streams of northern France. I have Eden, yes, Cumbrian Eden, still paradise, I think, but like all paradises, you look for the flaw. This farm-centric insanity that wrecks my country. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong. A lot of yearling grayling in Eden right now, which bodes nothing but good for the future. But this summer gone, in France, has been all that I ever really wanted fly fishing to be; almost all I hoped for in life. I am already looking forward to next spring, even though there is still so much this year has to offer. We have the grayling, and the October San, upon us.
Family visit to Versailles. Oddly comforting. Maybe because of family members collecting there, maybe because of the European cultural and historical centricity of the place, the Treaty, the Palace, the fabulous gardens, the people who have breathed a little of their lives there. Perhaps it is just the happy time, just that, though all too brief. Perhaps too, all this wonderful summer, travelling to Versailles from Tilly Capelle, and then returning to Tilly, to home, to where daughter Ellie came with her new husband, Paul, in the spring. And the lovely chalk streams. How the French cherish their beautiful rivers, and how I wish my own countrymen cherished theirs. Mine, and yours. But then the Brexit vote said it all. I met a fly-fisher here, on la Ternoise. We talked about the fishing for a while, but I knew what he wanted to talk about, so eventually we did. And he told me: ‘two World Wars your country fought, largely here, in my country, all for freedom. It is what made you great. Really great. And ever since, you have been the most stable influence in Europe. And now you leave us?’ If I didn’t understand before (which, actually, I did) I certainly got it right there. What, the hell, do you think made our country great? It was our ability, our willingness, to help those in need. Or, you think it was something else? And now we leave them, when their need is almost as much as it has ever been. So, this makes us nothing in the human scheme of things. And is this not shameful? How will we ever retrieve this? I wonder.
OK, so I’m drifting off theme, maybe. It’s just how I am, and how I view it all. So, perhaps the English have not really grown fat and lazy? So, perhaps we will not not also lose Scotland in a year or two, and that Scotland will not then join Europe. You think? And if/when this comes to pass, will you not then be ashamed? Will you not then have a sense of regret, of loss?
My friends, Malcolm and Neil on l’Aa in early September. What a pleasure for me to watch Neil, ‘the Professor’, come from three successive blanks on various streams, finally to match the ‘glacial’ Malcolm with his catch rate on la Lys.
And now back in Cumbria, briefly, before the San pilgrimage. Eden is strange just now, as the season collapses, with thousands of yearling grayling so active while the big, parent fish are invisible. But my heart is not in it. I am heading back to Eastern Europe again, and yet, in truth, I’m already back in France, in my mind, my soul. That this should be home.
Simplicity, refinement, elegance; all synonymous in fly-fishing, I think. Given also a delightful French chalk stream, which has been messed up neither by abstraction nor agriculture, nor even by commercial ‘fishery’ management, and we have everything that fly fishing was ever meant to be. Here in the north of France I am surrounded by such beautiful streams. I wish it could be my home country, in the south, but it cannot anymore. All that belongs to an England of several decades ago. History that has been cast aside and largely forgotten. Now, our best wild trout fishing exists in the north and, curiously, in hidden urban streams. Post-Brexit, it will be even more annexed to the periphery of our little country. But it is still as nature intended in France.
I choose my moments, sometimes to fish, sometimes to walk by and soak in the nature that thrives here. Even when I fish, it is usually just moments. This, perhaps, is one of the great secrets of the sport. The more you do, the more you catch, the less is the need. After upwards of 50,000 trout, and grayling, other things take precedence. Discovering new rivers, or sections of river, is a part of it, and one of my absolute favourites – anywhere – is the Aa, an Itchen-like (of forty years ago) stream which ticks all the boxes above and which is actually recovering from any human activity which adversely might have affected it, including two great wars. Now it flows untroubled through beautiful landscape and quiet villages, meandering and splitting into carriers and disused mill races, and is barely managed at all over it’s entire length.
One day back in early July my friends, Luke and James, discovered a stretch of the Aa where it splits into three carriers, a place I had not fished, even though I had explored a lot both up and downstream. Their smile that evening matched the stories they told me. I could scarcely believe their description. It was as if I was back in Kent, on the Great Stour, almost fifty years ago… Two weeks later I was back, finding their entry point and working my way very, very slowly upstream through a tunnel of trees. I fished the 11′, which was too long, and a #2 Sunray PL, which was perfect. Where is it not? There was a strong down-streamer (I didn’t choose my moment ideally on this one!), so could not fish a plume tip, which would have been devastating here in calm conditions, or if the wind had been gentler. I reverted to an Oppo on a duo rig, with a stabilising PTN on point. It was all jumps, rolls and Speys, and engineered casts, to avoid the jungle of foliage and (sometimes) place the flies close to the target area. Within minutes I counted four different species of upwing active on the surface, either as emergers, duns or spinners, although remarkably few rises (which was also the experience of Luke and James). It was soon obvious, however, that wherever there should have been a trout, was a trout, and often more. Twice I saw the deep, dark shadows of what I strongly suspect were big grayling, but they did not react to either the Oppo or the PTN, and I have long tired of plumbing with catastrophic quantities of tungsten – what is the point? They will, one day soon, rise to dry fly, and I can certainly wait until then. The trout reacted though, mostly to the nymph. Twice I hooked a fish on the PTN only for another trout to follow behind, finally attacking the Oppo, once even when the fly was almost two feet clear of the surface.
Sublime escapism, isolationism, realism; a purity that is lost to most of us, unless we are fortunate enough (brave enough?) to penetrate deep into nature and the world’s last places of value which our species has not yet ruined. We fly fishers sometimes, sometimes, do it, on rivers, or wild, northern lakes. Or the ocean. Who am I to be among these many natural forms? Yet here I am, for a short time, and I am constantly in wonder, and thankful that they still exist, somewhere. I do no more than perturb their space. Now. At least this is what I hope, and what I tell myself. So I do not tap off too many photos anymore, or hold the fish out of the water, at all. It is just moments that I have them, their wonderful forms, and their magnificent habitat, in my gaze.
A week later, after a family visit to the magnificence of Versailles, where so much of France, and Europe, was forged, not least the Treaty at the end of the Great War, I wandered down to the Ternoise. It had been beckoning, and also dropping away, clearing, after something of a spate. As I arrived a bait fisherman was just packing away, while his dog chased ducks in the shallows where I fancied a cast. He had not caught anything, and after admiring his cuillère, and his spaniel, and passing the time of day, I stood in his footprints on the river bank and watched the deep waters drifting by. Not a sign of a fish, of course, but you just knew… A few exploratory casts close in (the most important fish is the nearest one – even when you know they are not there) while I ‘measured’ the run, taking in its features, its character. Finally – I think it was the eighth cast, but the first cast with conviction – in that perfect place right on the current’s edge – you can see it – where there had to be a trout, the Oppo disappeared and I tightened into this gorgeous, wild Ternoise trout.
It lay in my palm as I unhooked it – that PTN jig. Finally, it only needs one cast. At its best, anyway. Maybe its enough for me. I know it might be different for you, and that’s fine too. This image of a wild trout has always done it for me, perhaps more now than ever before. One trout, one cast; it’s enough. Does it get better?
It has been almost as wet in France as southern England this spring and early summer. The difference, though, is that the chalk aquifer here is comparatively undamaged and while the streams are running full and a little coloured, they have been entirely fishable throughout. We have explored a little more than usual, and I find myself overwhelmed by the extent and variety of magnificent rivers in this region. One wonders at the historical nonsense about most of the world’s chalk streams lying in southern Britain, given that the French chalk plateau dwarfs the English deposit, and there are more chalk streams in even the Pas de Calais than all those in England, notwithstanding the immensity of chalk reaching out east into the Champagne Ardennes and south to Normandie.
For all that, it has been decidedly ‘nymphy’. Adult upwings and caddis have been scarce, usually appearing in small, scatter hatches. The colour and flow rate have kept the fish mostly close to the river bed, and they have been reluctant to rise to the surface even when a reasonable number of upwings are present. Nymph fishing friends have generally done well, mostly fishing the Ternoise, Aa and Lys. ‘Glacial’ Malcolm and Neil were averaging four or five fish a day, and also discovered some new water on la Lys which they both consider to be among the very best chalk stream habitat that exists – a new favourite for both of them. Conditions were about as tough as it comes during their stay, with some horrible down-streamers, so this promoted a bit of hunting, and thinking out of the box. Great fishing, chaps, and I’m already looking forward to next year exploring still further – and this before our little visit to the San this autumn.
Luke and James fished the same streams, though mostly different areas, in generally better conditions, and being as fit as fleas, and adventurous, explored masses of scarcely fished (or un-fished) water. Their results simply blew me away, returning home after exhausting eight hour sessions with double figure catches, almost all on the nymph (PTN). Here is Luke hunting and hooking a big trout, which he lost, on a nice bit of Theo Pyke-esque ‘Trout in Dirty Places’ water (in fact, Theo fished here last year). We all noticed that Duo was a great compromise method in the prevailing conditions, and the colour density and form of the Oppo certainly resulted in bringing so fish to the surface, both trout and grayling, though the PTN was supreme. Finding this, I have tried plume tip over identical water, but seldom managed to entice fish up.The streams are gradually clearing though, and I expect the plume tip to be the top scorer very soon. It is already emphatically the best fly to use on the upper reaches of these rivers, and in the overgrown tributaries, where the water is so clear.
A short while ago I met a local flyfisher on the Ternoise and after, naturally, talking about the fishing, he had to ask me what I thought about the referendum. I think he was relieved to hear of my disappointment, even horror, at the result. His comments translate to this: ‘Your country fought two world wars in my country, fighting for freedom, and realising it, and you have been the most stabilising influence throughout Europe ever since. And now you leave us?’ It is the aspect of betrayal that hurts. It is now an embarrassment to be English in France, and I loathe that feeling. No matter what the French, or other Europeans have done, historically, I thought, and they thought, we were better than that. And now what for my country, without European legislation; what might you offer for the protection of our last, fragile, ultimately precious environment?
Rachel, it’s not ‘Silent Spring’… Close, but not yet. How has this season on a restructured river Eden been possible? We have watched the hatches develop and the immense numbers of trout kissing away the bounty; throughout the age-ranges, with giants among them. Large and medium dark olives, coinciding with phenomenal shows of March browns (the best I have ever witnessed, anywhere); then iron blues and medium olives, a peppering of large brook duns, a blitz of danicas, olive uprights and yellow Mays, and, the hint of pale wateries and spurwings, building towards a seasonal crescendo. On some days, many days, I have counted six different species of up-wing, hatching simultaneously, along with grannom caddis and various stoneflies, none of which have entertained the trout – not on my waters anyway – and falls of aphids, midges, black gnats and hawthorns, which often have.
I have seen feeding with abandon, and then extraordinarily subtle and pre-occupied feeding, the latter always to the smallest food-forms that are available. The banks have bloomed, covering the scars of agricultural abuse; nature fighting back as only she can, smothering something so ugly, so destructive, and a unique function of our shameful species. And, oh, what trout, on the Appleby waters and elsewhere. I have often referred to Eden as a miracle of a river (thanks in the most part not to how we look after it in conservation terms, which is pathetic, but to very high annual rainfall and the large catchment, by English standards) although never before has this seemed more appropriate. I don’t think there can be the possibility of a ‘finer’ trout river in England, not now if ever there was, at least on such a large scale. Sometimes this season, I have struggled to think of anywhere in Europe that surpasses Eden.
Perhaps I am too close to it, too consumed, too overwhelmed with its survival amidst ferocious forces that contrive to degrade it. Perhaps it is an odd type of love, that’s all: a love of something that is so intrinsically valuable in the natural order of things. Or maybe it is because here is a rare place that, in the greater scheme of things is actually still worth something in England, persisting, 70-odd years since our last defining moment of true greatness in the measure of world history. Or, you might think it’s just me, the way I am. If so, it doesn’t really matter. But if I’m right, it does. It just does.
The ranunculus, one of the ESAC designated protected species, has almost gone, like the lampreys and the Atlantic salmon, like the spring gentian on the high limestone. Up on the feeders, and a few reaches of the main river which somehow escaped the scouring of flood waters, it persists. Given decent rain, it will grow and spread downstream. I have found some on the beck up near Asby and more downstream at Rutter Falls, so it really will come back. That scouring swept so much silt from the system, cleansing the river stones and gravels, a Carthesis. Except for that nitrate from the farms, and the algae, now dyed back under the extraordinarily sunny weather (non-typical in Europe this spring), robbing the invertebrates of a healthy river-bed habitat. The danicas will be alright, of course, because they have silt-burrowing nymphs, so everyone will think everything is fine; but the spurwings, iron blues and blue winged olives, the real benchmarks of a healthy river? Well, Eden has taken the ghastly agricultural abuse this long, and yet managed to nurture some of the most rarified river habitat surviving in England.
The trout fishing this spring has been as good as I can ever remember it, banishing the fears we had after the floods. Oddly, among three hundred trout, I have not caught a single grayling (on Eden) since the end of their season, and I have heard of very few being caught. It is typical of this time of year, during the spawning season, that they are scarce to the angler, but one always seems to catch a few out-of-season fish? There were enough around after the floods, in winter, so we are not particularly worried. Like the ranunculus, they will probably come back in plenty, and much sooner.
The rain stopped, some time in early May, and the river flow rapidly dwindled (another product of agriculturalisation and ruthless landscape exploitation by a minority). As I write this, it is almost as low as I have ever seen it, and there are long sections which are little more than still, stagnant pools, with feeble run-ins. Heaps of trout though; cruising about on the surface, mopping up tiny food forms such as aphids, micro-caddis and spurwing emergers, occasionally attacking the ever-increasing danicas. It looks like play – the little trout dashing about, sometimes among the gravels of the shoreline, where there is almost no water, and usually missing their targets. Fascinating fishing; you can be locked on a pod of fish, which can be dozens within casting range (then again, the giants are always by themselves, in beautiful, protected lies), and do everything just about perfectly, so you think, only for them to take no notice whatsoever. You can watch the different-sized fish, ranging from 8” up to beasts nudging two feet, and can spend so long at it that you begin to recognise individuals, the subtle differences in their feeding manner and the way they patrol. It reminds me of still water days, all those years ago.
Typically, you catch a fish immediately, and then, even though fish continue to show, they are different. They don’t look spooked, but they are. So, you have to up your game, or move. I love it like this, although I do miss the more obvious vitality that higher, faster water brings to the river. Now, you have to observe properly, analyse, move like a hunting cat. Funny how my tired, old joints that normally rebel painfully during other forms of exercise are now no more than background, an awareness which just makes me move more slowly, and, in fact, more like a predator. You know how I always say that fly fishing involves using one’s whole body. The best river anglers (and this really is just a handful) I have known do this so beautifully; they engage the river, becoming a part of it, rather than something that disturbs it.
After all that easing into position, the stealth, and the observation, all it takes is one cast. Why should it need more? More is inefficient. More is noise. I am using the 10’ #2 with the Sunray dry fly line (Tom calls it ‘my’ line, but he’s the technical genius; I’m the fly fisher), also a #2, and 0.10mm tippet. Inevitably, it is the plume tip, in a 21, and very sparse, ephemeral. Simple again.
We are still hearing so much about long leaders and tippets, and elaborate casting techniques, much of it nonsense. Some are obsessed by tenkara, or what is fashionably referred to as Italien-style casting. We hear about pragmatic five and six weights with tapered leaders, cast on short, stiff rods. And there are those who go further, into the domain of true two weights, even lighter, but are still hung up on elaborate leaders. It is all just a hangover from how things used to be, with due deference to the western uptake of the fixed leader approach, tenkara. We used to have to rely on the extremes of thick PVC fly lines and French-style leaders. Extremes, that were always just compromises. Evolutionary steps. Now we have the Sunray micro-thin lines, the status quo has changed. The game has changed. Anglers are going to take a while coming away from the conventional fly line mentality, which necessitates the use of a long tapered leader/tippet, just to place the fly far enough away from the disturbance of thick fly line. But it will change, inevitably. With the micro-thin lines, it is like having a built-in leader and you need no taper in the tippet whatsoever, just upwards of 3’ to a maximum of a rod length of level tippet directly from the loop of the line tip. The more inclement the conditions, the shorter the tippet; though this is an oversimplification of what’s going on. Length of tippet has an enormous effect on presentation. So, I’m just talking generally here. It’s not something one thinks about, really, or should need to think about. Instead, just adopt, subliminally, the right length of tippet for the moment, though this is always shorter than anyone can get away with using a conventional line.
And in truth, I most commonly use the tippet that was left on the line at the end of yesterday’s session 🙂 Start with that loop on the line tip and add a section of tippet (via loop-to-loop) that you think you can manage in the conditions, and don’t worry if it seems a bit short. If you’re using a Sunray, it probably won’t matter at all, even on wild fish, particularly on wild fish, which are the only fish that really matter.
I’m back on the French chalk streams soon, and different fish, different wild fish, although with the same universal – well European – approach, which is as far as I want to go. It’s not that I want to leave Eden, this magnificent river. I have seen the miracle bloom, but I should not stay to see it collapse.
It has been a generally cool, even cold, spring so far, as we come to the end of April, though interrupted by lovely days when it has been a pleasure to be out, by the water. The French chalk streams and Eden have been wonderful, after the fears (on Eden) we had back in the winter, with tremendous hatches of large darks and March browns (the best I have ever seen for this species) and latterly for iron blues, and the trout feeding reliably on them all. Nature is remarkable, surviving, no matter what our species does to it. When we’ve finally gone, when the Anthropocene is extinguished, will the living surface of the planet bounce back into a new garden, like it must have been before the homo sapiens era? There is still upwards of four billion years, before the evolution of our star to red giant phase, for this to happen. Anyway, right now the river is a lovely place to be and, weather notwithstanding, the fish are looking upwards now, towards the easy targets on the surface, particularly the up-wings. So it is dry fly all the way, or to be more precise, for me it is the plume tip.
A lot of people have asked me about the plume tip, for an accurate tying description. Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine covered it some time ago, but I can probably simplify from that. Here is the point. It is, finally, so very simple, which is what dry fly fishing itself should always be. Actually, it is the simplest form of fly fishing that exists, even though there are those who have claimed otherwise, particularly among the traditional English school. But the truth is in that simplicity – of the technique and the fly. I recently started a blog on the new Sunray website, and have given the tying description there. It seems the right place to put it, because, frankly, what I refer to as the ‘ultimate refinement’ in our sport, is that beautiful combination of a Sunray Presentation Line (PL), on a very soft rod (and by this I mean a ‘true’ two weight, or lighter), a short tippet and a plume tip. Before the PL, this was compromised, because we just had to make do with French leader constructions or conventional, thick PVC lines. And before the plume tip, I never really understood it. So, if you want a tying description, do link to the Sunray blog. One day, I’ll publish a sequence of photos, or even a video, of the tying, but as with the finished result of the fly, the tying is extremely simple. Once you have tied a few dozen, and fished them, you will learn the subtleties and nuances of proportion and use of the sparse materials, such as they are.
Anyway, they are looking upwards now, dancing upwards, and this is not only the joy of the season, but the ultimate joy in the entire sport, I think.
This valley in a forgotten corner of England: After catching the cusp of grayling and trout seasons in France, I came back to a restructured river, large dark olives, March browns, and trout. Magnificent trout; typical Eden stunners. Actually, I experienced the best hatch of MBs I have ever witnessed, anywhere, and I was astonished by this, after the ferocious winter floods. They came off along with plenty of LDOs, and the trout were completely focused on the abundance, swimming right up into the fast water to intercept this rare bounty. Wonderful to experience this – I mean, if March browns are surviving in the system, and significant numbers of wild trout, it cannot all be bad. Also, the river bed itself, though massively changed, is scoured of the silt and detritus that had built up over the years. There are now massive new gravel shoals and bars. and though the trout (and grayling) are not necessarily in their old haunts – because these might not exist anymore – they are certainly where you would expect them to be, particularly on the foam and feed lanes. And when the March browns are hatching, you will find the trout right up on the fast water, intercepting the flies before they have the chance to drop onto calmer water. Curiously, both my recent visits have featured trout exclusively. I know the grayling are there, because of the respectable winter catches we had, but they seem to have disappeared, probably preparing for spawning. This is typical at this time of year, and we should be hopeful for a successful spawning for this species, because it probably was not very successful for trout and salmon, hammered by the flood waters. On this note, I did also notice some minnow shoals up at Sandford, so if this tiny fish has managed to survive the floods, I don’t think we need worry about trout and grayling. Nature is so miraculously adaptive. I wonder, though, about the ranunculus, because there seems almost none at all in the river wherever I have been, and precious little up on the feeder becks. It will come back, of course, but I wonder if ever again in such abundance as we used to have throughout the system. You never know, though. For all the abuse this river suffers at the hand of man, and the natural (well, sort of) affects of flood and drought, it adapts, changes, and ultimately survives, supporting magnificent trout like this.Contrasts: I wanted to visit a small tree planting (now eight years old) up on the edge of the common above Blencarn, so Ellie and I ran up there (in truth, Ellie ran, while I stumbled along after her). Disturbed to see a lot more tractor and quad bike tracks gouged into the ground than I remember, I was relieved to see, at least, that the trees are doing so well, now properly established in this one, tiny fragment of protected Eden upland. So, we travelled on, up towards Cross Fell and I became increasingly depressed. Everywhere in this – what should be preserved, cherished, limestone upland – was evidence of agricultural interference, to the point of widespread degradation, even destruction. This is looking back towards the Eden Valley: Tractors have pulverised the area, while sheep, in huge numbers, have converted it to a kingdom of grass. Even within three miles of the summit of Cross Fell within the Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the wild has gone from the place, and it is all so comparatively recent. This is nitrate fertiliser spilled on the common! This, and tractors, and sheep, spell annihilation for most indigenous species that should be here. Understand that this is what DEFRA refer to as ‘severely disadvantaged’ country, which is a farm-friendly way of saying that agriculture is completely unsustainable here. It is too high, too cold, too north, too fragile, and so impossibly valuable in the scheme of English landscape, and yet… Very high up the Crowdundle beck, at a distance of four miles from Cross Fell peak, we found a protected section where there has been considerable planting, but like the field at Blencarn, it is so little against the overwhelming forces which are destroying the wild environment on such a scale. So much of it is like this:So, it was a relief to come down back into the valley. Damage enough down here, but the dilution effect and the scale of river means that there is more habitat that is less affected by the forces that are wrecking the uplands. I did not have a good hatch and did not even see a March brown. In fact, I walked a mile of river before I saw a rise, here:
Good enough for me that day. Indeed, I saw only one other rise, but left it, uncast. Time to go home and come to terms with these contrasts.
In northern France, the end of the grayling season and the beginning of a trout season. Magical journey continues. This is la Ternoise: a surviving, and improving, chalk stream, at Tilly Capelle. We started the new trout season here. Wojtek with streamer, me with nymph. This is Wojtek’s first trout; so typically Ternoise, so like a young sea-trout.Before we moved on to the Aa to find the last of the season’s grayling, and the possibilities beginning with dry fly.High waters, stained, and very cold. Cold air too, with north-easterlies, and the trout were not very active, even when the LDOs hatched, while the grayling saved the day. Ouve Wirquin and then Wavrans.Sparse hatches and, in truth, grayling feeding more reliably on nymph, on Hydros, though the PTN jig scored most heavily for me.Cold, and so beautiful. So full of promise. Early spring, before it arrives in England.And it’s a journey, right, so we went south, to the Normandy beaches. This is Sword, where the British landed in 1944 at the beginning of Overlord, grasping Europe back from tyranny and evil.And Juno – combined British and Canadian landing point.So peaceful now. 70-odd years ago, it was not like this. A different sort of beginning. A couple of weeks later, after this photo; Brussels, and we find ourselves, our Europe, pulverised by atrocity again.
How is it that one of the most abused rivers in England survives, and more, thrives; hosting some of the best of nature that still lives in this environmentally-troubled country? I have had several tentative trips out on the river this year, exploring on the Appleby waters, up and downstream of the town, and have marvelled at the nature I have seen here, including the fish that still exist, in spite of the decades of agricultural devastation and the recent unprecedented scale of floods. The beautiful river is still there, and though one has to close one’s eyes to the bank-side debris that the floods have deposited, you still recognise it as one of England’s loveliest rivers. On such a large scale. The structure has changed, in some places considerably. There are huge gravel and stone deposits where they were small before, or absent. There are boulders and bars and river forms in new positions, and reformed islands, vast scoured areas where the banks have been stripped away because of the past folly of removal of trees in a bid to obtain more land for grazing, or direct access to the river for cattle and sheep.
I am a fly fisher again, on new territory, and it is exciting. Fished tenkara with a double nymph rig (12 jig on point with 14 Hydro jig on dropper, just 30cm up-tippet).Not really old haunts, because they are so different now, mostly – so just re-adjusted to the new river on Holme Farm stretch. And where you would expect grayling to be, well, they are there, and not only the comparatively big fish that I found last month, but an encouraging number of the ‘bread and butter’ 30cm fish, two to three year old fish that are the river’s staple for the next few years. And here’s a curious thing: there is a lovely glide a hundred metres long upstream of the big island (which is different now) where there is always a stunning mix of trout and grayling, throughout the year-groups, and, notwithstanding subtle changes of structure, today I noticed a substantial hatch of dark olives, and not a single fish rising at them, which was initially disturbing, particularly as the first thirty metres or so failed to produce a take. Finally, though, the line hesitated, and I tapped into the first trout of the day, right under the olive drift line, and this was followed by two more. Upstream, too, where the olives were coming off the fast water, were also trout. Lovely, lean beasts, and wild; only one with the typical spring leeches (which I removed), and all in good condition. And get this – every single fish, trout or grayling, took the Hydro on the dropper, other than one trout, and this was the smallest fish I caught, which snaffled away the orange-thorax jig.It tickles me, thinking of all those fly fishers who would approach this water with fashionable nymphs and jigs in various shocking colours and high-tech materials, and even squirmies (what is the point?), and yet, finally, for truly wild fish, in clear water, we just have to show them impressions of what is out there in the river. This does it for me, anyway. This, and the absence of trophy pics. Honestly, brothers, we all know what wonderful fly fishers you are. No need to grab, grip and pic every fish you catch, or any of them. A quick snap before you twist the hook out is enough, isn’t it? I mean, give them a chance. Hold them like you see them on FB etc, and really, you think they survive? Beyond 24 hours, no, not that many. Don’t fool yourselves. Any air time beyond thirty seconds is fatal, for a salmonid. Any holding in the belly region, particularly close to the gills (heart), nearly always causes catastrophic anatomical damage. I know it is the fashion of the times, exacerbated by the social media. But, really, it is not cool, and in ten years hence will be seen as thus, and probably much worse. So do yourself, and us, and the sport, a favour. Think about it. Just don’t touch them and get them back into the stream.
It is a month now since the huge floods and I have been out a few times, searching for surviving grayling. A great amount of damage has been done, almost exclusively where trees have been previously removed in a misguided, and horrifically common, attempt by the land-owner to acquire a little more grazing and access to the river for sheep and cattle. The banks in such places have been massively eroded and scoured. All the resulting silt has been swept downstream to collect in the lower river (calling for the ubiquitous requests for the river to be dredged) and the Solway. I have caught on each occasion I have been out, but this has been exclusively of big fish (the smallest was a 33cm grayling). There remains concern about the damage to the juvenile fish population of both species. I have heard that a lot of dead fish, and crayfish, have been found in a few locations, principally on fields that were flooded around Appleby. We suspect, therefore, that catches this year might be a little lean compared with the last few years, although some fish of exceptional size should feature – and these fish will spawn, of course. So too will it rain heavily again, to produce an increasing number of floods. With climate change and upstream catchment destruction (which has been catastrophic) of the Eden, all that water is going to produce long-term instability resulting in habitat (and flooding) problems. We will get used to it, I guess, and more importantly, so mostly will the wildlife, which will adapt to the new rhythm of altered nature. It is either that or repair and recovery via massive reforestation of the denuded uplands, and we all know that is not going to happen. The Eden, though, is a miracle on the English scale of things. I know I have said this before, though I hope not ad nauseam, but the entire system is so large that it (or rather the wildlife) has managed to adapt such that it remains one of England’s finest natural spaces, albeit altered by, particularly, the last four decades of human activity (aka farming); but then where in this over-crowded country has escaped any better?
While I have seen large dark olives on each occasion, I have only seen two rises (on the same day while out with Stuart Minnikin) and it has been the nymph that has caught the fish, which is no surprise. Western-style, with the 10′ Streamflex and Sunray PL two weight, or tenkara with the 3.9m Motive, has made no difference with a double nymph rig. Though actually, the tenkara is simpler while affording better control, as typical for winter grayling, so I have leaned towards this. As the days lengthen and we creep into the trout season, however, that will change. The ultimate refinement of the 10′ two weight, with PL line, is frankly unbeatable, particularly with dry fly at range (>10m) and big, fast moving brown trout. But for now it’s double nymph at short range and the grayling, and a few out-of-season trout. They are extremely localised, with long sections of river apparently devoid, although this is often the way in winter. I am looking forward now to exploring farther downstream, which because of the increasing force of water might be expected to have been more damaged. I hope we find grayling there, and trout when the new season opens in late March. Even before, because if the trout are feeding, well post-spawning as they are, this is a good indication of the health of the population. With trout like this, at least in the upper river, there is hope (caught high upstream on 13th Jan):
Still two months to go before the new trout season, although we hardly miss it with good grayling fishing, which we have. I think it is the dry fly fishing that most of us miss the most, and this will surely come. I always find myself thinking about this a lot as the winter wears on; there comes that moment when we notice that there are way more rises than usual, or just more olives on the surface, when we suddenly have the need, the overwhelming urge, to change the duo rig, or nymph rig, and replace it with the simplicity of a plume tip and let it drift down the foam lane… From that moment on, usually some time in early April, if not March, we know that the fish, both species, are spending an ever-increasing time looking upwards towards the light and the surface, and hatching flies. We all, well most of us, can enjoy the winter with nymph, and the beautiful grayling, but we live for the long, long season of dry fly. The season opens earlier in France than on Eden, by two weeks, and I have this little personal challenge, a delight really, of the first dry fly captures of the year. Will it be in England or France that the first plume tip of the year is snaffled away? Soon, I’ll know.