Angling might be a good way to slow down time- but the seasons seem to fly past ever faster for me these days. At least for 2023 I don’t have any lingering feeling of what could or should have been, because the finale to the river fly fishing season (which runs to 30th Sept for most of England) has been memorable for all sorts of reasons- including some truly special catches, places and people.
Red letter fly fishing on the River Frome
One thing I haven’t done enough of for several seasons is specimen grayling fishing. I absolutely love these fish, but time, distance and costs can be offputting. So when I saved a day in the diary with my older brother and he suggested a trip to the Frome, it was an easy choice.
As idyllic as it is, the day ticket bits of chalkstream can be tricky (www.chalkstreamflyfishing.co.uk has several stretches to consider. They’re always gorgeous, but the fish aren’t silly. And with big grayling quite nomadic, you don’t always know how many you’ll find. On this occasion, though, we were absolutely spoiled. Well, I say that but what I mean is that we saw lots of amazing fish, but were persistent and lucky enough to get a few to take.
There’ll be more on this spectacular, often frustrating branch of fishing in my Angling Times column soon, but suffice to say we got quality if not quantity. My very first fish was a 19.5″ brown trout – which took a size 16 shrimp and went absolutely nuts trying to drag me under the far bank.
Ben Garnett struck next with a superb grayling almost as big as the trout! Again, it took a small, relatively drab nymph. Typical to get beaten by your older brother really- but he has form for this, especially with grayling.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a session in my life where I watched so many large grayling, or had so many refusals! These fish are both a joy and a frustration- so it was a really satisfying end to the day to get the biggest after some two hours of watching, changing flies and tinkering in a single swim late in the day. Again, it was a small, drab shrimp that worked for me. Presumably these fish see a lot of goldheads and other staples, so perhaps subtle is the best way?
As with so much fishing, you can spend hours with no joy, but as quick as the flicking of a switch the fish can start to feed- which is exactly what happened. Tellingly, like the trout, my best grayling fell to the smallest and drabbest of nymph in my box- a tiny shrimp lookalike. And as with the trout, much of the fight was spent with the rod tip underwater to stop it getting under brambles and snags!
River nymph fishing on the East Lyn
Of course, river fly fishing is not always just about smooth waters and large, educated fish. Equally valid is the pursuit of smaller creatures in dramatic, cascading water. This was exactly the prospect for my guest Salman Momen, who was looking forward to a change of scenery from his regular fly fishing. It was my absolute delight to show him the Easy Lyn on Exmoor- which in my opinion has the most spectacular scenery of any trout river in England.
This is not a pretty, gentle river. It is bold, dramatic and unpredictable! Usually I would have no hesitation to try dry flies and a short rod. However, on this occasion we also set up nymphing gear with longer rods- a wise move as it turned out, given high river levels and few rising fish.
I will say this much- I think I learned as much from Salman as he learned from me! His approach to nymphing was both adept and quite fascinating. Like me, he is a tinkerer and not a strict traditionalist. For example, he has no qualms about adding a little shot to his leaders to weight them if the situation demands- and he has a novel way of Euro Nymphing at greater distance doing exactly that to keep in better touch with flies. He also had some neat little rubber rings on his nymph rods, to prevent droppers getting tangled or snagged- a simple but clever idea.
As for the fly choice, I also noted with interest how he combined traditional spiders with modern flashback nymphs. This is so very different to the NZ duo tactics or tiny indicators that tend to be my weapons of choice on Devon’s streams- but for the East Lyn and the strong currents we found, it was absolutely spot on.
The proof of the pudding was in one of the very first favourite spots I took him too. The trout were stacked up off the main current- and I can’t remember the last time in a decade of guiding that a guest caught so many trout from a single pool! I counted six and while they weren’t quite as big as some of the fish he catches from rivers like the Wye and Irfon, he was delighted with their wild beauty. What these fish make up for in pounds, they certainly make up for in the darkest, deepest gold and bronze hues and big, bold spots.
One of the things I love best about the Lyn is the variety of spots. For those who don’t want to scramble down rocks or walk for miles, there are gentler glides and easier locations. But for those who like a bigger adventure and don’t mind boulders or wilder currents, the miles of water around National Trust Watersmeet contain plenty of tempting, lightly fished spots.
The nymphs worked a treat throughout. As much as I wanted Salman to enjoy some dry fly action, only the occasional very small fish came up. It was also fascinating chatting to him on attitudes across the clubs and fisheries he frequents. Even in 2023 there are some strange and surly attitudes to wet fly fishing – and, I was sad to hear, some prejudiced attitudes to fly anglers who aren’t white and doggedly traditional!
I suspect the real reason a minority of the chalkstream brigade might not welcome an absolute gentleman like Sal with open arms is his deadliness with a nymph! I always glean something from a keen angler, and even after forty years of fishing there is something to learn from everyone. However, I can’t remember the last time I took so many notes- or at some stages, wondered who was guiding who, as he generously handed me the rod and insisted we shared the enjoyment.
Given the cool autumn conditions and a river that was several inches higher and faster flowing than usual, it was an extremely productive trip. The best method, by a Devon country mile, however, was swinging two or three nymphs across the current using a 9 or 10 ft rod and no indicator other than the fly line. Many takes were quite subtle- while others were induced as the rod was gently lifted towards the end of the retrieve.
The only slight shame was that we were bang on September 30th, so this was the last chance saloon for trout. But what brilliant fishing and company- and several lessons and ideas I cannot wait to carry into the next season and other scenarios.
Never mind- these days there is rarely any time of year when something isn’t bang in season, and shortly this will mean perch and pike in my fishing. Watch this space for more news and ideas- or catch me in the Angling Times each week for my “Last Cast” column and other features.