“It’s absolutely stunning, and hardly anyone is fishing it!” -How often do you hear those words these days? Whether it’s the lack of foreign travel, or simply the current surge in interest around fishing, so many rivers and lakes are busier than ever. So, you can forgive my ears for pricking up about the River Lyn.
It sounded too good to be true from the off. Over three miles of wild fly fishing, set across the epic boulder-strewn East Lyn River. It’s a slightly longer drive than Dartmoor or the River Teign, it has to be said- which are much more popular destinations.
Do most visitors want comfort first and a short walk these days? Or do they simply steam down the M5 and forget about North Devon altogether? It’s strange, because if you want wilder surroundings and a really authentic experience of my home county, the north is much more unspoiled and less crowded than the south these days.
It took us around an hour and a half from Exeter. It’s not a quick journey, but it is a beautiful one- and if you Check out the National Trust site for more details, including a map and ticket outlets you’ll find all the directions and info you need. Barbrook Filling Station (EX35 6PF) is as simple as anywhere to get a day ticket, which is only a fiver!
Heading north with me was my friend Alex Sproson, who I owed a day’s fishing after his recent birthday. Having spent the summer totally addicted to fishing on Dartmoor, I was confident it would be up his street to try some fly fishing at the top of Exmoor! It had already been a good call to pick a weekday and get up early, because the car park above Watersmeet, was completely empty.
With a steep path down to the river, it was time to set up for the day as lightly as possible. When you’re hopping across boulders and racing water in a rocky gorge, you don’t want any sign of the kitchen sink- one fly box and a few bits will do nicely, thanks.
We settled on a rod each with two quite different setups in the end. Both were 7′ 6″ three weights, one with a dry fly and the other with a nymph and indicator combo. I already hoped the fish would be free rising and that the former would see most of the action. That said, I did also consider a 10ft 4 weight rod to try longe leader and heavy nymphs- but you can’t take everything.
Right from the off, we knew it was going to be a special place to fish. The setting, for starters, is as dramatic as anything Dartmoor can throw at you. Lying at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge, the water has power, pace and endless variety. First and foremost, there are endless boulders and pocket water areas, for those who love to try a bigger dry fly. There are also smooth, shallow to mid-depth runs- and much deeper spots for heavy nymphs or even a streamer. Suffice to say, you’ll find a lot to enjoy, regardless of your favourite tactic.
For us, that started with the dry fly. An Elk Hair Caddis or Hare’s Ear Emerger rode the pockets and turbulent stuff beautifully. But apart from a couple of tiny fish, we couldn’t really get them going until the afternoon. So, it was a case of using a simple nymph plus indicator set up just to get an early bend in the rod. Virtually the first little run we came across produced the goods with a sinking fly, in fact, with a fish that bent the three-weight like a fish twice its size.
Off the beaten trail
What a beautiful river the East Lyn is. It was hard not to stop at every single pool and bend. Not that this is easy access fishing. There are gentler spots, for sure, but who wants to only fish in gentle pools used by dog walkers?
No, a big part of the charm of such a river is scrambling over rocks and getting stuck in, so you can fish those seldom-touched spots and have the illusion, at least, that the river is all yours for an hour or three.
It’s so bouldery and prehistoric-looking, too. It feels stuck outside regular time and space altogether and is so spectacularly green and craggy. This is about as close to being in a rainforest as you could get in England.
A mobile approach is definitely the way- although the wading must be done with care in the really steep and rocky bits. It certainly never seemed worth sticking for very long in any location, as we almost always had the take within that first two or three casts in any promising spot.
The simplest catch of the lot was a little plunge pool by a fallen tree- Alex literally plopped a nymph just beyond the rod tip, line zipped away and seconds later we were admiring a gorgeous 8″ fish with big, bold, inky-black spots. As with all our fish, it was barely handled beyond a wet net, and we crushed the barbs on our hooks to make them a little kinder.
We had several tiny fish, too, but it certainly seemed there were good numbers of wild trout in the 8-9″ bracket. No record breakers, but they would win any trout beauty contest going and every one of them was immense fun on light tackle. Nor should we be too quick to repeat the “small but pretty” cliches, because there will no doubt be some bigger ones, too, for the angler who is mobile and determined enough.
It got even better as the sun rose higher and we saw more rises. Even with blazing skies, we were comfortable all day, it must be said, underneath all the lush green leaves of the forest. I’d packed tons of water and sunblock, but we were never overly hot, so well shaded is the river, and the water is ice-cool even on a balmy July day.
It became an addictive couple of hours narrowing in on the many pockets of water amidst the boulders- and soon the nymph was retired in favour of an Elk Hair Caddis. Again a 7′ 6″ 3 weight was used- with a fairly short, pokey 5lb tapered leader, to put up with the rough water and turning over slightly bigger flies (usually a 14).
The rises were dramatic, too: decisive, splashy takes, with many of the trout making their move like it was the last fly they would ever see. In complete contrast to the morning, the fish really got going in the afternoon heat, and we saw lots of caddisflies, as well as small olives and midges present.
Any number of imitations of these flies ought to work, then, but the Elk Hair Caddis was so good (and so easy to pick out) that we only ever needed to change it when we met the occasional slower glide, where a tiny Klinkhamer or olive emerger did the trick.
Never mind a day session, you could spend a week exploring the river here, and still spend less than you might on one day’s reservoir fishing or an afternoon at one of the region’s tourist attractions! Each to their own, I guess.
You can fish it exactly as you please, as well, but for me the genuine highlight was all the “pocket water” and boulders, simply because it feels like such an adventure. I also like the fact that few other anglers bother with these spots. You do need to enjoy rough terrain, admittedly, and you also need that mindset of using bigger flies and getting them into the turbulent bits.
Often, as silly as you might feel, a mere 2-3 seconds of decent presentation at a time is all you can get, but as Alex and I found time and again, that’s all you need if there’s a willing fish there!
This is truly spectacular fishing, a million miles from the chalkstreams- and the brown trout are as wild as any you’ll find in England. They’re certainly varied, from light coloured fish that have countless spots, to darker characters with giant black polka dots.
Another noticeable quirk is that the classic “milky” edge you find on wild trout fins extends well beyond the usual places on these specimens- and a lot have that cream-coloured edge on two or more fins including the dorsal! Yes, I am entering trout fishing anorak territory here, but these fish are truly exquisite.
By the time we had to leave in the evening, it had been a truly exciting and entertaining day’s fishing on the East Lyn with around a dozen trout. We’d definitely had our fill, even though we must have covered less than a third of the entire day ticket fishing here, travelling upstream from Watersmeet.
The only part that still baffles me is that we didn’t see another angler all day. I have no problem with that, of course, but on a wider level it’s important that affordable river fishing like this is used and appreciated! Too many venues remain private or exclusive, period.
We want to keep it after all, so while I wouldn’t want the world and his wife to descend on the Lyn, please do get up there when you get the chance! Again, the map and other resources, along with a list of ticket outlets make life very easy for the visitor. Even with the fiver or so for full day parking, you’ll have an epic day’s fishing for not much more than a tenner!
Should you wish to get some fly fishing tuition along the way, on this or any other venue in Devon and Somerset, do also check out my guided fishing page.
Other possibilities- from Tenkara to sea trout!
One final note on the River Lyn is to mention the other possibilities worth exploring, too. There is so much you could do here, and dry fly fishing for trout is just the start. Many of the rocky, fast sections (i.e. most of the river!) would be a great place to try Tenkara fishing, for example, while Euro Nymphing would work a treat in the deeper pools and runs.
The migratory fish are another exciting prospect. Strangely, I read one slightly shirty online visitor saying that this is definitely not fly water for sea trout and salmon. Having walked the river myself I disagree. Sure, a lot of it is too tight- but explore the whole river and there are some wonderful pools of larger size. You’d have to use a nine or even an eight-foot rod, but have a recce well beyond the access point and you’ll find some places that are easily big enough to swing a fly.
Of course, you could also pack a short spinning rod (single, barbless hooks only please!) or even try a worm, after June 16th. With so much good water here, though, and the infinitely higher risk of deep hooking a fish with a worm, I’m not sure why you’d want to.
Other reading this month…
It only remains for me to say thanks for reading and to look out for some of my other free fishing articles and blogs this month. One recent addition well worth a read is with the Turrall Flies team. We had an interesting recent session with chub on the fly, for one thing, with some surprisingly good sport on a grubby, high river. Check it out HERE.