For obvious reasons, the first stillwater fly fishing trip of spring 2o21 has been as hotly anticipated as any in recent memory! It feels like a small age since I tackled up on any large reservoir, let alone a venue as special as Wimbleball Lake. With friends giving the place rave reviews, I couldn’t wait to return. And if that wasn’t appealing enough, I would also have a long-awaited chance to catch up with friends, not to mention a behind-the-scenes look at how and where the trout of this much-loved Exmoor venue come from.
Rainbows by the thousand!
It had been an unseasonably cool morning on the journey up to Exmoor, complete with road closures and random diversions down the back roads. But eventually I hit Rainbow Valley Fish Farm. It was there I met the trip’s instigator Wayne Thomas, who runs the must-read North Devon Angling website and is very much an all-rounder after my own heart. Also joining us for a fish and a quick tour was Jeff Pearce, who is another mad keen fly fisher and Wimbleball regular.
Before we tackled up, however, there was an unusual opportunity to explore the fishery and its famous rainbows from a different angle. Fish farmer, angler and current fishing boss at Wimbleball Mark Underhill (above) was on hand to give us a fascinating little window into the world of producing quality trout for various fisheries. Nor is quality just PR talk in this case- because the fish here are truly in mint condition!
Indeed, part of the continual challenge for an operation like Rainbow Valley is turning out fish that are beautifully marked and full-finned. This is in total contrast to farming purely for maximum yield at all costs, not least of all because anglers want fit, fully-finned trout and not the equivalent of battery hens with fins.
The accountants don’t always agree with the genuine fishery managers on this score, it must be said! However, this is why Mark and his team’s stocking densities are anything up to an astonishing ten times lighter than those of other commercial fish farms (and the less said about salmon farms the better).
Of course, it’s always great to see trout up close and personal in different sizes, not to mention the dramatics of feeding time. Other details were equally interesting, such as the use of an enclosed stream area where fish get a sort of gym workout by dealing with steady flows for a while, prior to release in venues like Kennick, Rutland and of course Wimbleball. Next time you get those heart-stopping fireworks from a hooked fish, spare a thought for the hard work of Mark and his staff.
That said, there is also still a market for quality trout as food – and among the less obvious clients include England’s orthodox Jews, who make big orders of fresh trout as they mark Passover each year.
The other aspects that surpise the visitor are the other hidden details that emerge at a fish farm. One is the mystery of how other species get into stock ponds. With screenings to protect salmon smolts and wild trout from getting mixed up in proceedings, it’s a curious fact that other species still magically appear.
Besides perch occasionally seeming to come from nowhere (birds’ feet?), eels are a constant factor. Expecting this to mean the odd bootlace, I was astounded to hear that up to a hundred pounds of eels can be found when a pool no bigger than a tennis court is drained, including some as thick as your wrist! All carefully sent on their way, because Mark Underhill has a real soft spot for these fascinating creatures.
It was a great little detour to whet our appetite for the fly fishing anyway- especially as we spied some absolutely whopping rainbows and even a pool of fabulous-looking blue trout before hitting the road.
Whatever your view on stocked fish, this industry is vital to angling and it takes graft and experience to make any sort of living. And with more and more farms closing, I’ve already told Mark that he is forbidden from retiring because should he do so a lot of fisheries would be struggling to find their next batch of fish!
Tackling up on Wimbleball
Out on the banks of Wimbleball half an hour later, the lake felt decidedly chilly, thanks to the dominant northerly winds and recent frosty nights. Never mind that, though, I was so pleased to be back I could have run around in Bermuda shorts. Even more so at recent catch reports of cracking trout and excellent numbers of 4-5lbs fish and bigger!
Also joining us was my boat partner for the day, Charles Halliday, who runs the Fishwish angling coaching business. As a fellow coach who also enjoys a highly varied fishing diet, we’d discussed a meet-up for what seemed like years, covid further delaying an overdue day out.
Without further ado, we headed up to the Western arm, flies at the ready. I was a bit torn between naturals and bright flies, so decided on a team of three, mix and match style. I began with a Kennick Killer on the point, along with two Diawl Bachs on droppers. Bright flies definitely work here- but then so do naturals, especially if you want to find the resident browns (which can grow to impressive sizes!). With buzzers coming off regularly from the get-go, I quite fancied a small Diawl Bach.
My leader was a good 18ft, with 7lb fluorocarbon to the flies. Sensible, when you consider the next bite could just as easily be a five-pounder as a fish half that size, and Wimbleball’s fish are famed for temper tantrums that would rival Piers Morgan.
At the far end, up at Ruggs (there’s a good map of the fishery on the website to get familiar with the various hotspots!) anglers from the bank were already casting and I fancied the bushy parts where I’ve caught by kayak previously, as has Charles. Incidentally, we’d toyed with bringing ‘yaks on this occasion- but feeling the water temperature (and having a brief moan about the state of our backs on cold days) we were quietly relieved we’d not done so. To be fair, we got cold enough over the hours without any paddle sports, our body temperatures saved by rations of coffee and chocolate bars.
Fortune favours the flukey
It took a little while for the fishing to get going, it must be said. No surprise with such a cold snap overnight, and it was only after a move perhaps 300 yards back along the shore we found some fish. Jeff had the first smash and grab take, on a damsel I believe. He and Wayne have had some excellent fish on this lake with flies like Black Tadpoles and the more natural end of the streamer box- including some gorgeous and powerful overwintered fish. I’m guessing these must be snacking on coarse fish fry as well as the big buzzer hatches.
I was then next, having struggled early on. Fortuitously for me, I stumbled on the right fly and retrieve quite by accident. I’d just switched to a yellow Kennick Killer and had cast out, only to get distracted and put the rod on my lap. Seconds later, with the fly barely moving, my leader pulled tight and I had a fish on that fought like fury! It was a stunning rainbow of about three pounds; and I then suspected I’d been fishing my flies too quickly.
It was the start of what was to be a very lucky day for me. I don’t say that with any false modesty- because I probably should have bought a lottery ticket, such was my fortune. Charles had drawn the opposite hand, it seemed. Every bite I had seemed to stick and stay hooked, while his fish somehow wrestled themselves off (even though he was clearly paying closer attention than I was with that first fish!).
Never mind- at least fish were now showing and hopes were lifting. On any fishing trip, you need those first signs of life to believe in what you’re doing. We found the fish quite near the bank and ended up anchoring rather than drifting. Jeff and Wayne were also getting some pulls, but the lure of the craggier areas further up the lake, and the chance of a big brown trout got the better of them I think! You can’t blame them when there are such stunning fish present- and these specimens respond well to imitative flies.
Meanwhile, every time I suggested a move, we’d get another hit or spot a fish. My next one was one of the most perfect rainbow trout I think I’ve ever caught. Even though I’d seen exactly where it had originated the same morning, it looked like a wild fish, such was the gorgeous patterning on it, with dense spots and fabulous colours. It took a Kennick Killer.
It almost seemed a shame to take it for dinner, but actually, when I need pictures and detail shots of a trout, including spot patterns, fins or close-ups of a fly in the jaw etc, it doesn’t seem right to mess around for too long with this brittle species. Hence I would rather take a fish or two for the table so that I can do the humane thing and then get some extra shots. Luckily, Charles had a priest with him, because the only semi-suitable tool I had in my bag was this random screwdriver- and I didn’t want to look like a psychopath!
Talking of mental instability, we also had a great, lengthy discussion about the crazy era of social media and a year of on-off lockdown. We both probably needed a serious stint of putting the world to rights, after so many months of stress, strangeness and cabin fever! It’s always a relief to be able to speak candidly to another angler who you find sane and civilised, I must say.
Among the many things we chewed over was age and fishing- along with the fast pace of modern life and the clamour to share everything from your breakfast to every last catch. There are definite benefits to getting a bit older and reaching middle age, when it comes to enjoying angling in its fullest, beyond the mere cut and thrust of just catching target species or big fish. Sometimes that means just pouring a coffee, talking with a friend and just taking in the view. Which is exactly what we did.
One thing we’re both looking forward to immensely this season is taking youngsters fishing again. Like me, Charles is a qualified coach who does a lot of this each season, in his case delivering fishing lessons through his FishWish setup. He teaches a heck of a lot of anglers in the Bristol and Bath area each year- and still gets a huge buzz from seeing anglers catch their first fish or master a new method.
Even taking our time, a few bites kept coming, too. Much as I’d love to tell you we caught on buzzers and Diawl Bachs, it was very much the bright flies they seemed to want. Eventually, I used a blob on the top dropper, too, and it was either this or the yellow Kennick Killer that caught almost every fish. As lovely as they were, and one looked every inch of five pounds, we decided to keep the next three fish wet and not boat them at all, so that they’d have maximum chance of survival.
In the end, it took us a while to catch up with Jeff and Wayne, who had gone right up to the far end of the lake, which looked incredibly fishy. Like us, they weren’t exactly catching a fish a minute, but there were enough pulls to keep things entertaining- and as I clipped on a zoom lens, Jeff hooked an acrobatic fish right on cue!
Great stuff- and to think that this was a relatively slow day on the lake, due to a week of harsh northerly winds! Actually, I continued to feel supremely lucky. I can’t remember the last day of fly fishing when literally every pull led to a hooked fish and not one came adrift until I flipped out the fly. I just hope I haven’t used up all my luck in one go.
As the day wore on, the trickiest bit of the day was going to be calling it quits. Especially as we found a nice semi-sheltered spot on the way home, where a big wind lane had formed and we could see fish picking off buzzers at the surface. Again, in theory it should have been time to make hay with finer nymphs. In reality, we had a frustrating last 40 minutes or so and no more fish to show.
In our defence, time was already running out and the fish were pickier than they looked. Hindsight is a wonderful thing I guess, but I also feel that I might have picked one or two off by freshening up the leader. As suitable as 7lb fluorocarbon looks in a steady breeze with a size 10 blob, calmer water demanded more delicate gear, I suspect. What I probably should have done was retie the end of the leader and droppers with low diameter 4-5lb line and try a smaller emerger buzzer.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles, though, and in a funny way it’s nice to have unfinished business and another tactic to work on for next time. I could have stayed another hour or two very happily, but home was calling and there is something to be said for quitting while you’re happy and still on speaking terms with the wife.
On reflection, all four of us had had an enjoyable day out. And while the fishery wasn’t on fire, even a cold spring day had produced some wonderfully conditioned fish, along with some hopes and plans for next time. Indeed, there’s still so much to come- whether that’s cracking buzzer fishing or nicking fish on beetle imitations. What a great venue- and how brilliant to see it back to its status as one of the very best places to go stillwater fly fishing in South West England.
Spring on the streams and canal
My only other current news on the fly fishing front is to report that things are back to semi-normal with covid restrictions lifting and bookings able to go ahead! I’ve had some lovely little sorties on local streams here in Devon- and my first guest of the season had a fabulous foot long brownie on a small Exe tributary!
Most years, I would have stopped pike fly fishing by this stage to give these fragile fish a break. This year, however, the winter-like weather has meant added time on the shallower canals and other waters free from close season restriction- and while they’ve been a little moody, the odd toothy customer has also joined the game fish.
Last but not least, talking of the close season, you can also read about my recent day out with police and EA staff on the River Exe and Exeter Canal on the Lines on the Water blog HERE. A timely reminder to renew your licence if you’ve yet to do so!
Tight lines and happy spring fishing!