If you had just a day to go fishing and could only pick one venue, where would you start? It’s a tricky question, but one I often have to answer as a fishing guide here in the South West. Ultimately, the answer depends on what you love best. You might want completely wild fishing, or easy access, just as you might want either wild trout, coarse or sea fish.
Budget is also a consideration, of course. And for most of my coaching I want to show people places they can visit again- because while exclusive water is lovely, it’s not ideal if you can only fish it with a guide or after coughing up a small fortune. Luckily enough there are plenty of angling clubs and fisheries that understand this, even if a few are still like the Freemasons!
The period from late spring to summer is one where you’re spoiled for choice here in Devon and Somerset. Some of my guests love a proper “off the beaten trail” experience; but these days I also get many requests for coarse fishing and venues suitable for complete beginners and kids. So where do we start?
Well, there’s a rich variety to try, so I’m going to discuss three fly fisheries and two coarse venues in this blog. Should you want a helping hand with these or any other fisheries, you can always drop me a line or book a guided session. I am fully qualified, licenced and first aid trained. As an ex-teacher I’m also really passionate about getting more kids fishing, and all ages and tastes are very welcome indeed here in the South West, whether you’re a keen angler or a complete beginner.
Dartmoor fly fishing
During the summer months, Dartmoor National Park is among the most spectacular places to go fly fishing in Devon. I first fell in love with it back in 1990 on a school trip, and have been coming back ever since. Unsurprisingly, it’s an area I deliver a lot of fly fishing lessons each year. Granted, it can get busy with picnickers in summer- but there’s always space if you’re willing to walk. It also has the benefit of being quite varied. You can find gentle, easy wading and lots of space to cast if you like, but you can also go hopping between boulders or explore miles of rugged river.
Perhaps best of all in the heat of summer is to get active and fish the more challenging bits. Spots like the boulder-strewn Hexworthy, or even taking a good walk up the tiny Cherry Brook are especially good shouts at present. The access points can still produce across most of the moor, but you might have to get up early or stay late to avoid dogs, paddlers and picnickers.
I cannot blame anyone for wanting to enjoy Dartmoor- but they’ll often jump right in or skyline the pool you’re fishing! There’s no point getting angry here, because this brilliant national park is a place that must be shared with everyone.
For full details and fishing maps, you’re best off going to westcountryangling.com for more details (you get a free FIshPass app- and you’ll have to scan this page before you leave home– there are no QR codes on the moor itself). A few old school ticket outlets do exist- but don’t bank on them because they’re very unreliable (most of the listings are inaccurate- sorry, but that’s just the way it is. No day tickets at Postbridge, Two Bridges or Princetown – and yes, I’ve looked high and low).
This year I’ve had anglers of all ages and abilities. Among other highlights, it was my huge pleasure to guide Chicago fly fisher Phil McClusky (above) to some great sport. As an already angler himself, I was eager to show him a really authentic experience of Dartmoor.
I had wondered whether our modest-sized fish and cute streams would pale into insignificance compared to America’s epic rivers- but he instantly got the appeal of moorland fishing. It’s not about huge specimens, but beautiful fish and the sheer atmosphere of the place.
Actually, not all the trout were so tiny, with one or two cracking browns to around 10” giving a great performance on light tackle. The best flies by a country mile this year have been either a Black Klinkhamer or Elk Hair Caddis- both in smaller sizes of 14-18 typically.
Contrasting seasons at Hawkridge Reservoir, Somerset
Another popular fly fishing venue for beginners and intermediate anglers is Hawkridge Reservoir. It’s big enough to be varied and challenging, yet with good access and fish quite close in you stand a great chance even without being able to cast to the horizon. There’s also a helpful and affordable £10 two-fish novice ticket for the newcomer, making starter sessions or lessons quite affordable.
As for this season, though, it has been one of big contrasts. We had vile weather back in spring, for example, but it fished very well. I took Alex Greaves and a gang of friends for a guided fishing trip on this Somerset venue back in May, but part of me wondered if we’d have to call it off.
Just as well they weren’t put off, because so often visitors want picnic weather but dull days perform better! Either way, my group were rewarded for their bravery with several between them- no mean feat for your first crack in blustery conditions! Kennick Killers worked well, but the best fly was Turrall’s Red Diawl Bach.
Fast forward two months and in total contrast, relative newcomer Seb Prior couldn’t have picked more pleasant weather. It was an absolute joy to walk around the lake and peer into the clear water, but the trout seemed lethargic. Even the locals weren’t getting regular pulls, it seemed.
Nevertheless, we had a really productive fly casting lesson on the grass and looked at various successful methods and flies. Seb was casting beautifully and I felt sure he’d catch something- even if it wasn’t a 3lb rainbow trout! At times, it was like an aquarium at the venue- and anyone without a closed mind would love the mix of fish. We saw a big shoal of perch, lots of rudd, the odd jack pike and even a big, dark tench.
As for the trout, it wasn’t for any lack of trying that we struggled. We tried damsels and nymphs and different depths in various spots. But the best spot of all looked like the dam- there were big trout everywhere, perhaps well aware they were safely within the “no fishing” zone!
In the end, though, it was the other species in the lake that really saved the day. After lunch, we’d admired a good shoal of rudd, which had fish all the way from two or three ounces to around a pound. What perfect practice fish these were, too! They were rising readily, but on the move constantly. And with the wind in our faces it was a case of punching the fly out low, so that it touched down just in front of a cruising fish. Get it wrong and the fish just motored off!
The fish had a definite patrol route, however, and kept coming back. On several occasions, Seb got it just right though, landing a Black Klinkhamer or Black and Peacock just in front of the fish, which neatly inhaled it! The first couple were small, but once he got his aim in, we managed to tempt some bigger shoal mates- the best I would guess at not far off the pound mark!
Who cares if these weren’t spotty? They’re gorgeous fish that are as willing takers of flies as any trout. And for Seb it was a thrilling way to catch his first-ever fly caught fish. And while we couldn’t finish with a trout, his casting and fishing skills were getting noticeably better and more confident. Very satisfying for coach and angler alike!
River fly fishing on the Upper Teign at Fingle Bridge
Other fishing locations here in the South West are also utterly beautiful but can get so busy you might avoid them. Fingle Bridge is one that gets a fair bit of traffic, but is still worth exploring! Sometimes if you squint here, you might imagine you were in a rainforest, such are the spectacular, deep gold-green colours. It’s also great to see reasonably priced tickets readily available online with the Upper Teign Fishing Association HERE.
Step one on any hot summer’s day is to get there early and put some distance between you and the picnic spots. Take your pick- going right, you’ll come to slower, deeper pools. Go left for half a mile or so and there are lovely rocky, broken runs.
It was the latter I went for with my recent guest Jerry, who on my recommendation fancied trying some rougher dry fly water. So often, I find the boulders and faster stuff great, especially in summer. Two big reasons for this. First up, in any areas of commotion, the trout are less spooky. You can get closer to them than you would in smooth water- and the hits are anything but subtle!
I also suspect that most folks straight past these straggly, bouldery bits because they’re awkward to fish and a bit less pretty- and beating the crowds is always a consideration where angler numbers are high. You can feel a bit silly aiming for a coffee-table-sized area with rapids all around it- but get the fly in the right spot for just a second or two and you’ll catch a fish. Sometimes this was only possible with a bow and arrow cast (above) which looks daft, but catches lots of fish in tight spots for my guests every season.
Covering water quickly and staying mobile is always a good lesson in any case- because the more you search the more you’ll find on any river. That image of the old angler patiently hanging around one spot all day is about as far from successful fly fishing as you can get.
What a fantastic day we had, too. My guest soon got his eye in and hit the pockets. Many rises were missed- but then again, these wild browns are incredibly fast. We didn’t find any fat stockfish, but no regrets there- personally I think it’s a bit weird to want to put farmed fish into such a lovely wild habitat.
To finish the session, we also did some completely different fishing heading the other way at Fingle Bridge. We had to be patient in the deeper pools, especially with some swimmers out! However, the trout didn’t seem to spook for long- and even where there was noise, within ten minutes they were rising again.
In the end, the slower water fish were very cautious around dry flies. Such is often the case because they get too long to study your leader and your creation on the end of it. Even a tiny black emerger was refused. Finally, though, we broke the deadlock with a trick I’ve long used in slow, deep water.
By tying on a tiny spider pattern (a size 18 Moorland Spider in this case) to 2ft of fine line directly to the bend of the dry fly, we had a very simple way to get a subtler fly down to the fish. Almost instantly, the emerger zipped away, signaling a take. They weren’t all tiny, either, with a lovely plump wildie to round off an excellent day. You can tell these fish a mile off from the stockies from their bolder, denser spots and the anal fin that has a milky edge to it.
Coarse and carp fishing at Spires Lakes, North Devon
Naturally, fly fishing isn’t the only game in town when it comes to learning to fish! I’m getting more and more families learning to fish these days- and for younger kids especially, coarse fishing is the best way to get cracking.
Spires Lakes offers some great fishing near Bow and Okehampton, with two pools to try. And with half a day booked, there would also be some time to have a cast of my own for a bit. Actually, I said there’s more to life than fly fishing, but seeing the sheer numbers of carp and roach on the surface, part of me wished I’d taken a fly rod because they’d have loved a dry fly!
My learners were the Ong family, who were having a quiet family holiday in Devon. The girls took to pole fishing double quick- and by keeping it simple and fishing the margins we had a stack of small perch and the odd roach, too. A good result on a hot day, because a lot of the carp seemed to be spawning.
They took to the basics incredibly well, I have to say. Everything from regular loose feed to striking bites quickly started to become habit- and in no time there were hoots of excitement. A great result for the girls, who had an absolute cricket score of fish on the pole.
There was also time for some of my own fishing, which is always nice. When it’s peak season, you just have to accept as a guide that it’s all about others’ fishing and not your own. But the odd opportunity does arise.
Spires top lake is especially good for carp on the surface through the summer months, and I had a blast with very simple tackle in the end. An Avon rod, 8lb line and dog biscuits were all that was needed.
That said, regular feeding was key, as was using a smallish hook (I immediately got more bites after switching from a 10 to a 14). Not all the fish were small either, with a lovely mid-double the best of the bunch. Nice to be reminded that the coach can catch them as well!
Coarse fishing lessons on the Taunton & Bridgwater Canal, Somerset
My very latest coaching session was something different again- and almost didn’t happen at all! For Glenn and son Hugo, it was a frustrating start as they got caught in horrendous M5 traffic. It happens to the best of us- but at least the canal was pretty once they arrived.
Again, short pole was the method I introduced first. It’s such a user friendly method- and on a water like the canal with lots of smaller fish it can be completely action-packed. After all, whoever said fishing isn’t about catching presumably didn’t take a young child with them. Success is incredibly important in those early stages- and it’s those first bites and fish that convince any newcomer that fishing is a fun hobby that they’re going to enjoy.
We were quickly into a real pick and mix of species anyway- bleak, rudd and silver bream came in quick succession! In no time at all, we were going from wild or late strikes to hooked fish. It was epic fun- and seeing the big grin on the face of a beginner catching their first fish remains one of the best bits of my season.
To his credit, young Hugo concentrated really well and soon got into the good habits I was trying to instill. Without needing to be told, he was wetting his hands before touching the fish and throwing in loose feed regularly. Some of it was very loose feed, but he really got the fish going- and one of the best tips I can give any newcomer to coarse fishing is to keep bait going in little and often.
It was a busy old session, but I was keen to get Glenn catching some fish, too. After all, dads are a bit like fishing coaches a lot of the time; they put others first and that might mean not fishing so that a youngster can catch fish. I quite fancied some better fish on worms, so we also fed a far bank line so he could try a longer pole.
So much for that plan, because the fishing was so hectic no self-respecting tench got a look in! Not that we were grumbling, because Glenn and Hugo had caught dozens of gorgeous canal fish. The rudd were perhaps their favourite, but there were some absolutely perfect silver bream too (above). Mission accomplished!
More fishing articles to read this month…
Last but not least, there are several other great blogs and articles to read this month. In the Angling Times I’ll be tackling up for coarse and sea fish with bait, fly and lure alike in my weekly “Last Cast” column. In other news, I’ve also written a really in-depth piece for Turrall Flies following a fantastic day out with John Horsey.
One of England’s most decorated fly fishers of all time, the guy is not only a master at fly fishing big lakes- but a reservoir of knowledge himself. I learned a lot anyway- and his advice on watercraft, trout behaviour and detecting and hitting subtle takes is priceless stuff. Click here to read the full article.