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Get Hooked! - On the Westcountry

December 8 2008

Tucked away, in this comparatively small island, are still places, mercifully, where footprints are few. Places where you can, just for a moment, rejoice in wild company and glimpse at a less populous past. Most of these are situated westerly: and a very unfair proportion can be found in the West Country: damn it! I say this, because I am a long way away and I can’t fish the huge variety of waters and diversity of species that this area has to offer, as much as I would like. I guess this makes the experience all the richer. I think too, that taking the West Country, as a whole is just a little misleading. Do we talk about the imperious coast-line and the wolf of the waves: bass? The more languid mullet or wrasse? Do we talk about the brutes of the channel wrecks and deep sea water? Then we must also not forget the labyrinthine trout and salmon waters that weave their threads through the entire region and if we dawdle on those we will not have chance to explore the wind tossed lakes of wild brown trout or the more “cultivated” rainbows of reservoirs and smaller lakes – and I haven’t even talked about coarse fish. See what I mean? And there you have the enormity of the task trying to decipher where to go, or what to fish for, in the region. So I won’t. Instead, I would much rather talk about what the various areas have come to mean to me. It is a very personal and perhaps a rose tinted look, but if there was ever a place – rather, an area – that encompasses that much used saying “there is more to fishing than catching fish” the West Country is the embodiment of it. Take Roadford reservoir; on your mad dash down to the sandy, rock-splintered coastline of Cornwall’s jagged finger, you will pass Roadford – and probably not notice it at all. It is a reservoir shy to the passing motorists gaze, nestling into the hill’s folds only two or three fields from the throbbing helter-skelter A30. Yet there it sits, one of the very finest brown trout fisheries in the UK – in Europe, probably. It is a bank fisher’s playground par excellence and the prospect of catching a truly awesome brownie is always a succulent and very attainable dream – no: reality. My “heaven” is to wander, just a rod, floating line and leader, a waistcoat full of the usual fly fishing clutter and just amble along the shoreline peeking here, spying the water there, all in search of swirls, whorls and brown-trout-like lithe movements. The fish haunt the senses – and it is so reasonable and so very, very quiet: restorative. But I would be in denial of my true still-water love: Blagdon. And that is the great thing. The West Country can mean Wessex, too. I lost my heart to Blagdon many, many, seasons ago. It is a place that has never changed in my affection. It is one of the very few lakes where I can honestly say I don’t care whether I catch fish or not. I have known days afloat with dry flies and those line shivering rainbow power surged runs, the bitter pill of seeing fish rise and having one’s fly consummately rejected or just plain, momentarily depressing feeling of getting the tactics wrong; throughout it all though, I have loved every moment on this, one of our oldest reservoirs. You fish among ghosts and giants and heroes. Blagdon is also a place of exquisite beauty. One evening whilst fishing the top end – which ironically is the bottom (I guess, really) the whole area was bathed in golden light that washed the tall meadow grasses like a shimmering wave of fire and gold, with the insects caught dancing in its gaze. I caught a brace of trout that evening from the bank, wading out and sending soft ripples towards the darkening shore. It was an exotic film set based in reality. Breathtaking. But it’s on the rivers, throughout Cornwall, Dorset, Devon and Wiltshire, you will experience the best, arguably some of the finest streams in the world. And I have come to love the little ones – the ones with little trout, the odd grayling, even salmon and sea trout in their time. Places of secret holes and sacred riffles, places to get lost in. I like this Lilliputian world because it summons the child in me, I can twine myself – as best as a fifty year old can – around lichen daubed, twisted trees and cast around rocks and places that you might, well, just walk past or skip over. They are the rivers of dry flies that dance and small rods. Fun. I remember fishing the Yeo with late and much missed Roddy Rae a couple of years ago. We fished tiny three weight rods – toothpicks really, had grins from ear to ear, put our flies into trees, marvelled at wagtails, kingfishers and just about every other natural phenomenon that came our way – and caught a few trout, too. Heaven? It was close. Then there was a time with that other West country “legend” Gary Champion when, for reasons best known to the southerly side of sanity, we decided to try and catch fish throughout the area then host dinner parties with what we had caught, in order to raise funds for the Countryside Alliance and young angling initiatives throughout the UK. We started our adventure at that paragon of sporting hotels the Arundel Arms in the midst of an equinox storm in October and got blown around the entire West Country, praising the rainbow trout for its hospitable nature, and wondered at the regions extraordinary (there’s that word again!) diversity. We came so close to catching a salmon, caught whiting, plaice and codling, chased bass and picked mussels and “blagged” edible crabs! All this in one area over the course of a few days? Unbelievable. I still want to catch a bass on the fly though. If ever there was a challenge then this is it for me. I turn up: bass flee. It might a perfectly acceptable scenario to you and indeed, for conservation, but… Then, I could equally re-count sea trout sagas. Sagas of warm scented evenings and inky nights and the shoals of peel muscling their way from the estuary; and I will just touch on the delightful lady: grayling. This once shunned “nearly-game fish” is enjoying a considerable renaissance as a bonefide sporting Game fish now (and about time, too); well, devotion would be a better word. And the West Country has some incredibly good and unexploited grayling waters. No: I’m not going to tell you where these are. C’mon, do you think I’m nuts? Ok – I know… But if you venture around Dartmoor you may well find the odd one or two. And that is as big a clue as I will offer. I look back at all the times that I have ventured westward and I’m just bewildered by the variety and the loveliness. Two life times – no: give me three. I might just have discovered how to catch bass by then. On the other hand… Tight loops and great fishing.