For the fly fisher who seeks nothing more than a sparkling stream to explore for a trout the South West is a wonderful place. Whether the moorland rivers of Dartmoor and Exmoor or the silky chalk streams of Wessex, this is a region with endless opportunities and challenges, not only for the dedicated river angler but also for many reservoir fishers who head south west for a different experience.
Sadly, however, many anglers find their first attempt at river fly fishing a frustrating experience. Branches seem to be strategically placed to snare every backcast, the fish scatter in all directions before the fly touches the water, and all the trout seem to be tiddlers. Disenchantment quickly sets in and the angler returns to other kinds of fishing that appear less demanding, and in so doing misses out on some of the most fascinating fishing available. So let’s take a look at the methods that can put you in touch with the trout on the rivers of the south west.
Choosing the right tackle is a good starting point, as many anglers have tried to get by with a reservoir outfit and found it totally unsuitable, especially on the smaller streams. Heavy fly lines are out, so go for size 4 or 5, and whether it is weight forward or double taper is a matter of personal choice. Ideally you need two rods, one of 7ft or 7½ ft for the small overgrown streams and one of 8½ or even 9ft for the larger open rivers, but you could just about compromise with one of 8 ft. There is no need to spend much on a reel, but keep it as small and as light as possible. For dry fly and nymph fishing my choice of leader is a 5ft braided butt attached to about 2ft of 5Ib nylon and a 3ft point of 3lb nylon, or 4ft for nymph fishing. When the rivers are really low and clear it is worth dropping to a 2lb point. For traditional wet fly fishing the same braided butt can be used with two 3ft lengths of 3lb nylon, with a dropper extending from the knot that joins them.
The most widely available trout fishing is on the rain-fed rivers of the south west, so let’s make a start with the techniques for these waters. Many years ago rivers like the Dart, Teign or Exe were looked upon as wet fly fisheries but today more and more anglers turn to the dry fly or nymph, though the traditional wet fly can work well on many waters.
When trout are feeding at the surface they usually give away their presence by rising to some item of food, but on rain-fed rivers they can often be brought up to a dry fly even when nothing is showing, so “fishing the water” with a dry fly can be equally as important as “fishing the rise”. Fortunately many south west rivers, especially on the moors, are full of character and it is easy to spot where the trout are likely to lie. Avoid the thin riffles and deep slow pools, and seek out water of medium depth and current, especially where there is good cover close at hand. Remember that trout will be where the current brings food to them, a classic example being against the vertical bank on the outside of a bend, where the fish often feed within a few inches of the bank.
When there are insects on the water and some trout are rising everything becomes a lot easier, as there is nothing like a rising trout to concentrate the mind. This is when knowing a bit about the insects that trout eat is a great help - not necessarily to identify the exact species but to know what family of flies is hatching, whether Mayflies (ephemeroptera), sedges (caddis) or the terrestrials like black gnats, hawthorns, beetles and caterpillars that fall on the water and are particularly important on rain-fed rivers. A guide to the angler’s insects is a useful addition to the armoury of a serious fly fisher, and it adds greatly to the fun of fishing too. Fishing a dry fly to a rising trout on a sparkling stream is one of the most exciting things in fishing.
Before any trout will take your dry fly you have to be sure that your presentation is up to the job. Usually you will be casting upstream or up and across, so think about where you are going to cast from. Are there branches behind that will catch your fly, and is there a swift current between you and the trout that will result in your fly dragging instantly. Quite often, a small change of casting position will make all the difference, and remember that your first cast always offers the best chance of catching the fish. The slightest bungle at the first attempt all too often puts a trout on the alert. The object is to drop the fly a foot or two above the rising trout, or the position where you expect a trout to be lying, and let it drift back free of drag over the fish. If all goes well, your fly will be sucked in and a steady lift of the rod will set the hook. When nothing is rising and your dry fly fails to bring anything to the surface it is time to go below, and often you want to get your nymph right on the bottom for best results, so plenty of weight is needed. In the past this has meant incorporating lead wire in the fly dressing but more and more of us are now using copper or gold heads to achieve quick sinking, and a hare’s ear nymph with such a bead head is a great performer when the trout are lying deep.
When the trout are close to the surface the traditional technique of fishing a team of wet flies upstream, across or downstream can be very effective. Indeed, the downstream wet fly can be a great way for the beginner to make a start as the current straightens out a shaky cast and keeps you in touch with the flies. But remember, if the trout are really deep you will need to use a heavily weighted nymph to get down to them. For the rain-fed rivers wading is essential and body waders can often make all the difference between success and failure, especially on a deepish stream with overgrown banks. However, some of the rivers of the south west have rocky and uneven bottoms, so a wading staff can be a great aid to quiet wading and safety.
The basics of fly fishing remain the same whether you are on a rain-fed moorland river or a chalk stream, but on the latter you will normally be casting to trout that you can see. There may be trout lying just under the surface and coming up to take floating insects and, hopefully, your dry fly. Or they may be lying deeper in the clear water and then you can attack them with a nymph, an exciting technique when you are able to watch every detail as the trout moves to your nymph and sucks it in. Polarising glasses are a useful accessory for any kind of fishing but for clear-water nymphing they are absolutely essential.
The subject of selecting the right fly could fill several articles or even a book, but here are some suggestions for anyone building up a fly box for the rivers of the south west. You could easily fish all season using the patterns that originated in the south west, some of which are now used everywhere that anglers cast a fly. The Pheasant Tail, for example, was created in Devon, as was the Blue Upright, Tups Indispensable and Half Stone. All of these can be used wet or dry and a selection in sizes 14 and 16 would cover many situations. For dry fly fishing, other standard patterns worth including are Imperial, Grey Duster and Adams, while the wet list should include Greenwell’s Glory, Partridge & Orange, Black & Peacock Spider, Soldier Palmer and Coachman.
As good as the traditional patterns are, recent developments in fly dressing have brought a new dimension to river fly fishing, especially for the angler who ties his own flies. The use of deer hair in patterns like Comparaduns, Sparkle Duns and Sparkle Caddis offers great flotation, durability, as well as flies that really attract the trout. The effectiveness of a Hare’s Ear Nymph with a gold or copper bead head has already been mentioned, but a Pheasant Tail Nymph adapted in the same way is an effective alternative. One of the greatest flies to emerge on the dry fly scene in recent years is the Klinkhamer Special, which seems to pull trout to the surface in just about any conditions. These suggested flies are all standard patterns, most of which are available in the shops, but the full fascination of fly fishing on rivers really develops when you start tying your own flies to match insects that you see on the river.
Finally, for success in river trouting always remember that you are going in search of trout rather than waiting for them to come to you. On a lake the trout cruise and you can take a bag of fish from one spot while you wait for the fish to swim by. On a river the trout mainly lie in one spot so you must go to them. You may spend a lot of time just exploring in search of feeding trout but your mobility will pay off handsomely by producing far more fish.