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Wild Trout in the South West

December 8 2008

Thanks to the dramatic growth of stocked reservoirs and purpose-built trout lakes, trout fishing is now more widely available than ever before and these new fisheries have provided countless thousands of anglers with the opportunity to cast a fly for trout without travelling far from home.

This expansion of stillwater trout fishing, however, has come at a time which has also seen a decline in stocks of our native wild brown trout in many areas. Fortunately, there are parts of this crowded island where it is still possible to enjoy a truly wild experience, fishing up a moorland river or a meadow stream for brown trout that have never seen a hatchery, and the south west of England provides endless opportunities for searching out the wild trout.

So, what's so special about wild trout. In the south west it rarely if ever grows to the sizes that are little more than average on lakes and reservoirs. Wild trout are often as moody as the weather, they scatter in all directions at the first wave of your rod or stop rising at the slightest ripple from your wading, and quite often they are feeding on some minute item that is almost impossible to match with an artificial fly. What, however, can match the excitement of wading up a moorland stream, casting your fly into every little pool between the cascades, or crouching by a meandering meadow stream as the browns suck in the mayflies. The trout may be of modest size but when they come to the net you are often staggered by the beauty of what you have caught. And the problems of these moody, spooky and just plain difficult fish are really the challenges that so many anglers are seeking. Yes, you have to put in your apprenticeship to be consistently successful with wild trout, but success when it comes more than repays the effort.

So where can the visitor fish for those wild browns of the south west? The moors are the logical starting point and the biggest of these is Dartmoor, often called the last wilderness in southern England. Many of Devon's major rivers like the Dart, Teign, Tavy and Taw spring to life on Dartmoor and their upper reaches and tributaries provide many miles of moorland trout fishing. Virtually all of the Dart system above Dartmeet, where the East and West Dart join, is Duchy of Cornwall water and a modestly-priced day permit presents you with more than 25 miles of varied fishing. Not only does this permit include the East and West Dart but also the fascinating little tributaries - Cherry Brook, Swincombe, Wallabrook, Cowsic and Blackbrook.

On the western edge of Dartmoor, miles of trout fishing on the Tavy, Walkham, Plym and Meavy can be fished with a Tavy Walkham & Plym Fishing Club permit, and the wooded valley of the upper reaches of the Teign on the eastern slopes are available through the Upper Teign Fishing Association.

Exmoor too offers wild trout fishing in spectacular scenery and nowhere more so than on the East Lyn. From Brendon down to the sea at Lynmouth, the Environment Agency manages the Glenthorne and Watersmeet fisheries, which are full of freerising colourful trout. Cross to the other side of the moor and you find similar fishing on the Barle at the Tarr Steps Hotel, with a long stretch of water above and below the much-visited clapper bridge. The visitor can fish more of the Barle, as well as the upper Exe, downstream at the Carnarvon Arms Hotel near Dulverton.

Bodmin Moor is the south west's other moorland area but here the upper reaches of the Fowey and Camel are looked upon primarily as spawning and nursery areas for salmon, with little trout fishing available. Down from the moors there are many more opportunities to go in search of wild trout. Many anglers who fish for salmon on the middle and lower reaches of major rivers like the Exe, Taw, Torridge or Tamar will often have their flies or spinners seized by good-sized brown trout. This is no fluke as these rivers often hold surprisingly large stocks of trout which are rarely fished for and an outing with the dry fly in May and June, or a summer evening when the sedges and sherry spinners are on the water, can provide a pleasant surprise.

Some of the most enhancing fishing of all is on the small lowland tributaries of the big rivers. These streams, often little more than brooks, provide really intimate fly fishing as they meander through the meadows and respond well to both dry fly and nymph fishing. The accumulation of silt on the bottom of these quiet streams provides an ideal habitat for the larvae of the mayfly and a hatch of this big insect at the end of May or the beginning of June can be the highlight of the season. Many anglers in search of this kind of fishing visit the Arundell Arms at Lifton where the Lyd, Thrushel, Wolf, Lew, Carey and Ottery offer miles of small-stream fly fishing.

The manicured chalk streams of Wessex, in spite of a century of stocking, offer more wild trout fishing than you may think. For more than a dozen years, the Wessex Fly Fishing waters on the Piddle at Tolpuddle in Dorset have operated on a catch-and release basis and many other stretches of chalk stream in Dorset and Wiltshire are now being managed to reduce the dependence on constant stocking, thus providing exciting fishing and reducing costs.

So, there is plenty of wild trout fishing to be found in the south west at a very reasonable price, but this treasure can only be kept intact by adopting the right conservation measures. In the past, the response to declining stocks was to order another truckload of trout from the hatchery. Now, anglers and fishery managers are increasingly turning to habitat improvement and reducing the number of trout killed. More and more fly fishers are returning their wild browns to the river and paying a visit to the nearest stocked lake when they need to fill the freezer.

For 1998, a new voluntary scheme has come into operation on four stretches of the Duchy of Cornwall fishery on Dartmoor. The Wild Trout Society and the Duchy of Cornwall are asking anglers to return trout on the upper East Dart, Cherry Brook, Blackbrook and a stretch of the West Dart in an effort to increase the number of the bigger fish that anglers enjoy catching. At Amesbury in Wiltshire, another scheme coordinated by the Wild Trout Society has restored a degraded stretch of the Avon to re-create the natural sequence of meanders, pools and riffles that wild trout need to prosper. These and other projects show how anglers in co-operation with the Environment Agency can make a real contribution towards protecting and enhancing the stocks of wild trout in the rivers of the south west.