October on the Upper Wye October on the Upper Wye

October 2019

October started out with everybody watching the gauges and still twiddling their thumbs in frustration, wondering when we would ever go fishing again. Low pressure was still in charge and day after day successive bands of rain kept the rivers too high to fish. Would the floods ever end – even salmon anglers seemed to have few chances? In fact I wrote “everybody” just now, but the barbel anglers seemed to be able to fish on in conditions which would have defeated everybody else. Grayling fishers should really be enjoying themselves in September and October, but their sport can be spoiled by just a few inches of extra water and some colour. However barbel hunt by smell and can seemingly be taken in thick floods if the tackle will hold the bottom. Take the case of CS from Leeds who fished Middle Hill Court (next to Goodrich) with a friend on 2nd October. They took 20 barbel plus an eel from a river which was then charging down with no less than 2.5 metres of extra water on the gauge. I imagine that was from the Vanstone Pool?                                                                                   

With the rivers hopping up and down over a long period, they did run clear at times at the upper end, even if much too high. Some of our visitors, having travelled long distances, gave it a go despite the levels and were rewarded with the odd grayling from marginal water along with the out of season trout. AG from Harleston, Norfolk, who visits every year about this time I think, had half a dozen from the Irfon and Upper Wye. JH from Cheltenham with a friend had 3 grayling to 1.75 pounds on nymphs from Cefnllysgwynne. On the 12th OH from London with two friends had just the one fish from Talybont Reservoir, a specimen brown trout of 2.5 pounds (this water is open for trout until 17th October). Hopefully that was some kind of consolation for a difficult trip.

Irfon at Cefnllysgwynne in high water - SF from London Irfon at Cefnllysgwynne in high water - SF from London
Salmon water on the middle Usk Salmon water on the middle Usk

Meanwhile there was some better news from the Usk, at least for salmon anglers. For some reason it is always difficult to get accurate salmon catch figures for this river, but there does seem to have been a run of fresh fish arrived during the final 10 days of the season. The majority were taken by spinning on very high water, but I did hear of one chap who got eight, having done nothing at all earlier in 2019. A few salmon also came off the upper Wye on the 17th, last day of the season for the main river. These included a “crocodile” (a big coloured male) from the Rectory for GP of Cardiff.  That was a day when high pressure intervened briefly, and the river while very high was clear enough for grayling fishing in a few places. A client of mine was rising them to dry flies (mostly Grayling Steel Blue) and spiders on the edge of the current at Abernant. Meanwhile MH from Llandrindod Wells had a great day with trotting gear on the Builth Town Water, taking 25 grayling, 6 chub, 5 dace and a roach. Trotting, where allowed, can be a very effective and appropriate method in high water when there is little or no wading access for the fly fisher.

It didn’t last long; a fresh band of rain swept through that night and we were back to floods with main river gauges out of sight below racing water. Some of the reports now smacked of desperation. On the 19th MT from Shoreham fishing at Llangoed and Lower Llanstephan “…threw my heaviest team of Disco Shrimps into the fast flowing gloom, but to no avail.” As the ground was now thoroughly saturated, during the next dry period the rivers were very slow to fall although they were running reasonably clear. I saw the year’s first frost in a forest hollow on the morning of the 20th and the leaves were now starting to fall quite quickly. The business of disentangling fallen leaves from the hooks is one of the slightly less charming aspects of autumn fishing. DM from Brecon managed to get half a dozen grayling to 41 cm from the Irfon at Llanfechan by fishing nymphs in the margins. With the Cilmery gauge at 0.87 that cannot have been easy. Members of the Grayling Society managed a few of their favourite fish from upper river beats such as the Colonel’s Water, Llanfechan and Craig Llyn. By the 22nd with the Irfon down to a more manageable 0.65, I was again watching some really nice Irfon grayling rising confidently to large dark olives in a current laden with drifting leaves. MH from Llandrindod Wells was out trotting on the Wye at Builth again on the 23rd, this time with a friend. They got 35 grayling to 2 pounds plus a brace of chub. CL from Cardiff managed 5 grayling from Cildu at the top of the Irfon.

Builth Wells Builth Wells
Autumn on the Irfon Autumn on the Irfon

The next cruel stroke of weather quickly spoiled any ambitions grayling fishers had begun to nurture. Heavy rain starting on the 25th lasted for 36 hours without interruption. As much as 4 inches fell in some parts of our region. In these circumstances, it doesn’t take much to create a local flood – a dip in the road and a blocked drain is enough. The Irfon rapidly rose to over 3 metres on the gauge and the upper Wye flooded almost as quickly. Even the Llangurig, Byton and Monnow gauges were out of sight and almost before we realised what was happening, the main rivers burst their banks. Low-lying homes were evacuated at short notice and even driving with a 4WD in the valleys of the Usk, Wye and Monnow became a hazardous business for a while. The railway line between Hereford and Abergavenny was cut by floodwater in the Monnow valley at Pontrilas.

Railway at Pontrilas Railway at Pontrilas
Cannop Brook after the storm Cannop Brook after the storm

Closer to home, the Cannop Brook somehow found its way into the ground floor of Lloyds Bank branch in Lydney’s main street  – we are having to do our banking in Chepstow while it dries out. Emergency action had to be taken to unblock the dead leaves from the outlet grid of our Forest Syndicate pool before water overflowed the dam, as happened rather disastrously a few years ago. The worst of it seemed to be over by the 29th, by which time the plug of very high water had passed through the lower Wye, but there was a lot of damage to property left behind. Meanwhile the valley of the lower Severn was still in trouble around Gloucester and Tewkesbury. You would think that ideas of fishing would have vanished during all this, but on the 27th KF from Hereford with a friend fished Usk Reservoir for 10 rainbow trout and on the 28th JA from Leominster did the logical thing and went to the very top of the Wye at Ty Mawr. He blanked for grayling that day, but I think he might have got some from the Clochfaen beat slightly lower down (the pools below the Llangurig bridge). On the last day of the month rains began once more and the rivers are expected to rise yet again. Altogether, I think October 2019 was a month best forgotten by fly fishers.

Top of the Wye at Ty Mawr - JA from Leominster Top of the Wye at Ty Mawr - JA from Leominster

The November edition of Trout and Salmon carries an assessment by Robbie Winram and Rob Hardy of river nymphing rods, essentially these being the 10 foot 3 weights with sensitive tips used for trundling heavy nymphs along the bottom. Euro nymphing is the word being used for the various different heavy metal methods these days. I don’t claim to be very advanced in this kind of fishing, although I once fished a match in a team with Robbie Winram and can vouch for his skills with a team of nymphs. According to the test, the differences between different rods are subtle indeed, overall weight and sensitivity of the tip being the main factors which stand out. Slightly surprisingly the Orvis Clearwater at 229 pounds earned a rosette from the testers, but after that it was the Snowbee Prestige G-XS at 469 pounds, Hardy Zephrus Ultralite at 649.99 and Sage ESN at 839 pounds which received accolades. Fly rods are certainly becoming expensive.

The same magazine carries an article by Don Stazicker in which he describes watching a shoal of grayling in a clear Wiltshire stream. After he manages to present a nymph at the right depth, the whole shoal goes for it and one is caught. But on subsequent presentations with the same fly, the shoal moves aside to let it pass through them and there are no more takes. Change to a slightly different fly pattern and there is immediately another take and another fish caught. But only one, because on subsequent presentations the shoal moves aside until another pattern is tried. To cut a long story short, Stazicker catches 10 grayling altogether on 9 different nymph patterns, only one of which is taken twice.

I can understand this absolutely, because very often a shoal of grayling will treat dry flies in the same way, rising to a pattern once or twice, after which it is necessary to start working through the fly box to show them something else. The same thing can happen when trotting later in the winter. You are perfectly aware that there is a shoal of grayling in front of you, and you have already caught half a dozen, but they will take the presented bait no longer. Going from double maggot to a single maggot might get you a couple more, or changing to lighter float tackle or even presenting a free-falling maggot with a Tenkara rod might continue the sport. Stazicker’s article makes an interesting read.

We lost Bob Church in September. Sadly his later years were marred by Parkinson’s disease, but seemingly he never lost his enthusiasm for the sport, which from the 70s to the 90s he really bestrode like a colossus. These were the great years of the big midlands reservoir fisheries such as Grafham, Pitsford and the newly flooded Rutland, and also a time of expansion for small put and take rainbow trout fisheries. Bob was Northamptonshire born and bred, trained in the shoe trade I believe, and apart from being one of the most enthusiastic fly fishermen imaginable, he had a head for business. Until that time the sport of fly fishing had been a somewhat exclusive affair for the most part, confined to parts of the country which certainly did not include the East Midlands. Now it had become available to working men from midlands cities in large numbers. The Bob Church business was extremely successful, supplying everything from fly-rods to drogues at keen prices. This was a time for development and innovation and Bob’s enthusiasm for match fishing and talent for marketing products and ideas drove the sport a long way. He was a great inventor and collector of fly patterns, and published several good books on the subject. I still have some of his patterns in my still water boxes, including the Appetizer as a fry imitation. Do you remember the Baby Doll, which up in Orkney merged into something called the Peach Doll? He made sure he experienced other branches of angling, including salmon fishing and sea trout fishing on the Dovey. He was also interested in specimen tench and fenland fishing for pike and altogether he probably did more than anybody to popularize our sport.  

I never met Bob Church, but I heard his voice once speaking across the water between boats and the strong Northamptonshire accent came as a shock, bearing a remarkable similarity to another voice I had known many years before. My maternal grandfather came from across the border in Cambridgeshire, and retained through his life that same harsh accent from the fens. Before the First War as a boy in Sawston on the river Cam, Grandad had the early morning job of opening the penstock to start the wheel of the tanning mill (it’s still the Eastern Counties Leather company on the site today). It was a dangerous business, because he had to get back over the wheel as it began to move. With a twinkle in his eye he used to tell me terrifying stories of giant pike in the rivers and drains of the flatlands which would eat ducks and – who knows – maybe children swimming? By the time I came along my mother’s parents were living by the Thames estuary in Kent, in a terraced house on a cobbled street where in those post-war years milk and coal were still delivered by horse-drawn carts. I always liked staying with them. I remember gazing at my uncle’s gleaming Rudge Ulster motorcycle, which would be kept parked on the lino in the hall. Sunday mornings, while Grandma started cooking, Grandad would bark: “Now Bor, yew come along wi me,” and I would follow him with his fork carried over his shoulder, across the railway tracks to his allotment on Plumstead Marshes where he would turn up the vegetables for dinner from manured black earth. He showed me an old horn windowed lantern he had found, which he swore had been in one of the convict hulks once moored there, and told me to read Great Expectations. Grandad was a self-educated man, with life-long deafness from the bombardment he had endured in Flanders trenches, and never earned more than five pounds a week in his life. But a great gift was in him somehow, and he composed and arranged brass band music which is still played today. I saw him conduct Salvation Army bands and even, once by invitation in his old age, the Royal Marines.

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” Bob Dylan’s gravelly voice was singing on the radio as I pulled off the A40. That old song could have been written for a sewin fisherman. Now you must understand that all of what follows took place back in September, when our afternoons and even nights were still warm. September is a month during which I usually try and concentrate on grayling, salmon too if there is water to justify the effort, forgetting all about sea trout until next year. However, in this September of 2019 the word was that some harvest fish had arrived in the Towy and Loughor rivers of SW Wales, in greater numbers than had been around earlier in the season. There is one distinct advantage about night fishing for sea trout late in the year. During June, the angler won’t be able to start until darkness falls at 10 o’clock and on a really clear, bright evening it might be nearly 11. Four hours of fishing takes him on to 2 or 3 in the morning. In my case it would be dawn before I reach home again 90 miles away with the usual sleep-deficit hangover which lasts most of the following day. But in September with the nights lengthening I can start at 8 in the evening, have four hours of fishing completed by midnight, and still reach home in time for a few hours of sleep.

Besides, this was that happy, if sadly short, period when parliament was prorogued, which of course meant that I needn’t bother to spend my evening watching it on the Parliament Channel. Why upset myself watching that braying circus you might ask? Why the awful fascination? I can’t answer, except that for many of us the regular evening dose of the Westminster Show and its antics had over the last months become a sort of ignoble addiction, like heroin or pornography. The hypocrisy of a group of people who boast so much about the standards of behaviour and public service to which they claim to aspire, while actually behaving with such selfish vindictiveness towards each other and with such an arrogant lack of responsibility to their electors, is almost beyond belief. When I consider some of the great political thinkers of the past, I wonder how it is that we are left with this house of knaves and fools. If I had my way I would prorogue it unpaid for a year and only restore salaries if our representatives promised to do something useful on their return. An early task would be to elect a genuinely impartial Speaker, and one not too fond of the sound of his or her own voice. Former Speaker Betty Boothroyd could give some advice on how parliament’s chair should behave. Next up for the Queen’s speech would be repeal of the disastrous Fixed Term Parliament Act and then perhaps a British version of the American Logan Act, which would criminalise unauthorised persons seeking to negotiate on behalf of this country with foreign powers. These are just my fevered thoughts, of course, and nothing to do with the WUF. (At the actual time of writing, end of October, we have of course just learned that we will shortly have a chance to elect a new parliament. You can imagine that I have a long list of members I would like to see lose their seats). Anyway, and returning to that September afternoon, parliament was now on holiday for a bit and therefore so was I, with no more risk of throwing shoes at the television. Why not have another try at sea trout fishing on what promised to be a warm dark evening? 

I was pleasantly surprised to find Lyn’s white van in the park and once I reached the Towy, there was Lyn with his girlfriend Sara half way across the lowest pool of the section, fishing towards the overhanging willows on the far side. My friends Lyn and Sara, by the way, are the only couple I know who go out fishing for a date. I find that rather charming. Have you ever considered giving your beloved a surprise by treating him or her to a day on the river rather than dinner? Now this September evening I was arrayed for night fishing as traditionally as you like: warmly dressed, hung around with torches and equipped with a 10 foot rod, 7 weight line, 12 pounds leader, and a Blue, Black and Silver tied on a size 6 single. Lyn and Sara had been there for the whole of a hot, bright afternoon and they had been fishing for brown trout with 10 foot 3 weight rods, French leaders and little size 16 nymphs. In fact they were about to leave. And, yes, they told me they had caught a few of the Towy’s generally rather small brown trout, but more impressively a sewin of 3 pounds had picked up one of the nymphs and caused a lot of trouble on the light tackle before it was netted. Furthermore, just a few minutes later in the same spot Lyn had hooked a really big sewin which thrashed for a while on the surface before diving far into the willow branches from where it could not be extracted. This is not how sewin are meant to behave, although Lyn is canny enough to have caught a few in the daytime before, using small doubles in fast water I believe. Still wondering about their experience, Lyn and Sara went home.

Lyn and Sara on the Towy Lyn and Sara on the Towy

Half an hour later, true darkness now fallen, I started right at the top of the half mile stretch, feeling my way forward on the gravel, searching the pools systematically with a sink-tip line. You can wade the whole of this without leaving the river. Nothing moved and the night was remarkably quiet although somebody was harvesting on headlights somewhere in the distance. A couple of small brown trout tried to commit suicide on the big fly, but the anticipated hard take from a sewin never came. By 11 o’clock I had reached the bottom end and thought it might be worthwhile to put on the floating line and Surface Lure. I went ashore behind bushes to effect the spool change and, as always, used a shielded red torch to protect the pool and my night vision. The technique with the Surface Lure is to cast it slightly upstream of straight across, right into the sewin’s dark lair under the trees on the far bank. One can only imagine what happens next, but there the Lure must sit for a few seconds, probably head up and tail down. Meanwhile the intervening current gets a grip on the floating line and forms a downstream curve. As soon as all slack is removed, the Lure suddenly comes to life, cocks up and accelerates away downstream and out from the bank making a nice V wake. That is the moment when the attack is likely to come. Forget about reach casts, upstream mends and all the tricks we play to avoid drag when dry fly fishing. In this case we are actively promoting drag! If the current is too weak to do the job, we should introduce movement to the Lure by short strips or a steady figure of eight.

On the first cast into the dark corner where Lyn had encountered both his fish on tiny nymphs. I heard a slight gurgle as the Lure accelerated away, but felt nothing. I concluded that a fish had followed but failed to take hold properly, which is very common with the Surface Lure. Nothing happened on the second cast. On the third attempt there was a proper splash and I felt the curve of line tighten hard. The fish had hooked itself and proved when netted to be a fairly fresh sewin of 2.5 pounds. That was the only event of the night for me, and Lyn and I are not sure what our respective experiences proved. Perhaps only that sewin will sometimes take a very small fly and sometimes also a great big one which looks like a swimming water rat!

Night time visitor from the tide Night time visitor from the tide

More memories of September: David Burren and I made no less than three trips to the Salisbury Avon at Heale House during the month. I won’t tell you how many there were in total, but we caught an awful lot of brown trout along with a few grayling, chub and dace. There are some very big fish here. On every visit, I think, one of us had a 3.5 or 4 pound trout in the bag. As almost always during the trout season at Heale, the experience entirely involved dry fly fishing and I saw no reason to use a nymph, not even one of the PTNs or Killer Bugs which Sawyer once popularised a few miles upstream at Upavon. Chalk streams are so very different in character to our border rivers. Our final September trip took place in rainy weather while the Wye and Usk at home were unfishable in high muddy flood and Peter Major, the keeper at Heale, told us the Avon valley also had experienced extraordinary rainfall with about 2 inches fallen on the previous day. Yet although the water meadows were sodden, the Avon showed only a slight blackish tinge and you could still clearly see the chalky bottom. The current had increased just enough to flatten some of the ribbon weed and take it down from the surface.

Avon trout in September Avon trout in September
The Avon at Heale The Avon at Heale

This is not to state that the Heale fishing is always easy - far from it. I watched a remarkable number of fish drift up to my fly, make a close inspection and reject it. The fact is that in the clear chalk-filtered water you see things which cannot normally be seen on our rain-fed rivers, although no doubt they occur just the same. For instance, in a run of fast water below a hatch pool there would be the fascinating sight of watching a long brown shape turning downstream to hunt after the dry fly which had just bounced down past it, eventually to catch and eat it with little fuss. Or the experience in slower water of watching a fish sheer off from the fly, only to circle back twice, before eventually taking it on the third pass. “The way of a trout with a fly,” was the description Skues coined for such intriguing “will he or won’t he” moments.

Peter’s view is that anglers don’t need a huge collection of patterns to succeed on his water and that about half a dozen well-chosen designs are enough, provided you have them in different sizes. He likes the Parachute Adams and I was rather pleased to see that he includes the Welsh Grey Duster in his own collection, using a small one when the fish are interested in pale wateries or caenis. Peter feels convinced that fly size and tippet diameter are more important for anglers to worry about than pattern. Certainly this was our experience and for the first hour or two of each visit David and I would be trying to work out whether this was going to be a big fly day or a small fly day. We certainly experienced both. The true mayfly is famously late on the Avon and we saw a few on every September afternoon we were there. This may account for the number of fish I took using a 4X tippet and a Monnow Gosling in size 10 or 12. Certainly such a scale of tackle strength inspires confidence when fishing for large trout near weed beds. One morning we were told that anglers on the previous day had done great execution using daddy long-legs patterns. Unfortunately I had neglected to bring any, but the big Monnow Gosling still seemed to work perfectly well. At other times, particularly during evening rises to some very small olives, the opposite was required. We eventually found that a size 18 CDC Shuttlecock tied on a 6X tippet was taken confidently often enough. A size 18 hook sets easily and holds pretty well, but the fine tippet needed care when playing fish.

Another curiosity about this part of the Avon is that the grayling population seems to be in retreat. Avon keepers like Sawyer once waged a relentless war on them, slaughtering grayling in their thousands without that much effect on their overall number by all accounts. Today, among all his big trout reared from the stews, magnificent as they are, Peter has become rather protective of the Avon’s grayling and wild trout. If he spots a big grayling (unlike the rest of us he doesn’t need polarized glasses) he will point it out with evident pride.

Irfon grayling taken on a dry Grayling Steel Blue Irfon grayling taken on a dry Grayling Steel Blue
Wye running full at Builth Wye running full at Builth

More typically for me during September, I had a grayling fishing day on the Builth Town water. There are some nice gravel pools in this part of the Wye, excellent for the dry fly, and usually well-stocked with grayling. I spent a couple of hours with a Grayling Steel Blue floating on the surface, picking up the odd grayling, rather more trout, and feeling slightly disappointed in the lack of rising fish. There were a few pale wateries and willow flies around as you might expect, but not many fish were responding. Perhaps I would do better fishing just under the surface? I proceeded to make up the wet fly rod, a 10 foot 4 weight, with a team of spiders – Waterhen Bloa, Dark Moorgame and Hare’s Lug and Plover on the point, all in size 16 as the water was low. Then, intending to make a systematic search, I went to the head of the pool and began to fish the run-in. Before too long I had a very nice positive draw, set the hook and for a few seconds began to think I had hooked a good trout. But then came that distinctive slow headshake, a big coppery flash against the bed of the river and I realised I had hooked a salmon.

This salmon liked a spider This salmon liked a spider

Fortunately this one didn’t do anything very spectacular. There was one long charge across the river, but I was able to work it back again. Mostly it kept in the channel, gradually backing down and shaking its head. I just walked downstream with it, trying to keep below and applying side strain, until we reached the slowest part of the pool and some shallows where I might be able to deal with the fish. With a light rod and 3 pounds breaking strain tippet, only a small force could be applied and the process took longer than usual. At the end there were a couple of half-hearted jumps. This was my fault because I had applied a bit too much pressure, but by now I had confidence in the hook hold and knew that (thankfully) the fish was on the point fly. Finally a 31 inch hen was tailed in the shallows with its head nudged into some sedges, measured, the hook removed, and the fish released after being held for a few minutes.

Thinking back, the experience of a salmon taking very small spiders is not so unusual late in the season – I can remember a handful of past occasions (and again in October this year, an Irfon salmon made an attack on a Red Tag fished wet, but failed to stick). After all, when I go deliberately salmon fishing in low water, I might well be choosing to fish with a Bann Shrimp on a size 10, 12 or 14 treble, or maybe a Stoat’s Tail or a Black Pennell on a size 12 single. These are all proven successful salmon flies. Is it such a great leap from there to a size 16 spider? Of course deliberately fishing with a light trout rod for a big fish would be irresponsible, but I’m thinking that small flies fish very nicely with a number 6 line and an 11ft switch rod and maybe I should be using such lighter gear more often for salmon at the back end. It’s all food for thought.

Inevitably we must expect the cold and dark weather now, so it’s time for the heavy nymph fishers and the trotters to strut their stuff for the rest of the grayling season. It would be nice if we could have some lower water levels for a while. Tight lines to all!                 

Oliver Burch http://wyevalleyflyfishing.com

Still rising on the Irfon Still rising on the Irfon

Please note that the views within this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Wye & Usk Foundation.