Wednesday, August 06, 2014


That there is more to flyfishing than flyfishing alone is a fact I was reminded of in spades last week. I fished on three separate occasions, each one a completely different experience to the one before, each one memorable in its own unique way.

Friday night found me on familiar territory and reveling in the comforts of a piece of river I know like the back of the proverbial. The week had been another blisteringly hot one and the river was desperately low, a full five inches below summer zero. Just how long a river can survive in the face of such a drought I've no idea - probably a lot longer than might seem possible - but at the time (the weather has since broken and we've seen some rain at last), the situation seemed dire and the shrunken pools, barely worth fishing.

I pinned my hopes on an evening rise and spent the hours between 6 and 9pm fishing a single tiny nymph into the foreshortened lively water at the pool heads. Using a long French leader with only a short length of fluo yellow Stren as an indicator, I crept about keeping as low a profile as possible whilst delivering the nymph into any pocket with enough depth to contain a fish. I didn't expect much response, but was pleasantly surprised to return a string of trout and grayling from spots which you would have thought too shallow to be worth fishing. There were some decent specimens among them - nothing huge, but a handful of trout around the pound mark such as the golden beauty at the top of this post. It was absorbing stuff; the kind of fishing the French leader was designed for, and I later wondered if I would have had the same rate of success a few years ago while plugging away with a conventional upstream nymph approach. A Tenkara angler would no doubt have been very much in his element......but that is a deviation too far for me.

Another thing which came as a surprise was the number of grayling I caught - seven bright little fish, all in the 10-12 inch bracket. Where have they been hiding for the last few months when the river seemed entirely devoid of them I wonder (I contacted ten of them again when I was out last night, outnumbered by trout only marginally).

The evening did have some dry fly sport in store although I had to wait until nearly 10pm. A mixed fall of BWO spinners and hatch of caddis resulted in a few fish nudging the surface in one broken glide, including the somewhat better specimen below. Then, once the light had gone altogether, I reverted to the downstream skated sedge - a contemporary version of the traditional Eden Bustard method I suppose, and one which results in explosive takes which seem incongruous in the low, quiet conditions of the drought stricken river. This tactic nobbled a last couple of trout before I started to get the night time heebie-geebies and headed back to the car with only bats for company. I'm some way off having the minerals for sea trout fishing, admittedly.



It's strange how our concept of time alters as we get older. My lad has finished school for the summer holidays and with several long weeks of freedom stretching out ahead of him it must feel, as it did for me when I was his age, like endless possibilities await. I can still vividly recall that same sense that the summer - real summer - had only just begun when I threw my school clothes in the wash for the last time. And yet when I walked the banks of the river last night, it felt like summer was as good as over, even the Ragwort coming to the end of its flowering, and the balsam pods ripe to burst. The songbirds are quiet and ducklings are no longer ducklings, but near full grown birds which career off noisily up through the pool I am about to fish, leaving me cursing their anatidine stupidity.

To George however, the world is all summertime exploration and adventure and time is not a concept worthy of consideration. I took him with me last weekend, to the Secret Forest Stream, and for a couple of hours my world weary resignation to the decay of all things living was forgotten in a riot of wide-eyed excitement.

I didn't have any waders for him, so it was just the welly-bobs and an unspoken understanding that he was going to get wet. In any case the weather was hot and even under the woodland canopy, the air was muggy and warm. We started at the first of many tiny pools (just scoops really, erosion pockets under tangled banks), and I showed him how to flick a single nymph into the deeper water and twitch it back enticingly. Trout soon followed and although the process of casting in tight spaces and then hooking the quick little buggers proved a task too far for the boy, he was content enough to reel in the ones I hooked and then slip them back into the tiny refuges they call home.

George soon got a handle on which type of water held the fish and went on upstream, scrambling about in the undergrowth and then returning to tell Daddy that there was a good looking pool just around the corner, with spots of foam and tree roots just like I'd said. He doesn't know it yet, but he has already begun the process of learning the 'read the river'.

We had a smashing couple of hours together. The fishing didn't amount to much, with maybe half a dozen little trout falling to the little pink-tailed nymph we showed them; but in many ways the fishing wasn't the important thing. Catching trout isn't really a serious least I don't think it should be. It's just that sometimes it becomes more serious to us grown-ups through obsession and the need to escape from the rigours of modern living. To George all the excitement of adventure awaits and each fish caught is greeted like some wondrous accident has occurred. It's a mindset I intend to try and rekindle for myself over the next few fishing trips.


If scrambling about on a tiny woodland stream constituted a great expedition to my little lad, then a day spent up on Cow Green Reservoir a few days later was mine - an enterprise of an altogether different kind, being a long and somewhat remote hike around the perimeter of one of England's most dauntingly wild stillwaters. It's a place I've written of before, a stunningly remote spot high up in the north Peninnes at the head of Teesdale; a place which might be considered as close to wilderness as this over-populated country can offer. I've fished it alone a handful of times in the past and the experience has always been atmospheric, eerie even - a communion with the wild. For whatever reason, it's been a few years since I last made the long drive. I was so excited the night before, I barely slept. 

This time I had the pleasure of company. Stuart Minnikin and I had planned the trip and set the date some weeks before. Like me, Stuart is no stranger to 'The Big Cow', his most recent foray being an overnight camp on the remote south west bank, some four miles from the car park (which in turn is a further three miles from the nearest meaningful civilisation at Langdon Beck). With a perimeter of some seven miles and the going underfoot ranging from loose boulders, to boggy peat hags, to tussocky moorland riven with drainage grips and potholes, this is a place to exercise great care and one for the hardcore flyfisher only. Stuart is about as dedicated as it gets when it comes to fishing wild places - I couldn't think of better company for the day.

We decided to fish the more remote south west bank. Perhaps this was always inevitable as the lure of a shoreline which barely sees a rod from one year to the next will always appeal to fishers like us. A check on wind direction at the car park sealed the deal though - a square westerly of maybe 20mph meant that the 'point and bay' topography of the far side would give a far better chance of comfortable angling. We set off around the dam wall with high hopes and a long day ahead.

In the end, we hiked the full perimeter. There came a point whilst leapfrogging each other westwards, where it was as easy to just keep going than retrace our steps. It would be a hell of a task for two anglers to actually fish the full water in a day, but we managed maybe 40% - from the dam end to the inlet of the infant River Tees which we arrived at gone 6:30pm and realised we had better be heading  back if we wanted to arrive home at a decent hour. 

The six hours preceding had provided cracking sport with Cow Green's trademark small, dark trout. Not silly numbers, but enough action to keep us both occupied. We returned about two dozen between us, with a ratio of maybe three missed offers to every one converted, so quick are these wild little fish. Most of the action came in the calmer, sheltered lee of points where a dark dry fly would be assaulted within seconds of touching the water. Strangely, the usual banker tactic of pulling a team of wet flies through bigger wave (which we had ample opportunity to do when rounding a point into the teeth of the wind), failed to produce more than an odd fish......apart from a brief spell in mid afternoon where the trout went potty for half an hour or so and wanted the flies twiddled back briskly through the ripple.

Fishing Cow Green Reservoir is so much more than just catching numerous little trout though. It's a different experience altogether and one which only a minority of mad keen anglers will ever understand. As much as the fishing itself, is the sense of location and of being lost amidst the bleak wildness of nature. Years ago I sought this feeling of isolation through hill walking alone, itself a rewarding undertaking. But by fishing in such places too, well that seems to add a new dimension of absorption into the environment which elevates the whole thing to something approaching a religious experience. The landscape is hardly untouched by man; after all, this is a reservoir which only came into existence with the completion of the dam wall as recently as 1971. It certainly doesn't feel that way; it's some paradox that a day on a man made lake can offer a feeling of detachment so complete, you might as well be angling on The Moon.

And so ended a week of great variety: wild trout caught from mere ounces up to well over 3lb, from water as diverse as the tiniest forest brook up to hundreds of acres of windswept reservoir, and with mood ranging from childlike adventure to comfortable familiarity, to awestruck respect. What a superb spectrum of experiences this wonderful sport is capable of providing. As happens more and more these days, I count myself a lucky man to have so much on his doorstep, and great friends with which to share it.


Peter said...

Hi Matt.
A very touching account of your most recent outings; wonderful prose and beautifully written. So reassuring to read about George connecting with nature, something he will surely reflect on in days to come. Cow green is a wonderful venue too and its mere mention reminds me of a chance meeting with a smashing chap who hailed from the capital. It came up in conversation that his fiancé's parents had a holiday cottage in the dale. He spent some time there once and commented on visiting the reservoir saying that he hadn't realised such desolate countryside existed....can you believe that? tight lines

Andy said...

Great post Matt if I can read a blog post and then think afterwards I never even noticed the photos the writing has to be good.

Jeff Hatt said...

Struggling to find the pictures now, eh?

John Rodmell said...

Lovely piece of writing,sounds like a corner has been turned,loved the panoramic views of Cow Green and remember that when the summer ends you have urban grayling fishing to look forward to.
Best Wishes .

Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks very much for your comments chaps!

ssj said...

Great writing, as usual. Some of your comments came a little to close to my core to be entirely comfortable. No less true for that, though.

Ben said...

An evocative post, really very enjoyable. Are you familiar with the writing of Robert Macfarlane, your words on Cow Green put me in mind of his book 'The Wild Places'.

Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks Ben. I part read McFarlane's 'Mountains of the Mind' but struggled to get on with it in truth. Your suggestion sounds interesting though....I might check that out. Thanks for dropping by.

Alan Bamber said...

Thank you, Matt.
Alan. said...

Great writing and great pictures. If that's writers block...keep it up!