Peal – by Charlie Webster
After 58 years fishing for all sorts, from sea bass and salmon to little brown trout, I still find it hard to say what my favourite fish is. But twist my arm right now and I’d say sea trout – peal to the Cornish, sewin in Wales, white trout in Ireland.
They are born the same minnows as brown trout, which spend their lives in their home river systems, and spend two years growing the same way. Then there are too many of them to feed off insect life and Mother Nature drives about half of them to behave like salmon – setting out to sea, building themselves to a serious fighting weight, then returning home to breed. They do not grow as big as salmon but pound for pound they are the harder to catch – and, according to many, the better eating.
The season for them in Dartmoor rivers, including Dart, Walkham, Tavy and Plym, is roughly the same as for salmon – between April, when they start to come inland, and Novemberish, when they finally lay and fertilise eggs. After that, most will die but some will go back to sea and do it all again.
The angling for sea trout has some similarities to salmon fishing but what you get depends on time of day, state of the water, choice of lure and the way you present it. Like salmon the colours of the fish vary but you eventually get to know what you are seeing from a splash in the water. When you catch one, the first clue is the tail. The peal’s axe-shaped fin will slip through your fist. The salmon has a stiff fork on a neck you can grip.
I am writing this with July coming to a close, after an evening at one of my favourite spots, on the West Dart, just before it gets to Dartmeet. You can get to the beat from Hexworthy Bridge at the other end, but this is the shorter way to the banks my Duchy of Cornwall licence covers.
Park at Dartmeet, walk back uphill over the bridge, find a footpath on your left, back of the house on the corner, and after two boggy fields you break through onto a path alongside the river where it is possible to find the room to cast. On the way, I pass spots where I would once have fished when I could still jump from rock to rock. But nowadays, alone at night, the wise thing to do is trudge on a bit to a place on the bank where I know every foothold and overhanging branch. I know I am there from the oak tree with nails all round it, where me and other fishermen have hung their catches for many years – out of the reach of the mink.
I need a place I know because fishing for sea trout is mainly a night-time activity if you want a serious chance of fish. They prey at night in the sea, on small silvers, and they keep this tendency, which is another difference from salmon. You can get lucky in the day-time when the water is highly coloured, like tea without milk – especially with a worm or a spinner. But clear and slow water demands fishing after dusk, usually with a flashing fly or a black one.
A lot is down to when you can get there, of course. Tonight is perfect: warm, cloudy, almost no breeze. A bit of breeze can make life very tough along rough banks like these. And too much light means too much distraction for the fish. Speaking of which, half the art of peal fishing is keeping yourself part of the dark. Always turn your back to use a torch, or you might as well have thrown a rock in the water.
I’ve got a 9 ft 6 rod strung with 7-9-weight fly line. My standby selection is intermediate line, meaning it doesn’t float long but sinks slowly. For the leader line of clear monofilament I use 7 ft of 8-10lb breaking strain.
For salmon, you can get away with a bit less leader, where a long one is awkward, and a thicker one if you want. They are more like a true sea fish and will attack before they are spooked.
For the fly, I’ve picked a one and a half inch model called an Alexandra – silver with a bit of brass, wrapped around aluminium or plastic tube. The brass is just for colour. I do not want the fly to sink first; I want the line to take it down slowly.
First job is to be patient enough to watch and wait before I start disturbing the water. Sea trout love to jump. But I see nothing and a hint of rain in the air darkens the night. The grass changes colour to black and grey and it is time to stop looking and start fishing.
I cast upriver first, bringing the fly back fast, with the current. Then across, leaving the fly to swing around with the current before I retrieve. Then down to the tail of the pool, casting a yard further down at a time. I feel a touch or two. Then, just as I get to the shallows where the pool tips over into the next one, I get the bite and pull the line tight.
A sea trout is jumping and crashing all over the pool and I have to keep the pressure on the hook, using the rod, while reeling in line. On a reservoir bank, you will see anglers hauling line by hand and leaving it piled at their feet. On a river bank at night, this is the way to lose a fish – or your life. You cannot afford to get tangled in loose line. There is a mistaken idea that the reel in fly fishing is not important – just storage for the line. But I use a geared reel, giving eight turns of the reel to one with my hand, for fast winding at every opportunity. There have been attempts at spring-loaded reels which will take up slack automatically but I’ve found them more trouble than they are worth.
It takes more than 10 minutes to get the fish in front of me, with the line tight from reel to hook, and turning over to show his white belly, meaning he is tired. Your landing net must always be with you. Try to flip one of these little tigers out of the water and he will thrash til he breaks your line or even your rod, or twists off the hook. Sink the net and gently draw him over it.
Back at the oak tree, my light reveals him to be a beauty of around three and a half pounds. I have had better. But he is good enough to scratch my itches for now and after a few more casts, I pack up and get home for 3 am.
The pool is called Queenie Pool. It and most of the rest of the East and West Dart, and their tributary streams, down as far as Dartmeet, can be fished for everything up to salmon for a ticket from the Duchy of Cornwall costing £150 for the whole season.
Prince Charlie’s office still likes things the old way. You cannot buy a Duchy ticket online. You have to go to an approved outlet like the Two Bridges Hotel, the Forest Inn at Hexworthy, Princetown Post Office or the shop at Dartmeet. The Two Bridges won’t even take a card on Duchy business, so you need the cash in your pocket, I’m told.
Still, it’s cheap for salmon and sea trout, and it is thanks to the Prince that anybody can get one. He has held out against buy-out bids from the syndicates which keep the Lower Dart exclusive and expensive. But a dwindling number of us are taking the opportunity. If we want to keep the upper rivers as common man’s fishing, we need to get organised.
Trouble is, the water may be open to us but not all the banks are. The Duchy ticket will give you access from one side or the other in most places but it tends to be the rougher side. The Duchy has sub-contracted maintenance of the fishing to the West Country Rivers Trust, which is reluctant to spend money on access for a small number of anglers, so the number interested gets smaller every year.
Also getting smaller is the number of salmon making it through the lower stretches. Not sure what is happening this year but investigating the best way I know – which is to keep fishing where there ought to be fish. By the time you read this, I will be reporting back again. Tight lines to you meanwhile.
* Charlie Webster is a fishing guide, and fly-tying teacher, based in this area, with good knowledge of most of the rivers of Devon & Cornwall. Contact him on 07864 845901 or leave a message below or with email@example.com/