A second extract from the diary of Charlie Webster. Another follows shortly. The first one is at
Late August, 2017
Where do I go today? It is a matter of weather and water.
Yesterday it was raining stair-rods. Today the rain has stopped but the Dart will still be in full spate. In my mind’s eye, I think about what the fish are thinking.
Salmon and sea trout take their time getting to their breeding grounds, at the top of the river. Up there, they will be short of oxygen. They do not want to arrive too soon. So they hole up when conditions are not to their liking. Sometimes, if they are diseased or injured, they will stay in one spot for months. But most will move on a bit when they have good cover. The rising water will have encouraged them to venture out for a run in the right direction.
Now, top of the flood, they will be moving cautiously along the banks or finding a temporary lie. The force of the water is hard to fight and a salmon does not like swimming into a floating log or gorse bush any more than you would.
But by around mid-day, the water level will be dropping, provided there is not a thunderstorm upriver. And as soon as it is dropping, the fish will spread out across the river and start to move, comfortable in the murk and the depth. Then, later, as the water drops, they will start to look for new lies, in pots between rocks, or under an overhang of rock or tree roots, or behind a bed of weed, or a fallen tree, or wherever they feel safe. Some will turn back to a good pool, full of sanctuaries. In a big pool on the Ribble, in Lancashire, I have seen a thousand salmon swarming, like a shoal of mackerel.
Not quite like that round yer but the hours after a flood are the time to trawl a river for fast bites from running fish. That’s the theory, anyway, and it has worked for me many times.
When I get to my chosen pool, it looks like the flood is peaking. First thing I do is put a stick in the ground at the edge of the water. I watch, I wait, I make a brew. When the water level has dropped two inches, it will be time to start fishing. If it does not drop, or continues rising, I might as well go home. That is how important that stick is to me.
The salmon have been late getting up this far, up the West Dart from Dartmeet, but I recently lost one and I’ve heard of others, so I know they are back now. I’ve brought my 13-foot double-handed rod because I need some length in it for negotiating round boulders and some strength in it for a big fish.
I’ve got a slow-sinking line – my usual default . There are all kinds of fly lines for different circumstances. If I was fishing lower down the Dart, and laying a lot of line across the water, I might use a double-taper, for example, which is designed to hold against the current for a few moments, to give your fly a chance to go where you want it. But here I am using just a cheap factory clearance line with a weight-forward taper in it, to help with casting.
I usually push my rod a bit, for better casting. If it is marked as a 7/8 weight rod, I choose an 8-weight line. My rod is an 8/10, so I go for 10-weight, which will give me a cast of 45 yards no problem. In some conditions, the heavier line might be awkward, but on balance I find it helpful. You aren’t going to break your rod by trying it, anyway: all the weight markings are give or take a bit.
On this bank and in this pool, I have just enough room for about 9 ft of 15-lb leader, so I use it. But I often advise a novice to use a shorter leader rather than get in a mess all day.
I want a salmon but in these conditions, while the water is still dirty, sea trout will sometimes go “mad” for a short time, biting at every cast, for maybe half an hour, maybe two hours. Then suddenly, when the water starts to change to a reddish colour, they will stop and you will not catch one again until the conditions are back to what they really like – clear water at night. You do not want to miss the moment. So I choose a fly which might do for either fish in this peaty water – an inch and half of tube, dressed with orange and yellow bucktail. Bigger lures get bigger fish, sometimes, but I want to keep my possibilities open.
A lot of salmon flies are fished with quite a big hook. But in my experience, the fish can get some leverage on a big hook and twist it out. I pick a size 8 treble and fit it into my tube. Sometimes I’ll go smaller.
The pool I am on is 75 yards top to bottom. Normally, I would cover it from the top down. But at the top, the water is still too furious. I start casting halfway down, aiming for halfway across to start with, then extending the cast a yard at a time until I am under the opposite bank. As the fly swings in the current, I move the rod tip with it, to give it time to sink, rather than snatching it across the surface of the water. Then I let it swing around to my bank before starting the retrieve – fast, then slow, then jerking and stopping, watching the fly in the water when I can and imagining how it looks when I cannot see it. In this colour of water, my orange fly looks like a pink prawn, which is ideal. A prawn is killer bait.
Ideally, you want to get a bite upstream from where you are standing and play the fish to where you want it to go, as if it is on a lead. Downstream, against the current, even a tired fish is going to feel like a bucket of water. If you get one there, you want to use your rod to move him up and move your own position down, as far as possible, so the current is on your side. Sometimes, at this point, waders can be useful, but the river is too strong right now and I rarely wear them anyway. In a small world like this, getting in the water would mean saying goodbye to every fish which is not already hooked. I have seen a lot of anglers ruin their prospects by wading into the water they want to fish as soon as they arrive
While I am working, I am also watching. Sometimes you will see a salmon jump. The wisdom is that this means he is running and will not stop for a lure. But if you can cast quickly enough, to right in front of him, you can get a snap take. Land the fly and then jerk it away instantly, a fast foot at a time.
But all I see are a couple of trout, looking for little “olives”, which are hatching and rising as the day warms up.
The water has dropped again and some pools are beginning to show. I move upriver a bit, to a smaller pool, where there is a deep dark channel under the opposite bank. I want my fly to run down it. But if I just do a straight cast, the river will take my line and whisk the fly back towards the centre. I need to put a loop behind the fly – what is known as a “mend” – so the lure has a chance to run straight down the current before the rest of the line snatches it back. The mend is something you just have to learn to do. I get a loop of slack into my line and roll it across into position upstream of the fly, as soon as it lands, to help it stay on that side of the current.
It works like I want it to. Sometimes, fishing this way in this spot, I have seen a salmon take my fly like a dolphin – head up for the chase, then the tail up as it dives for the take. Magic. But this time, nothing. The water is clearing a little and my orange fly now looks a bit too startling, like a rainbrow trout lure. I tone down a bit, to a similar size and style, but black and red and gold, which I know works in these conditions on this river. Different river, different flies: you have to find out or ask advice.
A brown trout takes my inch and a half tube! He is a half-pounder, nice little fish, and good for my confidence, but not what I want. I get him unhooked and back in the water without too much hurt to him.
I see a tail splash from a big sea trout, maybe 6-7 lbs, but the water is falling fast and the colour is changing and I cannot interest him.
Eventually, I have to go home without a fish. The lads down the pub always enjoy that one. And I don’t mind that much. Sometimes fishing is not about catching fish; just about being there. Out fishing, I see badgers and foxes, deer and otters, birds of all kinds. Once a little roe deer went in for a swim from the bank opposite and came out beside me as if I was not there.
I feel for the deer. They are being squeezed from all sides by roads and houses. The grounds of Derriford Hospital are full of them, because they have been left with nowhere else to go. A mate of mine picks dead deer up from the roads, for the highways authorities, and sometimes it is 10 in a day, just around here.
* 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 firstname.lastname@example.org/ Keep checking in for more of his diary.