by Charlie Webster – October 1, 2017
(pictures of flies to follow later)
It’s a gloomy Sunday, following a gloomy last day of the season on the Dart network. I missed it, and I hate to miss it. It is a day when the survivors of the old salmon-fishing crowd turn out, if they still can, to see who else is still taking an interest. It was encouraging, in the last week, to meet a few at least.
Nobody had a lot to tell about this season. Sea trout scarce and in poor condition. Salmon hardly showing at all.
Fishermen are a pessimistic lot. If they are not catching fish, their immediate reaction is that the fish are not there. But they are there. On the Friday before the Saturday deadline, September 30th, I had a few seconds of tremendous tussle with a powerful fish which I could not stop before he got behind a bush and shook the fly out. Hate that. But as somebody said in the pub, the fish has to win sometimes, otherwise what would be the point of fishing.
Week before, I took my second salmon of the season – a 15lb hen, no eggs left, so the breeding is going on.
In between, lost another and saw a few more. And for every fish which takes your fly, or catches your eye, there are probably 20, maybe a thousand, which are ignoring you or staying hid.
If you are not finding the fish, the question is where are they? This time of year, there could be plenty up the East Dart. I might have tried it from Bellever down to the boundary of Badger’s Holt at Dartmeet, where it becomes private. Or maybe I ought to have gone further up the West Dart, either side of the bridge below Prince’s Hall, by the adventure centre. Above the bridge is a fairly easily accessible stretch which has been used for an international trout fishing competition. And there are certainly salmon there too. And downstream is beautiful. The Cherrybrook, which crosses the road between Prince Hall and Dartmeet, will be holding a few salmon, although most people think of that as a trout stream too.
But I want a big fish before my ticket runs out. And I end up going back and back again to the stretch where I have caught my biggest in the past and where, in 1988, I once took 50 salmon in a season.
I have already written about the West Dart between Dartmeet and Hexworthy. Once upon a time, you might have found 20 anglers crossing between its beautiful pools, thinking they had a little secret. Now there is no point in keeping quiet about it. If more people do not take advantage of the Duchy of Cornwall’s Dartmoor licence – £150 for the season for anything including salmon – we could lose it. Meanwhile, the going is getting harder and even fishing veterans are going elsewhere.
Last time, I wrote about fishing pots and runs when a flood has fallen back.
I get back to Queenie Pool, just coming up to the last week of the season, to find the water a bit higher than that. The fish will be moving still, in the excitement which follows a flood, and this time I want to fish right across the river. I want my rod tip down and my line out long, so the current sweeps my fly down and across to my bank. Swing the rod around to keep the connection straight as possible. Retrieve a little jerk at a time. And repeat. I am using intermediate, slow-sinking, line, but lately, teaching a pupil, I have come to think maybe a floating line is better while you are learning, because it is easier to follow where your fly is.
The cast has to stay forward of the trees all round me. You haven’t got room to get your fly going by whisking it back behind you and forward again. You need to get the power of the water into your line. Draw it back to you along the surface, skimming against the current, then turn it round at the 10 o’clock angle, all in one movement.
The water is black and dirty and I pick a fly with a silver rib on a black tube and a wing of pink bucktail. I don’t think I can give you any science on which fly for when, with salmon. You learn what works in what river and if it doesn’t work this time, you change your fly and change your luck, maybe. This time I am wanting something that looks a bit like a prawn in black water.
(Picture to come in here later)
It looks fine. But the water is still a bit too fast. My fly is across the river too quick to follow it.
But at this height, the river forms a small back-eddy, 30 yards down, tight under my bank. I start working down towards it, keeping my casts short, so I am fishing the slightly quieter water at the edge.
These conditions are when you see fish announcing their presence, jumping up from the tail of the pool into the deep water. But nothing is showing today.
I lose a leader in a tree and decide it is time to sit and wait a while. Replacing the leader, here’s a little tip I’ve passed on a few times. You have probably tied it on by making a loop and a hangman’s noose. Cut the loop right off and you leave the noose on the end of your fly line and have to fiddle it off. Cut one side of the loop and you can draw the rest off.
The water drops an inch and changes colour to red, inside an hour. The Dart is one of the fastest rivers in the country on the drop. I change fly – to my version of a Black Dart, with an orange wing.
(Picture to come in here later.)
The pressure of the water has already dropped considerably and now my fly is behaving perfectly, with a cast right across the pool taking it down to the tail. As it swings under a tree below me, on my bank, it stops, and I think I must be caught on a rock or a bit of flotsam. But as I begin the retrieve, I feel the tap tap of a fish. Feels like a trout. And it follows my pull until it is right in front of me. But I still cannot see it. My net is a few yards away and I think: trout on a salmon rod, I’ll just beach it. But when I put the pressure on, the rod bends properly for the first time. Now I’m thinking sea trout: you can get lucky in dark water even in daytime.
The fish breaks for the shelter of an overhanging bush on my right. I pull the blighter away from there and suddenly he wakes up. I don’t think he even knew he was hooked til now. But suddenly I’ve got a proper fight on. He shoots back under the bush and then up the side of the river from there and I can feel my gear straining and have to let him take line off me. I can’t get around that bush without stepping into deep fast water; just have to hang on and try to move him sideways. Eventually he starts to oblige and swim back down the pool. Back in front of me, he is twisting and turning just under the surface and I can’t believe it’s a salmon and I can’t believe the size. When I finally get him in the net, I have to walk backwards to get the net onto the bank because I can’t swing it.
He is a her – at least 15 lbs, possibly 17. Makes me wonder about all the other times I have dismissed a lost take as just a trout. She is empty of eggs but fat as a pig and in beautiful condition, blue silver. Good eating, no doubt, but the rule is that hens go back, and I’m in favour of the rule.
The next time here, few days later, I have a pupil with me and he produces a box of Chinese flies, £15 for 40. They look spectacular, with loads of glittering fronds. But there is no weight in them, although some have pretend brass heads, and we end up clipping on a bit of shot to get one down. After 10 minutes in the water, it is all twisted up into a limp rag.
(Picture to follow here)
So, what’s next? There are still two weeks to fish for salmon on the Tavy & Walkham, up to October 14 – no trout or sea trout from now on, though – and the Plym & Meavy remain open into December, because they get a late run. For permits, see twpfishing.net/ or go to Yelverton Post Office. The Yealm and, across the border, the Camel and the Fowey, also have late seasons.
The Plym salmon are mainly heading for the Meavy. Now there is an interesting little river. The dam at Burrator has been interfering with it for a hundred years but the salmon still go up it far as they can, and do at least some breeding below the reservoir. Because of the disruption, the size of the average Meavy salmon has been gradually dropping, but there is a 52-pounder in the records and 30-pounders are still taken.
* Charlie Webster is a fishing and shooting guide, fly-tier and 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/