5 Rivers, 5 Days and a Bicycle
I have been on a journey. My journey didn’t involve any emotional celebrity rollercoasters, teary confessions or soft rock ballads associated with the fashionable sort of Journey with an upper case J. Mine involved a couple of booklets of Westcountry Angling Passport tokens and a 150 mile cycle ride across Devon and into Cornwall on a heavily laden bicycle.
Day One – Champerhaies Beat – River Culm
35 miles on a heavily laden bicycle, with camping, cooking and fishing gear, food and Passport tokens proved relatively uneventful, except for a slight navigational faux pas on passing through Tiverton. I had been following the signposts up to that point, hopping from one tiny rural village to the next, suddenly and without warning, the signpost people decided that cyclists in a town can only be interested in finding other big towns and cities. Now instead of looking for the road to the next village along my intended route I am faced with a choice of the road to Plymouth, Taunton, Exeter or Bristol. I got it wrong. Twice. I vowed to avoid big towns for the rest of the trip.
The Culm is a tributary of the River Exe and as I looked over the bridge at the water passing below it instantly felt quite different to the rivers and streams I usually fish in Devon. Firstly, I wouldn’t exactly describe it as tranquil. 100 yards or so behind me as I gazed into the water lies the main Plymouth to Paddington rail link and beyond that the M5 motorway. Secondly, it is a mixed fishery, in addition to the ever present brown trout, according to my beat brochure, anglers can come across chub, dace, roach and even pike. The river runs through lowland dairy pasture and consists of a series of deep glides and faster runs. Today, perhaps a result of recent rain, the water was quite coloured but the level was low, as it has been for most of the year in these parts. A little exploration showed very few insects hatching but turning over a few stones showed significant numbers of shrimps and nymphs. A large part of the beat is lined with thick beds of nettles and himalayan balsam (an invasive weed that blights the riverbank of many rivers in this area). So the tactics were to enter the river at the bottom of the beat and work my way upstream. With changing depths and speeds of flow I found it necessary to chop and change tactics to fit the next section of water. Prospecting with deep bugs and New Zealand rig tactics both produced fish. Then as the afternoon drew on, in response to seeing a few fish rising in the slower sections of river, a dry fly fished on a long delicate leader also brought some success. Surprisingly, given the proximity of the motorway and railway line, I found the fishing pleasantly relaxing; the noise seemed to melt away, no doubt aided by the screening effect of the tall bankside vegetation and the soothing sound of the river. The day finished with half a dozen or so brown trout, some nice ones too; up to 12inches. I lost a very nice fish, comfortably over the 1lb mark, which rose to a small black gnat on two occasions, he simply let go after a brief tussle. I left the river feeling that despite some success I had not quite seen the best of this river and look forward to returning for another crack at it.
With the nearest campsite being approximately 7 miles in the wrong direction I elected to sleep in a friendly farmer’s field close to the river.
Day Two – Little Dart – Witheridge Mill Bridge and Essebeare Beats
(These beats have since left the passport scheme and are replaced by Beat 7 Blue Fox Glade and Beat 8 Park Mill)
If I ever made it into power I would ban hills, not all hills, the ones with streams running down them or the ones that make up beautiful mountain ranges are OK. The ones called ‘Viewpoint Hill’ or ‘Go-On-Forever Hill’ or the ones that are steep enough to warrant escape lanes would be toast. Today’s journey was shorter, just 22 miles or so but with the first few miles seemingly lifted straight out of the lumpiest stage of the Tour de France. Sticking to minor roads the traffic dangers were quite different. I was at one point almost knocked off my bike by a startled roe deer, I can only guess it was hard of hearing, there can be no other explanation for how I could have snuck up on him with the grunts and groans I was making fighting my way up the hill. That’s the problem with deer, I find, no consideration for other road users.
The Little Dart is a tributary of the River Taw and as I looked over the bridge I realised just how accurately named it was – little – it was almost non-existent. The water was coloured again, but very low, the riverbed was coated with a layer of algae and sediment suggesting a prolonged period of dry weather. I popped my two tokens into the postbox and wheeled my bike the 500m to the bottom of the Witheridge Mill Beat. I tackled up the two-weight with a single dry fly, not because I had seen fish rising, but the water, in most parts, was too shallow for anything else. With little fly life evident I worked my way upstream fishing all of the likely looking runs. Fishing was somewhat akin to jungle warfare with the river almost completely bracketed in low hanging trees. The fish weren’t playing today and by the time I had fished my way to the top of the beat I had just a couple of small brownies to my name. Thankfully immediately upstream of the Witheridge Mill beat is another Angling Passport beat and after a late lunch I moved upstream on to Essebeare beat, popped my 3 tokens into the box and I was back in business. Almost immediately I started to see more rising fish particularly under the shelter of the low hanging branches. Despite straining to work out what they may be taking, I couldn’t make out anything obvious. I surmised that they were perhaps taking aphids and bugs falling off the leaves shaken by a freshening breeze. A suitable suggestive pattern selected and my fortunes improved with a steady succession of trout around the 6 inches mark. Near the head of a particularly tricky lie I saw what looked like a better fish moving. I studied the lie carefully. The fish was laying in the calm water adjacent to the sanctuary of a jumble of tree roots, immediately above the fish was a low hanging branch leaving a gap of perhaps 3 feet below it to the water surface, unfortunately one dead twig hung vertically down from the branch, almost touching the surface where the fish rose. This was going to be difficult. One sighter cast landed 2 or 3 feet downstream of the fish and the fly drifted away unmolested. The next cast looked bang on the money but the belly of the leader caught up on the dead twig. Fortunately the tiny green F-fly fluttered down onto the water surface and was immediately snaffled with an explosive take. Even more fortunately, my strike freed the leader from the twig and some side strain kept the fish away from the tree root refuge. Shortly afterwards a plump 10inch brown trout was in the net.
I headed to a nearby campsite , well pleased with a good afternoon’s sport, after a slow start. As I squeezed into my bivi bag the clouds gathered.
Day 3 – River Torridge – Gortleigh Beat
I awoke in the morning to the sound of rain against my bivi bag and for a second contemplated cycling the 30 miles to Black Torrington in my chest waders. Thankfully today’s route was not quite as hilly as the previous two days but unfortunately into a brisk headwind. Following on from yesterday’s near miss with the roe deer, today I turned a sharp bend to find myself amongst the thirty inquisitive noses of the Eggesford Fox Hound Pack, out for their Sunday morning exercise.
As I put my 5 tokens into the postbox I heard the first rumble of thunder in the distance, by the time I was changed out of my cycling gear and into my chest waders I was in the middle of it. In between spells of torrential rain, the sort of rain that would have had Noah reaching for his workmate, I explored the beat. Over a mile of main river and a narrow mill leat offer a great deal of fishing for your tokens on this one, some deep holding pools and some very interesting runs suggest some good salmon and sea trout fishing, given sufficient water. There was certainly going to be plenty of water in the next few days given the lengthening spells of heavy, thundery rain. Anticipating the possibility that the river may rise and become unfishable I quickly tackled up and began exploring the runs with a New Zealand rig. Despite the deluge I found a small number of rising fish and managed a couple of 6 inch brown trout to a gold headed hare’s ear nymph before the river did indeed turn the colour of chocolate and start to rise.
By 5 pm it was time to give up on this one but it was too early to head for a campsite. So, completely soaked to the skin, I got back on the bike and headed south ticking 15 miles off tomorrow’s route. At 8pm I rolled into a campsite on the banks of Roadford Reservoir. For a nanosecond I considered fishing through the last vestiges of the day on the lake, until the need for warmth, food and sleep took over. It is worth noting that Angling Passport tokens can be used to pay for fishing on all Southwest Lakes, perhaps I should have considered that and abandoned the Torridge earlier.
Day 4 – Duchy of Cornwall waters – Dartmoor
There is no other way to describe today’s journey, a grind, approximately 20 miles up (or should that be UP) onto Dartmoor. Today’s close encounter between nature and bicycle involved a beautiful golden cock pheasant, I was not quite sure how I missed it but I was very pleased I did, although for a moment I did think about the potential boost to the fly tying stocks. The fishing on Dartmoor consists of salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing on two main rivers, the East and West Dart, and a number of moorland stream tributaries. 15 miles in total, I could quite easily have enjoyed the full five days fishing up here. It is under the control of the Duchy of Cornwall but permits can be purchased with cash or in exchange for Passport Tokens* at a number of outlets. I exchanged 4 sodden tokens for my permit at the Two Bridges Hotel high up on Dartmoor. I based the decision to fish the tiny Cherrybrook on nothing more than the fact that you could cycle to the stream without climbing any hills.
I hid my bike amongst the tall moorland grass and walked downstream away from the road bridge and the picnic munching tourists that had gathered there despite the brisk wind. Within minutes of venturing away from the moorland roads I was struck by the remote beauty and seclusion of the fishery. The stream itself was running clear with only the peaty stain, typical to these moorland waters, evident. There was some surprisingly varied fishing for such a small stream, narrow fast running sections, small pools that just scream fish and long canal like glides. The gravel riverbed, large areas of sheltering weed beds and deeply undercut banks all suggested that the area could be a really important nursery area for salmon and sea trout that run the River Dart. With a large head of trout and relatively meagre feeding opportunities the fish cannot afford to be too picky. I found any small, dark dry fly would produce the desired response and fishing was fast and furious. The brown trout were small, 4-6 inches at most, but beautiful with dark backs, to match the peat stained water, gradually fading to a light, silvery, yellow belly with dark red, almost claret spots. It was really encouraging to see an important nursery area such as this in such rude health.
I fished until dark before retiring to eat and prise myself into my bivi bag, pitched beside the stream, before the next band of rain moved in.
Day 5 – River Inny – West Larrick Beat
(No longer in the Scheme, replaced by Beat 32 Clam End)
After a troubled night, with the noise of more heavy rain drumming on the gortex coffin that is my bivi bag, I awoke to a beautiful sunrise and enjoyed breakfast with the rare feeling of sun on my face. I had an appointment this morning with the guys at the Westcountry Rivers Trust at their office, some 25 miles away, so as tempting as it was to stay, I had to get moving. Today’s close encounter was perhaps, predictably, a herd of Dartmoor Ponies, one of which took a bit of a liking to my rod tube; I don’t think the lifetime warranty covers equine tooth marks! Today was the reward for yesterday’s grind up onto Dartmoor; a glorious freewheel for almost 10 miles off the moor and down through Tavistock.
Across the River Tamar and into Cornwall I very soon arrived at Stoke Climsland, the home of the WRT, to be met by the Director Dr Dylan Bright, and the rest of the staff. Here, over a very welcome Cornish pasty and a beer, I learnt more about the work of the Trust.
Suitably refreshed I pushed on the final few miles to the banks of the River Inny, a tributary of the Tamar. As I set up ready for my final onslaught I talked with the farmer who owns the beat, he told me about the numbers of sea trout and salmon that run the river late summer given a good spate. However, a good spate is something this river had not seen for many months. It appears that Sunday’s rain fell only on me. I hobbled down the steep valley to find the river running low and gin clear, ‘about as low as I can remember seeing it’ said the farmer. In addition to the salmon and sea trout the river holds a good number of decent grayling, but you couldn’t have guessed it that today. I spent a few hours working my way gently upstream fishing the New Zealand rig or single suggestive dry flies, casting to free rising brownies. It was a magnificent way to end my 5 rivers adventure, obliging trout, beautiful surroundings and a warm sun on my back. I don’t know how many fish I caught, it’s not important, I have no doubt that my reactions were blunted by 5 days of pedalling, but I do know that I savoured every last second on that lovely beat until it was time to wind-up and make my way (slowly, very slowly) up the steep hill and to my lift home.
In these days of austerity, it seems we must be prepared to pay more for our fishing holidays, more for the fuel we need to get there, more to the fishery owners and more for somewhere to rest at the end of the day. Yet with a little imagination and planning it is possible to find a week’s varied, wild fishing, in beautiful surroundings and for very little money. I am not suggesting we should all dust down the Raleigh Racer that’s rusting in the garage, but if you want a sustainable, healthy and economical holiday, knowing that you are contributing to the continued improvement of Westcountry fisheries, then why not consider the Westcountry Angling Passport?
Derrick is an adventurous fly fisherman and AAPGAI qualified fly fishing instructor and guide based in the Westcountry.
The Westcountry Angling Passport is a system that allowes anglers access to over 60 miles of wild fishing throughout the Westcountry. The money anglers pay to fish one of the many beats goes straight to the fishery owner and the Westcountry Rivers Trust (the charity that runs the scheme) helps the owners invest the revenue back in to the fishery. In essence that means by fishing a Passport beat an angler is helping to protect and improve the fishery. The system is simple; you buy tokens from any of a number of outlets or from westcountryangling.com, select the beat you wish to fish, post the required number of tokens into a designated postbox located at the entrance to the beat, then go fishing. On completion you post a catch return into the same postbox.
*Passport tokens can be used as full or partial payment for SouthWest Lakes Trust and Dartmoor Duchy permits, however change cannot be given.