A moment on the West Dart
I have loved Dartmoor since Kate, then girlfriend now wife, and I had spent happy days tramping the moors in the 80s, with me wistfully starring into the depths of the Dart from bridges, boulders and stepping stones. Nick, Johne and I had been planning a day on Dartmoor for ages. We had fished together for Salmon on the Tweed and Sea trout in the Outer Hebrides and many other places in between. Apart from a couple of nights chasing sea trout we’d never managed to coordinate a day on the moor, but I had always wanted to go back and fish its wild landscapes. Johne was the local specialist, as he was based in Bristol and had begun to visit the moor more frequently.
We had agreed to meet at Prince Hall hotel for coffee at 10ish. The day dawned bright and cloudless, with a cold north-easterly breeze – hardly ideal. It also meant we dawdled over coffee, even though we were due to be back at the hotel for lunch at 2. After a sudden burst of enthusiasm, we were by the river, tackling up. Given the weather it wasn’t surprising that there was no fly life, no rises. Just a blustery, chilly day on the moor. I defaulted to a GRHE nymph – I could always change to a dryfly if things began to move. We started to move upstream, fishing any likely looking pools and rifles, enjoying being out. I fished alone for quite a long time and then came across Johne fishing the river below a patch of badly charred gorse, then Nick fishing just below an island where the river rejoined itself. Both looked very likely places. Only one problem – not a trout to be seen. Amazing how dead a river can feel, even if you know there are trout in there, somewhere. Nick finished fishing and then we ambled upstream chatting about this and that. At a sharp bend in the river, my legs disappeared up to my knees in a classic Dartmoor boggy bit. Nick took a long detour to the fence to avoid it. I extricated myself from the bog, looked up and there sitting in front of a boulder about ten yards up stream was the unmistakeable dorsal and tail fins of a trout. It was the first evidence that there were trout in the county I had seen all day. Time seemed to slow as I unhooked the nymph, stripped line and landed the fly about a yard in front of the dorsal fin. A swirl, a take, a strike. The trout immediately ran downstream back to the body of the corner pool with such unquestioning vigour that my mind was reeling through the possibility that this was a cousin of the brown trout. A kelt? The first jump discounted that as it was far too well shaped for a kelt. So maybe a sea trout – although surely too early this far up the Dart for a sea trout. A shout downstream, an expletive from behind me and soon all three of us were wondering how we were going to land this fish. No net – who needs a net when you are after 12 inch brown trout to catch and release?
Fighting a fish is always something that is half enjoyable and half fraught with expectation of it coming off. It rushed into the weed, but thankfully it was too early in the season for that to be thick enough to be a problem. I also find that weed on the nose of a trout seems to calm them down, so there was an intermission whilst the weed placated the fish. Not for long, as the weed soon came off there was another surge downstream. This was taking longer than it should. Soon an expectant silence fell on the whole proceedings. The longer it went on the quieter it got. Soon it was just me and the trout in a silent battle. Please don’t come off I thought. Not after all this time. Then the trout had a slight lean on to one side and I suddenly could keep its head out of the water. Time for a very gentle beaching behind a tuft of grass, a wetted hand and I lifted it on to the grass a bit further up the bank. It was a beautiful trout. All black spots and torpedo vigour. Time to get the hook out and the fish back in its normal universe below the water. A quick photo up against the rod to make sure that time didn’t elongate that trout and then we were back in the water. I held the fish into the stream, let it regain its composure and then with a nonchalant flick of the tail it was gone.
A moment shared with friends and a trout. We didn’t see another trout all day, not even one of its great grand children, but that one was enough, possibly for a lifetime. But then that trout and I might meet again. What I do know is that I will be back.