Clark Colman explores North Yorkshire’s Cod Beck, on the doorstep of Herriot country – where Mother Nature and an in-tune owner allow wild brownies and grayling to flourish and give superb sport.
If I asked you to picture and describe a typical north-country trout stream, what would you think of and say? I wouldn’t mind betting that you’d soon conjure up images of high-gradient, fast-flowing and shallow systems, with rocky beds and plenty of ale-coloured pocket water wherein small, lean and opportunistic fish take refuge from hostile currents and compete heavily for what little food comes their way.
Cod Beck isn't your typical north-country trout stream but is home to good numbers of quality trout and grayling.
An Exception To The Rule
Such a profile certainly fits many of the streams and becks up in this neck of the woods. However, there are always exceptions to the rule – and Fly Fishing Yorkshire’s syndicate stretch of Cod Beck is one of them.
A tributary of the River Swale, I first discovered it while researching game angling opportunities close to what would soon be my new home in the county, and was immediately struck by how little the beck resembled many of the venues I’d already visited thereabouts. Rather, it immediately brought to mind the meandering little river in northwest Cumbria, on the edge of the Solway Plains, where I cut my teeth as a flyfisher nearly 30 years ago.
A quick glance at an Ordnance Survey map and the invaluable-as-ever Google Earth soon revealed the explanation for this atypical character. The Cod Beck is not, I found, one of those more familiar north-country waters born amid the sheep-cropped uplands, heather-blanketed slopes and rocky escarpments of the Yorkshire Dales. Rather, it begins its 23-mile-long course on the North York Moors, before descending through a patchwork quilt of lush, fertile and versatile farmland (much of it within the Vale of Mowbray) to its confluence with the River Swale at Topcliffe.
Further online investigation confirmed that this low-gradient route and environment gives the Beck its gentler, friendlier nature. It also creates a balanced-but-varied habitat, requiring only minimal husbandry by riparian owners and angling associations, and in which coarse fish, as well as wild brown trout, can truly thrive.
I learned that the Cod Beck is much more levelly and evenly bedded than its upland cousins – stony and gravelly in places, soft and silty in others. This lends itself to forming a truly varied anatomy, wherein sluggish runs, deep corner pools and glassy, almost motionless glides are just as likely to be found as popply riffles, pacier runs, noisy weirpools and pocket water.
The weir pool on the Beck is an ideal spot try your Streamer patterns in search of its larger inhabitants
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
Add the mainly raised and often tree-lined banks here, plus a wonderful variety of plant life, and it isn’t difficult to appreciate why the Beck has become a thriving home for invertebrates, terrestrial insects, wildlife and fish. Seasonal appearances of (for example) large dark olives, iron blues, hawthorns, mayflies and pale wateries, in decent numbers, could seemingly be relied upon, alongside more perennial species like caddis, shrimps, black gnats and midges.
Alongside mention of dippers, herons, kingfishers, wagtails and other birds, it was wonderful to read that brook lampreys had frequented the Cod Beck of late, along with one or two sea trout heading up from the Swale in search of spawning grounds. As healthy environments with even further promise go, this would clearly take some beating – but what of the fishing?
Unsurprisingly, the Beck appeared to hold good numbers of trout, grayling and other coarse fish – none of which had, it seemed, suffered the extent of avian predation and man-made calamities that have certainly taken their toll on other venues thereabouts. What’s more, its varied water character and richer feeding reduces the need for fish to struggle and compete; thus providing far more opportunities for them to grow.
Having read local angler John Aston’s spellbinding book A Dream of Jewelled Fishes, plus other tempting online titbits, I knew that the Cod Beck held wild brownies well in excess of 1lb, and with the possibility of equal-sized grayling. Needless to say, the urge to visit, explore and fish it was already high by the time my wife and I relocated to North Yorkshire – and the fact that we now lived only a short drive from the Beck only added to my eagerness. However, with most of the water either in private hands, or controlled by angling associations, clubs and syndicates who don’t issue day tickets, I only hoped there’d be a place for me somewhere.
Olly To The Rescue!
It was just before the start of the 2015 wild trout season when I received the call. “I’ve heard,” said Oliver Shepherd of Fly Fishing Yorkshire, “that you can write a bit.” The usual jokes about “Who on earth told you such drivel?” aside, I sensed that this friendly, conscientious and well-respected GAIC instructor and guide was about to ask a favour – and so it proved.
“The thing is, Clark,” continued Olly, “I’ve got this little syndicate on the Cod Beck, just outside Thirsk. Absolutely gorgeous water, about two miles long and full of fish – all wild, of course. I generally keep membership to a maximum of 15, and it certainly doesn’t get heavily fished. I love it to bits, and would really like more people to know just how healthy it is. How about doing an article?”
This was one of the best sales pitches I’d heard in a long time; however, my over-enthusiastic whoops of glee following Olly’s call could, I suspect, only have been understood by either another passionate flyfisher or someone like Claire, my wife – a highly qualified and experienced forensic psychologist. I simply couldn’t wait to receive some more recent photos of the Beck that Olly had promised to send, get stuck into some more research and – as soon as our respective commitments allowed – meet up with Olly for a pre-season recce!
My ‘face-to-face’ introduction to the Cod Beck came on a mild March afternoon in the picturesque village of South Kilvington, worth a visit in its own right on account of the quaint old church and superb Old Oak Tree Pub there. After we’d pulled into a little waterside car park and donned chest waders, Olly produced a small laminated map of his Fly Fishing Yorkshire syndicate stretch and explained its limits.
With roughly two miles of double-bank fishing, divided into four distinct beats, there was certainly plenty to go at. All the beats were named, and I was particularly intrigued by those at the top and bottom: The Deeps and The Dens. These, my host explained, were the deepest, slowest and most overgrown of all – and where many of the biggest fish here had been spotted and caught since he’d established the syndicate and started keeping records.
Olly himself had seen trout estimated at well in excess of 3lb – and as a highly-successful salmon and sea trout angler and guide, he knows what big fish look like both in and out of the water!
My thoughts immediately turned towards flicking Streamer patterns into all the nooks and crannies here, and then twitching them back in the hope of tempting a small-stream ‘monster’. To judge from Olly’s exciting descriptions, a 7-8ft rod rated for a 3 or 4-wt line would be the ideal weapon for this, together with a short-headed, dull-coloured, weight-forward fly line and a leader of sufficient strength ( 5 to 6lb perhaps) for handling big, weighted flies and even bigger fish intent on sandbagging them before lunging for the nearest snag.
This prospect alone was more than enough for the article already taking shape in my mind; however, there were more delights yet to come. It would be on the two middle beats (Kilvington and Spa Farm), Olly explained, where I’d find the greatest variety of water on the Cod Beck. I could expect to encounter all parts of its anatomy here – riffles, runs, pools and glides – and there’d be a decent balance between more open and enclosed areas. With a few exceptions it wouldn’t be much wider than nine or 10 feet, and around thigh deep at most, with an atmospheric (and usually highly-productive) weir pool marking the top of the Kilvington beat.
Although longer rods of 9 to 10 feet would afford more stealth, reach and control in places, something a little shorter would still be the best compromise. A greater range of approaches would also now be possible, with light-line duo, wet and dry-fly methods all having their place where appropriate. Even double-nymphing could be practised in areas with sufficient depth and current pace; however, this would largely be the case only during periods of fishable higher water.
Olly declared himself to be a huge fan of fishing a brace of spiders or a single dry fly upstream via a double-taper line, and I’d soon see just how much the Beck is suited to such tactics.
The Ring Of Truth
As we waded down and then up the Cod Beck, beneath the still-naked branches of alder and willow trees, it soon became apparent that Oliver’s description of his four beats and how to tackle them couldn’t have been better.
He clearly knew their surface and sub-surface features like the back of his hand, and also genuinely loved the water and its surrounding environment for their own sakes. This also manifested itself through the sparing and sympathetic bankside husbandry that Olly had carried out in order to protect certain areas, or render them more accessible, without unduly compromising habitat and the Beck’s wild character.
For my part, I was happy to follow along in his wake, finding a new and pleasant surprise around every corner, and listening intently for every single scrap of information I might glean from one of the most welcoming and in-tune owners of a stretch of fishing I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
Since that day I’ve become both a member of and (with Oliver’s generous permission) guide on Fly Fishing Yorkshire’s Cod Beck syndicate. I can say in all honesty that the Beck has always been kind to me and the clients I’ve taken there – no matter what the time of year, weather and water conditions. Some days have, inevitably, been better than others; however, by remaining stealthy and observant, keeping on the move and adapting to circumstance, this remarkable, sylvan place will usually yield more than the odd fish – whether in full-of-promise springtime, the dog days of high summer, the falling leaves of autumn or the icy grip of winter.
And just for the record, my biggest Cod Beck trout to date measured 18 inches, and I’ve also had a very pleasing 13in grayling – both on a size 17 Parachute Adams. Bigger ones have, however, been landed by other syndicate members – and with another season now well and truly underway I’m determined to rise to Olly’s challenge of landing a 3lb-plus brownie from the Beck. Perhaps it might fall to ‘Becky’, the Cod Beck’s own (and very effective) nymph pattern devised by veteran local flyfisher, instructor and former Thirsk Angling Centre proprietor Derek Stratton. This would seem most appropriate, don’t you think?
The Beck holds plenty of wild brownies in excess of 1lb. The challenge for Clark this season is to find a fish of 3lb plus.