Clark Colman enjoys a short but memorable visit to one of his favourite Cumbrian hill tarns, Small Water, and meets a true Lakeland angling legend along the way.
“Difficult of access and often disappointing” was how the Where To Fish guide for 1961-2 wrote of Small Water, an 11-acre tarn above Mardale in what Lakeland guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright called “the Far Eastern Fells”. I’m sure the contributor to this veteran publication had his reasons for such condemnation but as my line pulled tight halfway through the retrieve, and the rod bent against the dash of a wild mountain brown trout, I couldn’t have disagreed more.
A Flying Visit
Regardless of the plump, lively fish that had snatched my fly, the dramatic scenery and atmosphere around Small Water was enough to render disappointment an impossibility. As to the difficulty of reaching the tarn, which lies at an altitude of just under 1,500 feet, I’m sure that by the time we’d returned to the cars, my companion for this short but memorable session had developed at least a degree of sympathy for the view expressed in my old book.
This was the second time in two days that I’d dragged TFF editor Andy Taylor into the high Cumbrian hills. With the memory of yesterday’s exertions still fresh in his mind and legs, Andy will be the first to admit that he was in no hurry to set out on yet another steep climb!
With plenty of trout and pictures already secured, along with changeable weather conditions and lengthy drives home looming, the plan we’d hatched over breakfast was simple. We’d drive up from our Kendal base to the Mardale Head car park and try some mountain stream fishing, while waiting for a sustained break in the weather that might give us a chance of the cover shot we were still after. If it came, we’d immediately strike out for Small Water before the clouds and rain descended again. If not, we’d carry on up the beck that runs down from the tarn into Haweswater for a little while longer before calling it a day.
A Familiar Face
As our Land Rovers picked their way through the driving rain, I wasn’t even sure whether we’d make it out of the car park. Still, we weren’t the only ones braving the wet weather and narrow, twisting roads in the hope of some sport to the fly. Another angler was already tackling up in a small lay-by near the Haweswater Hotel – no doubt intent on fooling a few of the better than average wild brownies that share their home in Mardale’s dramatic, moody reservoir with the occasional silvery schelly.
Tarn expert Terry Cousin shares his many years of knowledge of the Lake District waters
Taking your eyes off the road here can be risky even on a fine day, so I allowed myself only the merest glance to the left as I passed by, with Andy following close behind. There was something about the elderly chap’s face and attire – what little I saw of it – that seemed familiar, though at the time I was more concerned with road safety and reaching our destination than trying to remember where I’d seen him before!
Few vehicles had beaten us to Mardale Head that morning, and we were in two minds whether to applaud or pity the handful of hardy walkers setting off up the track into the fells. Even in the worst of weather conditions this rugged corner of Lakeland still has its charms, and with the rain still falling, Andy and I were perfectly content to sit in the front of his Freelander and put the game angling world to right, while watching white streaks of water streaming down the surrounding hillside ghylls, and dark clouds stalking over Harter Fell, High Street and the Nan Bield Pass. I thought of the other flyfisher we’d seen, and hoped that he too was taking shelter from the elements in the warm of his little white car.
Braving It On The Beck
Just as we were starting to contemplate heading for home, the rain eased off into a faint drizzle and an optimistic hint of blue sky appeared overhead.
“It’s now or never!” announced Andy, so we sprang from the car, grabbed our gear and headed off across a slippery wooden footbridge towards Mardale Beck – a boisterous, gin-clear watercourse of boulders, pockets and miniature falls below the nearby confluence of Blea Water and Small Water becks.
The many becks also offer some superb sport and are well worth a cast between fishing the tarns.
Such high-gradient upland streams are seldom if ever, fished today, with few now containing those four-to-the-pound pan fillers that once delighted anglers of yesteryear. While I already knew for a fact that there were still one or two trout to be had in Mardale Beck, the racing currents and low temperature (even in May these hill streams can still be icy to the touch) meant that however hungry they might be, tempting one wouldn’t be anything less than challenging.
After a few minutes’ worth of pocket picking with a fixed-line duo setup, the bushy Retirer Sedge on the dropper disappeared as it drifted below a bankside boulder. I’m sure many of us have experienced what followed, and there are few things more humbling to a fly angler than four or five inches of startled wild brownie hurtling through the air towards you on the strike!
I couldn’t help but beam with delight as I eased the size 16 barbless Copperhead Pheasant Tail Nymph from the corner of his mouth. His little spots were more orange than red, and they glowed like gemstones in the pale morning sunlight before the fish twisted out of my wetted hand and disappeared back into the tough, rough-and-tumble world from which, somehow, trout still manage to eke out an existence here.
Putting A Name To A Face
With dark clouds looming once again, Andy was keen to reach Small Water before it got too late, so I reluctantly forced myself away from the beck and prepared to move off. I had, however, left my waterproof map case in the car, so decided to jog back and recover it rather than risk my map getting soaked to pulp by any further rain.
In doing so, I discovered that the angler we’d encountered earlier had made his way down to the car park, and was now preparing to try his luck in the shallow, likely looking bay below it. He smiled warmly as I drew near, before asking where we were bound. When I explained that Small Water was our objective, as part of an assignment for a fly fishing magazine, he became even more interested.
“I know it well,” he said over a firm handshake. “My name’s Terry Cousin.”
It was then that I realised where I’d seen that wide-brimmed hat, spectacle cord and lean, outdoorsman’s face before. This was one of my all-time Lakeland angling heroes, whose newspaper articles and magazine contributions I’d read for years – but whom, until now, I’d seen only in photographs.
An all-round angler, vintage-tackle enthusiast, former River Eden bailiff, award-winning entomologist and conservationist, Terry’s also the veteran fishing columnist for the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald. His sage advice on all matters piscatorial, and dedicated work on the significance of river flies for anglers and running-water environments in general, have benefited many related organisations both locally and nationally – and in 2008 brought Terry Cousin a special award ‘in recognition of excellence and achievement’ from the Association of Rivers Trusts and the Salmon & Trout Association.
I was honoured when Terry agreed to appear with me in front of Andy’s camera. You’d struggle to better his knowledge of the fishing to be had on Cumbrian hill tarns, and with Small Water evidently one of his favourites, I could quite happily have stayed to reap the benefit of his wisdom on this and other venues all day.
However, with time running out for Andy and I, and the Haweswater trout awaiting Terry’s skilful attention, we said our goodbyes and parted company in the hope of meeting up again soon.
A Rewarding Climb
Whatever mood the Small Water brownies might be in, my day had already been well and truly enriched by a hill-stream fish and a true Lakeland angling legend. And there were, even more, delights to come when, after a steady climb up a well-defined track, we scrambled up the final, narrower section and caught our first glimpse of the tarn.
Surrounded by rocky, grassy slopes, and overshadowed by the dramatic Nan Bield Pass, its rippling and sun-dappled water was very welcome in photographic terms, and we soon had the potential cover shot we’d been hoping for. All we needed now was a trout or two; however, the cold water and bright, breezy conditions weren’t going to make this easy.
Cast-and-step tactics near the entrance of a feeder stream on the southwestern shoreline came up trumps for me. Ten minutes’ work with a 9ft 6in 6-wt rod, slow intermediate line, 16ft leader of 4lb fluorocarbon and two traditional wet flies spaced eight feet apart, produced a solid, lightning-fast tug from a plump, plucky fish with spots like a leopard. For once, it hadn’t preferred the size 14 Black and Peacock Spider on the point, instead opting for the flashier charms of a similarly sized Silver March Brown on the dropper.
Then it was my turn to go behind the lens as we negotiated our way round the rocky margins so that Andy could try his favoured area around another feeder on the shallower, shelving northeastern shore. His line, leader and flies had barely settled beyond the drop-off before our second, similarly sized, Small Water brownie was fighting for its freedom after pouncing on a black pearly Dabbler variant – also on the top dropper.
These heavily spotted fish are truly beautiful!
Our short but sweet second day in the Lake District mountains ended with a fairly quick descent back to the car park at Mardale Head – where, having caught two nice fish of his own on Haweswater, Terry Cousin was also packing up. Despite the aching legs, thumping heartbeat and dry throat he’d endured along the way, Andy had clearly been mesmerised by our hill stream and tarn adventures. As he bid goodbye to Terry and I, I’m sure that part of him wasn’t at all sure how easy it would be to return to stocked fisheries after the thrill and beauty of his first-ever tarn trout. I well remember having similar feelings over 20 years ago.
For my part, it had been good to revisit Small Water – if only for a little while. Every inch the classic Lakeland hill tarn, my experience had been rendered all the more memorable for meeting Terry Cousin, and I’ll certainly never forget his parting words to me before I too headed for home.
“I didn’t expect to meet another angler out here today,” said Terry after another good chat and a final handshake. “And I’ve certainly met a friend.” What more could I have asked for?
Clark Colman refines his dry-fly techniques to enjoy good early season surface sport on a taxing but a productive river, whose wild brownies can often be found ‘looking up’ right from opening day…
As a devotee of modern, light-line, European-style nymphing approaches, it’s not always easy for me to lay these aside in favour of other methods when the new wild trout season dawns on our rivers and streams. With over 80% of a trout’s food being taken sub-surface, and with insect hatches or falls yet to gain real momentum and volume, my first trouting sessions of the New Year usually involve the same techniques that serve me well for grayling during the autumn and winter.
Wild brownies respond just as well as ‘the lady of the stream’ to the delicate presentation and sensitive take detection afforded by my favourite 10ft 2-wt and 3-wt rods, fixed-line leader-only setups, and tungsten-beaded bugs presented on the finest tippets that conditions and fly weight allow. With bumper catches possible right from opening day, it’s all too easy for me to become fixated by such approaches. However, there are times when greater flexibility is called for in making the most of changing situations or a venue with certain fish-feeding peculiarities of its own.
Speculate To Accumulate
One such place is a largely unknown and very challenging river lying a short distance from my former home in the northeast Midlands. Seldom more than thigh deep, the narrow, gin-clear and largely sedate stretch on which I tend to concentrate appears made for the single-fly French nymphing technique, especially at the start of the season.
Given the mild winter we have had this year, don't be surprised to see early hatches of winged flies...
Given the right conditions, dry-fly fishing is equally productive at this time. The shallow water here can warm up a good deal earlier than on other, deeper rivers nearby, which stimulates a good deal of early aquatic plant growth and invertebrate activity. As a result, the river often enjoys decent hatches of that familiar early season upwing, the large dark olive, not to mention ‘hardy perennials’ like black gnats and midge. So if ever I’m in the mood for some good surface sport right from the off, this is one of the places to which I head.
... especially in the shallower runs and glides
Tackle For Twitchy Trout
One particular dry-fly session on this difficult but rewarding venue stands out in my memory. It started on a crisp April mid-morning around three years ago, under bright blue skies, minimal cloud cover and piercing sunlight, which, together with the river’s crystal-clear water and intermittent rises, foretold of wary fish and the great care that would be demanded in terms of equipment, fly patterns, watercraft and presentation.
With little opportunity to get close to trout, my 9ft #3 tip-flex rod would allow me to cover them at distances beyond the reach of a French or presentation leader, while still aiding delicate presentation. The latter would also be helped by a more gently tapering weight-forward line for tight loop formation, turnover of long, light-tippet leaders and minimal landing impact. The one I opted for sported a willowy-olive colour – a perfect compromise between visibility and minimisation of line flash.
I’m usually well outside my comfort zone with anything less than 12 feet of tapered leader when dry-fly fishing. Given the conditions, today would have been no exception, and I was thankful for the largely clear surroundings and lack of downstream breeze that rendered a necessarily longer leader both possible and comfortable. The one I used was formed by barrel knotting a 5ft tippet of 0.10mm copolymer to the 0.12mm point of a 9ft tapered leader.
I’ve been a convert to the drag-reducing benefits of long, level tippets for some time now (largely through Jeremy Lucas’ influence), and was confident that such a leader configuration could be more than adequately presented via my choice of rod and line. To further aid turnover I’d also removed the small welded loop at the tip of my fly line in favour of a needle knot line-to-leader connection, which is far more efficient in transferring energy (built up during false casting) from fly line to leader.
The raised, open banks on my side of the river entailed keeping a low profile while observing rise forms and choosing an appropriate fly pattern. There were one or two large dark olive duns on the water, but from my vantage point, it appeared as though the trout preferred more easily targeted emergers over fully hatched adults that could disappear in a second.
In such circumstances, an appropriately sized Parachute Adams or my own GPE (General-Purpose Emerger) usually finds its way onto my tippet. These are hardly the stuff of legends when it comes to creativity; however, I seldom find the need for anything more complex at this time of year and prefer (on the basis of experience) to prioritise presentation over close-copy imitation.
Bringing fish downstream to the net quickly in the shallow glides will avoid spooking the other rising fish upstream.
Recent work by Paul Procter, Dave Southall and others has questioned the need for regular degreasing of dry-fly tippets on running water and instead argues for the greater benefits of slack-line casts and tippet collapse in aiding natural, drag-free drifts. I don’t doubt for one second that their experiences and expertise more than bear this out; however, I’m at my most confident when using all available ways of minimising poor presentation – especially on this hard taskmistress of a river.
Thus, before sliding carefully down the bank into the gin-clear water below, I went through my usual leader-preparation drills. First up was greasing everything to within three feet of the fly, to ensure clean, smooth pick-up when rolling or lifting off into the next cast (or striking into a fish). I then used sinkant paste to degrease the remainder of the tippet, which would prevent it silhouetting on the calm, oily surface like a scratch on a mirror.
Whatever technique I’m employing, I always try to get as close to rising fish or likely looking areas as possible, so as not to jeopardise presentation and line control with longer than necessary casts. In this respect, the gravelly riverbed offered comfortable, secure wading, which very much supported the ‘gently, Bentley’ approach that would make all the difference between success and failure that day. Even with the slowest and subtlest of leg movements, I could do little to prevent expanding ripples from arcing upstream towards rising trout; however, the tail of a narrow, foam-flecked run afforded a measure of cover from which to make my first casts.
Smooth acceleration to crisp stops over a narrow casting arc served to load the rod and turn over the long leader with minimal fly line beyond the tip. After three failed attempts, I managed to drop the size 16 GPE just above the nearest rising fish, and up it came. Afraid that his splashy acrobatics would spook other trout in the run, I quickly steered this plump, vividly-spotted 10-incher downstream and into the net for a quick photo, before releasing him back into the cold, clear water.
Parachute Adams Variant
Hook: Orvis Classic Extra-Fine Dry-Fly, sizes 14 to 20
Thread: Semperfli Nanosilk (grey)
Tail: Mixture of Grizzle and Rhode Island Red cock hackle fibres
Abdomen & Thorax: Hare's Ear or Wapsi Superfine dubbing (Grey)
Wingpost: Orvis Poly Pro Yarn (White)
Hackle: Grizzle and Rhode-Island Red cock hackles, wound together
GPE (General Purpose Emerger)
Hook: Kamasan B100/B100 Gold, sizes 14 or 16
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, olive
Abdomen: Stripped Peacock quill, dyed olive; varnished for protection
Wing: Two natural CDC plumes, backward-sloping
Thorax: Olive-dyed Hare's ear
Legs: Dark dun cock handle, clipped
Something A Little Bigger…
With large dark olives continuing to trickle off, and the run rested briefly, the antics of this first fish wouldn’t prevent more of a similar size from following in reasonably quick succession – providing, of course, that I’d dried the fly with floatant dust and retreated the leader. Then, while distracted by a busy water vole some little distance upstream, I almost missed the slow, unhurried swirl that engulfed the GPE in the shade of a left-bank reed clump.
Clearly no 10-incher, the trout bolted off upstream as I struck, accompanied by all the line I’d retrieved (at the same speed as the current) to keep in touch with the fly as it drifted back downstream. More line followed by a singing reel, before the fish paused, hung in the placid current and shook its head a couple of times – always the sign of a bigger brownie. Then it was off across the river, intent on burying itself under the bank.
A big tail and long, golden-olive flank slapped angrily on the surface before the hooped-over rod tip sprang backwards and the barbless GPE dropped sadly down to the surface. “At least you know they’re here,” I said to myself, in a not-entirely-successful bid to assuage my guilt at losing what was clearly a very special trout for this river.
Onwards And Upwards
It soon became obvious that the escapee had put his smaller cousins to flight, so I crept slowly upstream to the tail of a wider, slower and even shallower run, where I’d observed several fish rising consistently while tackling up. They were still there, and in good numbers too, but longer casting and even greater care with presentation were necessary here.
At times I was my own worst enemy in this respect. Whether mulling over my lost ‘monster’, engrossed in watching the fly or distracted by my new friend the water vole, I wasn’t always quick enough in retrieving line to maintain drag-free contact with the GPE. This caused a loop of line to pass behind the rod tip, creating a ‘pulley wheel’ effect that zipped the fly downstream in a pronounced V-wake – clearly very offputting to the trout. Also, if takes from less-discerning fish had come at that point, I’d have needed to lift the whole loop off the surface before driving the hook point home – by which time they’d likely be long gone.
A bit more self-discipline was necessary to bring several more pretty wild brownies to the net, including a fine, olive-hued and large-spotted 13-incher. Given their preference for helpless emergers, takes weren’t exactly hurried, and the number of rising trout here made it all-too-tempting to recast immediately if the GPE passed over one without disappearing. This would, however, have caused much disturbance, so I waited until the fly, leader and fly line were well downstream, raising the rod tip all the while to create a D-loop, before gently rolling the line high off the water and accelerating into the back cast.
Given current weather conditions, this day on one of my all-time favourite early season rivers seems like a long time ago. To judge from the cold, wet and windy scene outside, not to mention the welcome fire crackling in the hearth, it’ll be a little while yet before the large dark olives start to appear in sufficient numbers to warrant resting my nymphing rods and heavy bugs.
When they do, however, I might well celebrate with a trip back to the Midlands, armed with a light-line dry-fly outfit and a box of appropriate imitations – plus a reassuring tub of leader sinkant or two!
For all the satisfaction I get from leader-only, European-style nymphing tactics, I must admit to missing the sight of a fly line and leader unrolling over a rising river brown trout. It should at least make for a nice break from the norm, and hopefully, Mr Vole will be there too – I do miss his company!
Don't rule out the dries this spring...
... the rewards are well worth it!
(Photography by Will Burn)
Name: Clark Colman
Tel: 07752 268073
Clark Colman is the Fly Fishing Specialist at Orvis UK’s Harrogate store. He also runs EDIP Fly Fishing – a popular guiding service operating nationwide.
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.
Clark Colman targets ‘magic lies’ on a small, feature-packed urban tributary in the hope of a back-end personal best.
I’ve been trying for a 2lb-plus wild brownie from this little river ever since I discovered it some five years ago. I thought I’d cracked it in 2012, after being led a merry dance by what turned out to be a very nice, but ultimately slightly smaller than expected specimen that seized my nymph in the neck of a pool overshadowed by overhanging tree branches. Things also looked promising a year later, when something rather out of the ordinary took hold while I was demonstrating for a guiding client. However, despite a lengthy and remarkably trout-like scrap along the wall-lined, undercut and rocky bank from which the fish had come, it was a broad-backed, huge-finned, gunmetal-grey male grayling that finally broke the surface.
Narrowing The Odds
It’s not entirely surprising that I’ve struggled to break the 2lb barrier here. For all its urban surroundings, tight confines and varied, man-made riverbed detritus, this is a remarkably clean system that holds impressive numbers of fish. However, I’m not convinced that the available food it offers goes far enough to permit real growth in anything more than a small number of bigger residents. As a result, finding such trout can be something of a war of attrition, particularly if conditions on the day aren’t right. In my experience, the odds of landing a really sizeable wild brownie (particularly on venues like this) are best narrowed by timing your visit appropriately and being a little more savvy where reading the water is concerned. A little touch of ‘magic’ also helps.
While inevitably tinged with sadness as another season draws to a close, September also carries with it the promise of bigger than average fish that might, just might, be more readily catchable than in previous months. Having survived another year in competitive running-water environments, such quarry will (like their smaller cousins) now be looking to feed as much and as efficiently as possible to see them through the forthcoming rigours of spawning and another cold, lean winter.
As ever, it’s important that trout receive more energy from aquatic and terrestrial morsels than is used up in getting them, and that they also continue to have a care for their other basic needs: oxygen, temperature-stable water, shelter from fast currents and bright sunlight, and protection from predators. Welcome assistance in these respects is rendered by the cooler and generally more hospitable conditions that tend to follow the dog days of August. With water and oxygen levels rising as a result of early autumnal rainfall, and a host of nourishing grub still there for the taking, September fish are now tempted to leave their high-summer hidey-holes and venture forth more readily at meal times – particularly when (as was the case when this feature was shot) periods of higher and more-coloured water embolden trout more and place more dislodged food items at their mercy.
That said, the territoriality with which bigger residents monopolise the most productive parts of a river or stream still often remains. As with any other time of year, therefore, it’s a wise move to seek out specimen wild brownies in areas where as many of their requirements as possible are met in one place – just like the areas where, prior to this feature, my biggest fish from the venue in question had come from.
In his excellent film ‘The Anatomy Of A Trout Stream’, the well-known American entomologist and flyfisher Rick Hafele refers to these locations as ‘magic lies’. This term has stuck with me since childhood and I love the sense of anticipation and excitement that it conveys. The very appearance of such lies often reinforces this, as many look decidedly ‘mysterious’ and are awkward to cover with a conventional roll, overhead or sidearm cast. Think overhanging trees, bridge stanchions, walls, undercut banks, submerged weed beds, tree trunks or roots (not to mention the host of shelter and protection-providing man-made items that can turn up in our urban trout waters) and you start to get the idea. If there’s a reasonable amount of depth there also, together with an oxygen and food-providing current line or two (such as in the neck of a run or pool), then so much the better.
Magic lies aren't alays the easiest places to access! Expect dense vegetation...
... and extreme wading conditions ...
... and when finally there, tricky casting scenarios!
The awkwardness of some ‘magic lies’, together with the fact that they often cater for most (and in some cases, all) of a trout’s basic needs, is what makes them so attractive. It’s hardly odd, then, that such areas have long become synonymous with stories of the biggest, oldest and wisest of running-water fish. We’ve all read or heard of trophy trout grown fat on a diet of bigger morsels as well as more run-of-the-mill food items, and which have lived to a great age by taking up residence in attractive but practically inaccessible areas, and by using their wits to avoid capture by scaly, furry, feathered or wader-clad predators. The next time you come across such a tale, pay close attention to its watery setting. I’ll wager you could describe it as a stereotypical ‘magic lie’.
There are one or two caveats to all of this, however. In the first place, not all ‘magic lies’ are as readily identifiable as those around which so many legends (and realities) have gathered. In theory, you could pick out many more commonplace parts of standard riffles, runs, pools and glides (such as necks, current seams, pockets and drop-offs), and term them ‘magic lies’ simply because they’re the most likely fish-holding areas in front of you at that time. Such locations may well need a little more in the way of observation and understanding of running-water anatomy to identify and make the most of them – which is where I hope the previous articles in this series have come in handy.
Unmanged urban rivers are capable of holiding some quality fish despite the surroundings.
What’s more, there’s no guarantee that ‘magic lies’ will always hold the grandaddy of the river or stream. Such lies are just as attractive to smaller fish as the bigger ones that can bully them out, prey on them; or which, over time, have become more substantial after managing to hold on to such prime territory since their youth. So don’t be surprised if the monster you’ve been expecting isn’t among the first few trout to show themselves – especially if, like the little urban river featured here, the density of fish prevents the available food from being enough to create and sustain decent numbers of bigger residents.
Finally, for all the attractiveness of ‘magic lies’, bear in mind that there are certain times when you might not find a trout there at all. Changing weather, water and feeding conditions throughout the season can sometimes cause fish to behave in ways other than how you might expect them to. The very pleasing River Ellen brownie that I wrote about last month would have fitted in perfectly as a mugger of small fish and other bigger morsels from the security of a ‘magic lie’. However, there he was, happily sipping in a procession of tiny emerging midges from the middle of a shallow, clear and sedate glide. Why? Simply because he could take in enough of them to satisfy his appetite, with no real threat to his comfort and safety. In contrast, grabbing hold of something bigger and potentially more animate to eat might well have been more of an effort in those hot, low-water and oxygen-depleted conditions – even when operating from a more covert ‘deliberate ambush’ station.
Think Like Robin Hood
More accessible ‘magic lies’ can be effectively targeted with the equipment, fly patterns and presentations appropriate for the situation and fish feeding behaviour. The more difficult ones ask a little more from flyfishers, particularly in terms of casting and line control. Having such ‘get out of jail’ options as the bow-and-arrow or catapult cast in your armoury can be worth its weight in gold. Whenever I think of this or go through it with a client, I always revisit the example of Don Howat – a lovely, good-humoured ex-RAF ground crew technician for whom I had the pleasure to guide some three years ago through Bill Howell’s excellent Fishing for Forces organisation.
It's not just natural features to look out for. Bridges are often places where those special fish lie.
The first ‘magic lie’ that Don confronted that day was a pool with a surface not much bigger than that of an average-sized dinner table, and a depth of little more than two or three feet. The only refuge of any size in an otherwise-shallow, fast-flowing and inhospitable area, the shelter it offers is enhanced by a short current tongue entering at its neck, and by the lower tendrils of large, awkwardly hanging tree branches that almost render it unfishable – but which also provide shade, protection from avian predators and a source of terrestrial food.
It’s difficult to pick out this little ‘cistern’ from the raised bank above, while down below many anglers choose to wade past it in favour of the weir pool a short distance upstream. I knew from past experience, however, that it usually holds a bigger than average fish or two, and thought it might make a nice challenge for Don – who had by now gotten to grips with the short-range, fixed-line duo technique we’d been concentrating on. However, while soon appreciating why a cast or two here might well pay dividends (especially if his Balloon Caddis and Copperhead Hare’s Ear Nymph combo could be placed into the neck of the pool), he couldn’t see a way of getting the flies there without falling foul of the overhanging branches. He’d reckoned, however, without the bow-and-arrow cast!
After kneeling down carefully below the pool’s tail, Don began by adopting a ‘thumb on top’ grip with his rod hand, which provides stability and a means of directing the cast. With the nymph held between the thumb and forefinger of his line hand (hook point carefully exposed to prevent it being driven into these!), and the line below the reel clamped against the rod handle by the first two fingers of his other hand, Don then pointed the rod tip in the direction he wanted the line and flies to travel – in this case upstream towards the narrow ‘window’ between the bottom of the branches and the attractive pool neck. Slowly and steadily, he drew back the fixed length of line and leader to flex the rod tip upwards and back towards him. All Don had to do then was simply let go of the nymph, watch as his duo rig was catapulted forwards over the unloading rod tip, and be ready to keep in touch with the flies as they landed and drifted back towards him.
Newcomers to the bow-and-arrow cast often have to experiment with the angle at which the rod tip is held, and with the amount of ‘draw’ placed on the tip, before they get it right. Too little draw means not enough load, with the result that the line, leader and flies simply collapse in a heap well short of the target. Too much causes everything to straighten quickly before springing back towards the caster as the rod tip counterflexes backwards again. The tip might even smack the water if it’s held too low in the first place.
The bow-and-arrow cast. Essential to fish those hard to reach areas.
After a couple of failed attempts, Don’s third-ever bow-and-arrow cast managed to slot his flies into the right-hand current seam. I’d warned him to be ready for on-the-drop takes in such relatively shallow water, and to Don’s credit he reacted perfectly as the Balloon Caddis almost immediately took a dive upstream, signalling a take to the Copperhead Hare’s Ear beneath it. A flick of his wrist brought a speckled, paddle-finned and rocket-fuelled bar of gold cartwheeling out of the pool neck and charging back downstream towards the faster water below this ‘magic lie’. With Don applying as much pressure as he dared against the 21/2lb tippet, I managed to net the fish before it could get too far. When I eventually held up the 1lb-plus wild brownie I was treated to a sight I’ll never forget – a grown man kneeling in the river and absolutely roaring with laughter. Now that really was magic!
Take extra care when running the 'grandaddy' of the river. These big browns are older fish and will take time to recover from the battle.
Size, of course, is relative. A two-pounder, for example, from a location in which there are a lot of two-pounders is nice enough in itself, if not exactly out of the ordinary. It would most certainly be a specimen, however, on venues where – for reasons such as those given above – the average size of fish is much lower. So persevere on such waters and you might just get lucky, as I did on my very last cast of the day in the neck of a pool that certainly qualified as a ‘magic lie’.
For the record, it was the reliable as ever Copperhead Partridge and Hare’s Ear Jig that did the trick, presented via the excellent, soon to be released 10ft, 3-wt Orvis Recon, a 40ft leader-only setup of 0.30mm monofilament with 20 centimetres of 0.25mm bicolour indicator mono, and four feet of 3lb fluorocarbon tippet attached to the indicator via a 1mm micro ring. It was just… now what was it Paul Daniels used to say?
Hook: Orvis 1524 (Traditional Nymph Hook), sizes 14-16 (barb flattened)
Bead: Copper tungsten, size to suit hook
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper
Tail: Three or four cock pheasant centre-tail fibre tips
Body: Tying thread
Rib one: Red wire, diameter to suit hook size
Rib two: Bronze peacock herl, wound in opposite direction to wire (tying thread visible beneath both ribs)
Thorax: Dark hare's ear, natural
COPPERHEAD HARE'S EAR NYMPH
Hook: Tiemco TMC 2457, sizes 10-16 (barb flattened)
Bead: Copper tungsten, size to suit hook
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper or olive
Tail: Cree hackle point
Body and thorax: Dark hare's ear, natural or dyed olive
Rib: Copper wire, diameter to suit hook size
COPPERHEAD PARTRIDGE AND HARE'S EAR JIG
Hook: Partridge Patriot Barbless Jig, sizes 10-18
Bead: Copper tungsten (slotted), size to suit hook
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper or olive
Body: Dark hare's ear, natural
Rib: Copper wire, diameter to suit hook size
Legs: Brown speckled partridge
Collar (optional): Tying thread
Hook: Tiemco TMC 103BL, sizes 13-19
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, grey
Tail: Grey/tan polypropylene yarn
Body: Fine grey/tan dubbing
Underwing: As for tail
Overwing: Yearling elk hair
Thorax: Hare's ear