I’m always bitter-sweet about the end of the season. The low, clear water and abundant hatches that occur in the Autumn as the nights draw in earlier are a timely reminder to the fish that their opportunity to eat heartily and grow strong in time for the winter is coming to an end. Any fish that doesn’t take this final opportunity to grab a few easy pickings faces a long, hard winter.
The first river I tackled at the start of the trout season was the beautiful Usk in Monmouthshire, South Wales and it seemed only appropriate that my last trip of the season (and possibly last trip on a trout stream for a long time – news to follow soon) should be a return to what is my favourite “fishing” river in the UK. I say “fishing” river because I have rivers that are my favourite for different reasons, the Usk is the one that leaves me tired, broken and bursting with pride if I managed to hook and hold its incredibly powerful wild brown trout. My season started with a wild 20″ fish and I hoped it would end on a similar note.
After the customary 5am start I met Dave at Heathrow T5. Dave is an interesting character and a good friend of mine who has just spent nigh on two years living (and fishing) in Australia. We first fished together for Grayling on the Kennet and since then we’ve fished for plenty of fish in plenty of places. We’re both keen on our modern spinning too, to the chagrin of more committed fluff chucking friends. He’s a very good angler with a breadth of experience far greater than mine, a really tidy fly tier and the kind of “bloke” you can spend three days in the Welsh hills with without the conversation drying up. He’s also got a kick ass Mercedes sports/estate car which I piled my 25kg of camping kit in to at around 7am.
The Wye and Usk Foundation offer a phenomenal service to anglers wishing to fish waters all over Wales for all the game species and many coarse species too. Their proactive management of large river systems has created a system that is fantastically easy and accessible to fishermen. One can only hope that their system can be spread out more widely over the UK. They may control the rivers, beats and tickets but one thing they can’t control is the weather and the weather prior to our trip had been very very dry – it was in fact the driest September in the UK since 1910.
Having set up camp we arrived at the first beat we were to fish and it was immediately obvious that not only were conditions going to be very different to the other times we had fished the Usk but they were also to be very challenging. The long riffles had shrunk down to almost mill-pond still trickling glides. The tumbling white water runs were so low they barely babbled between the boulders and the broad pebble bottomed pools were surrounded by a halo of sun-bleached white stones. The river seemed terribly thirsty. The fish we saw rising in these pools rose with such caution and stealth that we knew before a rod had been strung up that the next three days would be a real challenge.
French nymphing (or the modern bastardisation of it) may not be to every-bodies taste but even in my unskilled hands it can be darned effective. While Dave chose to take the noble fight against the rising fish in the calmer water I cowered behind my 10′ 3# rod, long leaders and beaded nymphs and proceeded to take the riffles apart. I had three fish to the net in the first twenty minutes, the largest of which was an 18″ beauty which I insisted Dave take a photo of as I was unlikely to catch another one that size! Each of the three fish took the Fulling Mill Quill Jig Nymph in a size 14, and I must admit that while I don’t get too picky with nymphs this has become a real go-to fly for me and I catch a lot of fish on them.
I fished the few runs and riffles that were left in the low water as hard as possible and was already racking up a bit of a cricket score when I hit a fish that had a bit more about it. Anybody who has ever caught them will testify to the strength of a proper wild Usk brownie and this particular fish felt more than an equal for any I had hooked before. I was probably a hundred yards downstream from where I had hooked it when it finally lay in my new LTD Catch & Release net, one of the most beautiful trout I have ever seen let alone landed. Another fish of 18″ but a really heavy set and chunky fish that had been fattening up for the winter. My pictures don’t really do the fish justice but they’re as good as I have got. A truly stunning fish that I’ll remember for a long time. Not long after I managed to sneak a couple out on tiny little dries too which were a fitting end to my finest days fishing on the Usk to date.
Dave and I talked tactics over takeaway at base camp. The fish were condensed in two areas – either in the riffles in as little as six inches of water or in the slow, glassy pools sipping down incomprehensibly small dries. I had taken mine on a size 21 JL Mole – a tiny F-fly which was attached to 6x tippet and a very long leader – not easy fishing at range. We had set up camp next to the river and whilst lying in my tent during the dead of night I heard fish leaping and thrashing out of the water, clearly there was a food item in the evenings that wasn’t there during the daytime. When I woke the next morning it was very obvious, during the night-time there was a hatch of huge cinnamon sedges – the one below would have been a fine match for a size 4 hook. If only they hatched during daylight!
Day two was a frustrating affair. It’s actually my favourite stretch of water in the UK – one that requires a multitude of skills, tactics and flies as well as being phenomenally physically demanding. Success on this beat to me represents a huge achievement and I’m still yet to walk away from this beat feeling like I really nailed it. I managed a few good fish to around 15″ on the nymph leader but the lack of water was incredibly limiting. This is a stretch that at normal height provides the nymph angler with a good few days of riffles and runs but as the water was so low most of my favourite areas held very little promise – some held no water at all. An evening spinner fall gave me half an hour of dry-fly fun including a fish which straightened a hook out. It was so dark that not only did I not get to see the fish when hooked I also didn’t see it take the fly in the first place, it struck in to me!
The third and final day was on a beat that I hadn’t fished before on the middle river, one of Dave’s favourites and after a fairly inauspicious start I began to pick a few fish up in the riffles, mostly on the Rubber Grub – a fly I hadn’t used before but will certainly be tying on more often. In the early afternoon my attention was drawn to a side pool which took me back to my time in New Zealand. These little side pools can hold fish but they need a number of conditions for a fish to take up residency – deep water, constant flow, shade and nearby cover to dash in to when the fish feel unsafe. We fished these pools in NZ to great effect, often they held bigger fish than the main river. The picture below is of the pool. I pitched a heavy two fly nymph rig up in to the neck which sank quickly and without drag. What I hadn’t seen from my position half a dozen rod lengths away was that the grey smudge at the bottom of the guts of the run wasn’t the bottom but a fish. I saw the mouth open and struck in to weight. The thing thrashed like a scalded lion and took off downstream towards the tree roots. I clamped down on the reel as I knew that if my two fly rig ended up in those then the outcome would be negative. The outcome was negative anyway, the hook pulled and I was left to rue another one that got away, though the moral victory is sometimes enough….
We both caught plenty of fish that day, the final day. Dave’s initial struggles had been overcome and he was sighting and hooking fish on dries far more regularly than I could which was admirable because I found those dead-flow fish incredibly tough to catch. The tiniest amount of drag was as much as it took not only to have takes refused but often to spook your target fish entirely – this was technical trout fishing at its hardest.
Six o’clock came and it was time for us to pack up and head back to London. The trout season – for us at least – finished there and then on the banks of the Usk beneath stunning sunlight in the shadow of the beautiful Brecon hills. In the time we were there Autumn had begun to filter inexorably among the fields, fringes and forests. The annual deciduous decay was underway and as the auburn leaves tumbled and twisted their way down stream on the current they took with them another seven months of fishing that we’ll never get back but remember forever. Making new friends, memories and targets, sometimes even achieving th targets you set – sometimes realising that the targets you set don’t mean a thing when it’s just you, the river and the fish.
If it is that I don’t see another UK trout season for the next few years then I’ll miss it terribly but the prospect of a new adventure in a new place is often too irresistible to a mere fisherman. The trout in the Usk have been there for thousands of years and should be for a good while yet, so this isn’t goodbye, just farewell. An adventure to be continued…