also published at www.horrabridge.org.uk as part of a series on Talking Walkham – a tributary of the Tavy in West Devon.
Here in The Shed, one of our projects is to turn 50 years’ worth of fishing junk into an assembly which might actually catch something worth talking about, as opposed to the occasional excitable small trout or mackerel.
We have invested in a couple of fly rods and got some old reels unstuck. We have some flies recommended by a man who knows. The whole caboodle is beginning to make some sort of sense, in theory and occasionally in practice. We have had a walk or a poke along some of most of the local rivers and picked up the beginnings of an idea of how to use a line.
Our ambitions are focusing on taking a good peal or a salmon from our local river, the Walkham, once famous for its poachers and their catches.
There are still big fish in it but getting at them takes the kind of grit and determination you only get when times are hard and you are young. Farmers and householders have fairly thoroughly fenced off and blocked tracks to some of the best stretches. Most of the best of the rest are kept private, between the Maristow Estate, owners of most of round here, and its favoured clients.
The Tavy Walkham & Plym Fishing Club, which issues reasonably priced permits for public access, is left with two main stretches accessible to those of us who can no longer run.
The easiest is Bedford Bridge to Grenofen Bridge. Good fishermen have had plenty of trout there in the past, by all accounts. We have practised our fly techniques on it a few times over two years but it is hard casting, out of woodland most of the way, and we probably didn’t manage more than a couple of dozen fighting chances in the water altogether. Pulled in a couple of tiddlers and lost a couple more.
The public beat ends at the bridge before Grenofen Pool and from there down to Double Waters is the best looking bit, but also the most exclusive – although hardly used, as far as anyone can see.
The tip in the local pubs is to go higher. But the Horrabridge village stretch, once famous and still free to all, is nowadays fairly sterile for one reason and another, and Horrabridge to Huckworthy Bridge is more or less impenetrable at the permitted banks unless you’ve got a local fixer and guide. Above Huckworthy you are into the steep and tough upper valley up onto Dartmoor, and our attempts to explore it have generally been a bit discouraging to our knees.
But late this summer, we paid £40 at a boot sale for a newish No. 8 weight fly rod, an intermediate rod recommended for sea trout. It gives a lot more poke in the air than the ladies’ rod we started with and we wanted to try it. We recalled a local tip for a weir near Eggworthy, next thing resembling a stop above Huckworthy Bridge.
Here’s how we found it: Head downhill towards Huckworthy Bridge after climbing uphill out of Walkhampton but before getting to the bridge you turn right along the Eggworthy road – actually mainly single-track, but tarmacked.
A mile up, on your left, you are looking for double gates across a rough track, chained together. It is not hard to slide behind the adjacent fencing or climb the gate. About a mile down the track, you find a weir and some old hydro plant. The leat for the hydro plant, now apparently disused, is a shameful disruption to access to the river below the weir. But above the weir you can see why it has a reputation as a spot where big fish linger. The shallows are clean and fast and the opposite bank is undercut by a deep dark gully.
What is more, we saw the blighters. Three or four salmon, maybe three and a double count, 24 to 30 inches each, cruising the pools and then going back to holes in that fish hotel opposite. One of them appeared to be trailing a bit of fungus, but hey. And the trees seemed to be just far enough apart to allow a cast across. It was a bit of a climb back to the road but it went better than usual.
In the Burrator Inn, the Shed’s fishing consultant, Charlie Webster, south west rivers guide and long-time contributor to Trout & Salmon, didn’t need to look at our ticket. On the Walkham, he could tell us, we had one day left to try for a salmon. And the fish we had seen were likely to be out of condition. Best bet from here on was the winter run up the Plym, still covered by the TWP ticket until into December and featuring fast fighting fish. On the other hand, if we didn’t mind being a bit unsporting, the Walkham fish were still in the game for 24 hours and the meat would be okay. Charlie rustled up a handful of flies from his car and The Shed dreamed ridiculous dreams all night.
We got there, just before deadline, for two and half hours of exhilaration and frustration. We could still see the fish. But we could not land a fly in front of one for love or money. Once again, we learned that casting out of woodland is an exercise in how much patience you can summon for the art of the just about possible. If there is not a trap in the air, there is one on the floor. It takes five minutes to set up every cast and in the end you can usually only send the fly as far as you can flip it. We recalled Charlie saying, over the pint before last, there were times the best thing to do anyway was use the fly like a spinner – put on a swivel, 18 inches back from the hook would do, and don’t worry about the splash, just get it in the right place. Couldn’t for the life of us remember what he said about the flies. After failing to cast a concoction of orange feathers, we switched to a swivel and a little rubber sand eel, for a bit more weight. Then to a swivel with a steel tube fly. Both looked good in the water – which was probably a bit too clear. But neither was quite heavy enough to go the distances required.
Charlie recommends a few thin strips of lead in your pocket. Wrap one or two around the top of the swivel for extra weight and at the same time lock the top half of the swivel, so all the spin goes into the lure. But we never acted on the tip. Our junk box yielded a couple of used splitshots which we lost in the bracken in the course of trying to re-open them. A couple of lash-ups involving plastic tube and cocktail sticks came adrift.
It was too deep to wade in wellies and too late to go home for a change of kit. Another time, we thought, we would be better off with a spinning rod and reel, throwing ordinary line with a weighted end rig. Some fly clubs are fussy about weights but the rules here only say artificial fly or lure, nothing about delivery. In Cornwall, according to Charlie, spinning rigs are the standard. But so is the use of bait. The unsporting prescription for salmon is a big pink prawn, stretched out along three trebles. The Cornish add a handful of worms to make sure you get the bugger and 40-lb line to make sure you don’t lose him. Their view is it is a sea creature, says Charlie, and you treat it like a conger rather than faffing about with flies.
It was, in the end, a beautiful afternoon – no competition, no spectators, no dogs, no bailiffs, £200 worth of upright citizens’ documents in our bags, the knowledge of big fish actually where we were fishing. For the Shed, it was all close enough to getting there for now.
Since then, the expedition has cost about a full day in Shed time. We had a duff reel we thought we’d fixed but which was still spilling line. It took some winding to and fro to get the good new line sat properly in the right reel without throwing anything away, which is against Shed rules. Then we needed to put some new line on our best spinning reel, only to find it was missing a spring or a washer or something and we couldn’t bodge it with anything we had to hand. Then the alternative reel lost its handle and it took 25 tries to get it back on. The junk box needed new junk, including a twist of solder wire (until we can get at next door’s flashing). And The Shed is proud to have come up with a Tip Of The Month, which is to store spare reels of line in a ziplock bag, sealed to allow just the loose end through at one corner.
But all that stuff is what The Shed likes best, to be honest. For now, we are ready again. It’s not all over yet. And there is always next year.
* However, the secretary of the TWP Club, Roger Round, offers a word of warning. That beat of the Walkham is up for sale and might no longer be theirs next season.
* For more Notes From The Shed, see http://tinyurl.com/nfe2s7d