‘Go on then, what happened last night?’ Mia asked as we sped up the Exe Valley way, the commute of this summer’s unorthodox electrofishing ‘working’ life.
‘Man alive, I lost one of those “oh shit fish”, you know the kind that you might only come across once or twice a year. I’m still shaking about it. You’d never guess where I was though’.
It was a late August Wednesday afternoon, the aroma of my Skoda Roomster now thick with the evidence of a summer living as an ecology graduate come vagabond, scraping a living from an unpaid internship by living in this all too cramped and basic camper. Dutifully, I’d made the rounds to landowners in the morning to ask permission to carry out fry surveys on their sections of the river Exe the following day, whilst Mia was doing likewise for gravel cleaning works on the river Culm. If gravel cleaning leaves question marks in your head then don’t fret, it did for me until recently. As it turns out, our rivers suffer such horrendous amounts of soil runoff from the surrounding land, accelerated by poor land management (i.e. cattle farming, growth of biomass crops with no winter cover crop, loss of woodland, ect) that industrial machinery is required to blast away the choking sediment from the river system. Unseen to most of us, something to consider over your next milky brew. Aside from such concerns, my duties were completed for the day with the afternoon laid open for me to occupy myself. To your average nine-to-five kinda guy, such an opportunity might be relished, splashing the rich wealth of hard toil towards a ticket on a pleasant and well managed westcountry fishery. I however found myself as not that kind of guy, lacking the wealth to boot. Free, untamed, dirty water was the order of the day and I had something in mind.
In the centre of Devon’s very own rough and ready Tiverton (my opinion of the town may be marred by the experience of working with particularly uncooperative students from the area), the river Lowman feeds down into there mighty mid-Exe. I’d heard tell of good grayling fishing to be had just upstream of this confluence in the Exe and seen grayling fry in the lower survey site of the Lowman myself, so a foray after the elegant lady of the stream was devised- though perhaps less lady and more streetwise gal in this less than pristine home patch. Beside a gated facility at the back end of an industrial estate, I rushed my waders on as quickly as possible, like an additional round in a triathlon change over, hoping to avoid drawing too much attention before slinking below into the neglected stream.
Lowering in, a quick rise immediately strikes optimism as I miss pricking the unseen offender. Optimistic, I carry on, making short sideways casts with the playful seven foot rod under the hanging grasp of low sycamore branches. The high artificially built-up banks and dense riparian cover leave me squinting for the dry of my duo rig, any takes to the pink nymph irrelevant with my visual margin of error so great. The leader is brought close, a yarn indicator attached in place of the dry, and the nymph left to trot back down the flow again. A snatch here, a tap of connection, and the nymph pings back towards me. How frustrating, one fish missed and one hardly connected. Making my way past a fallen tree I inspect its flowing foliage, a collection of plastic bags trapped in the branches. I can see a deep hole beneath, surely housing a good fish or two, but the dense branches cannot be penetrated by even the most optimistic casting. At the tail of a steep riffle, a large boulder leaves a lee, a textbook relief from the flow for one of the river’s inhabitants. Making my way up with short casts, by my fifth the very head of this water is covered and the indicator goes dashing forwards. Aha! Connection! A bright silver gleam, as the surprised culprit holds itself against the current in a sail-like fashion, revealing her identity as my very target of a (abeit small) grayling. But just again, the line goes limp and the yarn drifts sadly back towards me. Damn. Inspecting the nymph I see nothing wrong; a size 14 barbless pink shrimp with gold bead flickering dully through the limited available light, hook unbent, sharp and well attached to the 3lb tippet. A rancid, rotting pigeon glared mockingly at me, eye now festered from its socket.
Making my way upstream, the engineering on this particular stretch of water begins to become more apparent, with the general riffle-pool-glide sequence broken by long stretches of impounded water, feeding down into steep drops of plunge pools, concrete bound first just in sides and then in substrate. Fishing becomes less efficient; in a bid to continue exploring the length of the river, I find myself walking through long stretches of water too slow to hope for the fish to be undisturbed, before traversing along banks of stacked wire cages of granite boulders, presumably placed in fear of bank subsistence. No bother I thought, it’s all part of the game of exploring new water, the territory will soon become easier, so I thought. Besides, the steep banks were now fenced beyond the thick brambles, my poor waders really didn’t need any more abuse.
Traversing the left hand bank, I found myself able to perch along the partly-submerged branch of an old, thick trunked willow, the bottom below not visible through the turbid water, and I hoped not beyond the limit of my waders, should I have had to (unwillingly) test the bottom. From this point it was possible to cast my nymph forwards into the head of the pool, with great churning flow soon slowing to near stagnant by my position 5 meters behind. Stripping some line from my spool, I worked the weight of the line drifting downstream into an upstream lob, so avoiding the litter of many branches lying between. I can’t see such an unorthodox cast being taught by certified fishing guides anytime soon, but in this far from manicured stretch of water, a sense of ‘imagination’ can often prove valuable. Sorry purists. My uncouth deed was soon met though, as the indicator hesitated, lifting an instinctive flick to the wrist. The three weight bent through to the butt, some unknown force pulsating in the deep water of the plunge pool. Instant adrenaline surged through the blood, a thousand thoughts flying in the periphery of my mind as sole focus was on keeping the rod tip high, maintaining pressure but not pulling too hard in excitement. Elated, water parts and splashes this way and that as a bar of gold goes airbourne. All periphery now melts away. I now know that this is a good fish. I never much want to think of the size of a fish till it’s landed, the grief of too many fish lost has cut me over what was never really mine and the mind drifts greedily to exaggerate. This time though I can see with my own eyes, a really good fish for the westcountry, a prime native brown trout eeking out a lazy existence from the polluted water. And then I feel sick, the line is slack, gone. My hands are shaking, I can’t yet bring myself to cast again. Taking ten minutes, I sit mulling over the events. Losing fish had been frustrating before, and I’m loathe to put a size on the fish, but it was at least as good as any I’ve ever had from southwest England. Shaking subsided, I cast again, but this pool has given its lot. The excitement was not quite over however.
Traversing large boulders I make my way around the deep waters of the pool. The boulders are slimy, covered in grime and dank mosses. A few desperate moves are made to scratch myself through hanging brambles, cruel thorns plucking a few bright crimson droplets of blood. Now above the deep churning water, I find myself in something of a pickle. The wilfully mischievous game of climbing had perhaps prepared me for this moment, a VDiff traverse lunge on sloping holds and awkwardly angled feet. For those that don’t speak in the language of crusty guidebook writers of the trad climbing fraternity, this constitutes moves that would be within hand but somewhat exciting without a rope in fair conditions and a half decent pair of rubber climbing shoes. I, however, was pushing on these awkward nubbins with clumsy size 12 wading boots, cursing through my clenched teeth around the rod the slimy holds. Mischief indeed, but soon passing to safety.
Perhaps I would find a way to extract myself from the now awkwardly modified river, have a cup of tea and laugh it all over. But steep concrete walls, unclimbable even if I had the appropriate attire, mocked this cry of defeat. Timidly I continue upwards, horrified by what laid before me. The substrate of the river had here been entirely replaced by a smooth concrete bottom, uniform in its lifelessness, flow, width and depth. At the head stood a plunge pool with a drop height of a few feet, the concrete abyss stretching at least 6 feet deep and along from the shallow concrete I’d been strolling along. Thought of nymphing through this hole was soon replaced by the dread of knowing that I’d have to pass through. Bother. A construction worker takes another break, waving a cigarette in one hand, the other pointing at me.
‘What dya think you’re doing there, no fish eh?’ he jests.
‘Well I’ve seen a good few, you never know’ I mustered.
Doubt fluttered in my stomach, but I couldn’t bear to admit my predicament, fearing greater scrutiny might be put on whether I could be fishing there, and I’m never in the mood for such trite nonsense. Walking closer, I inspected the smooth concrete walls, hopeful for some weakness. Dread was countered with mild amusement, I found myself to be breaking down the dull stereotype that a certain Mr Hartley has burdened fly fishing with, this was the real stuff. A thin metal board trailed the side of the concrete wall, I suppose a ‘compensatory’ measure put in to allow the passage of aquatic mammals, having all the hallmarks of the minimum cost applied to tick the ‘ecofriendly’ legal requirements. It’s pressed hard against the wall, as I get down to my knees I can’t find space to jam my fingers in, palming hopefully against the side of the metal instead. My left leg trails off of the side, the board a foot or less wide, not quite secure for my whole girth. Grinning through clenched teeth around the rod, I find myself once again too far to retreat, swirling water below and the lip of the next concrete paved riverbed tantalisingly close. Urban fishing at its best I told myself, putting aside the doubt that informed me that I was, in fact, a stubborn fool.
Another pool was passed in like manner, but all soon calmed down as loud construction sites mellowed to quiet urban gardens. Frustrated with the manner of the pink shrimp, unexplainably losing me every hopeful bite, I switched to a tiny #18 black headed pheasant tailed nymph with an offset barbless hook point. Flicking this into the head of a fast shallow run quickly produced a take, and with much insisting to myself that I wouldn’t dare lose this one, nine inches of my first Lowman trout was soon sat in the net. Chuckling away to myself, note was made to return, passing confused looking teenagers on my stomp back through to the car.