A little above Keld, high in the Pennines, Whitsundale Beck, Birkdale Beck and Great Sleddale Beck come together to form one of Yorkshire’s most beautiful spate rivers – the River Swale. From here it runs east, rushing through rugged Dales country, and on towards the famous racing town of Catterick. Here the North Yorkshire Moors block its easterly progress, forcing it south into the lower lying Vale of York, where it winds like a sinuous thread before finally joining the River Ure below Boroughbridge.
It is mid-September and Doreen has settled on fishing the middle Swale at Sheephills Farm near Topciiffe. In spite of recent heavy rain, a long dry summer has left water levels low.
Doreen’s swim is on a bend. Slightly upstream there is a patch of large, greenish-grey pebbles over which the water riffles. Here the main force of the current switches from the near to the far side of the river — rushing almost at right angles against the high, sThomas bank.
Where the flow follows the curve of the bank it has scoured a channel. Alongside this – roughly two thirds of the way across the river — are five old wooden stumps. Doreen calls them the ‘Pylons’ and it is here that she hopes to find dace, the odd chub and maybe a big old barbel. ‘A lot of people don’t like fishing these fast rivers,’ says Doreen. ‘They come here and they just leger it – but it is great fun on a stick float.’
You do need quite a bit of bait, though. Doreen has brought three pints of casters and about a pint of hemp (which she mixes with the casters) and a few mixed maggots for the hook. But there is something else…
She unties a knotted plastic bag, tips out a small newspaper package and carefully unwraps it. Inside is a traditional Yorkshire bait: four pieces of cake – fresh from a wasp nest! From within their cells, a few young wasps are earnestly nibbling at the caps over their heads. Others have already made their debut and are crawling drowsily over the cakes – so that Doreen has to watch where she’s putting her fingers. If there are any chub or barbel about, this optional extra should improve her chances of catching one.
She has chosen a ‘pin stick’ which takes only four number eights (strung down the line). This may seem light for a fast river but there are good reasons for the choice.
First, the swim is shallow – nowhere more than about lm (3ft) deep – so you simply don’t need much shot down the line to get the bait to the bottom. Secondly, wading enables you to get almost directly behind the float when trotting – you hardly have to cast at all – so you don’t need extra casting weight. Thirdly, there is quite a lot of weed in the swim, which means that if you have too much shot down the line, the hook tends to catch and drag the float under.
With her bait apron tied firmly round her waist, rod in hand and waders up, Doreen steps into the Swale.
Fishing from the middle of a river creates its own problems – not least of all the problem of where to put things. Any natural feature such as flood debris or a patch of dry gravel — where tackle can be secured — is a great boon. Doreen fastens her keepnet to the stumps. She doesn’t expect to encounter anything very big, so, rather than screwing the handle on to her landing net, she rests the head on top of her keepnet – ready to use it as a scoop, should need arise.
With her float set at a depth of about 45cm (18in) she drops it into the fast water and lets it run through. Little white rafts of foam and a grey sky make the float’s orange tip difficult to see and about two thirds of the way down the swim she has to wind in. ‘Keep feeding little and often,’ says Doreen as she throws in a few grains of hemp and casters – repeating the process before each cast. She drops the float into the slower water slightly to the right. About halfway down it vanishes and in that split second one wonders: is it weed or fish? A solid thumping of the rod end leaves Doreen in no doubt – it’s a good fish – probably a chub. With some difficulty she edges it over the net and scoops it out – a bronze chub of about lKlb (0.6kg) and a good start.
One small dace later it looks as though the swim is livening up. Fish are topping downstream and once or twice a large fish has swirled right beside the stumps. Doreen is still having some difficulty seeing the float. She has to strike at anything that looks vaguely like a bite.
She is soon into another good fish – bigger than the first. In the fast water it puts up a dogged fight. Doreen eases it gradually upstream and soon the head of a chub of around 2’Mh (1.1kg) appears. Just as she is about an arm’s length from getting it into the handleless net, it comes off. As Doreen points out, there’s a lesson to be learnt from this: even if you aren’t expecting big fish -be prepared — you never know when they might turn up. She wades out of the river, collects her landing net handle and returns to tie a bigger hook on.
That cheeky fish has just swirled right next to Doreen’s wader again. ‘It’s surprising how close they’ll come,’ she says and tells how a couple of weeks ago she came here with her family and caught fish close to where people were paddling.
She drops the float into the fast water beside her and is almost immediately into a big fish. The combined effects of the fish’s weight and the strong current put a wicked bend in the rod but a second or two later it’s straight again — the fish is off.
You always run this risk when using small hooks in fast water but there’s no choice if you want to get bites. Still, Doreen has been particularly unlucky and looks a little disappointed. Soon the familiar smile returns, though, and she knuckles down to thejobinhand.
Things have gone quiet. After taking another chub — this time of around 12oz (0.34kg) – and a few small dace, Doreen is struggling to get a bite. It looks as though those lost fish may have scared the rest. A fairly heavy downpour isn’t helping matters, but Doreen doesn’t mind: ‘The rain doesn’t bother me and I’ve got my waterproof mascara on so that I don’t end up with eyes like a panda.’
But it is hard going and even a few casts with the magical wasp grub on the hook do not produce a bite. At times like this there is only one thing for it – stop for a sandwich break and a cup of coffee!
During lunch there has been a marked change in the weather. A light breeze has sprung up and the sun peeps cheerfully out from quickly dispersing rain clouds.
The break seems to have done the swim some good too. Doreen has taken another dace and a small chub and now something very encouraging is happening.
Doreen has started to loosefeed maggots. Each time she throws in a handful – not 2m (6ft) from where she stands — there’s a flurry of silver flashing just below the surface. It seems the fish have moved right up the swim to intercept the feed.
With great caution Doreen wades about 3m (10ft) upstream (to get above the fish), bunches her shot down the line (to get the bait down quickly) and drops the float into the fast water.
It hasn’t gone a couple of metres before it whizzes under. Something is definitely there! Wind in, loosefeed, recast and the float goes again. This time Doreen connects and the rod judders with life. Whatever it is, it’s extremely athletic – darting back and forth in the fast water then boring down to the gravel in a valiant effort to escape. But Doreen is determined to get this one in the net and after a minute or so she has it – a fine grayling of about 1lb (0.45kg). In fact it is to be the first of three grayling which bring a satisfactory conclusion to an extremely difficult day.