Fishing for brown trout on the River Eden
Alarmingly clear, low and slow-flowing, the Cumbrian Eden boasts a truly wild – and ultra wary – head of browns. ‘The hardest river to fly fish in all of Britain,’ says Malcolm, shaking his head as he makes his way down the dusty path towards the river on this warm day in late May. Most locals have sense enough to fish for them during the day by trotting worms or, during the long summer nights, by using Bustards, large sedge-imitating flies, or big hair wing caddis flies.
Bustards have wings made of mallard, grouse or tawny owl feathers which are tied so they extend over the hookshank in wet-fly fashion. Locals wouldn’t be without them at night – for the big flies need to scratch the water’s surface, creating a wake and making a disturbance which the trout home in on.
On the far bank a few trout rise here and there. Rod in hand, Malcolm patiently watches from a distance, trying to determine if there’s a minor hatch coming off. After five minutes he still hasn’t moved.
The rises continue but not at regular intervals or on one brand of insect. Opportunist feeders. Probably small fish. He believes the best chance of taking a good-sized brown is during the evening and at night. They usually don’t look at flies during the day in low-water conditions.
Nevertheless, since the occasional hawthorn fly crash-lands on the glassy surface and disappears beneath the aquatic window-pane, Malcolm gives his size 12 imitation a go, but the fish aren’t fooled. He moves on to another group of trout rising farther downstream.
With a size 18 Kite’s Imperial, a good pattern for non-selective feeders, he picks his fish, and a small brown rips upwards and collides with the fly head-on. The fly and trout become one until Malcolm stoops to ease the hook out and carefully slide the now ‘educated’ trout back into the cool running water. ‘When most anglers buy tickets on a river such as this,’ he says, ‘they think they’ve got to be casting, casting, casting and fishing, fishing, fishing, and all they do is disturb the fish. Their biggest problem is one of approach and the desire to be casting. If people would put the rod down, they’d probably catch more with less effort. The cast-cast-cast mentality has come through the modern put-and-take fisheries. It may also be that loch-style fishing has contributed to this to some extent.’
One peculiar feature of browns in rainfed rivers that Malcolm is keen to stress is just how much trout move around. ‘In rivers such as the Eden under low water conditions, large brown trout will have an evening or night time feeding lie and a day time resting lie. I’ve traced them moving up to 400m (440yd). ‘Trout may move their lies according to how much water is present.’
Under the Carlisle/Settle railway viaduct Malcolm kneels along the sandy bank and watches the swirling water across the river. Many freshwater shrimps twist and turn in the shallow water. The Eden supports an aquatic invertebrate population that rivals that of a chalk stream. Flowing over limestone grit in many areas, the water of the Eden is slightly alkaline and has a healthy crop of weeds – good fly habitat. (Most northern waters are acidic and don’t support many insects and fish.)
Malcolm sees a decent-sized trout surface on the far bank but, because of the varying current lanes, has problems presenting the fly well, and the trout refuses it flatly. If you don’t get it exactly right the first time, then forget it. The red lights flash: you’ve alerted the fish, and it stops feeding. At mid-day not much else is happening, so Malcolm decides to break for (a long) lunch.
A few fish are up feeding along the opposite bank in an ultra slow-flowing bend. Brook duns are coming off. Large swarms of male spinners flutter above the river. Malcolm covers a few rises with an orange spinner pattern – but to no avail. A small Adams is called up for duty, and after covering a few fish Malcolm has another small wild brown. When questioned about upstream versus downstream fishing, he is adamant about his beliefs, though many river anglers would disagree. ‘Down and across wet fly fishing for trout is the biggest way of not catching fish there is. People refer to it as the traditional North Country method of fly fishing which it is not. If you read Edmonds and Lee or Francis Francis, you’ll find that they don’t advocate fishing downstream.’
Downstream of the viaduct in a steady flow of fast water, Malcolm wades in and attaches an Elk Hair Caddis (size 12). The light has nearly gone. The bigger trout come out of their day-time lies and feed heavily on hatching sedges. They seem to lose a lot of their wariness under the cover of darkness.
Malcolm casts upstream and occasionally gives the big hair wing fly a slight twitch as it drifts, keeping tension on the fly line because takes have to be felt -you can’t see the line. He gets a few pulls – they are from small trout, unable to stuff the big fly into their mouths.
The evening has come. Malcolm moves downstream of the fast water in the heart of the glide. He works upstream and again twitches the fly regularly as it floats downstream for maximum effectiveness. A sudden take and Malcolm’s rod bends over for just a moment and then the big nocturnal brown pops off.
Fly casting in the darkness isn’t at all easy – and it’s very annoying when you hear the occasional loud rise farther upstream or downstream and are not able to mark it. There’s a lot of guesswork involved. But chances are that if a trout is in the vicinity of your fly, it will take.
Malcolm fishes on until about I0:30pm, sadly with no more takers. What little hatch there is now stops as a cool evening wind blows downstream.