Fishing on the River Usk

It’s a lovely view. The sparkling, limpid waters of a Welsh river swirl past, beyond the fields a picturesque village nestles in a fertile green valley… But, well frankly, no one’s in the mood for it. We’re here to catch fish.

We’re keeping it a secret, but this isn’t the first time that Phil Gibbs has been posing for our cameras on this charming stretch of the River Usk, near Talybont. For the first time ever, Phil, who has appeared in every game fishing publication you can think of, didn’t catch a single trout.

fishing on the river Usk

He had been convinced that he would. He had identified the area as a good one for wild trout, he was fishing the March Brown – the fly for this river in spring- and to top it all he had a new rod lovingly hand-built for him from split cane by master craftsman Homer Jennings.

So, for the second time, out comes that lovely new 7ft 6in (2.3m) split cane rod. Through the rings of this work of angling art Phil threads his main line and his leader, which tapers down from 6lb to 3lb (2.7kg to 1.4kg).

He starts off by experimenting – fishing downstream with a team of three flies: a March Brown, a Hare’s Ear, and, on the point, a Leadhead Nymph. Whether the trout are feeding on the surface or under the water, with this team he has them covered. The Leadhead Nymph has a lead shot head to get it down through fast-flowing water. The lead substitute head is difficult to keep on. It must be crimped to a piece of heavy mono and then tied on. Phil also uses instant glue to keep it firmly in place.

Phil sets to work behind a tree jutting into the water. He believes that the larger brown trout can often be found in specific parts of a river. They won’t be in the fast running water in the middle of the river -even though this is the main food channel. It is along the edge of this fast-food conveyor belt and in the slower sections that the big brown trout lurk, says Phil.

Big trout dart into the faster flow, pick up a fly and then retreat back to the easier slow water. The lower the amount of energy burned in getting food the bigger a fish grows. It’s all a bit unfair to the smaller trout: ‘It is the little ones that get pushed out into the main channel.’ Phil explains.

As time goes by it seems we’re in for another day filled with luck, and all of it bad. The last time we fished there was a bit of a tiff with a bailiff, and now Phil loses his favourite pair of clippers, which he found invaluable in preparing flies. It’s fortunate that Phil is a qualified psychologist, or he might begin to get superstitious about the whole thing!

Being a psychologist gives Phil an insight into the mind of his quarry. He has a theory about ‘search images’. Basically, a hungry trout is on the look-out for food as flies zip past it in the mainstream. The trout can’t hope to examine everything that passes – so it gets to know what flies are the most common that day, and just looks for those. That’s why it pays to observe closely the flies hatching around you.

Phil rings the changes by experimenting with fly patterns and teams. He tries a nymph on the point, and a special dry fly on the dropper. It has grizzle and red mixed hackles with a hare’s ear body, combining the best bits of a Beacon Beige, an Adams and a Super Grizzly. But by lunchtime there’s been hardly a sign of a rise, let alone a take.

We retire to Phil’s camper – where Phil proudly produces a stew that is obviously an acquired taste. Phil says he is hurt when there is no queue for seconds, but quickly takes comfort in the fact that it means there’s all the more for him.

Last time we were here Phil noticed very little stirred from lunchtime to about four o’clock on the main river. We decide to take to the hills and the small streams that they offer.

Phil’s in his element when fishing small mountain streams – it’s a type of fishing he’s made very much his own. He sets off stealthily up the Brecon Beacons. Fishing a dry fly upstream, Phil casts at the neck of every pool. He says that your chances of catching in a pool diminish with every cast, so he soon moves on to the next spot – he can always return to the stretch on the way down. Any features, such as rocks or bushes, receive special attention.

Phil has a good time for a while – he makes no secret of enjoying dry fly fishing largely because it only works in sunny weather. Phil likes being what some anglers derisively call a fair-weather fisherman. He sees no pleasure in the cold and rain. ‘There’s nothing wrong in fishing only when it’s nice!’

But bad luck plagues us. Phil sees scarcely a rise. Then, as we take to the water – there being no path up here – there’s a bit of a problem with the slippery rocks and in the confusion, a photographic flash drops into the water. It fizzes, hums and dies.

Phil starts fishing into a waterfall at the head of a pool. If a fish sees potential food here it has to grab first and ask questions later. Phil’s fishing a famous dry fly — the Wickham’s Fancy. It’s gold and flashy and shows well in this rough water. Dry or wet -it is still going to sink here, explains Phil. The nice thing is it dries out and floats straight away in less rough water. It saves switching flies.

Phil hooks a small but beautifully marked wild brown trout. It’s a tough little fighter.

He is pleased. We all are. But – you’ve guessed – there’s a hitch. The photographer reaches for a special, and expensive, lens to photograph the catch – and finds it has gone. What a nuisance! At least this trout is lucky – Phil doesn’t keep any of the fish he catches – and very soon the wildie is back in the water.

Now Phil is one of the most interesting and cheerful people you can meet, but he’s beginning to get fed up with this run of mishaps. As we trog back to the camper he tells us that Homer Jennings — who built the rod – is convinced that very occasionally he may create a rod that is just plain unlucky. When Phil had told him of his luck- less exploits with the rod the last time we were out, Homer assured him that an ill-omened rod was possible. Phil had laughed at this, but now he begins to wonder…

Back at the camper Phil dismantles the rod and sets up a spare one. Putting his hand in his pocket he suddenly finds those lost clippers. Yet he’d searched that pocket inside out. Hoping this is a good omen we return to the Usk.

The first thing we see is that lost lens -we must have left it there. Phil casts in, fishing with renewed heart. He even begins to hope for an elusive evening rise. The evening rise is a time when a big hatch occurs and the trout go crazy. But it seldom happens. However — believe it or not – there is a sudden hatch on this occasion.

We exchange glances, Phil’s luck does seem to have changed. Suddenly he feels a firm pull. It seems a good-sized trout this time. We hold our breath as it tries to head downstream. Will this new-found luck hold?

It does, and a good 10 oz (285g) brown trout falls to a weighted black spider with a silver rib. Not that Phil sets much store by this. ‘You can’t really say ‘you’ve put on a black spider so you’ve found the right fly’ It depends on time and conditions. The important thing is to be comfortable with your choice or you won’t enjoy your fishing.’

So it turned out to be a pleasant and successful day in Wales. Was it because we abandoned a cursed rod? We’ll never know, but it is more likely to be due to a very good angler applying his knowledge in reading the water. Phil sees angling as a game of chess – a sport in which thinking usually wins the day.