Sometimes I get a little disenchanted with fishing.
Well, here are just a few sample headlines from a recent Angling Times: “My New Pellet Cloud Bagged 632lb of Carp!” “Crucian Bags Reach 100lb!” “202lb on Exploding Caster Feeder!” In May I spent a week in Cornwall and found myself fishing for roach and rudd just to avoid a constant stream of mid double figure carp with deformed mouths.
Just as we’ve become addicted to fast food we also seem to have become addicted to fast fishing. Our favourite fisheries have platforms and islands shaped to give every angler a margin to fish to. We have specimen lakes stuffed with double figure carp with neatly spaced bivvy pitches. We fish with rods (those of us who can use a rod and reel) with names like Puddle Chucker (guilty as charged yer ‘onner), Yank ‘n’ Bank and White Knuckle and if we don’t bag up on every session we ask for our money back. Specimen hunting is in urgent need of a rebrand (specimen waiting anyone?) with obese carp bought by countless hours of mind-numbing boredom. Just as McDonald’s and KFC have standardised the burger and the fried chicken portion, so commercial fisheries are standardising our fishing with F1s, match carp, specimen lakes and runs waters. Our angling papers and magazines are full of countless variations on how to present a pellet or a boilie.
When I get like this I need to get away from it all to fish for fish that are truly wild in waters that are untamed and where there is the distinct possibility of failing to catch. Such fishing has now been marginalised; pushed to the Celtic fringes and the wild uplands and I consider myself blessed that less than 30 miles away from where I live I can savour some truly great wild fishing.
Come with me and I’ll show you what wild fishing is all about…
It’s Saturday on Spring Bank Holiday weekend and the Yorkshire Dales are almost deserted. I grimace at Steve as his old van is rocked by a violent gust. He wrestles with the wheel as we labour up the steep climb out of Malham on a narrow road made treacherous by a drenching drizzle – things are beginning to look distinctly dodgy! We’d already had to cancel once due to gale force winds and today was shaping up to be almost as bad – but with rain thrown in to add that extra bit of misery! We make the climb and emerge into a shallow bowl in which nestles out destination, Malham Tarn.
At an altitude of around 1200 feet Malham Tarn is the highest lake in England and, as if this isn’t enough, it is almost unique with only seven other similar lakes in the whole of Europe. The Tarn is a National Nature Reserve which sits in an even larger Site of Special Scientific Interest and is managed by The National Trust. Luckily, limited access is granted to anglers and it’s possible to hire one of four boats to enjoy the superb wild brown trout and perch fishing. The fishing is strictly fly only and bank fishing is forbidden due to the fragility of the bank-side vegetation.
We pull into the Field Study Centre car park and debate the sanity of signing in and parting with our cash. Dark clouds heavy with rain charge low over the lake harried by a blustery force 6 wind but our main worry is the wave height as the boathouse is at the bottom of the wind and we’ve got to negotiate a short stretch of shallow water as we leave it. We decide the surf isn’t too bad so we pay our money and lug the gear down; taking two trips due to the weight of the electric outboard and leisure battery.
By the time we’re set up the rain has stopped but it’s still blowing a hooley and it’s squeaky bum time as we negotiate the shallow channel out into the lake. We make it without too much trouble and 20 minutes later we’re having a quick cuppa in the shelter of one of the few raised bogs in the UK that isn’t mostly shrink wrapped on the shelves of garden centres…
The standard tactic on Malham is to fish on the drift, short-lining in traditional loch style. This is going to be challenging to say the least given the current conditions but we decide to give it a go anyway. Steve takes us out into the wind, I drop the drogue over the side and we’re off!
Short-lining consists of fishing a team of 3 flies on a fairly long leader with about a rod’s length of fly line outside the tip ring. Due to the conditions I’m fishing a slightly shorter leader than usual with an Olive Dabbler as the bob fly, a Kate Maclaren on the middle dropper and a lightly weighted Hare’s Ear on the point. As the boat drifts (or gallops in our case) downwind I flick the team of flies out in front of the boat and retrieve by slowly sweeping the rod tip up and to one side, keeping the bob fly on the surface so that it makes a wake. When my arm is almost fully extended I pause (the dibble) then roll cast the flies out in front of the boat and repeat the process.
In normal conditions this is a leisurely process but today we have to cast every 15 seconds or so with the dibble a momentary pause before the boat charges over the flies. Roll casting is almost impossible due to the blustery wind but we find that when we lift the flies out of the water the wind whips them out in front of us so it is simply a case of lowering the rod, pausing to let the point fly sink a little, then retrieving. Normally we’d drift the whole length of the lake (about half a mile) until we were fishing just off the downwind shore before motoring back upwind to start the process again but today we’re limited to a gallop of about 200 yards before we’re in danger of taking waves over the side as I retrieve the drogue.
Two hours later and we’ve had enough; a couple of trout had slashed at our flies but they really didn’t have enough time to take them properly so we have a cuppa and a bite to eat back at the bog and discuss our options.
Steve was keen to have a go for the perch and we suspect that in these conditions the trout are lying deep so we might be able to hedge our bets and fish for both species. We decide to prospect for a likely feature and motor off along the bank with me leaning over the side peering into the depths.
The bottom here is dead black as the eroded peat sucks in all available light and it’s difficult to spot features despite the clarity of the water. Then I spot the first skull – a bone white dome looms up out of the inky blackness and I catch my breath, then there’s another, and another until a reef of skulls glimmers up out of the depths.
They aren’t skulls of course but limestone cobbles dropped to slow the erosion of the precious bog and this is exactly the sort of feature that we’re looking for so I hook the anchor round a bit of the precious ecosystem and pay out the rope until we can just see the reef.
Off come the bushy flies and I start with a Hare’s Ear on the point, an Orange Diawl Bach on the middle dropper and a Pennel on the top. I cast well beyond the reef and let the flies sink until I’m sure they are as deep as they can go then a slow figure of eight retrieve creeps the point fly along the bottom and up the boulder slope of the reef. On the third cast there’s a violent tug on the line and as I lift the rod everything goes solid, the rod tip lunges violently down and I allow the line to fizz out through my fingers.
“What’s up mate?”
“The fly line’s knotted!”
The coils of line in the bottom of the boat had somehow tangled and a large knot was rising inexorably towards the butt ring. I increase the tension until the rod tip is almost straight and the fish responds and kites to my right. Steve clambers towards me and reaches for the line but the fish, appearing to sense this, turns and heads for deeper water so fast that the line raises a curtain of spray that is whipped away by the wind.
I keep the tension as taut as I can but the knot eventually hits my fingers. I let it go but it jams in the butt ring, there’s a violent wrench on the rod and a knot goes. I feel sick; this is a hard water and that was probably my one and only chance of the day…
I retrieve the slack line minus the middle dropper: the fish had taken the Diawl Bach. As I’m re-tying the leader Steve hooks a fish. This time there are no pyrotechnics only a slow powerful surge that takes all the slack line and makes the reel growl in protest. As the clutch takes its toll the fish kites around towards the curtains of Sphagnum moss that guard the bank and Steve touches the spool gently to ratchet up the tension – stalemate – but the fish soon gives up on this strategy and heads back out into deeper water and it’s game over.
Five minutes later I’m lifting the net under an enormous brown trout which goes 5lb 9oz on the scales but it’s got no depth to it and later in the year it might approach 7lb. Such is the stamp of fish that Malham Tarn produces.
The excitement is over. We’re starting to lose too many flies as they lodge in eye sockets so we release the anchor from the bracken allow the boat to drift out from the bank and then lodge the anchor on the reef. I’m now picking up weed as the fly approaches the reef but I persevere. After about an hour everything goes solid and as I lift to pull the fly from the weed the weed moves purposefully away from me.
The fish holds deep and buries itself every clump of weed between there and here and Steve and I debate its species; he’s convinced it’s a perch, but I’m not so sure. Steve’s right: we see a flash of orange as the fish turns under the surface and soon a superb perch bristles in the landing net and at 2lb 8oz it’s my biggest on the fly.
Half an hour later it’s Steve’s turn and he’s playing what looks like a good perch but in a weird symmetry he loses it when his fly line catches on the lace hooks in his wading boots. After that all activity ceases so we up anchor and surf back through the rollers to the boathouse where I lose the toss and have to struggle up the steep hill with the leisure battery – but it’s been worth it!
Fishing Malham Tarn
Malham Tarn is a unique water which offers superb, but difficult, brown trout fishing. At one time it was stocked but under the stewardship of the National Trust it has reverted to an entirely natural fishery which, due to its alkaline waters, produces some very big fish. If you fancy giving it a go you need to book a boat at the Field Study Centre (phone number on web site). You’ll need to be an experienced boat angler and an electric outboard and a drogue are almost essential. For less experienced anglers a guide is essential and it’s well worth contacting my old mate Steve Rhodes at www.goflyfishinguk.com