By a raft of good fortune and with a lot of help from friends, I am in the market for a piece of river, the Wye most probably, to rent or even perhaps buy! What a dream position to be in, but it is not simply a case of forking out for the first bit of water that comes along. Not all beats are equal, and there are a host of considerations to mull over before committing, as there are in any purchase, of course. It’s just buying a river ain’t quite like picking out a wardrobe from Amazon. Help! What should I be looking for in this dream situation then?
PEACE & QUIET
I’m a traditionalist. I like peace, quiet, serenity. I think a big slice of fishing is about escape from what Chris Yates always called “the infernal combustion engine”, and if I have to watch out for passing motor cyclists, the charm is diluted. A view is nice, a landscape to ponder in the slow times, especially at sunset, when the golden glow is enhanced by a small glass of something to celebrate the day. Wildlife is good. Birdsong makes any session. A bank of sand martens can galvanise a fishery. Otters are fine too, especially those passing through, rather than those stopping off to raise a family or two.
For the same reason, double bank is good. I often fish in company and that’s a great part of fishing, but you don’t always want to watch the activities of a stranger. Precious? You’ll have your opinions, but I guess if you want solitude for the day, it is nice to have it guaranteed. There’s the comparatively mundane question of baiting. If you have fed a swim for a couple of days, it’s irksome to find someone else in it, come the big day. It’s happened to me scores of times on day-ticket venues in the past, and it’s not something you want to buy into if you can afford it. It’s good to know that you have some measure of control perhaps, and that you won’t rock up one morning to find a caravan park built on your favourite bend.
REMOTE BUT ACCESSIBLE
Access is a big one. You want remote, but you need to get there so a track is important, especially on the Wye floodplain that spends half the winter under water. By the same token, you need to be aware if there is a designated footpath, and walkers are going to be an issue. Most are great: a few are not. And how about canoes? Is the stretch close to a major launching point? If so, you might have to consider fishing early or late.
GHOSTS & MEMORIES
Does the beat have a hut? If not, have you the right to build one, remembering the height of those floods, of course? For me, an old hut is best, even if it needs a little TLC. It’s good to sit there, stove on, kettle going, pondering the anglers of the past who have sat in the same sagging armchair, and looked out on the same glorious riverscape. Faded photographs of long-gone salmon days you know won’t return, but they serve the purpose of fuelling inspiration and imagination. The ghosts of great anglers and the memories of great days are all around you. One day you will be gone, and the anglers next in line will be dreaming their dreams from the comfort of that chair.
Stocks of fish are a big issue. Of course, on a river like the Wye many fish are nomadic, and most will wander from one territory to the next, but it’s still good to find somewhere that has not been pressured in the recent past, I think. In my experience, the older-type salmon angler found it hard to believe that fish could be caught, and learn from the lesson. They had no experience of the “wised up” barbel, but you and I know just how wise chub and barbel can be. A big barbel that has been around the block does not forget what we are up to, and is always aware of our best efforts to his dying day. If you can find virgin fish, and then have the sense to fish for them lightly, you can enjoy sport for life.
The type of water is vital for me because it dictates how you are going to fish. On a small river you find the rapid/pool/rapid/pool sequence rotating every hundred yards sometimes. On a big river, the Wye certainly, a long, deep, slow pool can cover three quarters of a mile or more, especially on the lower river. This means you can source a half mile of Wye with no quick water along it at all. There is nothing wrong with this, and there is great barbel sport to be had where the river mooches along. Water like this has been a saviour for me many times in my guiding life, when I have put down a carpet of bait, put out a feeder, and sat back to wait. Of course, there’s more to it, and you have to take care with your feeding regime, your rig, and your hookbait, but in coloured water especially it is not the hardest way to fish.
QUICK WATER INSPIRATION
But quick water, especially of the Wye type, offers and sometimes demands a multitude of approaches. Let’s say that barbel, chub and grayling are your top three, then you are never going to run out of inspiration. You can Czech nymph and French leader with nymphs for them all, but when barbelling I’d suggest one nymph on the point rather than a team. In my experience, the droppers get caught on rocks and weed during that first long, deep, unstoppable rush of theirs. Dry fly for chub is magic in the dusk, when there are moths on the water, or even a few late mayflies dribbling into the warm evening air.
The float, though, is the thing for me. Long trotting with an Avon is the way to chub heaven. Feed a bucket of bread mash into the current, and let the Avon bounce a big piece of flake away after it, and you’ll draw the fish to your rod tip over the course of an hour or two. I’ve even known the odd barbel oblige. A moderate-paced glide is what you want for more controlled stick float work. If the rules allow, pile in maggots and you’ll get barbel flashing for them within an hour, and then inch that float through the run, three maggots on a size 14 tripping the gravel. Wow. When that float dips and the strike bites you are in for ten minutes of ecstasy. Catch two and call it a day – if it is your water and you want the same results whenever you fancy sport – is my advice. That way the shoal will never quite suss you out.
GET YOUR CHESTIES ON
In the low, clear water of summer, get your chesties on, wade out there on the gravels and, heron-like, work your art amongst the fish themselves. You don’t have to catch a barbel to admire it, when the water is gin and you are no more than three yards off. Its grace and poise. The magnificence of the coral and pink fins, the gold of the flanks, the flash of its cream belly. These are the best moments, but if you want to actually catch the things, roll a big bait slowly down the flow and wait for the violent pluck that takes the rod round. Freeline a bunch of lobs with no weight at all, or just perhaps a couple of SSGs to keep the line down in the current. Sensing the line tighten between the fingers is worth the entrance fee alone! Perhaps best of all is stalking barbel as they feed in the skinniest of water at first light. Get down when it is still too dark to put the line through the rings, sit well back and look for fin tips and backs breaking the surface of the river where it is a foot deep or even less. Flick out a lob on a size 8 and watch for the line tightening, and you’d think you were into a bonefish as an eight pounder hammers for sanctuary. You only get one like this, but you find you are setting the alarm for silly o’clock every day in settled weather.
There are those who ask you why you go fishing. A snapshot of what life is like on the River Wye shallows on a summer morning when the barbel are rolling is all the answer you need give them.