Most of Devon’s rivers have their source on Dartmoor or Exmoor such as the rivers Exe, Teign, Dart, Plym, Torridge and Taw, but others like the rivers Axe, Otter and Tamar rise outside the county.
The Devonshire magazine is not the place to talk about holidays outside Devon but two weeks away in May and so much had changed in such a short time by my return. Weeks of almost drought has turned into heavy showers, vegetable seeds now are vigorous seedlings, potatoes have recovered from frost burn and are growing before my eyes. Even the strawberries are showing sign of ripening. Lettuce, radish and spring onions are all ready for picking. Most of the apple blossom is over and pears and cherries are all developing well on the trees. The pig nut under the apple trees is in full bloom. Pig nut is a very small member of the carrot family, something like a very small cow parsley plant and underground it develops a small tuber or the nut, which pigs love!
Bluebells are on the wain, foxgloves will be in flower any day now. Swifts have arrived in numbers, as yet no spotted flycatchers in the nest boxes provided. At least one pair of swallows is nesting in the barn and hopefully more will follow. No calling from the cuckoo, usually briefly heard in the Mole Valley early in May but there is a green woodpecker very local right now after several years of absence. If you are keen on what birds have been seen in Devon there are some excellent websites with sightings recorded by proper twitchers, www.devonbirds.org.
So I have been able to keep an eye on what has been seen. A drake Smew near Braunton, an Osprey also. Cuckoos frequently sighted on both moors plus so many more, many that I only note as LBJ’s or ‘little brown jobs’. Also there have been sighting of Cetaceans or those of the whale family, recorded on another website covering the south west. Thus I have been able to follow the numerous sightings from the north Devon coast of Common Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises, from Hartland to Lynmouth and the East. Though a rare sighting of a Humpback whale was report nationally earlier this spring off the South Devon Coast, I had to travel half way around the world to California and kayak a mile out to sea to get my whale fix. I sat just 10 metres from a 45 ton gray whale and calf, which made up for being away from home for so long! The whaling in the northern Atlantic saw the extinction of that population of Gray whales back in the 1800s. The Pacific population is reputedly back to pre-whaling numbers. A great conservation success coming back from as few as 500 animals.
And now summer has arrived.
The longest day, the smell of ‘hay-making’ and barley ripening as well night’s Sea Trout fishing conjure up the height summer for me. Having lived in North Devon nearly all my life these summer aromas reinforcing all my senses.
It’s a grass known as Yorkshire fog that really gives drying grass that wonderful smell, but only from old meadow pasture. Nowadays not a common smell but a couple of whiffs and I can tell hay harvest is underway close by. The best hay is always cut and carried in June and as such that is when most is made, this will normally coincide with the second cut of silage. Once those are complete, the cereal harvest is never far behind, preceded by the more common smell of the winter barley ripening. This is usually obvious at the beginning of July, with the first combines rolling by mid July.
This is as summers should be, but unfortunately the weather doesn’t always go according to the norm, computer models, or by old country sayings, but occasionally the swallows flying low are as an accurate a forecast as any of those weather mens’ computers. Whatever is predicted, I have for several years now, got out of bed at some unearthly hour, with a spring in my feet, to see the sun rise on 21st June. However it has been many a year since I have actually seen any more than the odd glimpse of the sun at around the appointed hour. I am never the only one on Exmoor doing just that. I can’t explain why sunrise on the longest day should draw any of us out of bed. If you are on holiday reading this, try it, just listen to that peace and quiet and imbibe the moment.
It is so noticeable that at first light that the wildlife is not expecting to see us humans around. I normally try to take in a walk as well as seeing the sunrise and the odd red deer hind encountered never seem to be anywhere near as alert as during any other times of day. Heads down grazing peaceful away even though their vulnerable new born calves will never be far away.
A casual encounter with a fox, hare or that most colourful summer visitor the Redstart, is always possible . I will get a photo of this colourful bird one day soon for all to see. That leaves night time sea trout fishing. I will try to paint the picture: The sun has set, the birds are quiet, just the odd pigeon cooing or rook flying by, no noise from farm machinery or cars. If there were any, the flowing river muffles the last day time sounds. Even the sheep have stopped bleating and peace descends. This is the time to settle down overlooking the pool, the one and possibly only pool you wish to fish at night. There is only the slightest glow from the northwest horizon and then a sea trout leaps out of the water returning with a almighty slash. All you may see is the end of that splash as you try to gauge where it came from and not even see the fish. The time is fast approaching to start. One or two more sea trout leave the water and ripples flow up and down what has to be a river at a low summer level. Best of all a warm, overcast night, no mist and no thunderstorms rolling in the distance.
All those criteria met and you may have waited several days for this and you slowly, gently, ever so carefully slid down the bank into the water. No use sending ripples all about the pool, stealth is essential. Now after the patience of a saint your are ready to start and the light has all but gone. You would not be able to see what fly was attached to the line so the fly selecting has been done hours in advance.
Sea trout, unlike salmon, do feed when in the river, especially as day turns to night when they drop back to the tails of the pools. Often in a few inches of water and there they stay awaiting insects to be washed by. So it’s dark now and a good fisherman will know exactly where to cast to place that fly. With few chances, accuracy is essential and then expectation beyond belief. Will anything happen, cast after cast slowly down to the lip of the pool?
Patience rewarded and a fish rises to the fly and sets off. All this has happening in a split second. Is it going up stream or downstream? The only idea of it’s whereabouts is when it becomes airborne to try to throw the hook. At this point many a sea trout is lost.
If still attached, then it is up and down the pool with lighting speed. On occasions the line will whistle as is is dragged through the water. I wish I could say that I have landed many large sea trout but I haven’t. I know the feeling of them all too briefly, as they get the better of me.
The magical time when the sea trout ‘come on’ is a brief half to three quarters of an hour then, all goes quiet. At which point many a fisherman will return home to bed, but the young and dedicated will stay out all night, trying different pools and waiting even for first light when the fish start to feed again in earnest.
A successful night may be a couple of fish landed; any over 5 lbs returned to breed and the occasional one of 2 to 3 lbs taken for the pot. In my mind best cooked wrapped in foil, a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of water. Left in the oven until the flesh easily lifts from the bone and then eat cold with salad to get the most sensational taste.
Night fishing is not for the novice fly fisherman but it is worth perfecting the art. Pleasure all too soon becomes frustration. It is so easy to catch overhanging branches that are not visible even when your eyes become accustomed to the dark, which they do.
Nearly all rivers in Devon have sea trout runs and there are many guides who will willingly help you enjoy this sport. Try the River Taw Fisheries association website for starters.