The Editor visits one of England's oldest and finest game…
As I sit down to write this the countryside looks so different to when I wrote last. The arable crops, cut silage and hay fields make a patchwork of colours which will be even more pronounced once the harvest is gathered and fields are ploughed ready for sowing again in autumn.
The first of the swallows and house martin’s young have now fledged and many will be laying a second clutch. Not that many years ago in my small barn a clutch hatched on the 25 August, the presence of these agile and industrious birds really stretches out summer to my mind and, like sighting the first each spring, those amassing on the phone lines in September heralds their imminent departure. However it was pointed out to me that hatching so late may mean that the young are not sufficiently strong to make it back to Africa and even the adults may not have gained enough energy reserves for that journey either. This year for some unexplained reason, the house martin arrived in numbers in April and then seemed to disappear, reappearing at the end of June and started to nest straight away.
Through July it was possible to find the spotted red deer calves with the hinds in small groups, but as summer progresses they will be easier to find and by September the hinds and calves will be in sizable herds on Exmoor, up to 100 strong. The stags have kept themselves very much to themselves through the summer and whilst the antlers regrow, they find hot weather very irritating, flies pester them especially when the delicate velvet that covers the rapidly growing antlers gets damaged or starts to fall off.
The seasons and our weather not only determines the success or failure of our breeding birds and mammals, how the crops yield for farmers, but close to my heart, how the fishing will turn out in our rivers, especially here in North Devon.
The river Taw which rises on Dartmoor and it’s main tributaries the Mole and Bray which rise on Exmoor, are renowned for the salmon and sea trout fishing. Recently when doing research on these rivers, I found records of salmon caught in the Taw which weighed 61lbs (that was in 1923). In the 1930’s, salmon over 30lbs were often caught on rod and line. Sadly, those days have long gone. Time doesn’t allow me to expand on this, but there are many experts who have written books on the subject. However, climate change, industrial fishing in the North Atlantic where the salmon spend most of their lives and the changes to land use are considered the main contributing factors.
I have now fished this river since the mid seventies and for those like me who enjoy this sport, we are fishing for adult salmon which are returning to the river where they started life. Having spent the first year or two in the river, they migrate to sea and spend up to four years feeding off Greenland. Now, most returning to the Taw are around 10 lbs. In my time managing many beats on the river, one fisherman did catch a 24 lb salmon in 2000. Salmon return to the river mainly from spring to autumn as they make their way upstream to spawn in November.
One monster salmon caught in the Taw weighted 61lb (1923)
That gives the briefest of descriptions of the salmon life cycle and it’s the returning salmon us fisher folk pursue with rod and line as fly fisherman. Salmon don’t feed in fresh water but for some unknown reason will, in certain conditions, rise and take a fly, at which point one’s heart ‘stops’.
Sea trout are also returning to the rivers and in the biggest numbers in July. To the untrained, salmon and sea trout look very similar. The sea trout is the same species as the brown trout, which for some reason decide to spend part of it’s life feeding in coastal waters and then returns to rivers to spawn. However, though some return to the river they started life in, they do return to any river. Both salmon and sea trout can be caught during the day when the rivers are in spate, when the water is high and coloured but this summer so far, the rivers are low and the best time to catch sea trout is at dusk and through the night to morning. Fishing at night is tremendous fun and if you are a fisherman I would recommend you put this on your bucket list. Often the take is vicious and the sea trout leave the water several feet into the air trying to the throw the hook. The problem is that as you can only just see, you are never to sure where the fish is. At dusk the countryside goes quiet and other wildlife experiences often unfold before you. Otters are a common occurrence even coming as close as a couple of metres (see photo at top), as well as bats, dippers and kingfishers. Deer may cross the river and on one occasion a badger came down to drink a few yards from where I was fishing. The fishing season finishes at the end of September on the Taw system and though it is a small river, catches can be very good. My best friend George, (from University days) and I, had 7 salmon and 4 sea trout in August last year, this is exceptional fishing, more were lost that day as well!
More recently I couldn’t resist the draw of the river and on the Highbullen hotel beat at Hermitage pool, I had what is a magical experience with a salmon. No I didn’t hook it but this pool is such good fun to fish. It can only be fished from the bank and timing is so important, to keep ones silhouette from being seen. So keeping a low profile, with the last of the evening light to my back, I very slowly fished down the pool. Knowing full well half way down is always a great spot for a resting salmon. I could clearly see my fly on the retrieve and once halfway across the pool there is the outline of a salmon following the fly through the water 18 inches down. Slowly it turned away probably back to it’s lie. This is encouraging, this fish was in the taking mode, so I try again, cast carefully, repeating my previous cast, mending the line slightly upstream and sure enough up it comes again, but no more than an inquisitive look. What fun this fishing can be! This is not the first time this has happened on this pool to me. I have explained the thrill to many a fisherman and so far at least 5 others have had the experience, better still, most have hooked theirs.
Conservation is now the main target and though both these fish species make excellent eating, all who fish this river try to return 80% plus of those caught and there are strict limits on those taken to eat.