KING ARTHUR’S HOLY GRAYLING fly fishing for trout and grayling in Wales
I’d long wanted to explore the possibilities for Welsh grayling fishing and this October I took advantage of a window of opportunity to get myself on the road. Ninety minutes down the M4 from London, hang a right at junction 23, then north for another sixty minutes and I found myself at Builth Wells on a glorious morning at the heart of mid Wales.
Builth is a delightful little town on the banks of the Wye and home to the Wye and Usk Foundation. Their excellent ongoing work and success in restoring these wonderful river and tributaries is an object lesson on how best to utilise a treasured national resource. I wasn’t due to meet my guide for the next three days until the following morning. But wanting to get ahead of the game, I visited the foundation’s office for the low down on current conditions - it had been raining heavily for the last couple of days and I wanted to find somewhere fishable for that afternoon.
My luck was in. After a couple of telephone calls, Seth Johnson Marshal, the foundation’s local administrator booked me into a B&B on the banks of the Irfon, a tributary of the Wye. This small, friendly hotel had three miles of local beats available on day tickets. On arrival, the owner, John Mead, an ex-pat Essex lad duly marked my cards (close your eyes and he sounded like Bob Hoskins) The water had fined enough to be just about fishable, and I spent a pleasant afternoon in lovely countryside taking three brownies for my troubles – but no grayling. No matter, the river provided an excellent variety of opportunities and was duly noted for another time.
Next morning (after a night’s heavy rain fall) I met up at the hotel with local guide Kim Tribe, and my west country pal, Mike Collins, who guides on his own patch. A quick look over the local bridge (the first of many that day) and we were staring at a torrent of chocolate. So, here’s one of the many benefits of fishing with a local guide. Their intimate knowledge of the terrain and water systems plus a network of cell phone contacts is invaluable when searching a region for fishable waters. And thus armed, we set out in earnest in search of our holy grail. What stunningly beautiful countryside abounds in Wales: rolling, sheep dotted valleys, picturesque villages and cottages stolidly fashioned from local stone and softened by tiered, colourful gardens (nowhere in this area seemed on level ground ) And of course, the wonderful rivers on which there seemed to be endless possibilities – if only conditions were right. Kim was leading us further and further upstream: stopping to peer over bridges and detouring to intimate, leaf canopied gorges whose air of mystery and fairy tale beauty would grace any scene from Lord of the Rings. When finally, a few miles further on from Rhayader, Kim found what he’d been looking for in the depths of the glorious upper Wye valley
Now I have to say that guides are pretty protective of their patches and probably, quite rightly so. Their livelihood is dependent on taking clients to unspoiled places far from the (trampling waders) of madding crowds.
We parked by a long snaking reach of open water that narrowed and disappeared round a downstream bend, eventually to lose itself into another secluded gorge. Kim assessed the potential of the water in front us; a little high and somewhat coloured but offering a tantalising visibility. “Do-able” he said. And so it was. But he’d warned that on this stretch, fish density was not high.
The open nature of the water allowed a high order of natural predation and only the biggest (and canniest) of fish survived to tell the tale. Mike was first into a fish, taken at the tail of the long glide. A cracking pound and a half grayling falling to his home made peeping caddis and struggling every inch to hand. Kim took a brace of small Trout and lost two more. But it was hard fishing and not too much insect life; sporadic olives and daddies momentarily lifting the spirits, but little else. Though we did sight a magnificent Peregrine Falcon patrolling the air columns of the valley that cast it’s own spell.
Mike and Kim were short lining nymphs under bite indicators, necessary to control fly depth in the highish waters. Yet nothing more than the occasional light pluck of a small, playful salmon par with which to inspire our confidence. I’d been prospecting with a dry further upstream when Mike appeared in view, gesticulating a ‘big one’. I rushed back to with the camera to find Kim netting a gorgeous grayling of 47 cm and estimated at a good two and half pounds.Those autumn grayling are something else: sinewy, silvery striped torpedoes, fiery red dorsals totally in tune with the onset of autumnal hues. Kim was right; this stretch wasn’t exactly prolific, but it could certainly produce some magnificent specimens.
We spent the late afternoon exploring the pools and runs preceding the gorge. But the push of water across likely spots making it difficult to maintain fish finding depths. I opted for just absorbing the enchanting nature of my surroundings and to watching Mike and Kim struggling manfully with an uphill task. Finally, we gave it best around six and headed for our hotel for the next two nights in the village of Llanruig. After a dinner of peppered mackerel, grilled (local) lamb steaks and a huge helping of home made cheesecake dripping with calories, I finally tumbled to bed.
The next day we’d planned to fish the Severn but on our arrival at Llanidloes – one peep over the bridge was enough to know we were out of luck: heavy flow and still too coloured. But Kim was fairly optimistic for possibilities on another nearby stretch, which in the event, turned out nearly as bad. Although I do confess to seeing a lot of (very small) dimpling grayling who constantly succeeded in eluding my strikes. Kim managed another couple of trout and a small Grayling and Mike winkled out a Trout of his own. After lunch we went back to the Wye to prospect another beat a few miles upstream of Llanruig. And it was totally different in character from others seen that day. Bright overhead sun, crystal clear water and low enough to spot a sixpence on the bottom. Consensus said that beautiful a spot as it was, there was as much chance of pulling a fish from the water as being handcuffed to a ghost.
How the fishing gods love to mock us poor anglers. They curse us with too little water, or then again, too much. Howling gales, or airless, stifling days under burning hot sun. And worst of all, with fickle fish reacting to each minute (unseen)variation in their environment above and below the water line. Capricious creatures who it seems to me act mainly against logic: taking our prospecting dries when we can’t see them coming, often not taking them when we do. And all we can do is to stand and ponder endlessly on the mysteries of their lives and how best to affect an interaction.
Sometimes I wonder how we ever manage success, because In my experience, the perfect fishing day is about as mythical as the legend of King Arthur. So I guess that’s why we fishermen just have to believe in fairy tales to continue our search for the holy grail. And would you believe it, that afternoon I did get handcuffed, but not to a legendary ghost of the stream. A cute little half pound brownie flew unseen from the edge of a ripple and snatched a size16 olive from under my nose - and as it turned out, the only fish of the afternoon.
To be fair, Kim had previously explained the local character of area. Run offs from upstream forestation caused the waters to be too acidic for adequate fly life. (evidenced by the sparsely populated stones we’d overturned) In response, the Wye and Usk foundation have started a programe of liming the hillsides, utilising run offs to Infiltrate sweetness back into the system to encourage a regeneration of insect life.
It was our last day, and what would it hold in store: no rain overnight, pleasant early morning temperature, with mist rolling the valleys in veiled promise of a perfect overcast day. Kim was pretty confident the Cammarch (another tributary of the Wye) would be fishable. On the way we stopped briefly in Rhayader to look at the Salmon ladder recently renovated by the local angling association, and picturesquely positioned below an arched ancient bridge (also lucked into a great local home made pie shop to bolster our picnic lunch)
Our beat was inaccessible and out of sight to the public, snookered away in private farmland on the valley floor: this was Kim’s private domain, leased to him for sole use (yet another example of the value of a local guide) To my taste buds this stretch was cream of the trip and for the first time, offering near ideal conditions. An open rolling valley behind us, and on the opposite bank, a steeply wooded slope to sandwich the perfect looking river between: the waters dappling in sunlight and wafted by the lightest of breeze. If there were fish, they should be caught. And so they were. The boys offering up a dish of dozen assorted brownies and grayling for the camera’s hungry lens.
So you can imagine, I didn’t get much fishing done. But I did spend a lot of my time absorbing the angler’s techniques. Kim’s mantra for this kind of fishing was ‘It’s all about line control’ His angle of attack and constant line mends, wrists flicking deftly this way and that to negate ruinous drag, was an object lesson in the art of line control. And I picked up an invaluable tip. When fishing a downstream nymph, try to achieve a loop of line below the fly. Then when you strike, this draws your hook back into it’s mouth, rather than pulling it away (how many fish have I lost doing that!) The catches that day were mainly Browns. But when Graylings did come to hand, they were lovely specimens and worth every searching mile of the trip.
For me, a trip like this is as much frustration as a joy. Always tempering the pleasures of discovering new waters is the looming presence of a job in hand which takes priority. But at least this allows me a good excuse to make a return trip sans camera and notebook and merely a rod to occupy heart, hand and mind. Wales has a wonderful cultural heritage in which to lose yourself. It’s a mystical, magical land of imposing medieval castles and Keeps standing sentinel atop broody, mist-shrouded heights. And in harmony, the local jewelry is decorated in delicate Celtic designs, redolent of faery folklore and myth. This is truly the legendary kingdom of Arthur. And would that I could inhabit old Merlin’s wizardry for a day or so to help conquer her wonderful rivers and streams on my return.
But whatever Merlin’s powers, there’s no escaping conditions. Unlike chalk streams, the spate rivers of Wales can fluctuate wildly and when water and flow rates are high, grayling disappear into another realm. But when conditions are good, a 20-30 fish day is by no means exceptional.
Words and pictures
Arkadi de Rakoff 2008
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