And now for something completely different...
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
We all enjoy a bit of variety in both our lives and in our fishing; it keeps challenges fresh and reinvigorates our interest. To achieve this within the scope of flyfishing often requires research, a bit of preparation, and usually a fair degree of travelling, even to provide a modest scope of new experiences. But there are an extremely lucky few who have more variety than they can shake a Quality Street tin at, and all in one glorious, uninterrupted and unique stretch of water. Those blessed individuals are the members of the Cressbrook & Litton Fly Fishers Club, who have unfettered access to 11 miles of frankly one of the most beautiful and astonishing rivers I've had the privilege to fish in the UK - the Derbyshire Wye. That statement may sound a little gushing, and it would certainly be fair to say that it is loaded with more than a smidgeon of good natured jealousy, but there is a sound reason as I will attempt to illustrate.
Firstly let me start by saying that I'm sadly not a member of the Cressbrook & Litton club, but I do count myself fortunate to have become friends with two fine anglers who are, and it is through their generosity of spirit that I have been given an opportunity to fish the river a few times over the last couple of seasons on a guest ticket, right in the peak of the heavenly mayfly hatches.
My first experience of the Wye was indelibly etched upon my memory. The early June sun shone unhindered, sloshing glorious warmth into the valley and illuminating the hypnotically writhing ranunculus with such emerald vibrancy that it seemed to be generating its own light in the crystal water. The air thrummed to music of a million happy insects, and the river sang in harmony, interrupted only by the occasional percussive 'clop' of fish ambushing a skittering mayfly that had alighted for just a millisecond too long. With a painted backdrop of imposing limestone escarpments, a story-book bridge, and the smell of cool, clean water sharp in the nostrils, it was, for an angler, almost sensory overload. And all that was just from standing agog in the little car park on the bank!
My two day tour lead me on journey through what seemed like a succession of self-contained individual worlds.
At one end was a classic chalk stream setting, flanked by meadows, swishing willows combing the water above sparkling channels concealing almost invisible brown trout and grayling which, whilst shy of a dry-fly in the bright morning light, nonetheless confidently took weighted PTN's.
Neil connects to a handsome grayling in a classic chalkstream setting
Further along: tumbling, roaring, boulder-strewn pocket water, where every surging, fizzing cauldron seemed to miraculously disgorge a perfect, lithe little wild rainbow trout to a scruffy generic parachute emerger, dabbed briefly upon the surface, before we wandered onwards past a vast, silty, shallow mill-pool, almost mirror-like, where the mooching, lean brownies of a very different colour required a still-water approach, and flies had to twitched and skated to illicit a response.
Feisty little rainbows in the rapids… and a surprise around every bend!
The mill-pool browns – lithe and distinctly different Almost like fishing a still-water venue
Next we plunged into darkly shaded, heavily wooded gorges of Jurassic appearance, where the river changed character yet again and became slow, deep, brooding, secretive, occasionally tantalising me with the ghostly glimpses of huge, pale, ethereal shapes; monstrous trout, wise, wary and all too soon swallowed by gloom and shadow once more. Here, a delicately presented JT LDO Emerger raised the more inexperienced fish to the fly time and again.
The JT LDO Emerger – irresistible in the deeper, slower water
Finally we emerged from the bosky twilight of the woods into a spectacular pool, flanked on the left by a pale wall of rock, draped in creepers and ferns, whilst the sun bounced off marsh plants and trickling springs on the low bank to the right. The head of the pool contained a leviathan. Under Neil's patient guidance, my Mohican May placed perfectly and was almost instantly engulfed. I was taught a brief, brutal lesson in being under-gunned as the trophy wild rainbow smashed into his lair in the roots of a toppled tree, and fly and I parted company.
The final pools of the day
It was, without doubt, one of the most magical fishing experiences I've had anywhere in the world. There are few places that have such impact as to regularly have you tear your eyes away from the river's surface and stand, hands on hips, stock-still and simply breathe...'Wow'. And for me it was all beautifully summed up in a moment of pure contentment; sitting on the bank, temporarily fished-out, watching endlessly rising trout with a cool beer in hand - just as a handsome mayfly settled gently upon the label right in front of my eyes and sat patiently and obligingly in the late afternoon warmth whilst I captured the moment on my camera with my free hand.
Can it be summed up any better?
It was indeed an intoxicating trip, so it was with great excitement that I accepted his short-notice invite for a return trip this year. This time I was able to go with long time fishing buddy Adrian. Quietly spoken, hugely knowledgeable and an intensely appreciative angler, Adrian was positively frothing with excitement when I explained that Neil's pal Jim was kindly extending an additional guest ticket and the two of them would play host to us.
The car was hastily loaded and fly boxes populated with an assortment of mayfly patterns and well stocked with those that had proven their mettle convincingly on my last visit. After a long drive up from South Wales, Adrian and I rendezvoused with Neil and Jim and we arrived at a familiar spot. Expecting that surely there would be, indeed could be, no more surprises in store, I confidently turned to Adrian and knowingly explained where we would be off to. Oh how wrong I was.
Whilst Adrian was indeed introduced by Neil to the delights of a stretch I'd visited the previous year, Jim ushered me off downstream, and the process of discovery began yet again.
Here the river was narrow, partly shaded and fast flowing, with deep creases in the bed, tight up against the banks and often right under the low foliage of sycamore and hazel; perfect lays for shy and wary trout. It was cool and there was no indication yet of any mayfly activity, so I settled into an alternating pattern of fly use; the little CDC plumed JT LDO emerger on the glassier water, and the robust, buoyant, pink-posted buggy parachute fly through the fast flow and pocket water. Both flies applied themselves perfectly to the conditions and began to rack up a steady tally of mostly brown trout, particularly effective when directed in their placement by Jim, whose expertise and experience of the river showed time and time again.
The forecast weather, which had threatened to make life damp and unpleasant, failed to materialise and in fact, against all expectations, the sun emerged and began to significantly warm the air. The result was a burst of activity in river's fly-life, and the pace of catches accelerated. As Jim and I hit the faster water as we moved upstream, so the wild brownies gradually conceded their lairs to bottle-rocket wild rainbows; fat, fin-perfect, aggressive and resplendent in extraordinary hues of pink, green, and tangerine orange under the belly. They weren't big; mostly about 10oz, but their regalia and energy were breathtaking.
As is so often the case for me on the wonderful Wye, my host often ushered me on to the next productive run and pool, saying "don't worry about this bit, the next section is much better.", whilst I staggered along after him looking imploringly backwards at what we were bypassing like a child being dragged past the sweets in a supermarket by an impatient mother.
At the head of a very narrow section adjacent to the road, Jim explained that this was a pool often populated by a bigger class of the Wye's famous and unique wild rainbows. Under his suggestion, I switched to a Mohican May and flicked the fly into a tight crease of water. Its progress downstream was abruptly halted by a slamming take, and this time both clutch and net were deployed to subdue the fish which, as predicted, was indeed a fine one. A decent wild rainbow, on a mayfly pattern, in the Wye; Job done. If the weather had ruined all further opportunity, I would still have gone home happy at that point.
Apologies for the fuzzy picture...but as you can tell - That was me happy!
We fished up the final run and met with a similarly happy Adrian back at the hut. Neil had prepared one of his famous Thai curries and we shared our experience of the day whilst sipping Rioja and partaking in the fine meal whilst indifferent fish eyed us from a mere few feet away.
Post dinner, we elected to fish on. Moving a few miles along the river, Neil and Jim took us to a series of deep, slow glides and pools. I resolved to fish a section where the river was lethargic, fringed all along the opposite bank by willow and hawthorn which shrouded the dark water and dipped below the surface in an almost unbroken wall. I could see good sized fish lurking right on that boundary. Neil explained they would be hard to catch and moved on upstream, leaving me to contemplate the challenge. Nil Desperandum, I thought, and tied on the trusty LDO emerger again.
The effect was instantaneous. No sooner had Neil disappeared from sight than the first brooding trout made a cautious turn and rose up from the depths to smoothly inhale the fly. The fight was short but fierce as I had to repeatedly pile on the pressure to prevent it reaching the tangled mass of submerged branches and sure freedom, but yield it did and I gratefully netted a handsome brown. I quietly worked along the fringe, and pulled up two superb rainbows in similar fashion before finally topping the evening off with another plump wild brownie. Jim and Adrian appeared in the failing light as I wandered back down the bank, perfectly content with the results of the day.
The following morning we awoke to the irregular patter of rain, as forecast. Prospects were poor as the bad weather was apparently set to intensify during the day, but Adrian and I felt the 'he who dares, wins' approach was worth a go, and resolved to switch to nymphing if dry-fly conditions became untenable. Neil was working during morning so we collected Jim and headed for yet another entirely new section. Here, the wonderful Wye was shallow, chalky and peppered with riffles and pools; classic chalkstream water once more. The rain lightened but persisted. Jim set off upstream, leaving Adrian and I to work up our section in tandem. Yet again, the same two flies produced a succession of browns, but the fishing was hard and our quarry stuck close to inaccessible scoops and overhangs, so it was all or nothing in getting the fly in the right place.
Lunchtime arrived and we hopped into the car and went to new section which Jim had referred to as 'the lake'. In fact this turned out to be long, gradual meander in the river course in the shadow of an imposing viaduct, where the width of the channel suddenly tripled, slowing the pace of flow significantly, producing broad, shallow, silty margins. Against all the meteorological predictions, the rain petered out entirely and a feeble sun managed to caress a little warmth into the air.
The effect was immediate. As if materialising out of thin air, a few large, pale mayfly dipped across the still surface. One touched down and drifted slowly in the negligible current for a good minute or so before, without any warning, it met it's doom at the splash of an unseen assailant. I flicked out the LDO and watched as a cruising brown changed course at the delicate impact of the fly and sucked it in. A reasonable fish of a pound or so came to hand moments later. It was followed by another in similar fashion, and then the clop and splash of fish rising to a sudden mayfly hatch was all around. The three of us spread out and found access between the bushes to launch now firmly affixed mayfly patterns into the increasingly frenetic activity, and ultimately we found ourselves fishing in a full blown may hatch such as anglers often dream of!
All around, the trout, both rainbows and browns, were frantically hitting the mays as they played a deadly dangerous game of chicken, bimbling and dipping across the surface. It was incredible to witness trout moving beneath the water, tracking the movement of a mayfly a foot or two in the air for perhaps 10 yards before, with perfect timing, launching themselves clear out of the water to snatch the ill-fated insect in mid-flight. Previously cautious fish were now in frenzied pursuit of their prey, and snapped up our flies with reckless abandon, providing two hours of scintillating entertainment in the quiet, serene valley.
Eventually the hatch subsided. Neil arrived for the afternoon session and was briefed on the morning’s events. Applying his intimate knowledge of the river, he suggested yet another stretch. I was beginning to completely lose track of all these beats, dizzy with the endless delights we'd been presented with. Our final section on this two day treat, was a mix of thundering, fizzing pools, and gravel runs, open overhead and lined by mature trees, headed by a surprising 12ft level drop over a dramatic, stepped, amphitheater-like weir. Here, the mays were rising like fairy folk once more, and everywhere the trout gorged themselves.
As a last final change of pace, I moved further downstream leaving Neil experimenting with a beautifully tied inverted mayfly pattern of his own devising, with no small degree of success.
My final stint was a 100 yard section of fast, splashy, wide-open pocket-water. The river was really pushing through at pace, and any fish-holding pools were only a few feet across. I switched back to my trusty hi-viz parachute emerger, as it's visibility and buoyancy meant it was the only fly I had likely to cope with this foaming, frothing, rushing flow. At any one time, the fly could only connect with the surface for a couple of seconds before being swamped or swept out of any potential fish-holding water, so it was a case of dab, lift, dab, lift, prospecting anything remotely likely to contain a trout. I snatched a couple of feisty little browns out, and missed a couple more.
About halfway up, I flicked my fly into a likely looking cauldron. The fly instantly disappeared, not even resting on the surface for a split second. I saw no evidence of fish, nor movement to suggest one, but instinctively struck and immediately pressed the take-off button for a surprisingly large rainbow that ripped the flyline through my fingers at a shocking speed. Skipping across the wide flow it headed straight for cover so I had to brake it sharply and put as much pressure as I dared on the 2.8lb tippet. The steer was successful but the fish then switched tactic and shot off downstream, meaning I had to facilitate an ungraceful, stumbling pursuit to stay in contact. Fortunately, fish and I did not part company, and it was with trembling hand that I finally netted it. Not a giant but quite definitely one of the most beautiful fish I've ever seen, and somehow that single, completely wild, natural rainbow trout epitomised everything that is special about fishing the Wye.
Fish of the trip? For me, quite possibly.
As Adrian and I re-convened with our hosts, tired but nonetheless smiling broadly, we were mildly astonished when both Neil and Jim both apologised for the under-par fishing over the last couple of days. Good grief. If that was under-par, then heaven knows what it's like when the river is really on fire!
Even so, for me, the experience is not defined purely by the quantity or the size of the fish; its defined by the experience in its entirety - the scenery, the spectacle, the wildlife, the company and the challenge. And if you can absorb and appreciate all that and top it off with fish that bring a smile to your face, then you have experienced something truly special.
I've been back since, a few times. I've had bigger wild rainbows there since...boy, have I (I'll probably write abut those), but there's nothing like the first. And the river's allure remains every bit as potent as as that first, jaw-dropping visit.
The Cressbrook & Litton Fly Fishers Club has certainly got a long waiting list, and for good reason, but there is splendid fishing to be had on the day-ticket water which provides a tantalizing taste of this spectacular river's incredible diversity. If nothing else it may just inspire you to explore other rivers for similar scope...either that or join the waiting list which, were I closer than 200 miles away, I'd certainly be doing right now!