Tipping the Scales
What is it about angling that’s so appealing? Yes, there’s the outdoors, solitude, peace, yada yada, but what really gives the thrill? Catching? Of course the catching…but even that’s got certain boundaries; it’s not catching itself that’s the draw.
For example, I used to do a lot of off-shore boat fishing. I’d be using 30lb class gear, 35lb line, and pound of lead to hold bottom. So when I got a nod on the rod-tip to indicate a bit of interest, struck and then wound in 150ft of line against the tide (unsure whether I’d even actually caught anything until it broke surface), only then to see a greedy 2lb pouting on the end…was I thrilled? No. And the reason was because I had no contact with that fish. It was stupidly outgunned. It had less chance of escaping than a getaway driver in a Robin Reliant. In short, there was no sport.
There’s no denying which makes the better photo op…but there’s always a story behind every catch!
Did it mean that fish was unworthy though? What if (hypothetically) I’d been fishing with 2lb line and a rod that bent double under it’s weight? Then landing that pouting would have been an entirely different proposition indeed, and if that was the only fish of the day, there would have been a sense of fulfillment that, under scenario A above, just wouldn’t have existed.
Cranking small fish up on a crane of a rod wouldn’t have any long-term appeal for any angler (I once bottom-fished in 1,200ft of water with an electric reel…even at the time I wondered why on earth I was doing it when the reel even retrieved itself!). What gives you the thrill in angling isn’t the catch in itself, it’s the knowledge that when you connect to that fish, the outcome isn’t certain. And to a degree, the less certain you make it, the more of a chance that fish has to escape, the faster your heart beats in response! From an angler’s perspective, that’s the very essence of ‘sport’ as we understand it.
Ok, so that might be pushing the point a bit…
So why is it then, that we’re all so obsessed with ‘trophy’ fish? Well, I suppose it certainly can make for a better photo, I’ll grant you that; in this day and age, when we seem compelled to endlessly compare ourselves against one another, then a triumphant grip’n’grin shot of us struggling to hold aloft some gurt great lump of a fish will get more ‘likes’ than the 2lb Pouting, that’s for sure, and it’ll make us feel more validated about the level of our angling skill.
My ‘pb’ wild rainbow from the Derbyshire Wye – a proud moment for sure
But should it? I’m going to challenge that “bigger, bigger, bigger’ mentality here, and see if I can get some of you to ‘recalibrate’ your approach a little, because you know what? Small can be beautiful too!
Going back (more than) a few years ago, I regularly used to fish the imposing and monolithic Jurassic Coast of Dorset.
Dancing Ledge (“In Dorset?”, “Absolutely…I’d recommend it to anyone!”). Sorry.
At one particular mark, the target was big, thuggish ballan wrasse, that would hit crab baits under a float hard enough to leave you nursing a painful wrist for days afterwards. Fights were short but brutal, and the rod had to have some real stand-up power to halt a charging wrasse running for rocky cover. But the wrasse weren’t always compliant, and there were sessions where they skulked in the shady kelp like gangs of muggers when neighbourhood watch patrols are out. On those days I’d switch to a sandeel, and shorten the drop to see if I could tempt a green-bronze pollack with an easy meal.
Increasingly frequently, that sandeel would get intercepted by decent garfish or slammed by a sizeable mackerel.
Both fish species gave a spectacular account of themselves and became a more and more regular feature of my trips, so one day I decided on a whim to go and buy a little, super-light 6ft spinning rod and a reel to match. One of the ledge’s wrasse would have shattered the whippy blank in an instant, but for the garfish and mackerel… oh my… it was utterly bonkers and had me squealing with delight like a 5-yr old! You could not wipe the smile off my face as that little rod sang under the explosive fizzing energy of big mackerel, fighting for all the world like bluefin tuna pound-for-pound! Garfish became marlin, skimming the surface waves like arrows and tail-walking spectacularly, shimmering emerald green in the sun and scattering diamond droplets into the air against a sapphire sea.
Mackerel – one of the best fighters in the sea…if you give them the chance
Pretty soon the desire to seek bigger and bigger wrasse from the murky depths was entirely replaced by the irresistibly addictive thrills of fish no more than a couple of pound in weight, but with a stratospheric entertainment value! Matching the tackle to the available fish in that way was a revelation.
Wind the clock forward several years, and I now rarely pick up a lure rod, or fish bait, as fly fishing is my go-to. And fly fishing is a form of angling that’s especially ‘scalable’.
As fly anglers, we’re all intimately acquainted with rod & line weights, and we general tap into the weight that best suits a balance between the environment or conditions we're intending to fish, and what we’re likely to catch. That’s all pretty familiar territory, and most of us have a veritable forest of rods to give us the required choice. Oddly though, the subconscious approach is almost always about scaling up. Scaling down, especially specifically to chase smaller quarry and even-up the odds, tends not to attract quite the same kudos. And that’s a shame, because there’s a whole world of enjoyment to be had in the lilliputian universe of Small Stream Fishing!
When I moved to Wales 13 years ago, I’d been saltwater fly fishing for a good few years, but the prohibitively expensive river flyfishing close to my Hampshire home (the legendary Test and Itchen) generally meant freshwater wasn’t much of an option. I also struggled with the idea of stocking too. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way being snobbish here, or deriding what fishing on stock rivers or lakes has to offer, it’s just a mind-set that comes from being a wild, saltwater angler for 30 years beforehand.
First to change that salty predilection was a trip to Canada to fish the Pacific salmon runs in 2008. It was a rod-snapping, eye-popping, back-breaking, knuckle-busting baptism of fire, but it washed the salt out of my waders and left me with a newfound appreciation of rivers as an environment to fish in.
8wts tested to the limit in Canadian backwaters in 2008
When I got back to my new home in Wales, I opened my mind and my eyes to the opportunities in the myriad of river systems all of a sudden available to me. Rivers everywhere! And I didn’t need a peerage to fish them!
Of course nothing was going to present on quite the same scale as Canada fish-wise (no marauding, prehistoric-looking 50lb chinook) but some of the rivers themselves looked wild, remote and beautiful, and I had a yearning to explore more of that.
Aside from the marginally ‘industrial’ section of the River Taff close to me, my next nearest stretch of water was the little River Ewenny, close to the town of Bridgend.
Just off the M4, seemingly shielded from the outside world, the Ewenny is small and perfectly formed, fed by limestone aquafers, shrouded by trees and bordered by meadows and farmland. The custodians of the best and most varied sections are the members of the Pencoed & District Angling Club…also small and perfectly formed! The club has a membership rarely exceeding 40, and takes a responsible and carefully balanced approach to managing the river and its course, in partnership with the local landowners.
My daughter Alix makes her way quietly up to a grayling hotspot on the Ewenny
Dedicated conservation work by the club maintains the river at it’s natural best, giving anglers access to a water that’s brimming with invertebrate life and a healthy, naturally sustaining population of wild brown trout, grayling (no stocking necessary here), and even the occasional migratory sewin (sea trout) and salmon. Upwing flies dance in the air, sedges skate across the surface, damsons flash blue and green in the sun, and kingfishers dart between leafy perches. It is a little jewel of a river.
Little being the operative word.
Every river needs a bit of TLC – The Ewenny is well cared for by the club’s volunteers
Some of the Ewenny’s abundant and varied fly-life
In places, the Ewenny is as narrow as barely 10ft wide. The resident trout and grayling are generally considered ‘good’ at a pound or so (though there are some monster grayling lurking in a few pools!). Perhaps this is why there’s not a huge waiting list for the club. Well, more fool those that pass it up, because it’s a technical test befitting of any skilled angler looking for a challenge. And to get the best out of it…yep…you have to scale-down!
There are practical issues in small stream fishing, not least the tight space you have to operate in. Such confined waters and crowded vegetation would mean a standard 9ft rod would be hopelessly too long. For rivers like the Ewenny, there’s no other option than to fish short. Very short. In fact, the ideal rod length is no longer than 7ft, with 6ft 6 probably being optimal.
A 6ft rod gives you space to cast in the ‘jungle’!
Then of course there’s the all-important scaling-down to meet your quarry too, to ensure the required thrill factor! ‘Brook rods’ as the American’s might call them, are not in abundance in the UK; there are few to choose from but it’s worth the look. I’ve fished down to a 6ft 2wt on the Ewenny, and the day I hooked a 2.5lb wild brown trout on that that wibbly, noodley St.Croix 2wt with 1.8lb tippet was still one of the hairiest fights I’ve ever had on a fly rod!
Playing this on a 6ft 2# was heart-stopping!
Mostly I fish a 6ft 6” 3#, which gives enough versatility to present a dry fly to a trout slashing at olives in a babbling pocket-water, as well as a heavy tungsten nymph, to be sent plummeting into shady depths to lure the ghostly bulk of a big old grayling. There’s no need for big brands and label snobbery in the small-stream world… The Shakespeare Agility Rise 2, for less than 50 quid, will catch you just as many fish as any big-name rod. Small stream success is about river-craft, approach, and very fast reactions!
Fishing a shorter rod takes a bit of getting used to. Casting, for one, requires a different tempo, and given the lack of space, is often a low, sometimes even waist-height flick, elbow tucked tight in to your side. In many places, you need to be fishing on your knees and it can at times be referred to as ‘jungle fishing’! During the trout season, when wading is permitted, it’s almost entirely fished from within the watercourse, and being as narrow and restricted as it is, upstream nymphing and dry fly fishing is essentially the only way it can be approached.
On your knees! (Or the fish will see you…)
Leaders have to be shortened; taking 2 or 3ft off the butt-end of a tapered leader makes things more manageable and still gives the required turnover. 3ft of 2lb tippet of your choice completes the set up.
The reason high-tech, big price-ticket rods are not going to give you any advantage is that this is close-quarters stuff. It requires stealthy progress upstream, a low profile, and a keen eye. The thing about small stream fishing is just how many fish there are sitting in those little pockets of water that you otherwise wouldn’t give a second glance. What’s more, with the twists and turns of small waters, long back-casts would have you festooning the trees with the contents of your fly box in no time, so you learn to become spatially aware pretty fast!
Short, accurate casts to rising or visible fish (sight-fishing is always a true joy), or prospecting lies and pockets is the order of the day. Everything that’s true of a larger water is true of a small-stream… but the margin for error is smaller too!
Sight fishing in small rivers is a thrill
Often small waters run fast. This means that your fly, the fish’s prospective meal, is going to whizz over the head of a hungry trout or grayling with rapidity. For the fish in a small stream, competition is tough, so if they decide they like the look of the opportunity when it’s there, the take will be lightening quick. On dry flies, that’s exhilarating fun.
A typical Ewenny grayling taken on a scruffy dry
I brought my Canada trip pal up from Hampshire to fish the Ewenny a couple of years ago. His experience of fishing rivers in the UK was limited to extensive nymphing for winter grayling on the Test, often with a 10ft rod.
Watching him flicking dryflies upstream in a section bouncing with rising fish, his features set in stone by the sheer effort of concentration, was amusing… but his reaction to the bullet-speed takes of the ambushing trout was nothing short of hilarious!
It was like watching someone poke a screwdriver into a live plug-socket – the resulting full body jerk often sent the entire flyline vertically skyward, and the air was blue with expletives…whilst I could barely stand up for laughing! It took some time for Steve to relax, dial down the movements and begin to read events just that millisecond ahead of real-time…he got there and was eventually smoothly striking with perfect anticipated timing, but after a couple of afternoon sessions, he couldn’t believe how challenging and thoroughly enjoyable it had been, despite the fact that his best fish had been no more than just over a pound in weight.
Small stream fishing gives you a different perspective…
So whilst the pursuit of ‘PB’s, and Facebook-feed photo ops will no doubt continue to be a driver for most anglers, don’t forget the pure, underlying reason why you fish. Don’t pass up the small river - There’s remarkable sport to be had, lessons to be learned and a whole new set of skills to master. And the sense of achievement and enjoyment is genuinely right up there with the biggest fish.
As the old adage goes: Size doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t.
It’s all a matter of scale.
There are thousands of small waters across the country, but if you're close enough and interested in fishing the River Ewenny, contact the Pencoed & District Angling Club through their website: www.padac.org.uk