Small Stream Fly Fishing in Spring

After a rather cold, late spring, the trout fly season is finally starting to pick up on our classic smaller rivers. Dom Garnett reports on a testing yet rewarding start, including a battle with a real monster from a modest West Country stream.

“Although every season in fishing might look similar according to the textbook, things can be so very different in practice. So how did 2018 begin for you? Here in Devon, there was still snow in March; as we begin May, temperatures have varied from heat wave all the way back to winter chill. In short, it still feels like the rivers are two or three weeks behind.

I tend to start every new trout season with optimistic ideas, which quickly tend to give way to more practical realities. I’ve been fishing locally on the urban rivers, and also further afield with Wellow Brook Flyfishers in recent weeks. The fish have responded on each trip, but not as you might have expected.

Moorland or Lowland Streams?

Jig Nymph trout
Although I love the heights of Dartmoor and other wild waters, I actually find that the lowland streams tend to fish better in the early season. In fact, the urban locations are often that bit warmer and more sheltered that exposed, lofty rivers up on the moors and right out in the sticks. And when things are a bit chillier, this is the time to hit them; before the sun lovers and holiday crowds are out in force in our parks and suburbs.

I had a couple of lovely, if testing , recent afternoons on town rivers too, including Tiverton’s River Lowman. Like the fishing in Okehampton and Tavistock, the modest size of the average trout is more than compensated by their brilliant colours. That said, on each trip I struggled to get an early bite.

Usually by this time of year, I would expect to start seeing some fish in shallower water and steady runs of only 18” or so deep. Not so far in 2018. I can’t remember the fish ever being so clustered on these little streams either. Some really juicy little weirs and pools produced two or three fish within minutes; others have been completely luckless. Go figure!

One really useful tip is to increase the depth you present your nymphs if you are really struggling. The usually reliable “duo” or New Zealand dropper is not always the answer, either, once you need the wet fly to fish well down. Better to use an indicator- and with the need to get right down I won’t hesitate to step up the fly size and use quite a large indicator that won’t pull under too easily when it’s trundling the bottom at around at three or four feet.

Best flies for early season on small rivers

off bead nymphs jig Turrall
Perhaps the real revelation this season have been nymphs dressed “jig” style. I’ve been field testing several new “off-bead” flies for Turrall, which are already filtering through to some of the shops . With an up-turned hook point they are superb for deeper presentations and definitely snag less and run through likely spots effortlessly. In a nutshell, this seems to lead to more trout and fewer losses!

It certainly adds confidence when you can bump a nymph through a rocky pool, knowing that you’re unlikely to snag. And for every spot that seemed lifeless, the next or next but one would produce a sudden hit and another lively trout. These fish are still rather skinny after a tough winter, but fit and beautiful nonetheless!

Winning the pools

Of course, trout sitting deep and rivers being rather full are not altogether negative for the angler. One thing you do notice as a bit of a beanpole angler is that you can get much closer to the fish without scaring the spots off them!

I can seldom get so close to the trout, even in a deep pool, when it’s high summer. Again, they seem to have really clustered up lately. You find nothing in the runs and tail of the pool and then, suddenly, two or three from the same small area, usually with extra depth and some cover nearby.

As gratifying as it is to get those first fish, however, there is part of you that craves dry fly fishing. Even a single hatching fly makes you scan the water more carefully. Occasionally, there have been some large dark olives, but alas I must admit that I’ve barely seen a rise in a whole month.

Large Dark Olive fly life
Not for the first early season spell, then, I have finally managed to tempt a fish or two not by matching the hatch at all, but by being a little more provocative. After all, while the shallows seem devoid of fish at first inspection, pocket water and the tumbling stuff around boulders, perhaps with more sanctuary than meets the eye, is well worth testing.

Small river fly fishing Devon
I don’t bother with tiny flies unless there are hatching flies and obvious risers, however. In fact, against your instincts, a big hairy sedge tends to work better in the more turbulent water.

Elk Hair Caddis Turrall
A size 14 Elk Hair Caddis (above) with plenty of floatant was the breakthrough fly this April. I like a sedge to be extra buoyant so I can wake it slightly through tumbling pocket water swims and little corners. It can feel like a heavy handed tactic, until suddenly… wallop!

Dry fly fishing April Devon
My first take or two on the sedge were missed by trout, or angler, or both. Then again, both man and fish were probably a bit out of practise with dry flies as you might expect. Next time there was no mistake though. A small trout, but beautiful and that first dry fly fish of the season is always cause for optimism. Things are sure to get better, too…

A monster from the Wellow Brook

Finally, I was also the guest of the wonderful Wellow Brook Fly Fishers recently. It was a sparkling day, the best of the year so far in face, and is all set to make a special Fishing Club of the Month feature for Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine in the next month or two.

Neil Keep, Wellow Brook Fly Fishing
You cannot beat local knowledge and I picked up some fantastic tips and spots to try from club member and fellow South West Guide Neil Keep. In fact, luck was truly with us and we couldn’t have picked a better day.

The local farmer’s ice cream shack opening just as you indulge in some trout spotting was one bonus; but the real highlight was an absolutely cracking wild trout that I hooked in a deep pool. At around a pound and a half, it was really well fed for an early season fish too.

small river, big brown trout
Like on the urban streams, our bites were concentrated in a just handful of spots. The biggest beast took a jig style nymph and really stretched a four weight to the limit! Do look out for the full story, not to mention some fantastic fly fishing tips from Neil Keep, in the article.

In the meantime, let’s hope the temperatures get steadier and hatches increase, because after the winter just gone, we could all use some sunny cheer. Till next time, happy fishing, best of luck and don’t forget to take some bigger nymphs to really search those pools, because you never quite know what you’ll hook next.”