Two’s Company: Fly fishing on Devon’s River Otter

When it comes to getting the best from a varied stretch of river, two rods –or even two heads- are better than one. Dom Garnett joined Gary Pearson on Devon’s beautiful River Otter to enjoy some fine dry fly and nymph fishing.

“When we think of most river days in the trout season, most of us tend to take just one rod. This seems logical if we want to travel light, but it can be limiting. After all, the tackle needed to present a dry fly in a shallow, stony run is completely different to that for nymphing in a deep, swirling pool.

Having two setups allows you to fish very different bits of water and get the best from every turn of the river. An even more sociable solution is to fish with a friend and carry a different rod each. It’s excellent fun and by taking a different set up each, you can keep swapping and comparing notes.

I should know- because my recent best ever trout from the River Usk was caught this way; my brother had packed a short, light dry fly rod for the shallows, while I took a much longer rod to handle long leaders and heavy nymphs. Had I just taken one, compromise set up, I wouldn’t have caught that fish.

Today, there is a similar theme as I meet Gary Pearson on the Otter. Our two outfits for the day will be a 3wt Cortland Mk 2 Competition rod of  10’ 6” , along with a slightly shorter 2wt Cortland Mk 2 Competition rod of 10ft. While the former is just the job for long leaders, heavy nymphs and deep swims, the latter is more suitable for delicate presentations, longer casts when needed, and the dry fly.

Gary is a firm advocate of long rather than short rods on the river and has threatened to show me how to approach the small streams on the top of Dartmoor with a 11footer later in the season!  Back to today and the nymph rod has two bugs on it set 2.5 feet apart along with a foot of Cortland bi-colour indicator mono attached to a very long tapered leader with this set up very rarely do you involve any fly line outside the rod top so casting can take a bit of getting use to if you haven’t fished like it before.  The dry fly set up is a much more straight forward 9ft tapered leader down to a 2lb point.

At the business end, on the nymph setup both Gary and I are big fans of the new Cortland Ultra Premium fluorocarbon tippet at the moment. It’s reassuringly expensive, admittedly, but incredibly strong for its incredibly fine diameter. Ideal then, for a small river where you might need some finesse but enough stopping power to land a surprise monster.

Poetry in motion: The River Otter


It’s not hard to fall in love with the River Otter. It’s a meandering and varied water to put it mildly. The poet Coleridge was also smitten by it; although by all accounts he was too busy scribbling verse and frolicking with the ladies to spot many trout.

As the place he learned to fly fish, the river has a special connection to former England international Gary. And while our sport is always prone to the “things ain’t what they used to be” or “you should have been here last week/year/century” comments, he assures me the river is still in good health.

There’s plenty of river to fish, too.  Day ticket guests have several beats to try at the Deer Park Hotel, while locals could also apply to join Ottery Fly Fishing Club. There is also a limited amount of free fishing at Otterton, but do check carefully!

Explore everything

 

One of the things I love about river fly fishing in Devon is the whole “hide and seek” aspect.  When watching an angler like Gary,  one thing you quickly notice is how often he’ll drop into the smaller, awkward or less obvious spots too many of us walk past.

Our first stop today is a point in case. A little swirling crease looks barely worth a cast; but a nymph gets an instant response and a small brownie gets us off the mark. In these rough little pockets, Gary’s long rod and duo if heavy nymphs is ideal.

Wild trout otter

The next little piece of water is similar- not much bigger than a coffee table of turbulent water gushing around a tree stump. I try with the nymph this time; and just where you’d expect, there’s a sudden jolt on the line. I’m surprised to connect with a pound plus fish that wallops the fly but comes adrift seconds later.

Just like the old days? 

Whatever the reasons given, the decline in fly life across so many UK rivers has been glaring in recent years. But is that always the case? “Don’t tell me, the hatches used to be so thick here, you couldn’t see the far bank!” I tease Gary.

However, as we approach mid morning, we keep seeing olives coming off the water. From early dribs and drabs come dozens at a time, in fact, of little pale watery olives, along with odd samples of other species from cinnamon sedge to a lone “proper” mayfly. Out comes the dry fly rod.

Pale watery olive fly fishing

We find a decent colour match in the fly box, but even a size 18 emerger seems large compared to the natural flies. A fun-sized trout lashes out first, but it is the meaty, steady rises a few yards further that really capture our attention.

After a few casts with no interest on a pale fly, Gary switches to a slightly larger, darker size 16 Klinkhamer, which does the trick. After a delicate sip, however, the expected half-pounder turns out to be something much larger altogether. Indeed, the next few seconds are hair-raising and it takes careful handling from Gary, not to be broken.

Gary Pearson Cortland Fly fishing lines UK

When you’re on camera, you don’t want to add any extra pressure, so the best policy is usually to keep your mouth shut and avoid the obvious bits of advice as you snap away.

Gary Pearson specimen trout river otter devon

What a fish it is that hits the net, too! Sixteen inches –or around a pound and a half- of trout is a phenomenal fish for our Devon rivers, where they average less than a quarter of that.

Meandering on…

After releasing the fish, the hatch shows little signs of any let up for a good hour or so. My first dry fly fish of the day could probably be eaten by Gary’s, but every single trout we catch is noticeably fat and well-fed. Whether the river is especially rich at present, or local farming is small scale and not reliant on chemicals it is wonderful to see.

Gary Pearson Turrall fly fishing

Even with flies on the wing slowing down by late morning, what we have seen is categorically the best fly hatch I’ve seen for several years on any English river! Even when it tails off, we keep bites coming by switching back to the nymph rod, which is perfect for deep and more turbulent spots where there are no rises.

The short line/ high rod approach might not be as “pure” as the dry fly, but is such an underused method on our Devon rivers, where classic dry fly or New Zealand style tactics tend to be the way with most anglers.

What’s really noticeable about Gary’s 10ft 6” rod is the feel of the takes too- for anyone who assumed a rod is just a rod, you can really feel the taps and tingles of interest through the competition blank! It’s a lovely way of fishing which, once you get used to it, can really winkle out extra fish and change the way you fish a river.

Mayfly fly fishing

There are odd large mayflies joining the party by lunchtime, although the trout don’t seem to be dining on them just yet. There is also evidence of beavers here, as a well-gnawed and felled tree shows. At first I’m sceptical-but the chisel like tooth marks in the stump could not have been caused by anything else. I’ll let you decide whether this is good news or a bit ominous for our rivers!

Beaver River Otter Devon UK

There is certainly no shortage of variety on the Otter though, as we keep on the move. One minute, we’re high sticking in tumbling water; the next it’s side casting under a shallow, leafy glide. The fish are still here, if a little challenging now.

Dom Garnett fly fishing Devon UK

As we make our way back through the fields, we’re still excited about that large trout and the morning’s biblical scale fly hatch. Having two rods has definitely made a difference, allowing us to search every last corner with the right key for each lock.

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