The meandering rivers of Devon might have a reputation for holding small but numerous trout. But with some local knowledge and one or two truly special venues, however, there are some surprising monsters lurking way out west. Turrall’s sales manager Gary Pearson just loves targeting these creatures with light tackle and big sedge flies, as Dom Garnett found out on a summer evening session.
It’s not every day you hear about “big” wild trout down here in Devon. Most of the season, anglers spreading out their hands to describe their last fish are treated with an extra large pinch of salt. After all, our rivers are famous for their small size and beautiful, lightning-fast fish rather than the sort of creatures that require any landing net.
It was for this very reason that my ears pricked up when Gary Pearson showed me some catch pictures in quite a different league. Because while I wouldn’t change our gorgeous Devon rivers for anything, it’s always nice to dream of that net-filling fish. As a well-travelled former England international, Gary isn’t one to overhype any fishing- and even more impressively, many of his best fish were coming on dry flies. Did I fancy having a look at what he was up to? Silly question!
A late start
The first notable feature of our trip to the River Torridge was that I didn’t need to bust a gut to be early. So much of his success has been late in the day. Sometimes very late, as the light is all but gone. Not only interesting, but very handy for me as a family man these days.
What a beautiful river we found on that late afternoon, too. The Torridge was sparkling with health. Sunlight was dappling the water and there wasn’t another soul for miles. It’s a fair sized river by Devon standards, and perhaps the wilder countryside of North Devon helps contribute to better hatches and habitat?
As we tackled up, my first surprise was just how light Gary would fish. I half expected to see a six weight and some extra welly in the leader. Not a bit of it! To my surprise he produced a 10.5ft, three-weight Cortland Competition Mk2.
“The bigger fish might be powerful, but they aren’t daft” says Gary. “A light line like a three weight lands so much more gently than a five or six- and I find that a longer, softer rod also protects leaders and tippets better.”
Unsurprisingly for an angler who honed his skills on the competition circuit, he carries various leaders of 10 to 14 ft ready to go on foam spools. Tippet strength was quite high, however, albeit with diameters still quite low even at 5.7lbs thanks to Cortland Ultra Premium Fluorocarbon- which isn’t the cheapest, but has incredible strength for its finesse.
Lesson number one in tracking down the better trout from this river was to stay mobile. Gary thinks nothing of walking a couple of miles in a session and will cover all the likely spots on a beat in a session, even when they’re well spread out.
With the magical last hour of light not even close, however, there was plenty of time to get our eye in and get off the mark. So, while dry fly would be the way to go later on, especially if we found a sedge hatch, we would kick off with French Leader tactics.
Long leaders and steady runs
In no time at all, we were prospecting some lovely runs between knee and waist deep water. While a lot of Devon rivers are a bit small and bushy for a long rod and leader approach, the Torridge is perfect, with heart currents and stacks of tempting runs and pockets to search.
Also notable, as we waded upstream, were hordes of tiny fish- another great staple for bigger trout. While this article isn’t about the mechanics of Euro Nymphing, the tactic was a great way to pass a happy couple of hours before the hatches really got going. Indeed, you’re better to have some fun and wet the net a few times at first, rather than going and disturbing the real prime lies too early. That said, there’s no rule against trying the really tempting lies more than once in a day on any river, provided you allow time for the fish to settle again.
In no time, we were picking up some smaller trout on nymphs dressed “point up” on jig-style hooks. The majority of Gary’s river nymphs are dressed in this style these days, and they seem to snag the bottom less and perhaps even hook more fish than traditional nymphs. I’m guessing it’s for this reason he leaned heavily on the ownership at Turrall to develop more of this style of nymph!
I say “small” trout with reservation, of course, because fish of 6-8” are par for the course in most of Devon and even at this size they are a joy to play on a light rod. For my part, I also like the confidence boost that comes from just getting into the action; with the blank well and truly beaten there is less pressure when it comes to targeting their big brothers and sisters.
Big fish territory
As evening began to beckon, it was then time to roam further to some spots where Gary had landed bigger trout. In almost every case, these areas had that special extra something. Whether it was an undercut far bank, or a great big drowned tree with the current running under it, most of the locations were fairly obvious with a little watercraft. The best of the lot also tend to be a long walk from any access point- and this is true of any river!
The next surprise was that Gary used almost exactly the same setup for dries that we’d been using for Euro Nymphing. He’s even left a little section of indicator mono in place, in fact, but added a slightly longer tapered leader to deliver the dry fly.
Two of Gary’s sedge patterns, new to the Turrall range this year. Cortland Ultra Premium is his tippet choice: not the cheapest, but incredibly thin for its strength!
Top picks for evening fishing were heavily sedge-themed- and Gary has been especially keen to add his own caddis designs to Turrall’s range, including some lovely CDC patterns.
The first thing you notice about the way he tackles the bigger fish lies is not instant pinpoint delivery, but a measure of restraint! In any new spot, the first job is to watch what’s going on and get into position slowly and stealthily. His experience quickly tells with rise forms, too, as I point out a splashy take. It looks meaty, but on closer inspection appears to be a small trout.
“There’s often a danger that if you hook a small fish in a hot spot, it can put down anything bigger in the area” says Gary. In fact, he will sometimes simply not strike when a tiny fish grabs the fly, for fear of it panicking and spooking any larger relatives nearby!
It’s one of those enduring truths of fly fishing that big fish can also give very gentle rises- perhaps because if you’re a pound or bigger even a decent-sized insect is a small mouthful. Hence, Gary never makes assumptions with subtle rise forms.
Generously (or foolishly!) he lets me have equal dibs on the best spots. No pressure there then? It’s a reminder for me to be patient and controlled, it must be said. As tempting as it is to get the fly tight to a far bank feature, a much better approach is to take a breath or two and cast shorter first, to get your eye in
Big hatches for big fish?
The areas we fish are all tempting looking, it has to be said, but where are the trout? For now, at least, things are rather quiet. Admittedly, some of the formula for success is beyond the angler’s control, but Gary is adamant that to hit the best fish you often have to find the best hatches.
On the Torridge, not to mention many other rivers, the window of opportunity can be quite small. This is another great reason to take your time and not spend the whole day flogging the water- and then finding yourself short of enthusiasm when things really get interesting later in the day.
Aside from mayfly season, it’s the sedges that tend to give Gary most confidence on the Torridge. When hatching in numbers, these are meaty flies to get even the best trout excited. Furthermore, with their boisterous hatching antics and the lower light levels in the evening, you can expect some solid takes.
Sedges feature heavily in Gary’s boxes where bigger trout are concerned.
While we manage to get occasional interest, though, it seems that the big event is just not quite happening this evening. All the same, it seems almost silly for Gary to be saying “sorry it’s not really been ‘on’ today” when we enjoy several lovely little browns of 6-8”.
Looking through Gary’s pictures, the big fish pictures tend to be on mild evenings, rather than sunny daytimes, and there are some impressively mean trout! He’s had a number of two-pound plus fish from both the Taw and Torridge and admits readily to losing one or two that might have been even bigger, and all without a heavy nymph or streamer in sight.
The quality of fish can be fabulous if you get it right!
It just goes to show that there are indeed better, bigger trout here in the far southwest of Devon and Cornwall. It’s just that they’re never evenly spread; and nor do they feed all the time or care a jot for our convenience. Even without that net-filler fish for the album, it has been an informative day with plenty to scribble down in the notebook that could help any angler net their best fish of the season.
Five ideal fisheries to try for bigger trout in Devon!
Should you fancy a crack at bigger trout in the South West, it really does pay to choose your spot wisely! Here are five of the very best rivers and stillwaters in Devon and Cornwall to try fly fishing for much bigger than average fish!
Little Warham, River Torridge: Our location for this feature, it is a beautiful and secluded bit of river with wild trout to over 3lbs. Also open to guests at £40 per day. More info at littlewarhamfishery.co.uk
Rising Sun Inn waters: Spectacular views and some gorgeous water near Torrington, which is no pushover, but has good numbers of wildies of up to and over the 2lbs mark. Contact the Inn for more details: https://www.risingsunumberleigh.online/
Culm at Champerhayes: One of the best waters of all for numbers of pound plus fish. A mile of underfished water with excellent hatches of olives, especially Pale Wateries and BWO. Available on the FishPass app via the Westcountry Angling Passport. More details here: https://westcountryangling.com