Notes on Avon Fishing written by Honorary AFA Member Malcolm Pickup

This lovely little river that rises in the granite bogs of the Southern Moor, empties into the Avon Dam and then rapidly tumbles its way down to the village of South Brent. The Association fishing begins on the left bank below the bridge that crosses the old A 38 road.

Our water continues with a similar haste as a mixture of boulder bedded runs, deep pots, bare rock and the odd larger pool. Both banks are well wooded most of the way from Brent through to Avonwick station.

In the autumn it can be a raging torrent and yet in summer changes to a mere brook. This is interesting water. It provides good salmon fishing in the autumn and delightful dry fly fishing during the summer.

As the river grows older it continues to provide an amazing variety of fishing ending at the tidal weir near Aveton Gifford.

Trout Fishing

Because much of the river is well wooded it is easier to fish the river with a rod not longer than 9ft and preferably nearer to 7-8ft although I have used a much longer rod in the early spring when the water was high.  A rod suited to an AFTM 5 line is probably the most useful. Thigh waders are adequate most of the time but chest waders and especially breathable ones, give more flexibility when choosing where to fish.

It takes a little time for the water to warm up in March and although there will be large dark olives around, fishing a wet fly at this time might be more successful than a dry fly.  It can be fished singly or as one of a team of two or three casting down and over to the other side and allowing the fly to swing round.  You are aiming to fish the water below the surface and if the flow is heavy, a sinking line might achieve this better than a floating line.  The same could be achieved by weighting the fly, in particular the tail fly.  This is probably one reason for the success of the gold bead head and weighted PT nymph.  A short leader will tend to fish deeper than a long leader.  An upward mend of the line would discourage the fly from swimming too high or too fast.  This is very much chuck and chance.  Its not necessary to use a tapered cast but if required, this can be constructed from, and given droppers, by using 3 different weight of nylon joined together by a 4 turn water knot.  A variety of flies to use might include any of the following: black and peacock spider, some of the northern spider patterns, pheasant tails tied with cream, black or brown hackles, the ever successful pheasant tail type nymphs and not forgetting the gold head.  Suitable size 12-16.

When things get warmer, more enjoyable and demanding fishing arrives and fish and the invertebrate fauna becomes more active.  Fishing a nymph upstream on a tapered cast is probably the most difficult and frustrating method of fishing for trout.  Unless you can see the fish, it amounts to fishing blind.  No other method requires the same degree of concentration in order that the take is anticipated and recognised and the fish hooked.  It’s not for the impatient but rewarding if successful. 

As soon as fish show interest in taking flies from the surface, the time has arrived for fishing the dry fly.  This will probably be in mid April.  Much has been written about trout fishing in small streams. The most useful I know to an Avon fisher, is that in Mike Weaver’s book “ The Pursuit of Wild Trout”.  The author has considerable experience of fishing Devon streams similar to our own and his book could be used almost as a textbook.  It contains a lot of information on what might be hatching  as the season progresses  and also how the hatch could be simulated by artificial fly. The book is well worth buying.  A list of useful flies, all best tied on 14 or 16 hooks might include: a Pheasant Tail; Tups; Hawthorn fly; Black Gnat; Adams; Coch-y-Bonddhu; Klinkhammer; Hairs Ear; an emerger tied on a lightweight buzzer hook with a hair or quill body, and wing a tuft of deer hair pointing  upward and  forward.  Hardy Copolymer tapered leaders down to 21/2 – 3lbs and 9ft in length combine low diameter and adequate strength.  They can be extended or the tip replaced by additional tippet material.  

The dry fly is normally fished from behind the trout with the minimum of disturbance.  The fly should fall lightly onto the water surface within the vision of the fish and travel at the speed of the river, as would a natural fly.  Sometimes it may be necessary to cast downstream.  There are times when it is advantageous to have a dry fly tied on a dropper and skip this across the water surface  e.g with a hawthorn fly.  Gink is a good flotant, which will prevent the fly from sinking.  Wherever possible the fly is cast from a position outside the arc of vision of the trout.  This normally means fishing from behind the fish or from at an angle from the side.  It is essential that the fly floats down the river at the speed of the surface water.  This can be achieved by casting a wiggly line that falls gently onto the surface.  This gives a period, until the wiggle straightens, when the fly can longer travel at the required speed. It is only when the line straightens that tugs on the line from faster water will speed up the fly.  The same effect can be achieved by mending the line.  Sometimes an aberrant fish will break the rules and chase after a rapidly moving fly.

Sea Trout fishing

Of the three members of the salmon family in our river the sea trout are the most difficult fish to catch.  Not only are they extremely shy and unpredictable but they are usually fished for in the dark.  They will also be caught occasionally during the daytime when the river is in spate and also when autumn salmon fishing.  The latter are out of season and must be returned to the river. Wherever there is deep water, especially if there is plenty of shade, the sea trout will be found.  However, not everywhere is fishable in the dark and sea trout water is restricted to the middle and bottom sections of the river.  

It’s fair to say that we seem to be going through a lean period at the moment along with other rivers like the Dart.  Fish leave the river in the early part of the year after spawning as thin sea trout kelts.  Unlike most salmon, they will spawn several times in their life.  The eggs hatch and will spend 2-3 years in the river as parr. In April/May the parr become silver and descend the river as smolts.  The smolt feeds in the estuary for a further 4-5 months and returns to the river in August onwards  as school peal which are about 10ozs to a pound in weight.  After spawning the sea trout returns to the sea as a kelt and the cycle begins again.  The older heavier fish return from March / April onwards but fishing is slow at this time and conditions are not ideal.  As the season progresses, the number of fish entering the river increases and the conditions more favourable to success can be expected.  At the same time the hour when one starts fishing gets later.  The best fishing is in the first hour after dusk.  

It’s anathema to start fishing too early.  As a rule of thumb, delay until you cannot distinguish colour or cannot make out detail on the opposite bank.  The ideal sea trout night would be a dark, warm, humid night in summer with little wind.  Conditions that make fishing more difficult are a bright moon; the appearance of mist that rises from the water and the valley bottom; a strong wind; air temperature colder than the water temperature.  Although a spate will bring fish up the river it’s a waste of time fishing dirty water at night.  Sea trout like stability and a constant rise and fall seems to unsettle them. Keep terminal tackle simple.  

Every action becomes more difficult in the dark.  A 9ft leader of 8 to 10 lbs will suite most situations.  A braided loop atttached to the end of the fly line is a good way of joining leader and line using either a tucked blood knot or a figure of eight loop.  Preparing a spare leader with the loop already tied, makes for an easy replacement in the dark. Running the leader through a cloth impregnated with washing up liquid and fullers’ earth helps to prevent the fly from skating over the surface.  It removes the grease.  For the same reason it is useful when fishing a team of wet fly on a peaty loch. A multitude of sea trout flies/lures exists.  

Two successful lures are the Alexandra and the Silver Stoat’s Tail.  These can be tied on a long shanked 8 or 6 hook or on an aluminium tube of 0.75 of an inch to 1.25inches.  A 1inch tube will suit most evenings.  This will be fished 2-3inch under the surface.  Most people fish a far larger fly than was done years ago.  This is the bread and butter lure.  How you fish it depends upon where you are fishing.  You must do a recky in the light. This will give the lie of the land in respect of depth of water and position of obstacles in what will be an entirely different environment in the dark.  When fishing starts, cover the water systematically.  

The speed at which you work the fly will depend upon the speed of the water fished.  Falkus says that the fly should move at the speed of a small fish about the size of the fly.  It may  be necessary to work the fly by stripping the line or a more gentle coiling of the line in the palm of the hand.  Casting at a narrow angle will prevent the fly racing across the water at an unfishlike speed.  A cast at this angle allows the fly to be led across the stream. Fish the nearest water first in order to avoid disturbing the fish close to your own bank.    It may be necessary to control the speed of the fly by mending the line as it moves from one speed of water to another.  However, the less disturbance of the water surface the less disturbance of the fish. A second most useful fly is the wake fly, a bulky fly, that forms a wake on the surface of the water as it crosses the stream on a tight line.  This fly must float.  A Muddler can be used but the best that I know is Dennis Dawes’ “Ghost,” cheap, quickly constructed and successful.  In very cold conditions early in the year or after the active period of the night is over, the subsurface fly is fished deeply and slowly.  On much of the Avon the water is too shallow for this and the fly would snag the bottom.  Fishing for sea trout requires a strategy that must be decided before the fishing begins.

Tackle- Rod 9-10 ft suited to a 7 line if using large lures.  Sometimes, where short casts are the order, an AFTM 6 rod can be used but with a 7 line. A size 6 line isn’t heavy enough to cast a large tube with any degree of accuracy even when an AFTM 6 rod is used. On the Avon, it’s seldom that long casts required. A floating line will be the most useful although some might use a neutral density line. Other essential equipment would include a torch, preferably a head torch, a large net, and a wading staff.  Falkus, in “Sea Trout Fishing,” describes how to make a net that also acts as a wading staff.  This has a diameter of 22”.

Midge repellent may be needed.

Two excellent books are Falkus – “ Sea Trout Fishing” and Charles Bingham’s “ Sea Trout How to catch them”.  Bingham fished West Country Rivers and is probably more useful.  Falkus writes in a style that is satisfying in itself.

Salmon fishing

Salmon fishing is possible from August to November.  The main run of fish comes in October and November but then some of the fish will be unclean.  An increase in water level stimulates the run and without this it is impossible for the salmon to reach the upper water.   Fish can be caught in all parts of the river.  The season starts on 15th April and ends 30th November.  Fly-fishing is allowed throughout the season but  during October and November spinning is allowed from Silveridge Weir down to Venn Weir.  Visitor tickets are not available after September. 

The upper water can provide interesting fishing.  The summer brook can change rapidly and take the form of a highland stream.  There are places where the fly can be fished conventionally and others where problems need solving.  In places casting is restricted, the stream is narrow and water deep and so fast that a fly normally suitable in the slower water is now difficult to fish slowly.  

I remember one very successful member who solved this problem by fishing a large fly on a weighted tube or sometimes on a Waddington shank.  A thinner fly is possible on a Waddington, which offers less resistance to the water.  This allowed him easier access to a greater depth.  At the same time the lure was more likely to be seen.  He still had the same problem of presenting the lure and controlling its speed.  He achieved this by discounting the casting.  He tied his leader to the end of a light floss line of the type that might be used in dapping for sea trout.  This was then allowed to drift downstream to the end of the run and then was inched back up the stream pausing here and there to hang the fly.  He had also avoided the disturbance that a heavy line might deliver and solved his problems as well.  Even if you prefer a more active approach to salmon fishing there is much to learn from this example.  In the first place, salmon can be found in the most unlikely lies.  

Patience is much more than just a virtue.  The plodder will succeed. Be imaginative.  There is more than one way of catching salmon or any other fish and no one has all the answers.  Another way of catching the fish in the example above would be to fish a heavy fly on a fast sinking line and a much shorter cast than normal.  It would be difficult casting a heavy fly in such restricted surroundings. The lure would have to be lobbed or dropped into the opposite side of the river allowed to sink without tension on the line and then led across the current and slowly inched back to the start.  The return track should follow the interface between the current and the slower water. This could be done several times down the run. It is essential to keep a low profile and blend into the surrounding.  Mending a line upstream helps it to sink.  Fortunately most of our water on the river can be fished in the usual way of casting across the river and mending the line if necessary.  This will control and depth and speed the lure fishes. The lure is then led across in front of the lie and slowly inched back ready for the next cast. Fish often seem to take in the margin between oily water and current.  The speed that the fly travels can be regulated the by casting angle.  The narrower the angle or the more directly the lure is cast down stream the less likely is the current to create drag on the line and on the fly.   It also makes it far easier to hang the fly over a lie.  If  you are fishing a sinking line you will find that the fly will fish deeper on a short leader.

The most versatile rod is a 10ft rod designed for an AFTM 7 or 8 line and which doubles as a sea trout rod.  It is not necessary to use a longer rod than 12ft on any of the Association water.  Such a rod has the advantage of making it easier to control a lure on the other side of the current.  However, a long rod fly can get in the way in a wooded stretch.  It does make it easy to hang a fly at distance.  I would probably use a medium sinking line for most of my autumn fishingbut it would depend upon where I was fishing.  When using heavy flies the line needs to be heavy enough to cast the fly.  In some situations it might be better fish a line one weight heavier than that recommended for the rod e.g. short casts that wouldn’t work the rod with the normal line.  

At the time of year we fish, the following lures will catch fish, as will others.  A black fly with silver body as a Stoat’s Tail or one with a black body and a throat hackle of yellow like a Tosh have been  successful.  The Tosh is good in coloured water.   A Thunder and Lightening type constructed in varying proportions of red, brown, black and yellow is a favourite in autumn.  Tubes are popular and it may be easier to produce a bulkier fly this way.  Lures tied on doubles are successful, particularly if you want the fly to sink.  Singles can produce a slim fly useful when river level drops and the water is clear.   Waddingtons will give a slim fly but are more difficult to tie. With the increased flow at this time of year it is useful to have a wading stick.  This will make it easier to cross the river and allow you to fish from the opposite bank.  It needn’t be anything fancy. An old hollow broom handle to which is attached a cord, is light and can be weighted at the base.  A large net such as the salmon gye net is suitable as it can be carried and leave the hands free.

Spinning on the lower water may be more productive than fishing the fly.  Most people use a fixed spool reel with 12-15 lb. line.  A Mepps/Vibrax type lure or flying Condom will catch fish.

It is illegal to be in possession of an unclean salmon.  This class of fish is present in our water at the end of the season.  It can be recognised by its change in colour as it turns from silver to red.  In a female the flanks are soft and swollen by the presence of eggs.  The vent enlarges and eggs may be discharged. The males may weep milt.  These unclean fish must be returned to the river.   It is important to release a fish carefully and the following recommendations should be considered.

a. Use a line/leader minimum breaking strain of 12 to 15 lbs.  This will reduce the period of stress as the fish can be played hard and quickly.                                                                                                           

b. Don’t beach the fish but net it.  If the fish is to be returned keep it in the net until release. Give the fish sufficient time to recover supporting it and pointing it upstream.                     

c. Carry a pair of forceps so that the hook can be removed quickly.  This is far easier if the barb had been crushed beforehand.

d. It is more important to conserve female fish that are caught than male fish. It seems sensible to return as many females as possible particularly heavy females.

Written by Malcolm Pickup Jan 2009-01-26

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