Daydreams on Dartmoor
Nick Hart catches pretty wild browns on Devon’s River Dart
ALTHOUGH I am not due to meet photographer Henry Gilbey for several hours it just doesn’t feel right to cling on to the duvet this morning. I’ve already been stirring for an hour, planning the day ahead. The gear’s pre-packed and so within minutes the truck is f ired up and I begin my journey south; full of anticipation. The drive to the River Dart is soon over. With so much time on my hands I can afford to relax with a good strong cup of coffee at the Two Bridges Hotel, which will be needed today, for the Dart is set within terrain used for military training since the 1800s. The hotel also supplies fishing permits on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall and an incredibly detailed map, so finding your way around this magnificent venue flowing in all directions throughout Dartmoor National Park, is relatively simple. By the time Henry arrives I’ve already been in my waders for half an hour. A 9ft 4 wt rod is poised, rigged simply with a 12-foot knotless tapered leader, plus an additional two feet of Stroft tippet and a bushy dry fly. Klink & Dink, The Duo and all that jazz may well work but personally I just can’t get enough of seeing a hungry moorland trout attack at the surface in a flurry of spray, triggering a spontaneous strike. Blink and you will miss it.
The call of the wild
Some may question how on earth the prospect of tangling with palm-sized trout for the day could be described as an adrenalin rush, but setting off north up the West Dart towards Wistmans Wood I can feel every nerve ending tingling with excitement. Such is my haste to begin casting that I lead us in the wrong direction before changing course (and my mind) rushing headlong down a steep valley towards the river. My dizzy navigation leads us towards an ancient stone wall topped off with barbed wire but the caffeine does its job and I manage to clear the last obstacle between me and the fish, without harming my waders. I chuckle as with the fines se of a bull in a china shop Henry bundles himself over in pursuit, politely washing over my poor sense of direction as he too has survived without damage to expensive Gore-Tex or the crown jewels! There is no time to suck in a lungful of pure west-country air and before the lens cap has been removed I cannot resist a flick at a mouth-watering pool that just has to be home to one of the pocket-sized predators I seek.
“Some may question how on earth the prospect of tangling with palm-sized trout for the day could be described as an adrenalin rush...”
Within split seconds of the size 14 TG Emerger touching down on the malt whisk y-coloured surface, it is savaged, but Henry is not ready, so this little fell a escapes his moment of fame and is sent home before really knowing what has happened. The quick release is facilitated by a bar bless hook, compulsory in my opinion when fishing for wild trout and instantly I’m casting again. Two more fish join the first before Henry is set but I really feel no ‘must catch’ pressure today as the Dart is teaming with these hungry little monsters.
Eager to feed but not stupid
Camouflaged like the marines who periodically pass them by, the Dartmoor trout are perfectly evolved for their environment and tuned into ever y ripple. Watching. Waiting. Ready for any thing reckless enough to fall within their lair. Much of the food available is land borne and therefore artificial patterns with convincing silhouettes are pounced upon (if presented correctly), mistaken for a variety of terrestrial insects including the abundant beetles which represent starters, main course and pudding for the miniature inhabitants that I’m seeking. Alluding to my last paragraph these fish may offer frenetic sport, but they are far from stupid and very wary of anything that appears like danger. Despite their stature as the great white shark of their subsurface ecosystem, airborne predators are never far away and therefore – to become the emperor of their realm – a diet of beetles must be replaced with cannibalistic tendencies. Struggling for takes? It is quite possible that the trout has seen you coming. This is why I like to use a long leader and, fortunately today, the wind is very light, although if you’re not so lucky during your visit, treat the wind as your friend and adopt a kind of dapping style rather than using your rod to joust with mother nature. Some anglers employ knee pads to facilitate staying low, but I like to bow my six-foot frame, utilise the 9ft Greys Streamflex and keep just enough distance between me and the fish that it cannot sense my presence. Tenkara devotees would be in their element here. This commando-style fishing really does it for me and if you need to escape back into the world of your childhood, there are few more satisfying ways to do so than spending a care free day fly-fishing the Dart. Skipping from rock to rock I’ve become lost in an almost surreal world, far from the madding crowds, alert and yet in a daydream-esque state with nothing on my mind other than the next glide, pool or pot. Trout after trout come thick and fast as Henry coos approvingly from behind the lens enthralled by the magnificent scene enveloping the view finder. These fish are truly stunning, with bold markings and a definite hint of attitude triggered by their gluttonous mistake. It would be easy to become so engrossed
with the action that the countr yside is taken for granted but with each regular application of powder to rejuvenate my dr y f ly I tilt my head back and for wards, soaking in the azure above and a vista that could be mistaken for the so-called big sky countr y of Montana. These fish may be considerably smaller than their cousins across the Atlantic, but I’ve never allowed size to dictate my choice of venue.
£10 a day for all this!
Heeding my own advice, we stop for lunch and – although at the ver y least a ‘baker’s dozen’ of fish have been caught – our conversation is nothing to do with numbers, tactics or technique. Instead we ponder on the sheer privilege to be right here, right now framed by the kind of scene that I close my eyes and visualise when jammed into a Monday morning rush-hour tube. If you really need to get away from it all; this is the place. Better still this must be one of the cheapest great days out available at just £10 for a permit entitling the luck y holder to a full day wandering the many miles of East and West Dart, not to mention the idyllic Cherr y Brook tributar y. If you can manage more than a short break holiday then £30 offers a full week of f ishing and, for locals, a season ticket will cost less than 20 pints of beer at just £70. Salmon and sea trout anglers can also expect budget-priced sport with a week’s f ishing available for just £85, detailed information is available from the comprehensive West Countr y Angling Passport website. A las I don’t want this day to end, but a few hours later and several miles upstream, Henr y advises that his SD card is overf lowing to the point that a book would be required to publish it all, rather than a magazine feature. Slightly begrudgingly I haul myself out of the water and we begin our ascent back to the footpath which leads us to Two Bridges. Meeting several walkers along the way they seem surprised by our stories of the hidden delights within the jewel-like river snaking through the valley far below, having enquired “caught any thing?”. Whether they believe us doesn’t matter because the last few hours are indelibly etched within my mind, a moment in time to reminisce upon when I’m no longer able to navigate these rock-strewn waters. The hustle and bustle of tourists gorging on cream teas and supping pints as we arrive at the car park is a realit y check but as I wave goodbye to Henr y, my urge is to continue fishing. Leaving the crowds behind I point the Hi-Lux towards the East Dart and let daydreams begin.
Words: Nick Hart Pictures: Henry Gilbey
Nick consults the map to plan his exploration of the River Dart. A palm-sized wild brownie prior to releasing back into the Dart.
Perfection. We won’t bore you with reasons why – just look at it!
Such beautiful fish from a tiny brook, worth thorough investigation.