Sal­mon on the Towy

A river known for its gi­ant sea-trout of­fers promis­ing sal­mon fish­ing

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: PETER GATHERCOLE

THE RIVER TOWY in south-west Wales is ar­guably the UK’S most fa­mous sea-trout river with fish in the mid­teens of pounds caught ev­ery sea­son. But for years I’ve been in­trigued by sto­ries of good sal­mon be­ing landed on the Towy, es­pe­cially at the back-end. I’ve cer­tainly heard enough re­ports to make tar­get­ing them a con­sid­er­a­tion. Ru­mours of fresh fish up to 20lb can­not be ig­nored. When I’ve quizzed the sources of th­ese sto­ries and shown more than a pass­ing in­ter­est, they’ve been quick to dampen my en­thu­si­asm. I’ve been given the im­pres­sion that the sal­mon sport is hit-and­miss and that the Towy is a river for lo­cals, best fished on im­pulse rather than booked in ad­vance. Or per­haps, I won­der, they just want to keep it to them­selves – and who can blame them? It wasn’t un­til last sea­son that I de­cided that enough was enough and I should rise to the chal­lenge of a Towy sal­mon. But I would need in­side knowl­edge. I needed Cyril Fox, who has been gillie at Aber­cothi for 33 years. Cyril has put a num­ber of lovely sewin in my net and I knew I could rely on him more than any­one else to help tick Towy sal­mon off my list. In Oc­to­ber, James, Peter and I drove along the A40, turn­ing right to Aber­cothi Es­tate down the fa­mil­iar lit­tle lane at Pon­tar­gothi, next to Afon Cothi, the Towy’s prin­ci­pal tributary. Peter and I have been down this lane many times, but never in the dark. Nor­mally by this time we’d be kneedeep in the river, search­ing for huge sewin, but we’d left our small rods at home and the sewin were long gone. It was sal­mon, or noth­ing. We set up camp in the An­nexe, the es­tate’s small­est ac­com­mo­da­tion for vis­it­ing rods, a few paces from the river and a huge rod room. We thought about our task over a dram. In sal­mon fish­ing we are of­ten know­ingly on a hid­ing to noth­ing. The fish must be in the river for us to have any chance – and of­ten they’re not. We then make life more dif­fi­cult by chas­ing them with a fly, when a bait or a spin­ner is more ef­fec­tive. Bait was out of the ques­tion be­cause it’s not al­lowed at Aber­cothi. Spin­ning is, but there is some­thing more chal­leng­ing about the fly. On a river where an­other species dom­i­nates, you could call us sadis­tic. Nev­er­the­less, Cyril had us fir­ing on all cylin­ders after break­fast as we set off at break­neck speed in his all-ter­rain Po­laris, with dou­ble-han­ders aloft. With the wa­ter at a good height and clear­ing enough to see things on the riverbed, no more than a 14-footer was needed. The Towy is fairly big in places and to cover the far bank in high wa­ter is a test for the finest caster. At nor­mal level the av­er­age fisher will cover the pools ad­e­quately. Like any good gillie, Cyril planned to in­crease our chances by fish­ing the best lies. At Aber­cothi there are many. “The good sea-trout lies are of­ten the same as the sal­mon lies,” he said. “Al­though sal­mon will use the same lies each sea­son and sea-trout tend to move around more, es­pe­cially if gravel shifts. The most pro­duc­tive pool is Junc­tion, where Afon Cothi joins the Towy.” We worked our way to­ward Junc­tion, fish­ing Ffi­nant, Bathing and Grilse Run first. A Cas­cade on a float­ing line and tip is a stan­dard set-up here, though Cyril’s favourite back-end pat­tern is a Red Frances vari­ant dressed by Swansea tyer Dai Jones (dai­jones­flies.blogspot.com). The pools and their best spots are easy to read, with slow glides, over­hang­ing cover on the far bank, steady tails and the odd “V” emp­ty­ing into a faster but deep­ish neck. With the speed of the flow vary­ing you’ll need to adapt your re­trieves, cast­ing an­gles and mends. It’s in­ter­est­ing wa­ter, with enough pace to swing the fly, but in most pools some sort of re­trieve feels right. Even the most ex­pe­ri­enced an­gler will find it at­trac­tive. Ffi­nant and Bathing grabbed me as the pools where I’d ex­pect a fish to hold up. The tip of my fly-line dug into Ffi­nant’s steady glide with its oily boils re­veal­ing fish-hold­ing struc­ture be­neath. Bathing is a well-known sea-trout hotspot. There is a lie un­der an ash tree at its tail, a clas­sic rest­ing spot with over­head cover and enough pace to show a sal­mon your fly and then whip it away tan­ta­lis­ingly. I knew there was one there, I’d seen it show, I just had to catch it in the right mood or fig­ure out a way to change its mind. Junc­tion was next. The lie here is just off the wil­lows on the far bank, op­po­site the con­flu­ence. To cover it, you need to start in the pool up­stream, Cyril’s Catch – named after you-know-who. When you’ve fished this long cast through, you cross the Cothi (if it’s not too high) us­ing a rope teth­ered across the stream. You then fish the main Junc­tion pool all the way down to

Record pool above Nant­garedig Bridge. Record is where the Towy’s big­gest-ever sal­mon was caught in 1931. It weighed 51½lb and al­though noth­ing caught has come close to that weight re­cently, in 1997 on the Cothi’s Ed­wins­ford Es­tate, 12 miles up­stream, the re­mains of a huge sal­mon were found. Scale read­ings re­vealed the fish had spawned five times – be­lieved to be more than any other on record – and weighed in ex­cess of 50lb. The big­gest that Cyril has net­ted for a guest was a 25-pounder, taken from the Cothi’s Lower Scarp­ment pool, on a size 10 pur­ple shrimp fly, about ten years ago. With no ac­tion on the Towy pools, it was time to cast into fad­ing light on the Cothi. I stood and watched James fish­ing, try­ing to imag­ine what it would be like if he were to hook one of th­ese mon­sters on his seven-weight. We headed back to base for home­made chilli con carne and Peter’s turn to dis­play his self-pro­fessed ex­per­tise at boil­ing rice. What is a sim­ple task for many is a se­ri­ous pro­ce­dure for Peter who, after half an hour of fry­ing, in­ter­mit­tent rins­ing and head-

“Scale read­ings re­vealed the fish had spawned five times”

scratch­ing, de­liv­ered the mother of all gloops, which needed the mother of all drams to wash down. I seem to re­mem­ber he said the wa­ter was to blame… We awoke the fol­low­ing morn­ing with rice still lin­ger­ing at chest height and news of an ap­proach­ing At­lantic storm that threat­ened to cut our three days’ fish­ing to two. I’d lain in bed at night think­ing about the pools that gave me most con­fi­dence. I needed to nar­row them down to those that felt right – with the storm ap­proach­ing we were run­ning out of time. I wanted to fish Ffi­nant and Bathing again, but first Cyril took us to rested pools on the up­per­most Ll­wchg­wyn beat. James, as the youngest, got to sit on the “throne of fear”, a plas­tic pa­tio chair on the back of the Po­laris. He was shaken, but not stirred and was soon cov­er­ing Rail­way Glide. Noth­ing. I fished the de­light­ful Mrs Jones – she was lively and promis­ing, but didn’t de­liver. “That’s it,” said Cyril. “But they are al­ways worth a cast.” We bounced back to below the farm. At the lower limit of Aber­cothi are two in-river wooden walk­ways. Car­reg Uchaf (up­per walk­way) and Car­reg Isaf (lower) were in­stalled a few years back to make it eas­ier to fish a fly through the deep chan­nel that runs un­der trees on the far bank. Be­fore the walk­ways, wad­ing was dif­fi­cult, with rocks and holes ev­ery­where. The whole of the Towy’s run must pass through this nar­row chan­nel, which is why it’s worth a cast. As we ar­rived Cyril spot­ted a fish, and then I saw an­other. James and I stepped down the walk­way, our flies pass­ing through the spots. But the fish didn’t show again. Run­ners maybe? With the pools down to and below Nant­garedig Bridge re­vis­ited, I was drawn back to Bathing, which had been call­ing me all day. By now, vis­i­bil­ity was a cou­ple of feet – clearer than yes­ter­day. I kept on my size 8 Cas­cade, but changed from a floater-and-tip to a F/H/I triple-den­sity line to slow the swing in the tail of the pool and have more con­trol over the fly’s pace. To get un­der the trees, I cast into the gaps be­tween the over­hang­ing branches where I’d pre­vi­ously seen fish, then drifted the fly down to the point where I wanted the re­trieve to start. A step-and-cast ap­proach was out of the ques­tion. As I reached the V at the tail, I felt I’d gone too far. If the fish were keen, I felt they’d take a fast fly, but they ob­vi­ously weren’t and I needed to re­fine my ap­proach. I needed a dif­fer­ent fly – big­ger, heav­ier. There was a tube-fly in my box that I’d of­ten looked at, but not for the right rea­sons. It’s big. It’s black, or­ange, yel­low and red, with eyes and a tung­sten cone. It’s ugly. I’d al­ways re­jected it, but for some rea­son it was call­ing out to me. It has pres­ence and weight in spades, so I put it on and cast down the tail once more. It fished ear­lier, dig­ging in deeper. I could feel its ev­ery move­ment. I var­ied the re­trieve. A fig­ure-ofeight, slow pulls, long pulls and a lit­tle of ev­ery­thing. It was a slow fig­ure-of-eight with a long draw that even­tu­ally did the trick. Fi­nally, he had suc­cumbed. The take was gen­tle, al­most apolo­getic. I thought it was a sea-trout, un­til he woke up. It was num­ber 97 from Aber­cothi in 2017. A fur­ther seven sal­mon were taken after my visit up to the end of the sea­son on Oc­to­ber

“I was drawn back to Bathing, which had been call­ing me”

17, five of them to Dai Jones’ Red Frances. My Fulling Mill RS Su­per Snaelda Cas­cade was once again re­tired to the depths of my fly-box, but now has a place in my heart. It caught my first Towy sal­mon – I think it looks far pret­tier now. We vis­ited Aber­cothi in Oc­to­ber, which with Septem­ber are his­tor­i­cally the best months to catch sal­mon on the Towy, but Cyril in­forms me that sal­mon (like ev­ery­where else) are now be­ing caught on the river as early as June. The best sea­son Cyril has wit­nessed was in 1988 when Aber­cothi had 200 fish. Re­cent fig­ures may be nearer half that, but I’d ar­gue it still com­pares well with many beats that are purely sal­mon fish­eries. Sal­mon catches on the Towy are prob­a­bly greater than you might think, but with scant records out­side the pri­vate, gillied beats, the true fig­ure is elu­sive. How easy is it to get on Aber­cothi? For­tu­nately, the es­tate has a lot of fish­ing ca­pac­ity (in­clud­ing the neigh­bour­ing Golden Grove beat) and while the ac­com­mo­da­tion does get booked up in high sea­son, the fish­ing is rarely com­pletely sold out. Rods re­turn year after year for sea-trout, so to visit in July and Au­gust it’s wise to book early. June, Septem­ber and the rest of the sea­son has more avail­abil­ity.

Aber­cothi's Junc­tion pool, where Cothi and Towy meet, is the most pro­lific cast for sal­mon.

ABOVE Heron-like: Cyril Fox, Aber­cothi's gillie of 33 years, watches his rods.

RIGHT Towy record: Dr Alexan­der Lind­sey's 51½- pounder, caught in 1931. The pic­ture is dis­played in the pala­tial Aber­cothi rod room.

A cast across the tail of Record pool above Nant­garedig Bridge, where the Towy's big­gest sal­mon was caught.

RIGHT An­drew con­cen­trates on the swing and re­trieve at the tail of Bathing pool, where a fish had shown un­der the far bank.

ABOVE "It's a sea-trout... no, a sal­mon!" Cyril is ready with the net.

The Fulling Mill RS Su­per Snaelda Cas­cade, with eyes. RIGHT

Sit and watch them com­ing in. The view from Pwll y Dder­wen pool down to Car­reg Isaf.

LEFT Mis­sion ac­com­plished. A 9lb Towy sal­mon goes back.

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