Salmon on the Towy
A river known for its giant sea-trout offers promising salmon fishing
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.