TROUT AND TWEED

A PROPER SEARCH FOR “SE­RI­OUSLY” WILD BROWNS IN THE SMALL STREAMS BRAIDING THE HILLS AND PATCHWORK FIELDS OF DEVON, ENG­LAND

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY CATHY NEW­MAN PHO­TOS BY COLIN TEN­NANT

In need of so­lace, the writer trav­els to a sport­ing ho­tel in Eng­land’s West Coun­try to pur­sue “se­ri­ously wild fish” in waters that sing in the key of Izaak Walton, rather than Ernest Hem­ing­way. By CATHY NEW­MAN

When I am in need of so­lace, which seems to be more and more th­ese days, I cast my sights, heart and line to­ward trout. But not just any trout; my thoughts go to wild brown trout, specif­i­cally those found in the lovely small streams that thread through Devon in Eng­land’s West Coun­try. Though not lunkers, as many overfed, blimp­like, stocked rain­bows that need to be fork­lifted out are in some U.K. and U.S. fish­eries, Devon browns are ex­traor­di­nar­ily wary and chal­leng­ing, which makes them great fun to pur­sue, de­spite their mod­est size. I once caught an 11-inch fish and was per­fectly thrilled. Salmo trutta, as the nat­u­ral­ist Carl Lin­naeus dubbed the species, are na­tive to Great Bri­tain. They prac­ti­cally have a Union Jack tat­tooed on their pec­toral fins, and they hap­pen to be the trout that pro­mul­gated the sport of fly-fish­ing around the world.

Con­rad Voss-bark, when he was the an­gling cor­re­spon­dent for the Times of Lon­don, in­sisted that catch­ing one de­manded a leader as fine as a brunette’s hair, and he was adamant that noth­ing less than an ar­ti­fi­cial fly — “an in­can­ta­tion of feathers,” in his el­e­gant phrase — be used in their pur­suit.

I met Con­rad, now de­ceased, through his wife, Anne, owner of a place I like to fish: the Arun­dell Arms in Lifton, a vil­lage that sits at the bor­der of the rolling green land­scape where Devon yields to Corn­wall. The ho­tel, for­merly an old coach­ing inn, nests be­tween two moors. It is a sport­ing ho­tel, a par­tic­u­larly Bri­tish genre that sees guests come for trout from spring to early fall, and salmon in sum­mer and fall, and to shoot pheas­ant, par­tridge and woodcock in the cooler months. Sadly, Anne died in 2012; her son, Adam Fox-ed­wards, runs the ho­tel now. It re­mains per­fect for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the joys and pe­cu­liar­i­ties (to Amer­i­cans) of fly-fish­ing in Bri­tain.

A word about those pe­cu­liar­i­ties: In Bri­tain, the faint whiff of class lingers even in the sport of fish­ing, though not, I should quickly add, at the Arun­dell Arms. The pur­suit of fish in the United King­dom di­vides into two tiers: sport fish­ing and coarse fish­ing. Sport fish­ing is the pur­suit of such “no­ble” fish as trout and salmon. Coarse fish­ing in­volves 12-foot fiber­glass poles, baits in­clud­ing worms, lunch meats and mag­gots (red mag­gots are al­legedly bet­ter than white), deck chairs, a cooler of lager and of­ten, though not al­ways, the still wa­ter of a reser­voir or pond. Coarse fish­ing quarry are species with the un­sa­vory names tench, roach and bar­bell. Un­like in the United States, where you can, with the right fish­ing li­cense, drop a line in al­most any body of wa­ter, in the United King­dom, rivers and streams that hold up­per-class fish, in­clud­ing trout and salmon, are mostly pri­vately held. As Con­rad ex­plained: “Here, fish­ing rights can be bought and sold like com­modi­ties. You might say rather wickedly that Amer­i­cans have a so­cial­ist sys­tem of fish­ing; with the Brits, it’s cap­i­tal­ist.”

At the ex­treme end of the snooty spec­trum is the Houghton Club, which owns 15 or so miles of the River Test in Stock­bridge, Hamp­shire, where, un­doubt­edly, only blue-blooded trout swim. The Test is a chalk stream, which, as its name im­plies, orig­i­nates in un­der­ly­ing lime­stone for­ma­tions, bub­bles up through por­ous rock and emerges as wa­ter of dis­tinc­tive clar­ity and even tem­per­a­ture. The last time I checked, the club, founded in 1822, had about two dozen men. (They are al­ways men.) Mem­ber­ship, by in­vi­ta­tion only, is lim­ited to the

“right sort,” abet­ted by that so­cial ar­biter, the black­ball. Step into the clu­b­room, pan­eled in ma­hogany with crys­tal de­canters of port on the side­board, and you may find a leather-bound fish­ing di­ary with the names of Dwight D. Eisen­hower and Prince Charles among a flush of lords.

I speak from first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause, years ago, Con­rad put in a word for me with one of the club mem­bers, who put me in touch with Mick Lunn, the then-re­tired third-gen­er­a­tion river keeper. Lunn in­vited me to the club for a look and ticked off the rules:

No fish­ing the wa­ter. (He meant blind cast­ing: “You must stalk your fish. If you don’t see one, you don’t fish.”)

No wad­ing.

Dry fly only.

The fly must be fished up­stream.

Later, I was in­vited to watch a mem­ber fish off the tou­sled green of the river­bank. The el­derly gentle­man, with a ti­tled pre­fix to his name, wore a tat­ter­sall shirt, a black knit tie and tweed breeks. Nat­u­rally, he was fish­ing a beau­ti­fully crafted cane rod that glinted gold in the sun­light, no doubt a trea­sure that had been passed down for gen­er­a­tions, along with the mono­grammed ster­ling.

Un­der Lunn’s di­rec­tion, the mem­ber cast in­tently at a large rain­bow — a non-na­tive that some­how es­caped the black­ball. (The Test, for all its hal­lowed name, is seeded with stocked fish.) “What,” I asked offhand­edly, “if some­one should have the temer­ity to fish a wet fly down­stream?” “It just isn’t done,” Lunn said, flash­ing a look of alarm.

The wa­ter — ut­terly trans­par­ent — shim­mered. Tresses of wild cel­ery and wa­ter­cress floated in the cur­rent; a mayfly, Ephemera danica, alighted on my hand. It was, in Brit­s­peak, “duffer’s fort­night,” the time of year on this river when the mayfly hatch is so pro­fuse that the fish prac­ti­cally beg to be caught. The “Lord of the Fly” glanced back at me, no doubt not­ing the long­ing etched on my face. “So sorry you can’t have a go,” he said … and con­tin­ued cast­ing.

For­tu­nately, for those of us born of less-ex­alted breed­ing and means, the Arun­dell Arms ex­tends a warm wel­come to all. Though you may en­counter a scat­ter­ing of tweeds, there is ready ac­cep­tance of blue­jeans, wet flies, even nymphs. Best of all, the Arun­dell Arms has ac­cess to 20 miles of seven fish­able rivers and a nearby lake where fly-fish­ing lessons of­fered by the ho­tel take place a half-dozen or so times a year. Trout, salmon and sea trout (known lo­cally as peal) have the star­ring roles, though an oc­ca­sional grayling puts in a cameo.

Th­ese are free­stone rivers, known as spate rivers in Bri­tain, and they are to­tally de­pen­dent on rain­fall. A river in spate is a flooded river and, of­ten, is un­fish­able. How­ever, as an ex­am­ple, if the Ta­mar is in spate, the smaller Lyd may be per­fectly fine.

At the Arun­dell Arms, David Pilk­ing­ton serves as mas­ter of rivers and com­man­der-in-chief of fish­ing. Lan­cas­trian by birth and Devo­nian by adop­tion and adap­ta­tion, with a face crin­kled by sun and ex­pe­ri­ence and rap­tor-keen eyes that can, I am led to be­lieve, spot a flea on the ear of a rab­bit half­way up a dis­tant hill, he is surely on a first-name ba­sis with ev­ery fish, flower and bird in a 50-mile ra­dius.

David has been manag­ing fish­ing at the ho­tel since 1976. Among many other things, he can ad­vise guests on salmon lies, trout flies, rods, reels and lines, teach you the art of a Spey cast and sort out a cranky reel. He is also no­body’s fool. The first salmon I ever caught was pulled from Quarry Pool on beat 7A of the Ta­mar River us­ing a sil­ver doc­tor fly. I was alone that day, with no one and no cam­era to doc­u­ment the feat. When David met with me and I de­scribed my (re­leased) tro­phy catch, he of­fered a “well done,” then picked up my land­ing net and sniffed. “Yes,” he said with a nod. “Def­i­nitely a salmon. You can’t fake that smell.” Check­ing for the eau de pois­son was his ver­sion of trust, but ver­ify.

Most im­por­tant of all, David will in­still in you a pro­found re­spect for the brown trout of Devon, which he calls “se­ri­ously wild fish.” They are not hatch­ery-bred-and-fed “mo­ron trout.”

The process and plea­sures of fish­ing a Devon river be­gin the evening be­fore, when David or Alex Jones, his sec­ond in com­mand, as­signs you a beat. A beat is a half-mile to mile-long stretch of wa­ter that is yours and yours alone for the day. Beats are ro­tated. If you fish four days, you will, in all prob­a­bil­ity, draw four dif­fer­ent beats.

Your as­signed beat will be pen­ciled in on a list be­side your name and posted on the fish­ing board in the lobby’s hall­way. There you will also find a chart where, at the end of the day, you are asked to note the num­ber of fish caught, species, size, beat and suc­cess­ful fly. The ho­tel’s metic­u­lous fish­ing records go back to 1933. On May 27, 2017, for ex­am­ple, the tally was 30 brown trout, mostly caught on mayflies or black gnats, in­clud­ing four, caught by this au­thor, on a self­de­scribed “lit­tle gray thing.”

Re­mem­ber to or­der a packed lunch the night be­fore. I rec­om­mend the Cor­nish pasty, a pas­try pocket of pota­toes and meat that packs well with an ap­ple, a slice of fruit­cake and a ther­mos of tea or cof­fee, though you can cer­tainly opt for a roast beef sand­wich and cider or beer to wash it down.

The cen­ter of grav­ity of fish­ing at the ho­tel is a re­stored 18th-cen­tury cock­pit in the gar­den in back, one of few such sur­viv­ing struc­tures in Eng­land. At the cock­pit, after a sturdy English break­fast, you will meet with David or Alex to con­sult about the day’s fish­ing: which flies

to use, the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the beat, wa­ter con­di­tions and, in salmon sea­son, which pools to fish and where. On one morn­ing, con­ver­sa­tion among the fish­er­men gath­ered in the cock­pit cen­tered on the killer fly du jour, a jin­gler. It was a mayfly im­i­ta­tion, and, as it was late spring and all rivers were “troutable” (David’s word), it was a good bet that a jin­gler was the way to go.

May and June are the best months for trout. On my most re­cent trip at the end of May, I was on my third and last day as­signed to beat 6B on the Wolf, one of the smaller rivers.

There were trout to be caught, of course, but in the course of that morn­ing with David, I also learned the com­po­si­tion of the jin­gler (cock and par­tridge feathers); how to soothe the sting of net­tle (crum­ple a dock leaf and rub it on the wound); the dif­fer­ent breeds of sheep in a nearby pas­ture (Suf­folk, Bor­der Le­ices­ter); the flight pat­terns of king­fish­ers (they will fly straight down a river un­til they spot a hu­man, then sharply veer off); the down­side of bad­gers (farm­ers hate them be­cause they can in­fect cat­tle with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis); the dif­fer­ence be­tween hay and silage (hay is baled dry, silage wet, which al­lows it to fer­ment and en­hances nu­tri­tional value); and the sea­sonal blooms cor­re­spond­ing with the ap­pear­ance of dif­fer­ent fish (the best brown trout fish­ing co­in­cides with the bloom of hawthorne; sea trout is hon­ey­suckle time; and salmon sea­son cor­re­lates with the ap­pear­ance of fox­glove).

I also learned some­thing about the ethos of English coun­try life, a dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic that man­dates a code of be­hav­ior be­yond the proper cut of one’s tweed jacket. It seems that in his younger days, David was sent to a neigh­bor­ing es­tate to pick up some pheas­ant for the kitchen. He ar­rived, and the head game­keeper di­rected him to a feath­ered pyra­mid of birds.

“I went and grabbed a brace by the feet,” David told me, “but the game­keeper, an older man, took them out of my hand and, with a re­prov­ing look, turned the birds around and handed them back, head side up. ‘Show re­spect for the birds, sonny,’ he said. It was a les­son I never for­got.”

Like­wise at the Arun­dell Arms, there is re­spect for the fish. The rule is catch and re­lease, an ap­proach slower to catch on in the United King­dom than in the United States, but that the ho­tel firmly en­cour­ages. Though four trout may be kept if they meet the size limit of 8 inches, nearly all guests re­turn them to the river. Last year, 1,657 brown trout were caught, and 1,657 were re­leased.

Should you, how­ever, want a trout for break­fast and it meets the

cri­te­ria for keep­ing, you may bring your catch to the ho­tel, place it on the sil­ver tray on the side­board in the hall­way, jot down in­struc­tions for the chef on a slip of pa­per, roll the pa­per like a tiny cigar and place it in the fish’s mouth. I have kept only one trout in 20 years of fish­ing at the ho­tel, and the tug of guilt was, I con­fess, off­set by the sat­is­fac­tion of break­fast­ing on a per­fectly fresh fried trout I had caught my­self.

To catch a moor­land trout from one of th­ese rivers is a solid ac­com­plish­ment. There is noth­ing like a wild brown to shame you with the fish ver­sion of nosethumb­ing, as I have learned time after time on beat after beat. “If I say strike, you strike be­fore the S is out of my mouth,” David tells fish­er­men un­der his tute­lage. The strike is that fast. It is a state­ment, not a ques­tion, and I have too of­ten been caught with­out the proper re­join­der. Most of the time, when lift­ing the tip at the first sign of a strike, I catch air.

Usu­ally guests have their own cars, but I am an un­easy left-hand-side-of-the-road driver, so I take the train from Lon­don to Ex­eter and have the ho­tel hire a cab to take me the rest of the way to Lifton. Some beats are walk­a­ble from the ho­tel, but the Wolf is not, so I hired David for a half-day, rode with him to the beat and set­tled on a 4 o’clock pickup time.

I’ve fished th­ese rivers be­fore, so I was per­fectly happy when he left to tend to a tree that had top­pled into one of the rivers. It was lunchtime, any­way, and after rais­ing and los­ing a half-dozen fish it was time to let things set­tle: the wa­ter, the trout and my­self.

For me, at least, the last day of a fish­ing trip — any trip, re­ally — is bit­ter­sweet. It is not by chance that rivers are metaphor­i­cally linked with the flow of time. My three days on the river were com­ing to a close. To­mor­row, early morn­ing, I would be leav­ing Lifton to re­turn to Lon­don, and then sev­eral days after that head­ing back home to Wash­ing­ton. I’d asked David to pick me up at 4. It was ap­proach­ing 3:30, and so it had come to that point where one starts re­peat­ing just one more cast. Ear­lier I had spot­ted a nice-size trout in one of the down­stream pools. In typ­i­cal fash­ion, it had snubbed my fly twice. With the hubris of Babe Ruth point­ing to that imag­i­nary spot in the cen­ter-field stands, I re­solved that the fish would be my last trout of the day.

This is, I am sure I have made clear, a del­i­cate busi­ness. Back­track­ing to the pool, I switched from a black gnat to the jin­gler, crept along the edge of the bank, stepped softly into the river and cast. An­other two rises, an­other two misses. Too slow. Too quick. Too clumsy. Hadn’t Nor­man Ma­clean in A River Runs Through It writ­ten that, fac­tu­ally and the­o­log­i­cally, there is noth­ing like fly-cast­ing to reaf­firm the fact that “man is a damn mess”? Some­times, though, we are blessed by a mo­ment of grace. My third cast was one of those mo­ments. The fly set­tled gen­tly on the wa­ter and drifted. Then — the soft kiss of a rise, a strike, the set hook, the stretch and lift of the line. I coaxed a lovely 9-inch wild brown, sides speck­led with ruby and black, to shore, re­leased him hap­pily and climbed out. It was ex­actly 4 o’clock.

“What will Amer­i­cans ac­cus­tomed to big fish in big rivers think about th­ese small trout?” a fel­low from Sur­rey asked as I lin­gered over a cup of tea and short­bread bis­cuits in the ho­tel lounge af­ter­ward. He’d fished the Pa­cific North­west’s Columbia River for steel­head, so it was a rea­son­able ques­tion. The rivers that ho­tel guests fish here are any­thing but brawny. A few good strides will get you across the up­per stretches of smaller rivers, such as the Carey or Lyd. As for the fish, well, though the sea trout and salmon have heft to them, no one would ever award the Devon browns any medals for size. A 1-pound fish is ex­cep­tional; most run in the 6- to 8-inch range.

I told the fel­low it would be a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual taste and sen­si­bil­ity, that th­ese were waters more in the key of Izaak Walton than Ernest Hem­ing­way. In ret­ro­spect, I should have just quoted Henry David Thoreau. On Sept. 26, 1853, Thoreau jot­ted an en­try in his jour­nal about the fish­er­men at Walden Pond: “I am dis­ap­pointed and sur­prised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on noth­ing else, as if there were noth­ing to be caught.”

Thoreau’s dis­may was di­rected to­ward those obliv­i­ous to the other sights and senses ex­pe­ri­enced while fish­ing: a lift­ing cloud of mayflies, a dis­tant ar­row­head of geese, the hon­eyed fra­grance of hawthorne in bloom. He un­der­stood that ob­ser­va­tion, as im­por­tant in fish­ing as the right choice of rod, is a virtue in it­self.

So much about fly-fish­ing takes place below the sur­face. The lo­cals Thoreau wrote about were fish­ing for pick­erel, but I like to think the best and most con­tent an­gler is a mind­ful an­gler no mat­ter the species sought — be it pick­erel, salmon or a “se­ri­ously wild” brown in the small, sweet streams of Devon.

The Dart­moor up­lands (left) give rise to a skein of trout-filled rivers. David Pilk­ing­ton (right) sets off on a morn­ing’s quest.

The au­thor con­tem­plates the river with David Pilk­ing­ton, who has man­aged fish­ing at the ho­tel since 1976.

A wild Devon brown, which was quickly re­turned to the river.

David Pilk­ing­ton stands in front of a re­stored 18th cen­tury cock­pit, which serves as the ho­tel’s tackle shop and morn­ing meet­ing place for an­glers.

A Vic­to­rian era fly wal­let is dis­played in a case in the ho­tel lobby.

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