Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dry Summer - River Usk 2015

Winter's End 

As the wettest most miserable winter comes to a merciful end, and the trout season nears, I am compelled to recount last summer's dry fly fishing on the lower middle Usk. 

Slow water at Bryn Derwen

Ken cutting (image: John Poutney)

How did I get here?

It was gone eleven thirty. The air temperature had dropped and I could just make out the daubenton bats surveying the shimmering river. I was up to my waist in water, hoping the twang of an elastic band would dry my glow in the dark fly. There were no rising fish.

Then it hit me: at home there was a nice cold fridge with nice cold beer, and a nice warm bed with a nice warm wife. So then, why the hell was I stood in a river twanging an elastic band? 

July moon

A significant hatch?

There was a sustained but moderate mayfly hatch that started during the second week of May and continued well into August. By the end of May, there were occasional fish rising throughout the day. These trout were often selective, targeting the danica and ignoring the sparsely hatching smaller upwings, sedges and terrestrials that were sometimes taken by other fish. 

Danica mayfly

While hatching mayfly were observed on warm July afternoons, the largest hatches occurred later in the day with the most intense I witnessed occurring on an early evening during the third week of July. 

In the trees - Usk mayfly, 20th July 2015

I took a good number of fish on mayfly spinners, often having to change from my usual B-WO spinner pattern to tempt those responsible for the clearly recognisable rise forms. 

Last of the danica spinner feeders, 10th August 2015

I also observed the rare yellow mayfly on four separate occasions, and even saw a small trout take one. This mayfly is only thought to hatch in the Wye and Usk catchments and was once assumed to be lost. 

Potamanthus Luteus - River Usk, 25th July, 2015

In summary, the mayfly hatch or spinner fall was rarely intense and not all fish responded enthusiastically, but I certainly benefited from the emerger, dun and spinner patterns in my box. 

A significant hatch for the lower middle Usk? Sometimes.

PP mayfly emerger, PP dun and spinner patterns

Blue-Winged Olives

Evening fishing didn't really get going until the blue-winged olive (B-WO) became abundant in mid June. At that time of year, if the weather suits, I'll be on the river for the last hour. The Streamflex is rarely disassembled, and invariably the dining room is strewn with fishing and tying equipment. On these late evenings the fish respond enthusiastically to large B-WO spinner falls and, often intense hatches, into the darkness.

A tolerant wife...

The spinner falls provide some of the best sport to be had in these parts and by the second week in June there were numerous large fish feeding hard.

Dusk trout, 16th June 2015

In the dark

On bright sunny days B-WO hatches often start 30 mins before dark and, on a few occasions, were of such intensity that there were flies in my beard and down my neck, and I missed a couple of fish when they flew into my eyes. Invariably the trout switch from the spinners, and emerger and paradun patterns with a fluorescent green post came in handy.

Hi-viz B-WOs

As the river is usually low this time of year, it is important to play fish hard in order not to exhaust them in the warm water, and the reel drag needs to be set appropriately to cope with long runs in the shallow water. 

Light and shade (image: John Poutney)

Fish rarely respond to a spinner pattern with the slightest hint of drag. I use very long leaders (up to 20 foot) with 7X tippets and employ short slack line casts. Casting accuracy, including the distance the fly lands above the feeding fish, is important. 

This has been covered many times but, as the fish lie close to the surface, they have a narrow window of vision and do not need to deviate to feed every five seconds or so on the spinners carpeting the river. The further the cast is made above the target, the more likely the fly is to drag by the time it reaches the trout's window. In slower water, I like to tackle spinner feeders square on giving them about two foot 'lead' with large upstream mend. In faster flows, I land the fly closer, often 'high sticking' with no fly line on the water. 

Fast water spinner feeder

I use a few different spinner patterns, although my stock pattern is the fluorescent posted para-spinner that I have seen used by many anglers including Paul Procter and Matt Eastham. I have also experimented with some success with humpy, spun CDC winged, curved shank and glow in the dark variants.

Although I have Glen Pointon-type glow in the dark spinners in my box, I rarely find spinner feeders in complete darkness on the Usk. This season I think I'll focus on glow in the dark caddis as I have had some success with both dead drifted and stripped caddis patterns in the midnight hour. 

Glow and hi viz spinners 

The spun CDC and humpy patterns work well but are less durable than the standard para-spinner.

CDC para-spinner
From the top
Humpy spinner

I tied curved shank variants after finding that a klinkhammer type emerger, and even a spider pattern, would catch in a spinner fall. Many spent flies are partly submerged in the water's surface and this has been photographed by Matt Eastham and Paul Procter. They also vary significantly in colour, have tails missing and often do not lie in the 'crucifix' position. 

Curved shank spinner

Hard earned

To my mind, catching large fish in a spinner fall provides some of the greatest rewards in dry fly fishing. I can recall evenings from years ago where tens of big trout were rising and I trudged home, broken, having caught only a few small fish. Those experiences spurred me on to solve the riddle. It became an obsession where the next evening couldn't come quickly enough and resulted in hours spent on the river in the twilight.

While I haven't completely cracked the code, in the main, those deeply frustrating evenings are behind me. Time spent away from cold beer and warm wives has paid off. 

I'm always learning but it feels like I'm getting there. 

Summer light  (image: John Poutney)

Friday, 30 October 2015

No Pressure - Spring 2015

Hiraeth - longing, yearning, nostalgia 

I miss the trout season already. Strangely, it’s not the eagerly anticipated dawn ‘til dusk sessions on new beats that I miss the most, but those stolen hours on the Usk by my house. I must be getting old. 

I feel the need to relate an entire season’s worth of thoughts and experiences but, for now, I'll restrict myself to the Spring and on this unseasonably warm October evening I hold high hopes that the fish overwinter as well as they did last year.

A fat Usk trout, March 2015

Spring low

Following the mild winter, the cold dry spell in March and April resulted in some of the lowest early season Usk levels on record. At the lowest point, I noted half a dozen dead trout and a dead salmon on the Bryn Derwen beat. I also observed a fish go belly up on the Eden, momentarily concluding it was the strangest rise form I’d ever seen! I suspect that these mortalities were a result of the harsh conditions, a combination of low levels and diffuse pollution. 

Dead salmon 


The grannom hatch proper commenced in early April and as one of the most eagerly anticipated periods on the Usk it attracts anglers from far and wide. This year was no different and ‘hatch chaser’ Paul Procter enjoyed a long weekend fishing the Bryn Derwen beat and Gwent Angling Society water.

Unfortunately (for me) I had to work on the Friday and had other obligations on the Saturday. It was a torturous test of will and commitment as a husband as I knew the grannom were hatching in force and had this confirmed by Paul over a pint or two each evening. At least someone was making the most of it.

I had pinned all my hopes on the Sunday as Paul, Dave Smith and I were due to fish Bryn Derwen. Sod’s law dictated that we awoke to a howling gale and, as I lay in bed listening to the windows rattling, I anticipated a difficult day ahead. Thankfully, my guests caught a few fish including Paul’s 19 inch adult grannom feeder. 

Paul's adult grannom feeder

A trip north

In the latter half of April Dave, Morgan and I ventured north. I had never fished the Rivers Eden and Ure and, despite a busy schedule, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do so with two good friends. We stayed in Hawes, fishing by day and consuming beer and whisky by night. The rivers were low and clear and the fishing was challenging, but a good number of fish were returned to grannom emergers and nymphs. 

Appleby  trout
Eden Grannom

As the grannom hatch occurs later up north, we coincided with the back end. Hatches were usually over by 10am and we took a few fish in the slower water on emergers and adults. However, most of the well-marked, beautifully coloured fish were taken on small UV backed quill nymphs.

UV backed quill nymphs

On the last day we were fortunate to be hosted by Matt Eastham on a superb Eden beat. We very much enjoyed the variations in the beat and the fantastic quality of the fish, and I can’t thank Matt enough for hosting the day. 

Well marked Eden trout
Matt with a lovely trout to the dry fly

The Monnow Social

Yet again, the Social lived up to expectations - both the company and the fishing. I took a bit of flack for staying in a B&B rather than camping, but it was well worth it. On the first day I fished with Neil on one of the Monnow beats above Pandy. The beat is lightly fished and this was reflected in the stamp of the trout. 

Neil on the bank of the Monnow
Monnow Trout - image courtesy of Neil Hotchin

On the Sunday I fished with Kris Kent on a private beat further down river. Kris concentrated on the few fish that were rising while I followed employing a more pragmatic approach... We caught no monsters, but returned many trout and grayling to around 15 inches. The middle section of the beat is special - braided and heavily wooded - and as I peered through the trees it seemed as though some channels were flowing in opposing directions. During another surreal moment Kris and I were confronted by a startled roe deer crossing the river within feet of us.

Woody debris

Thanks (again) to the hard work of Rob, Patrick, Neil M and others, this event was one of the highlights of my season and long may it continue. 

Pink holo DHEs - a great fly on the early season Monnow

No pressure

Experiences on the Monnow and Usk this year have yet again confirmed that the less pressure a beat receives, the more likely it is to produce large fish. Further evidence was gathered when I managed to gain access to a short unfished beat of the lower middle Usk.

The way down

The route to the river plunged fifty metres over a cliff-like bank and I trembled as I slid on my backside until I came upon an old rope buried in the leaf litter. Clearly the beat hadn’t always been unfished… 

Hot and sweaty after the ten minute scrambled descent, I realised the beat was only fishable along a twenty metre section. Slightly disappointed, I sat and watched the head of a fast run.

After a few minutes of observing hatching yellow may duns and noting no discernible rise forms, I elected to fish two size 16 light coloured jig nymphs on a french leader rig. On the first cast, as I deliberately lifted my flies through the water column, I pricked a large fish close to the surface that made a huge commotion. I cursed, but my concern proved to be misplaced as, over the next twenty minutes, the same spot yielded four fish of over 16 inches (including one of the biggest I landed all season). The mouths of all of these wild brown trout were coated with YMD emerging nymphs. I made the slightly more strenuous journey home in no doubt that I’d just made the ten most productive casts of my life.

Usk favourites

Usk YMD emerging nymph feeder

Tempus fugit

The older and busier I become, the faster time passes. I suppose the only advantage to this worrying trend is that next March will be upon me before I know it. 

The birth of my daughter has prompted me to re-evaluate and, after an honest discussion with Matt on the banks of the Eden (while my wife was at home caring for a teething infant), we concluded that being a time poor fishing enthusiast makes me a selfish bugger. As the weeks flash by, and with another season gone, I can probably live with this. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Resurrection – March Browns, River Usk

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s been a while since my last entry. Short on time, I've been forced to make the choice between fishing, tying flies and blogging - my fly boxes are also sparsely populated at the moment.

Early Riser

We start early on the Usk and unlike last year the river was relatively low throughout March and April. As such, it was fishable for long periods but, during the driest April I can remember, the fish population suffered (more on this in another entry).

The first few weeks of March saw me taking the rod for a walk along the banks of the Lower Middle Usk in search of post meridian risers. I found a few but, in hindsight, time would have been better spent upstream. When I did venture above Abergavenny I caught more, including one warm day where I caught my last fish at nearly 5pm.

Early riser: LDO feeder

Large Dark Olives (LDOs) have been less prolific in the last few years, but the March Brown (MB) hatch has steadily improved. Most sustained LDO feeders were witnessed on drizzly, windless afternoons (perfect conditions) where large numbers of duns were fixed to the surface.

Missing in Action 

The first March Brown hatch I observed provided a harsh reminder of how quickly the angler needs to react. I saw a couple of big fish rising for MBs every twenty seconds and slowly moved in to cover the rear fish. By the time I was in position the hatch was over.

Wasting no time: Dave Wiltshire approaching a rising fish

The isolated nature and short duration of MB flurries means that, to increase the chances of coinciding with one, unless you know the water intimately, it’s best to keep moving. This tactic worked well one session on the Upper Usk with Nicholas Steadman; we walked a one mile beat, top to bottom, eight times. During that day we managed to locate four or five large emergences that lasted up to ten minutes. The largest occurred mid-afternoon and the fish responded in the most spectacular fashion I have witnessed.

In the surface: March Brown

As we approached the top of the beat we noticed huge numbers (probably hundreds) of March Browns hatching in a fast run at the head of a pool and riding the rapids downstream to fixated trout. They were so preoccupied that Nicholas and I, stood in ankle-deep water twenty meters apart, caught trout from directly in between us.

Caught in 20cms of water

As the hatch peaked, we noticed a huge commotion at the pool head and were astounded by what was unfolding. An up-welling to the side of the bridge had concentrated the newly hatched MBs into an area of flat swirling water no bigger than three or four square meters. These sitting ducks were being frantically snatched by numerous trout in a feeding frenzy more akin to a shoal of piranha! I took out my phone to start filming, but the excitement was too much and I continued fishing. This was the right choice as the hatch petered out within the next five minutes.

Upper Usk March Brown feeder

The difficulty in catching MB feeders is more in understanding and locating the hatch than hooking the fish. Size is important and I have noted that the fish respond far more readily to a size 12 than a size 14 dun pattern. 



As already alluded to, being prepared is essential and in my case, the fly needs to be attached to the tippet, as by the time I attach an emerger or dun imitation with shaking hands, I usually miss the best part of the hatch!

Returning a March Brown feeder (pic courtesy of Dave Wiltshire)


During March and early April, reports of these prolific MBs attracted anglers from throughout the UK. If they continue to improve, then more and more anglers will follow Oliver Kite's example in fishing the early season Usk.

Bryn Derwen March Brown Feeder

I’m told by the more experienced (older) Usk fishermen that forty years ago the river would boil with MB feeders and that the flies all but disappeared from the river in the early eighties. To my knowledge, MBs were not recorded (in any number) on the Usk for decades. I’ve discussed the reasons for the revival with numerous anglers and ecologists; some attribute it to agricultural practices, particularly the use of organophosphate based sheep dips. I don’t know, but what I am sure of is that this majestic Heptageniida is making a welcome comeback. 

Rhithrogena germanica

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Out of Time, Winter 2014/15


I’ve not posted a blog entry since August and it’s been nagging at me. Since then I have started a demanding new job and my wife has given birth to our daughter. Changing priorities and less spare time have resulted in fewer hours on the river.

During the colder months I only managed to get out a handful of times; to the Frome, a southern chalk stream (that will remain unnamed), the Irfon, the Upper Wye and (of course) the Taff.

Beasts of the Southern Chalk

The first grayling outing of the new season saw me fishing the Frome near Dorchester where Ian Stirling had kindly organised a day for a few us. As trout were still in season we were pleased to land plenty of brownies and quite a few grayling, with a few nudging the two pound mark (including one weighed by Nicholas - not pictured).

One of the larger fish 

Frome grayling

I was in great company. As this was a social occasion we had a memorable lunch, cooked mainly on John Aplin’s well used barbecue with a few additions, including what can only be described as 'Ian's Italian Quiche'.

Beasts of the southern chalk

John - pike spotting with the keeper (courtesy of John Grindle)

The Frome

Staying low with Nicholas (courtesy of John Grindle)

One for Dave (courtesy of Dave Smith)

It was a lovely day in superb surroundings and I am very grateful to Ian for organising it. 


On the second grayling outing I was the guest of Nicholas on a 'southern chalk stream'. We met at 8.00 am and by 8.30 am (and please don't misunderstand me here) it was clear that he had taken me to a special place; I was amazed by the number of fish and, being relatively new to chalk stream fishing, I struggled to spot some of them in the low light. But when I did... 

By mid-morning I was transfixed with a particular fish and managed to shuffle (on my knees) off a three foot bank and into the river. As good as the fishing was, I think that was the highlight of the day for my companion. 

Average size

Nicholas with a slim fish

The sport was frantic and we caught many hard-fighting blue-hued fish, no monsters but a few just over two pounds. 

The fight

2lb 2oz

These fish were very special, almost irridescent. Certainly the prettiest grayling I've seen.


The flies that I used on both days were similar to those I employ on the Taff, except for a killer pink, orange and brown shrimp pattern that Nicholas gave me (that rarely left my tippet). The pink butted hare's mask nymph (below) caught my largest fish on each trip.

Taff grayling flies


This year I will mainly fish the Bryn Derwen Sporting Syndicate (near my house) and shall retain my Gwent Angling Society (GAS) membership. I am now a bailiff on the GAS Baker’s Beat near Chainbridge (a few hundred metres below Bryn Derwen) and hope to find the time to take advantage of some of the other GAS beats.

Chainbridge and Baker's

I have been an on-off member of Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association (MTAA) for over twenty five years. As a schoolboy I took the bus into town to purchase a ticket from Tony Rees' butcher shop. Tony is long retired, but I recall him enthusiastically filling out my ticket and giving me encouragement. It was on MTAA's Taff and Usk beats that I developed my love for river fishing. 

With this in mind, it saddens me that I will not be rejoining this year. Members of the club have requested that competitions be held on the Usk; while I do not fish competitions, I have no strong feelings regarding the catch and release events in which many of my friends compete. However, this year's MTAA competitions will encourage any legal method (fly and worm) and, as there will be no controllers (as I understand it), the competitors will have to weigh in up to four dead brown trout at the end. I suspect I will make no friends in the club writing this but I do not believe that a modern angling club should be organising catch and kill competitions on a wild trout fishery.

To put this into context, if twenty competitors took eighty fish on the Mardy beat, then I estimate that they may be removing ~10% of the trout population (of takeable size). The fact that this success rate is highly unlikely, makes no difference to the principle and I would be a hypocrite if I retained my membership.

Signs of Spring 
This time of year I can often be found walking the River Usk in expectation. (Usually between midday and 2.00 pm), I seek signs of spring and hope to spot hatching flies and rising trout. As yet, I've seen none. Although last week I thought I spotted a couple of rising fish but it turned out to be two cormorant crapping in the river!

Pesky piscivores 

This year I've seen more signs of fish eaters than fish. Over the last few months I've been finding (with a bit of help from my lurcher Nel) trout tails up to over fifty meters from the river. 


Expectation also drives industry and I tie most of my flies for the Usk in February and March. The first important hatches on the Usk are the Large Dark Olives (LDO) and March Browns and I imitate various life stages with tried and tested patterns, a few of which are shown below.  

UV backed olive emergers

Hook: Size 14 - Kamasan B100
Tail: Coq de Leon
Body: Olive or natural quill
Back: UV blobs tail fixed with a very thin coat of UV cure
Thorax: Hare's mask / pine squirrel / musk rat - mix of natural and olive
Plume: Natural CDC

March Brown emergers

Hook: Size 12 - TMC 200R
Tail: Coq de Leon
Body: Ginger quill
Thorax: Hare's mask / pine squirrel / musk rat
Plume: Natural CDC

Bromwell's big boys

Signs of spring

Thoughts of Summer

Over the long and busy winter months I have been comforted by thoughts of the Usk in summer. As described in my previous entry, spending the last few hours of daylight on the river brought peace of mind. 

Last summer (courtesy of Jon Poutney)

Ken's field 

2014 - a good year for swans

That time in my life will stay with me and, as the end of summer proper coincided with the birth of my daughter, it seemed only fitting that we name her Hâf (summer in Welsh).

My PB (courtesy of Jon Poutney)