Sea trout on the Towy
Matt Harris joins Sir Edward Dashwood, and makes a return to the Towy in Wales for a some magical night fishing for the trophy sea trout.
Thirteen years ago, I stood next to Cyril Fox on Nantgaredig Bridge, looking down at a pod of perhaps 30 enormous sea trout that were hanging languidly in the crystal waters of the river Towy. I had just become a proud father, and had decided to treat myself to a visit to what is arguably Europe's finest sea-trout fishery, along with some golden days on the beaches of west Wales with my wife and newborn son.
That night, Cyril and I sat chatting easily in the warm summer air, waiting patiently until an inky blackness had enveloped the river before stealthily tiptoeing into our chosen spot. We stood ankle-deep in the prolific junction where the icy River Cothi comes rushing down to meet its big brother, and following my guide's instructions, I lengthened my line to make my first cast into the bible-black night. With a typical twinkle of humour, Cyril candidly told me that in view of the low water, I would in all probability be wasting my time. However, as he warmed to his theme and started to add high water temperature and unsettled weather to his gloomy prognosis, I cut him short with the three best words in fishing: "I've got one!"
"Are you sure?" queried Cyril, evidently suspecting that I was just one more night-fishing novice excitedly doing battle with the far bank of the river. "I'm bloody sure," I countered, and the healthy splash out in the darkness finally galvanized my companion into taking my claims a little more seriously. After a spirited scrap, we found ourselves admiring sparkling silver sewin in the light of our head-torches, and I gave Cyril a dig in the ribs, reminding him of his earlier scepticism. I rarely kill a fish, but rightly or wrongly, I dispatched this one and took it home to feed my family. After fishing all night - and briefly hooking a really hefty fish that hit like a ton of bricks and almost wrenched the rod out into the night, I drove home grinning as the sun peeped over the hills, woke my beautiful, bleary-eyed wife and served her breakfast in bed: grilled sea-trout wrapped in bacon. Nothing on this earth has ever tasted better, and as I watched Cath tucking in while Charlie, our newborn son, dozed angelically in the sunlight by her side, I felt like the king of the world.
A lot of water has flowed under Nantgaredig Bridge since then. Little Charlie Harris is fully 13 years old and now has Tom (10) and Pete (7) to keep him company. I've been lucky enough to have travelled far and wide with my cameras and fishing rods, yet somehow, until this October, I've never managed to re-trace my steps to the lovely, lively waters of the Towy. Then, at the behest of Sir Edward Dashwood, I was invited down to fish his water, including the very same Abercothi beat that I have always cherished since that magical first fish with Cyril.
Chatting to Jamie Harries, the fervently keen river keeper on the adjacent Golden Grove water, I asked if it wasn't too late for sea trout. "Well, we had a 17 pounder last week" remarked Jamie, trying to sound casual. I asked if it wasn't just a little cold for night fishing in early October, and Jamie explained that we wouldn't be night fishing. We wouldn't be targeting sea-trout either: "river's full of salmon, see" he enthused and when I enquired about their size, Jamie was again attempting - and failing - to sound nonchalant as he told me of a fresh 21-pound fish that had been banked only a few short days before.
With the river starting to clear and fall after a major spate, Jamie urged me to get down as quickly as I could, and with thoughts of sea-liced 20-pounders filling my head, I was already well ahead of him, working out which appointments to cancel first, even as Jamie issued driving directions.
Two days later, I was winding over the Brecon Beacons as the early morning mists started to thin in the first rays of the warm autumn sunshine. The plan was that I would fish with Cyril on the Abercothi water for a day & then with Jamie on the Golden Grove section.
It was great to meet up with Cyril again after so long, and after getting re-acquainted over a good strong 'cuppa' in the lovely riverside lodge, he took me on a quick tour of the Abercothi beat before we settled down to do some fishing. The river was as stunning and as "fishy" as I remembered it, and it was a joy to fish it during the daytime, plopping the fly into countless likely looking runs and pools as the low autumn light lit up the yellowing leaves on the opposite bank.
Predictably, it was Cyril who managed a fish for the camera, a lovely, feisty little salmon of seven pounds that punched well above its weight before Cyril could wrestle him to the bank. I helped to gently remove the barbless double hooks and we watched the fish quiver in the current before kicking off hard into the strong flow, free on the last leg of its epic journey and hopefully at liberty to re-populate the river.
Late on in that golden October afternoon, Sir Edward arrived, exuding a boundless, amiable and infectious enthusiasm for the river and its magnificent sea-run visitors. We chatted about some of the huge sea trout that the Towy has thrown up in recent years, and Sir Edward told me proudly about the 20 or so double figure fish to come from his own two beats this season alone. I listened to stories of some of these fabulous fish, like the stunning 21-pounder from Pentrecwn Flats on the Golden Grove's Cilsan Beat earlier in the year, and felt like kicking myself for not making the relatively short pilgrimage to such a world-class fishery in such a long, long time.
Fishing out his kit from the back of the car, my host threaded up his favourite rod - a lovely, spindly little Loomis double-hander - and strode purposefully into the junction pool while I dug out my cameras. As the last colours started to bleed from the western sky, the river took on a special magical quality, and watching Sir Edward silhouetted in the dusk, flicking his fly expertly under the far-bank trees, I felt the prickle of goosebumps, and realized that I was in the exact same spot that I'd sat in, talking with Cyril and waiting for the night to come all those long years before.
Over a pint or two and a delicious supper in The Plough, the Abercothi beat's excellent local hostelry, Sir Edward outlined his far-sighted plans to conserve and improve what is already a remarkable fishery. Encouraging a predominantly fly-fishing ethos where practicable, with a strong emphasis on voluntary catch and release, Sir Edward has stopped worm and shrimp fishing entirely. It is estimated that 65% of all fish caught were returned this year, and this is a trend that will hopefully continue into the future.
Sir Edward and the other fishery owners and angling clubs have been instrumental in buying off six of the nine seine nets on the Towy, a huge boon to conserving the fish stocks, and a very exciting development for the anglers that are lucky enough to fish the river. A farm conservation scheme, Tir Gofal, is being taken up by many of the local farmers, and has helped greatly in preserving the river's water quality by keeping livestock back from the banks, both on the main river and especially on the smaller tributaries, through a system of fencing and coppicing. The Carmathenshire Rivers Trust has also been recently set up to preserve and improve the salmonid stocks on the Towy and its tributaries, and as a result of all this good work, the Towy's fishing is continuing to improve, even by its own already extraordinary standards. This year, Golden Grove and Abercothi alone have accounted for around 900 sewin and nearly 200 salmon. It is the astounding average size of the sea-trout that sets the river apart as Britain's - and, as stated earlier, quite possibly Europe's - finest sea-trout fishery, but a hefty run of salmon, often continuing to arrive well after the end of the season in mid-October, means that the Towy is a great place to be, even after the warm summer evenings are at an end.
After a good night's rest in Abercothi's enormously comfortable and well-appointed 18th century farmhouse accommodation, we rose early and drove the short distance to the Golden Grove Beat. Wading in at first light, I followed Sir Edward down a lovely long stretch of water directly above Cilsan Bridge. Edward was soon into a fish, another sprightly seven-pounder that leapt around like a mad thing, until the exact moment that I trained the camera upon it, at which point the fish resolutely stopped jumping... like they do.
We went on a tour of the beat, and Sir Edward was keen to show me the recent work that he and his team have done in opening up easy vehicular access to more remote sections of the water. This will be particularly beneficial on the extensive Golden Grove water, where some excellent fly water has until now gone relatively untouched due to sea-trout fishers being discouraged by long walks 'home' in the darkness.
Later that morning, one of Sir Edward's regulars managed yet another pea-pod seven-pounder, and after journeying into Llandeilo for an excellent late lunch of bangers and mash, smothered in lashings of onion gravy, Jamie and Edward urged me to put the cameras away and have a concerted crack at the fish. In truth, I took little persuading: the Towy has a singular charm, a river where every cast is filled with anticipation and hope. The deep, jagged gutters and tree-shaded pools beckon you on, with the promise of a magnificent, deep-flanked sewin, a lithe autumn salmon peppered with sea-lice or, who knows, perhaps something really freakish like the 365 pound sturgeon dragged out of the river in 1933, still comfortably the biggest fish to have ever come from British freshwater.
Too soon, the sun was sinking out of the brooding sky, and a chill wind that felt like the first premonition of winter came slicing down the river. With thoughts of the imminent and extremely long return drive to Cambridge, I decided on perhaps just one last cast. Fifteen minutes later, I was still there, captivated by the Towy's undeniable spell, and still believing that the next cast would be THE one. That evening, as I roared back down the M4, I couldn't help but laugh to myself at Cyril's parting words, after he'd shaken me warmly by the hand:
"Try not to make it such a long time between visits next time, eh!"
Don't worry, Cyril! With 20-pound sea trout and 20-pound salmon vying for my attention, I know we'll be standing once again on Nantgaredig Bridge in the not too distant future.
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