Brown trout on the River Eden
After several scuppered attempts, a trip to Cumbria's River Eden proved to be well worth the wait for Marcus Janssen.
I have come to realise that, unlike Christmas, fly fishing doesn't get any less exciting as you grow older. These days, receiving a fishing invitation is akin to that moment when Mum used to sit me down and get me to write my letter to Father Christmas. From that moment onwards the excitement builds to a sleepless crescendo. Fly lines are cleaned – sometimes twice for good measure – tapered leaders are straightened, spools of tippet are replenished, and every spare minute is spent behind the fly tying vice, stocking up on a hundred new patterns I'll probably never use. Finally, the car is refuelled and packed to the gunnels and I am left tossing and turning in bed, checking my alarm clock every few hours until I can finally set off for the river, several hours earlier than I really need to.
So, imagine my disappointment when, on two separate occasions recently, the piscatorial gods played a nasty trick on me and cancelled Christmas at the very last second. On the first occasion, I had even driven all the way from Leicestershire to our rendezvous point in Cumbria where I was to meet up with my host, Simon Johnson, and trout guru Paul Procter, only to be told that a sudden downpour had turned the Eden to chocolate. I drove back home with the sullenness of a spoilt child.
On the second occasion, I hadn't got as far as leaving home when, once again, the weather turned biblical. “I'm at the river now,” said Simon over the rattle of heavy rain on his car roof. “And unless you're up for a bit of whitewater rafting, I wouldn't bother leaving home, mate. I'm sorry.”
So, several months later, when I finally did arrive back at the Tufton Arms Hotel in Appleby-in-Westmorland under a leaden sky I was almost certain that our plans would, once again, be scuppered by another flash flood, a plague of locusts or some other natural disaster. Not so. By 6pm that Friday evening, Paul Procter and I were peering over the side of an old stone bridge, the Eden's glassy surface dimpled here and there by rising trout. “Looks pretty good to me,” said Paul, his words like the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof. It was finally happening, Christmas had arrived and, by nightfall I knew that the wait had been worth it.
Paul and I had both lost good fish further downstream on spent spinner patterns, but as we stalked our way upstream through the fading light an hour or so later, the rose pink and charcoal grey hues of the western sky lay slicked like oil across the surface of the next pool. I felt my pulse quicken as wisps of caddis started to flutter into the night sky. As if scripted, the trout responded with the odd splashy rise signifying a change to the dinner carte. “Here, try this,” whispered Paul, handing me a mouthwatering CDC sedge pattern of his own invention. “Head up to that bend over there and see what they say to that.”
Before I had even released my fly from the keeper ring, the evening air was suddenly filled with the sound of a heavy trout thrashing about under a willow on the far bank. But before Paul had brought his fish to hand, my five-weight was also doubled over as a speckled Eden beauty went tearing downstream with my caddis firmly embedded in its top jaw. It was all my Christmases rolled into one and, as we silently trudged our way back to the car under a starry sky some time later, the smell of fresh trout on our hands, I knew that our luck had changed and tomorrow would be a good day.
And it certainly was. Simon met us at the Tufton Arms just after breakfast and, before we knew it, we were meandering our way upstream towards Tom's Hut on the Lazonby beat on the middle Eden, the last few tendrils of mist aglow in the dappled morning light. As if on cue, a trout rose just off the main channel beneath dramatic ochre cliffs and I was soon on my hands and knees, edging my way through the cow parsley to within casting distance, while Simon and Paul provided running commentary. “And you call yourself a hunter?!” jibed Paul. “If you get any closer, mate, you'll be able to catch it in your landing net.”
What I love about wild trout that haven't had much contact with humans, is their naivety and the gusto with which they come rocketing up through the water column for your fly, as if they haven't had a meal in weeks. And so it went, plucky little brownie after plucky little brownie, each one as pretty as they come, all obligingly wolfing down our dries without quibble. When lunchtime came around, Simon and Paul had to tease me from the spot they'd left me in several hours earlier as trout continued to rise around me. “Simon's about to eat your sandwich,” shouted Paul in mock panic. “And he's already had your Scotch egg!” That did it.
The afternoon followed a similar pattern with fish intermittently coming up to a range of up-winged patterns, the odd subtle rise here and there. But, once again, as evening fell, more and more fish came out to play. At one point I watched as Paul unknowingly put on a dry fly masterclass, methodically taking no less than nine fish from a single pool and raising just as many more. “Brother Procter,” yelled Simon, “any chance we could borrow a couple of those magic flies of yours?!” I won't repeat Paul's two syllable response, but, later, as the Eden Valley fell into complete darkness, it was Simon who ended up doing battle with the fish of the day. It was a proper lunker that took him into his backing more than once before, heartbreakingly, slipping the hook, leaving Simon close to tears. Understandably, there was a sombre mood in the car as we drove back towards Appleby. “That was a serious trout,” said Simon, suddenly breaking the heavy silence as we pulled up outside the hotel. And there was nothing more to say; there is no suitable consolation for the angler who has come so close to landing what could have been the fish of a lifetime.
Even as Paul and I settled in for a nightcap in the bar at The Tufton Arms, before retiring to our exceedingly comfortable lodgings, we didn't speak of that fish again. Instead, we hatched a plan for the morning when Paul promised to take me to a secret spot he was hesitant to talk about within earshot of the two distinctively fisherman-looking gents in the corner. “All I'll say,” he mumbled, almost unintelligibly, under his breath, “is that it's small, and it's technically tricky to fish.” A few minutes later, he added: “And if we hit it right, it'll blow your socks off.” It took me a while to get to sleep that night.
Paul didn't tell me how beautiful it would be. Sworn to absolute secrecy, I am not at liberty to divulge the location of this stretch of river – if the truth be known, I probably wouldn't be able to get back there if I tried – but what I can say is that it must be one of the prettiest spots I've seen this side of Whanganui. Tucked away behind the rolling Cumbrian hills, surrounded by wildflower meadows, narrow gorges and steep wooded banks, it was like a scene from one of my many dreams in which I find myself in fly fishing heaven. “I've had some of my best trout from this bit of river,” said Paul as we set up our rods a good way back from the nearest pool. “They're flighty, and they won't give you a second chance, but they're worth the hard work.” He certainly had my attention.
And he was right – each one was a challenge, requiring stealth, utmost concentration and, in my case, quite a bit of luck. Although I missed and messed up several more than I landed, Paul was right – boy were they worth it! Perfectly formed, exquisitely speckled with iridescent blue and green gill covers and bellies of rich butter, they were gobsmackingly beautiful and – dare I say it? – they were big. Don't get me wrong, I am by no means a tape measure fisherman, but these weren't your average small-stream trout; they were deep, hard and streamlined; just like the ones in my dreams. And the icing on the cake? We caught all of them, without exception, on dries. Although we saw the odd flurry of olives dancing in the morning light, the trout didn't turn their noses up at our terrestrials. The trouble was getting a decent drift over them! This is no manicured Hampshire chalkstream – steep, overgrown banks, overhanging willows, rowan, hazel and oak, and deep, narrow runs made casting almost impossible. But, equally, when we somehow managed to get our beetle patterns over them, the reward was so much sweeter.
“Just don't tell anyone about it,” said Paul as we meandered our way back to our parked cars, the sudden prospect of Sunday night traffic bringing my magical Cumbrian sojourn to a bitter end. That's the trouble with all truly special fly fishing spots – you don't want the world to know about them. “I'll strike a deal with you,” I said. “If you promise to bring me back here some day, I promise not to tell anyone how to find it.” “Deal,” said Paul with a wry grin. And so, as I hit gridlock on motorway somewhere between John O' Groats and Lands End that Sunday night, I couldn't have cared less – I'd written my letter to Santa and was already counting down the days to Christmas.
The Eden Rivers Trust
It is no coincidence that the River Eden is one of England's most pristine wild brown trout fisheries. The Eden Rivers Trust (ERT), a charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of the River Eden, its tributaries and its surrounding countryside, has carried out more than 200 projects to improve the condition of the river.
“Much of our work involves education and explaining to people about the importance of the River Eden,” says ERT director, Simon Johnson. “In the last five years we have met and spread the word to more than 10,000 people, half of them children from 50 different schools. We've fenced over 250km of river in our headwaters to protect valuable spawning tributaries, we've removed countless barriers to fish migration, planted 60,000+ trees, and each year, by improving farm infrastructure to capture dirty farm yard water, we have managed to divert literally hundreds of thousands of gallons of slurry and silt from entering our rivers and choking spawning redds. We are also developing the UK's first truly independent catchment fisheries plan. This is the stuff that keeps rivers like the Eden incredible now and for future generations.”
The ERT relies entirely on grants, fund raising activities and donations to carry out their invaluable work.
Lazonby Estate: 01228 560122