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June 2005 – Packing the kitchen sink: sea bass and sea trout

There are times when packing the car for a fishing trip that I seem to take everything but the kitchen sink. Now, after fly-fishing for sea bass on the North Devon coast, I find that the sink must come too.

The plastic basin, drilled, through with drain holes and held to my waist with a rope, made for a rudimentary line tray, an essential piece of equipment when wading in the sea over rocks.

David Pilkington, one of two fishing instructors at the Arundell Arms, a fine fishing hotel based in the West Country, had brought me to the River Torridge estuary just outside Bideford, to demonstrate fly-fishing techniques for bass.

Standing on the sandbanks at low water, we were scanning the sea for white and silvery flashes that would identify shoals of young sea bass that come in to feed on the returning tide.

David had loaned me a nine-foot rod with a salt-water reel and a heavy casting line. Just as important were the flies. We used an American pattern, the Clauser minnow. David calls his version the “little brown job”. The fly wasn’t doing much so he gave me another pattern called a “popper”. The hook shank of this fly is embedded in a chunk of foam, wedged at one end. This enables the floating fly to cut in to the surface and pop back up as you retrieve your line.

For a couple of hours there had been no sign of anything. But after returning to the spot where we began, now well covered by the tide, a white flash in the water betrayed the side of a small fish that followed, then took the fly. My first sea bass, and on the fly too. I lost a larger fish, then caught another in no more than dozen casts while David caught three in successive casts.

Our session was curtailed by the advancing tide, but it was enough to give a flavour of just how exciting sea bass fishing can be. Sadly there seem to be too few large fish about these days. Pair trawling – the practice of suspending a deep fished net between two trawlers that has led to large numbers of dolphin deaths - is scooping up too many of the big bass. You might think about that the next time you find it on the menu in a fancy London restaurant.

The bass fishing trip was slotted in to two days of intensive tuition provided by the Arundell Arms team headed by Anne Voss-Bark, who has created a fishing haven at her hotel on the Devon/Cornwall border in Lifton, just outside Launceston. With some 20 miles of prime Devonshire trout, sea trout and salmon water, the hotel is an ideal venue for anyone seeking to try game angling for the first time.

In fact almost anyone can benefit from casting lessons, however long they have fished. I must have been casting a fly for about 30 years, but after about 20 seconds on the river-bank with David it was plain that I still had much to learn, or, rather, unlearn.

Casting technique is one of those actions, like the golf swing, that it pays to get right at the outset. Sometimes people need to start with the fundamentals. At least four beginners at the Arundell Arms have put their rods on the ground after a cast, only to see their rod and reel dragged deep in to the practice lake by one of the large stocked rainbow trout.

Stock fish are refreshingly absent from the hotel’s rivers. The wild brown trout are mostly quite small. The best fish in these West Country rivers begin to run through the systems at the beginning of July. These are the migratory sea trout.

“If the grass looks green it’s too early to start,” said David as we ventured out at dusk. Sea Trout are nervous creatures so the idea is to hide from them in the dark. The best way to go about this kind of fishing on a small river like the Lyd, where we had chosen to fish, is to check the fishing pools in daylight to be aware of casting distances and overhanging branches.

The next lesson is to forget about long casting to a far bank. The fish are most likely close by. The night we fished the air was cold with mist on the water and there was very little happening beyond the odd tug at my fly.

There is something quite spooky about wading a river in near blackness. Above the run of the stream every noise is magnified. The constant rustling of unseen creatures about their nocturnal foraging is punctuated by the screeching of tawny owl chicks, a cow coughing, a startled pheasant and, most exciting of all, the occasional big splash.

All this and no mention of the mayfly hatch. Suffice to say the Hampshire Avon gave me one glorious afternoon in late May when the air was clouded with hatching spinners. One of my brown trout topped 3lb. But it is the casting lessons I shall remember most. You are never too old to learn.

I fished as a guest of the Arundell Arms, Other details of fishing in Devon can be found at the Discover Devon website, and holiday line: 0870 6085531.

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