Last April I went back to fish for trout on the Usk for the first time in years. If you have a psychologically disturbed relationship with rivers, as I do, you’ll understand why this was rather like an illicit meeting with an old girlfriend or, better perhaps, with an old flame with whom you only ever had the briefest of high-temperature encounters. I used to have a bit of a thing for the Usk. I was going out with a chalkstream in Dorset at the time and was perfectly happy. She was achingly pretty, just rough enough around the edges to be interesting. But like all chalkstreams, she was… equable. A bit sedate in other words; a good thing for a long termer, I’m sure, but… you know. We all enjoy a bit of plate-smashing action now and then. And to rephrase the worldly wise aphorism of a great friend of mine: “No matter how beautiful she is, someone, somewhere is fed up of fishing her.”
And so every April for a few years in the mid-Nineties I’d sneak over to Wales for a dirty stopover with the Usk. And what a river the Usk was in spring. The best way to blow off the shack nasties of a too-long British winter. The Usk in spring was mercurial: withdrawn and inaccessible one moment, all over you the next. And though the trout were always hard won, we never blanked.
So this explains why I was so excited to be going there for the first time in 10 years, why I was wondering how it had been so long and why I had booked my day trout fishing at the place where these magical encounters had always been at their most intense. I had arranged to fish the top beat on the Gliffaes hotel water – one of my favourite bits of river anywhere. The beat may only be a few hundred yards long but it is also 50yd wide and is a trick-of-the-eye staircase of water that amounts to several rivers in one, pulling together and apart as the water folds around islands and boulders and licks along undercut ledges and drop-offs. In spring, this maze of a beat can keep you absorbed for a whole day.
So why is the Usk so fantastic in spring? For starters, there’s no need to hurry as nothing happens before 11. And it’s all over by four. This means you can down a monster breakfast, skip lunch and be off the river by teatime, which at Gliffaes means a Bacchanalian feast of cake.
The beat was mine for the day, so I felt in even less of a hurry, knowing that the river would be “coming on” just as I got to it. It was a bright, buzzing spring day. Only a few vaporous white sheep grazed across the open blue sky, dragging their shadows across the fields and hills beneath them. The April sun pushed a little warmth into the air as I strolled from the shadow of the wooded valley-side out across the meadow that slopes down to the edge of the river.
The day was perfect. But as I walked on I noticed a hat popping up and down over the edge of the bank halfway up my beat, as though someone were kneeling down there, almost out of sight, and performing unnatural acts with sheep. The hat – it turned out – belonged to some old gaffer in enormous ocean waders, which were, I’m thankful to report, still on. With a priest, which hung from a piece of string round his neck, he was trying and failing to biff a tiny trout on the head. The trout, still on the line and, frankly, far too small to eat, flicked feebly around the bank, while the blows rained down inaccurately around it. I let him carry on for a bit. He clearly hadn’t noticed me. Finally he caught up with the poor trout and brained it. He unhooked it, laid it on the grass and knelt back to admire his work.
“So… er, you’re trout fishing on this beat today?” I asked. He looked up, startled and said, “Ah, well, yes. Well. Er. Me and my fwend… are fishing beats two and three.” “And this is beat one isn’t it?” I replied. He was lost for words. But then his face lit up, like he’d just thought of something amazing. “I was just fishing it for you ’til you got here,” he said. It was the best excuse for nefarious activity I had ever heard and in the context of my own illicitly amorous musings it was even better. I’m going to have to remember that one. Just brilliant.
As was the trout fishing, in fact. We agreed that ocean waders should go back to join his fwend on the beat he’d booked. He didn’t much like the idea, that hung in the air between us like a fart in a lift, that he had been poaching. So I let that thought slide and it became instead an honest mistake. Off he strolled, with a cheery wave and his very small trout, leaving me to my intricate staircase of water and two fishy hours before an appointment back up at the hotel at lunch – an appointment I began to resent as it became apparent just how brilliant this day of fishing was going to be.
Large dark olives and march browns hatch in waves in April – pulses. The river can be dead one minute and boiling the next. When the boil happens it will last between 10 and 20 minutes and then all will go quiet again for another half-hour, though the odd fish may still splash about here and there. It’s fishy surfing. You have to be ready or you’ll miss the wave. And yet there will only be between six and 10 waves, even on a good day. If you catch one fish out of each you’re doing well. So there are tricks to be learnt and one of the best on a beat as intensely packed as this one is a memory game.
The hatch comes on and fish start rising all over the river. You’re in one spot so you stick to it. Move around too much and you’ll miss line-on-the-water time. But what you do is make a mental note of where all the bigger fish are moving, even the ones beyond range on this particular hatching wave. When the wave has run out on the reef and the river goes quiet again, that’s when you move into a good spot for the fish you marked earlier.
Another trick, more or less related to the last, is not to give up hope when all is lifeless. It is very easy to imagine that a river is empty in April and to pace up and down it like a restless Arabian. But everyone who knows rivers like the Usk well will describe how the rise comes on “as if someone had flicked a switch”. And it really is that sudden. A dead flow will transform into boiling soup in seconds.
BLINK AND IT’S GONE
As it did about 10 minutes after ocean waders had gone. I caught a couple of trout out of that wave – noticing a belter beyond drag-free reach on the far side of the same run – each of these just under a pound and fit as butcher’s dogs. And a couple on the next, one of which was well over a pound. Usk fish are so mental that a pounder like this that gets downstream will feel like a runaway medicine ball. Olives came in balletic drifts downstream, in flotillas, their wings vibrating in the spring breeze until they had dried when each fly flicked away suddenly into the air. And the trout were hitting accordingly in urgent, splashy rises. It was a day of trout fishing bliss on one of the best trout rivers in the country, a heavenly reprieve from the dark days of winter.
And time ticked on. At one I ran up the hill and breathlessly, still in waders, walked in on the gathering of local press and fishery owners here to launch the National Park’s Fishing Guidebook and its detailed listings of all the beats now available on the Usk that were never accessible in her more parsimonious Nineties. The Wye and Usk passport scheme has turned this once sequestered river into quite the village bicycle, with beats up and down and amounting to miles of water – fabulous bits of water like Glanusk and Fenni Fach – now accessible by day ticket. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the public fishing of open spaces like Montana or New Zealand wasn’t something to be envied, and come down in the end on the side of how we’re just too crowded an island for that ever to work here.
But on the Wye and Usk they may just have found the perfect compromise: it is genuinely a trout fishing river to compare with the Big Hole or Gowan. And now it can be fished like them, too. But there were too many speeches, including mine, on a day sent from the gates of fishy paradise. I whisked, as fast as was polite, through much of the above sentiment and suggested we all prove it by running back to the river where I could give a quick demo of what a fab stream it really is. But it was too late. It was April. We had blinked. And we had missed it. Don’t make the same mistake.
Trout fishing on the Usk
- Tackle and flies: best take a 9ft 5-weight with a floating line. Optimum flies are dry March Browns for the march browns, Adams size 14 and 16 for the large dark and medium olives and size 16 CDC or Elk Hair Caddis for the grannom. The Usk boulders are slippery, so use waders with felt soles and a wading staff.
- To arrange your trout fishing on the River Usk visit the Wye and Usk Foundation and follow the link to fishing where you will find all the information you need.
- To order a National Parks Guidebook email firstname.lastname@example.org
- or go to any tourist information centre in the National Park.
- For details of the Gliffaes Hotel, which runs special fishing breaks, visit Gliffaes.
- For details of fishing courses for ladies and children on the Glanusk estate water in April, May and June, email Tiggy Pettifer.
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