The Field's Adrain Dangar has a battle of will and wits with the elusive trout of three North Yorkshire streams, where the mayfly abounds and fishing feels a lot like hunting
Adrian Dangar holds his nerve with the elusive trout of three North Yorkshire streams where he has fished for 30 years, and the mayfly swarms in early summer.
Your guide on where to flick your fly and catch the prettiest brownies. Charles Rangeley-Wilson selects the best trout rivers in the UK and Ireland for fly fishing.
A fishing background didn’t initially lure the founder of City Flickers Lucy Mantle to the water, though once hooked she began helping others to enjoy the sport, too.
MAYFLY IN EARLY SUMMER
Black-headed gulls wheeling and swooping above the small rivers I fish during early summer are a sure sign the mayfly hatch is under way, an annual bonanza that tempts the wariest of brown trout up from their lies and opportunistic gulls down from nesting colonies on the nearby moors. For the large, juicy insects they have come to feast on, these balmy days are the culmination of two years spent as small, prehistoric-looking nymphs rootling around on the riverbed in search of food. Having swum to the surface and shed their skins to emerge as drab duns, newly hatched mayflies join a jaunty flotilla gliding downstream to the rhythm of the river’s flow.
Many will disappear down the gullets of greedy trout before their wings have dried sufficiently to flutter on to dry land, where they undergo a second, extraordinary transformation into exquisite, fairy-winged spinners that will never feed again; instead they dance and mate in glittering clouds all along the riverbank. Afterwards the female returns to the surface film, and having laid her eggs, keels over, a spent force on splayed twitching wings. She has lived for two years as an underwater grub, but just 24 hours as a creature of extraordinary beauty that will die slowly while being carried off by the same waters that nourished her throughout life.
For the past 30 years, it is my good fortune to have fished three watercourses that drain the southern slopes of the North York Moors before converging within the space of a few fields at an old-fashioned pastoral farm standing at the heart of the Sinnington Hunt vale. There have been few changes here over the decades. Warbling curlew still return to nest each spring, iridescent kingfishers still flash past and otters – there are definitely more otters – still surface mysteriously, often no more than a brown bulge in the rippling stream, but occasionally a full frontal of eyes, whiskers and ruffled wet throat. And perhaps most important of all, the mayfly swarms in early summer endure as reliable and prolific as ever.
Like the wildlife their farm supports, there is a reassuring permanence about the family that owns and works the land and lives according to the rhythm of the seasons. For them and me both, there is nothing to beat mayfly time, when all nature is burgeoning, and shocking green water meadows hum contentedly with the sound of bleating lambs. Our friendship was forged on or around the hunting field; hounds frolicking in the river on summer exercise, September dawns unboxing in the ramshackle farmyard and the colour and camaraderie of a winter meet with tea and cake to look forward to at nightfall. I pay no rent for the privilege of fishing here, but always remember the family at Christmas. One December, I walked the hour between our farmhouses carrying a side of smoked salmon instead of the usual joint of pork. “We don’t reckon much to raw fish,” was all Billy said when I asked him later if they had enjoyed it. I assumed the delicacy must have ended up inside his terrier, which is entirely appropriate, for my own black-and-tan workers of the same strain have been my constant companions on the riverbank and, over the years, the death of many a fat brown rat.
The largest river arrives at the farm gushing with enthusiasm and bravado but has lost her sense of urgency and acquired the mantle of maturity by the time she departs, sluggishly through the willows, a mile downstream. Many of her runs and pools have acquired names; the origins of Corner and Junction are obvious, less so Thieves’ Run and Skeleton. The former christened after mink stole a brace of trout concealed beneath some dock leaves, the latter after the remains of a long dead and buried hunter gradually appeared in the face of a clay bank as a dull painting fades to reveal something more profound beneath (I still have one of the old horse’s teeth). At the furthest point of the farm, a small, reed-fringed beck, whose banksides sparkle with aromatic wild stocks, rushes to join the main river over seams of pristine gravel. If these streams form the southern and western boundaries of the farm, the third cleaves it neatly in half, running straight as a die into the junction pool and concealed for much of its course by precipitous brown banks of slippery clay. To catch a fish from each of these three rivers during the course of a single day is as close to trout fishing nirvana I am ever likely to get.
The mayfly hatch has usually started by the end of May and can last until the second week of June, but there are three distinct stages. During the initial phase, wild trout with orange-tinted fins and blood-red spots on their flanks take time to gain their mayfly confidence, initially wary of such easy food after months of scraping by on March Browns and meagre pickings from the riverbed. The technique is to find a vantage point overlooking the water and wait patiently for a fish to rise, or more specifically for a dun to appear drying its wings on the surface film. Watch the insect like a hawk as it is carried downstream until it disappears from sight, or vanishes in the swirl of a rising fish.
That is the cue to plan your stalk, then creep into position downstream of the target on hands and knees – wading these small streams feels wholly inappropriate – and wait for a second rise before casting carefully with a 7ft #4 rod. It is the stealthy approach that matters most for this sort of fishing, not the cast itself, which is sometimes no more than flicking out a yard or two of line. A small Grey Wulff – almost a dun, but not quite a spinner – seems to get the best results during this first stage of the mayfly season, but if it is at first declined, persevere cautiously without putting the fish down, and if necessary, offer something different. There should be absolutely no rush, for the ball stays in play as long as the trout keeps eating naturals, and it’s not unusual to spend an absorbing half an hour in the pursuit of a single, challenging fish. Sometimes, the willows and undergrowth prevent a conventional approach and it may be necessary to wriggle into position from above and allow the line to unravel downstream. For these trout there really is only one chance, for the wake induced by lifting the fly to cast again will always give the game away.
Within a few days, the trout get properly tuned in, cruising around like looters to grab every mayfly going; this is the start of what they call Duffer’s Fortnight on the grand chalkstreams down south, although it never lasts that long up here. Turn down every invitation, put work aside and replace the Grey Wulff with a blowsy, over-the-top imitation mayfly, for right now it’s a case of the bigger the better. During this crazy window of opportunity, huge and seldom seen fish emerge to feast with reckless abandon, their presence often revealed by the violent smack of a heavy rise that sends wavelets lapping against the shore. Many years ago, such a clarion call from beyond the farm boundary enticed me downstream through a stupendous jungle of cow parsley, thistle and nettles to a bankside crowded with a tight mesh of chartreuse willow wands. Yet, by squeezing between them on to smears of silty beach, I was able to flick out a fly on the end of a brutally thick cast and wrestle to the shore a succession of gigantic trout that had grown too large and clever for the goosanders and otters to catch. That year, the forbidden stretch acquired a new name that has stuck: the Honeypot. But it has never been quite as good since.
Eventually, full-bellied discernment sets in and even tame stockies from upstream become as fussy as gourmets. It is now time to match the hatch and distinguish between subtle rises, as fish scarcely break the surface to suck in dying spinners, and the rude splash as they gulp down newly emerged duns. The advantage of fishing water untroubled by other anglers is the luxury of being able to observe a specific trout over several weeks, secure in the knowledge that no one else is going to come along and remove him from under your nose. This last hurrah offers a final chance to level the score with any such fish that have become wise and wary to the artificial fly.
Provided the water level remains constant, trout will not stray far from their chosen lie, so it’s a case of biding time and resisting the temptation to have another flick every time you walk past the spot. This year, a particularly stubborn fish took up station on a bend of the river that encouraged a straightforward approach from downstream, and when a friend came to try on the most prolific mayfly afternoon of the year, I felt assured of success. We spent an absorbing but fruitless half hour offering him different flies; however, a sharp stab of steel the previous week had tempered greed with discretion. My friend left empty-handed, and with the mayfly hatch drawing to a close, the prospects of landing this very large fish were becoming increasingly unlikely.
As I walked past the spot at dusk a few days later, there was a splash midstream in the stippled flow. And quickly another, then a third. Even though every other fish had hunkered down for night, the elusive trout was still hard at it. After a fortnight of failure, things quickly fell into place. An easy approach, another silvery splash, and my faint fly hurrying downstream to the moment of truth. Up he came, in went the hook and away went the fish in a hard-held flurry of spume. Five minutes later, I cradled a huge wild brown trout in the shallows, complete with pristine tail and a grotesquely swollen belly. He would have made a fine dish with new potatoes and salad from the garden but had provided too much entertainment for that. Instead, I watched the dappled brown lump fade back into the darkening waters. Perhaps we will meet again next year.