In pursuit of wild trout

We are delighted to publish a guest post from the author and blogger of Dartography. To read more of his musings on the pursuit of wild river trout in Dartmoor, click here.

IN ITS UPPER REACHES the East Dart flows out of high moorland, past the remains of Bronze Age hut circles scattered in the grass. The river tumbles over granite boulders in the wild valleys, as the land softens to rough grazing the river softens too. It winds under thickets of yellow flowered gorse and purple foxgloves. It carves out pools and glides in the peat.

At the head of a pool the river runs fast and shallow over gravel. At the tail it narrows again and the surface of the water is rough and broken. In the middle it is deep, the flow of water slow. In the food-poor water of a spate river fish can’t afford to be fussy eaters. The shortage of food is the likely reason many trout leave the river for richer feeding grounds at sea. They return as silver sea trout to spawn in the gravel beds of their birth.

The banks of the East Dart are high from the torrent of floodwater that ploughs through the course in winter. The summer level is lower, making it hard to stay out of sight. The clear water and many predators make the trout flighty. It is vital to keep out of sight if you want to see or catch them. The deeper water, shaded from the full strength of the sun, should hold the better fish. I crouch between the tall grass and watch. An olive mayfly drifts in the current, trapped by the surface film. A trout rises and it disappears.

Even in July the evenings are cool on Dartmoor. The sun sets early behind the tors. I slip into the river in the noisy fast water at the tail of the pool, hoping it will mask the splash from my wading boots.

I wait to see if I have disturbed my fish. It rises again to another trapped insect. I unhook an olive pattern from the cork handle of my fly rod, pull some line from the reel and flick it out in front of me. The rod comes up and the line peels out behind; I push it forwards and send the fly through the air towards the bend in the river beneath the gorse.

It lands a little short. I let it drift back to me so as not to disturb the pool, strip off a few more handfuls and cast again. The fly lands in front of the rising fish, drifts for half a second on the current and disappears in a swirl of broken water. I set the hook with a flick of the rod. The line zips tight and cuts the water as the trout takes off around the pool.

I bring him to the net and move into the shallows where I can slip the barbless hook out. A quick photo and back he goes. I hold him in the current to recover his strength in my fingers until he flicks his tail and shoots upstream. A blur of red spots on brown and gold flanks.

The ancestors of my trout swam up the estuary from Dartmouth as far back as 20,000 years ago. Some stay in the river and others follow the current back to saltwater and richer feeding. Under the stars on short summer nights the sea trout come back to the river.

A revolutionary new edition of Operation Sea Angler by Mike Ladle and Steve Pitts will be published by Adlard Coles Nautical in summer 2013.