Country: Dartmoor/ Wild trout in a perfect, miniature world
Dartmoor offers extraordinarily cheap fishing. It is also one of the last parts of south England where the rivers are unstocked. By Andrew Brown
Saturday 15 June 1996
Unfortunately the bigger trout were still asleep. For a couple of hours I worked my way up and down a perfect miniature river, catching nothing but perfect miniature trout. My hotel room key was longer than some of the fish I caught before breakfast that morning. Later, the river would wake up and produce trout of a more comfortable size. However, in the very early morning, the whole world seems shrunk to a Lilliputian scale.
The Cherrybrook itself is hardly larger than a stream. In spring and early summer, it can almost be crossed in Wellington boots, rather than waders. Its deepest pools are little more than waist deep and it is often no more than a couple of yards wide. But it behaves like a proper river. It has rapids, long bubbly shallows full of trailing weed, and deep curves undercutting peat where the monster fish lurk. And there are monsters: one man caught a three-and-a-half pound wild trout here, which would be a matter for congratulation even on the Hampshire chalk streams. On the Cherrybrook, the fish must have looked a bit like the beast that ate Jonah.
To gain a sense of remoteness from the quotidian world, and closeness to primal monsters, is one of the main reasons for fishing. This is quite unrelated to the size of the quarry. It is a function of their wildness. Wild brown trout are now almost impossible to find in the south-east of England, and are little valued where they are found, compared to fat stocked fish. Dartmoor offers the last remaining accessible and affordable fishing for them in southern England.
It is extraordinarily cheap: the Duchy of Cornwall land on the moor costs pounds 3 a day to fish, or pounds 12 a week. By comparison, fishing on a reservoir costs about pounds 20 a day; a gravel pit stocked with dirigible rainbows of anything up to 20 pounds can easily cost pounds 40 a day; while a day on the River Test can set you back pounds 300. There is clearly little demand for naturally grown brown trout in wild rivers.
In fact the moor does not look as if it fishable at all. The West Dart river is swift and glamorous, running across deep shelves of rock in a salmony pools, or plunging through rapids. It is absurdly photogenic: I have four times been kept off favourite stretches by film crews. But its beautiful reaches have very little vegetation in them, and so little fly life for the trout to feed on. Just once, however, I was broken by something large and intelligent which grabbed a dry fly and then set off down the nearest rapid.
The East Dart is smaller and more intimate than the West branch of the river. It is said to hold the best trout fishing on the moor, but has too many walkers for my taste. Moorland fishing is best conducted without an audience, and with a lot of room for backcasts, since the trout live in symbiosis with the surrounding gorse bushes: the trout get protection and the gorse bushes nourishment from the flies and bits of skin and clothing that fishermen leave in them. The trout, though shy, are easy to fool and will take almost any small dry fly, but the gorse bushes demand great caution and elaborate equipment to circumvent. Probably the best way to approach them is to wear thigh waders and move up the middle of the river with a long rod. This can look absurdly over-elaborate to walkers who believe you are contending only with the trout.
And then there's the Cherrybrook. For my part, I'll stick to the wild and miniature world here.
Duchy of Cornwall fishing permits for Dartmoor can be obtained from The Forest Inn at Hexworthy or the Post Office at Postbridge (you also need the statutory NRA fishing licence).
Dartmoor is surrounded by lovely fishing hotels, but these are not ideal if you are fishing the moor - they tend to concentrate on the salmon and sea trout fishing nearby. If you want a good central location for Dartmoor wild trout fishing, try the Cherrybrook Hotel, Two Bridges, Yelverton, PL20 6SP (01822 880260. This is a converted farmhouse in the middle of the moor, no more than 10 minutes' drive from any of the rivers.
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