Fishing: Taking a dart at brownies on the wildest moor
Aside from The Independent, Annalisa Barbieri writes for the Economist's Intelligent Life magazine, and the New Statesman. A former contributing editor of the Independent on Sunday and fishing correspondent of the Independent, she is also patron of Rights of Women
Saturday 01 August 1998
Brian Easterbrook, latterday prison officer, 1994 English Rivers fly fishing champion, member of the 1995 and '96 England international fly fishing team, was trying to make me cross the West Dart river. A tiny river by big boy Scottish salmon river standards, a truly beautiful clear river - punctuated by boulders, rock pools and stones - but a river that could nevertheless be difficult and bitchy.
Easterbrook, despite being retired, was like a mountain goat. He would say "Let's cross the river," and I would think "Where?" and he would simply skip, jump and stride from one slippery rock to another. Impressive.
We met him at Two Bridges. Easterbrook packed our lunch and extra clothes in his back pack and off he strode, his long walking staff in one hand and rods in the other. Not even the extra weight of our provisions slowed him down.
We walked for an hour to get to the part of the river from where we were to begin fishing, trekking through some awesome scenery. We passed through Beardown, the last place on Dartmoor where bears were seen, now long gone, and then saw the West Dart waiting for us in the valley below.
When we reached the river Easterbrook set up our rods, while we stood far back from the river so as not to scare the fish. These were no fat, Champneys-reared trout but wild and magnificent brownies who made news if they reached three pounds: there's no rich pickings here to feed off and life is hard. Hence the West Dart rears tough little fish, who are some of the finest I have ever seen, but they are difficult to fool.
Easterbrook (biggest trout from this river: 41/2lb, some 25 years ago) uses a 10ft Aiken rod with a 3lb breaking strength line and a very light, long leader. Usually (and he's been fishing the Dartmoor rivers for more than 50 years) he would put three flies on at once, but this is quite advanced and tricky so we used one fly only.
Then we were off. Easterbrook put the two of us on separate stretches of water and we were to leapfrog each other so as not to fish the same pool twice. It was at this point that I realised this was going to be no ordinary experience. Fishing Dartmoor rivers is arduous, the terrain is - like its fish - completely wild. You flick a fly into the water a few times and then immediately move on a few steps because you will have fished that water and spooked the fish.
But these few steps aren't easy. There's either a rock to climb over, or a hole to not fall into, a quagmire to avoid or some general topsy- turviness to send you off balance. And all the time you have to keep your fly in the air while walking.
I lost count of the number of potholes I fell into. One minute I was talking to Easterbrook, the next my right leg had disappeared into the earth up to my thigh. "Don't break your leg," Easterbrook said, "we're five miles from the nearest house."
At one point, surrounded by quagmires of unknown depth which I could not try out with my stick (essential on Dartmoor) because Easterbrook had inadvertently gone off with it, I really wished I was anywhere but on the banks of the West Dart. But then I caught my first brownie of the day - despite breaking all the rules and casting over the same spot some 12 times because I couldn't move anywhere else - and he was beautiful. Only a matter of ounces but I could have entered him for any trout beauty contest.
I raised maybe five more fish from the same spot, all on a size 16 Black Pennell. So much for theories: fish always surprise you.
Easterbrook could see I was having a hard time of it and decided to take me a bit more up river where things were, according to him, easier. As my knees touched my chin on a particularly steep ascent up the bank, Easterbrook asked me what terrain I was used to. "Pavements and carpets," I joked. "Just as well I didn't take you to the East Dart," he smiled, "it's really wild there."
I gently explained that definitions were blurred. To Easterbrook the jungle is probably a nice warm place with a few leaves and some interesting noises.
We passed Wistman's Wood, a medieval forest with its mysterious gnarled, lichen-draped trees that grow out of bleak, rocky soil. You cannot help but fall in love with Dartmoor and its abandoned, don't-give-a-damn beauty. For lunch we found a bit of level ground and I nibbled on my delicious pasty from the Home Made Cake Shop in Tavistock (highly recommended) and thought how I too could keep up with Mr E and skip across rivers using boulders as stepping stones.
As the pure, bracing air slapped my cheeks I followed Easterbrook to another spot. He led me through five-foot-long grass, "All I can see is your hat!" chuckled Easterbrook as he looked behind him. "As long as you can still see that," I thought, "a quagmire won't have claimed me."
The afternoon wore on with me catching two more glorious, perfect brownies on a Brian's Green Fly and a Half Stone. The day ended at about five, Easterbrook, with his clippers on an old bit of string round his neck, fair skipped away while I, exhausted but exhilarated, watched him go. The West Dart, beautiful, difficult and wild as she is, gave me the best day's fishing I've ever had.
For details on fishing the Dartmoor rivers with Brian Easterbrook, telephone: 01822 890488.
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