Photos by Colin Tennant
When I am in need of solace, which seems to be more and more these days, I cast my sights, heart and line toward trout. But not just any trout; my thoughts go to wild brown trout, specifically those found in the lovely small streams that thread through Devon in England’s West Country.
Though not lunkers, as many overfed, blimplike, stocked rainbows that need to be forklifted out are in some U.K. and U.S. fisheries, Devon browns are extraordinarily wary and challenging, which makes them great fun to pursue, despite their modest size. I once caught an 11-inch fish and was perfectly thrilled. Salmo trutta, as the naturalist Carl Linnaeus dubbed the species, are native to Great Britain. They practically have a Union Jack tattooed on their pectoral fins, and they happen to be the trout that promulgated the sport of fly-fishing around the world.
Conrad Voss-Bark, when he was the angling correspondent for the Times of London, insisted that catching one demanded a leader as fine as a brunette’s hair, and he was adamant that nothing less than an artificial fly — “an incantation of feathers,” in his elegant phrase — be used in their pursuit.
I met Conrad, now deceased, through his wife, Anne, owner of a place I like to fish: the Arundell Arms in Lifton, a village that sits at the border of the rolling green landscape where Devon yields to Cornwall. The hotel, formerly an old coaching inn, nests between two moors. It is a sporting hotel, a particularly British genre that sees guests come for trout from spring to early fall, and salmon in summer and fall, and to shoot pheasant, partridge and woodcock in the cooler months. Sadly, Anne died in 2012; her son, Adam Fox-Edwards, runs the hotel now. It remains perfect for experiencing the joys and peculiarities (to Americans) of fly-fishing in Britain.
A word about those peculiarities: In Britain, the faint whiff of class lingers even in the sport of fishing, though not, I should quickly add, at the Arundell Arms. The pursuit of fish in the United Kingdom divides into two tiers: sport fishing and coarse fishing. Sport fishing is the pursuit of such “noble” fish as trout and salmon. Coarse fishing involves 12-foot fiberglass poles, baits including worms, lunch meats and maggots (red maggots are allegedly better than white), deck chairs, a cooler of lager and often, though not always, the still water of a reservoir or pond. Coarse fishing quarry are species with the unsavory names tench, roach and barbell. Unlike in the United States, where you can, with the right fishing license, drop a line in almost any body of water, in the United Kingdom, rivers and streams that hold upper-class fish, including trout and salmon, are mostly privately held. As Conrad explained: “Here, fishing rights can be bought and sold like commodities. You might say rather wickedly that Americans have a socialist system of fishing; with the Brits, it’s capitalist.”
At the extreme end of the snooty spectrum is the Houghton Club, which owns 15 or so miles of the River Test in Stockbridge, Hampshire, where, undoubtedly, only blue-blooded trout swim. The Test is a chalk stream, which, as its name implies, originates in underlying limestone formations, bubbles up through porous rock and emerges as water of distinctive clarity and even temperature. The last time I checked, the club, founded in 1822, had about two dozen men. (They are always men.) Membership, by invitation only, is limited to the “right sort,” abetted by that social arbiter, the blackball. Step into the clubroom, paneled in mahogany with crystal decanters of port on the sideboard, and you may find a leather-bound fishing diary with the names of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prince Charles among a flush of lords.
I speak from firsthand experience because, years ago, Conrad put in a word for me with one of the club members, who put me in touch with Mick Lunn, the then-retired third-generation river keeper. Lunn invited me to the club for a look and ticked off the rules:
♦ No fishing the water. (He meant blind casting: “You must stalk your fish. If you don’t see one, you don’t fish.”)
♦ No wading.
♦ Dry fly only.
♦ The fly must be fished upstream.
Later, I was invited to watch a member fish off the tousled green of the riverbank. The elderly gentleman, with a titled prefix to his name, wore a tattersall shirt, a black knit tie and tweed breeks. Naturally, he was fishing a beautifully crafted cane rod that glinted gold in the sunlight, no doubt a treasure that had been passed down for generations, along with the monogrammed sterling.
Under Lunn’s direction, the member cast intently at a large rainbow — a non-native that somehow escaped the blackball. (The Test, for all its hallowed name, is seeded with stocked fish.) “What,” I asked offhandedly, “if someone should have the temerity to fish a wet fly downstream?”
“It just isn’t done,” Lunn said, flashing a look of alarm.
The water — utterly transparent — shimmered. Tresses of wild celery and watercress floated in the current; a mayfly, Ephemera danica, alighted on my hand. It was, in Britspeak, “duffer’s fortnight,” the time of year on this river when the mayfly hatch is so profuse that the fish practically beg to be caught. The “Lord of the Fly” glanced back at me, no doubt noting the longing etched on my face. “So sorry you can’t have a go,” he said … and continued casting.
Fortunately, for those of us born of less-exalted breeding and means, the Arundell Arms extends a warm welcome to all. Though you may encounter a scattering of tweeds, there is ready acceptance of bluejeans, wet flies, even nymphs. Best of all, the Arundell Arms has access to 20 miles of seven fishable rivers and a nearby lake where fly-fishing lessons offered by the hotel take place a half-dozen or so times a year. Trout, salmon and sea trout (known locally as peal) have the starring roles, though an occasional grayling puts in a cameo.
These are freestone rivers, known as spate rivers in Britain, and they are totally dependent on rainfall. A river in spate is a flooded river and, often, is unfishable. However, as an example, if the Tamar is in spate, the smaller Lyd may be perfectly fine.
At the Arundell Arms, David Pilkington serves as master of rivers and commander-in-chief of fishing. Lancastrian by birth and Devonian by adoption and adaptation, with a face crinkled by sun and experience and raptor-keen eyes that can, I am led to believe, spot a flea on the ear of a rabbit halfway up a distant hill, he is surely on a first-name basis with every fish, flower and bird in a 50-mile radius.
David has been managing fishing at the hotel since 1976. Among many other things, he can advise guests on salmon lies, trout flies, rods, reels and lines, teach you the art of a Spey cast and sort out a cranky reel. He is also nobody’s fool. The first salmon I ever caught was pulled from Quarry Pool on beat 7A of the Tamar River using a silver doctor fly. I was alone that day, with no one and no camera to document the feat. When David met with me and I described my (released) trophy catch, he offered a “well done,” then picked up my landing net and sniffed. “Yes,” he said with a nod. “Definitely a salmon. You can’t fake that smell.” Checking for the eau de poisson was his version of trust, but verify.
Most important of all, David will instill in you a profound respect for the brown trout of Devon, which he calls “seriously wild fish.” They are not hatchery-bred-and-fed “moron trout.”
The process and pleasures of fishing a Devon river begin the evening before, when David or Alex Jones, his second in command, assigns you a beat. A beat is a half-mile to mile-long stretch of water that is yours and yours alone for the day. Beats are rotated. If you fish four days, you will, in all probability, draw four different beats.
Your assigned beat will be penciled in on a list beside your name and posted on the fishing board in the lobby’s hallway. There you will also find a chart where, at the end of the day, you are asked to note the number of fish caught, species, size, beat and successful fly. The hotel’s meticulous fishing records go back to 1933. On May 27, 2017, for example, the tally was 30 brown trout, mostly caught on mayflies or black gnats, including four, caught by this author, on a self-described “little gray thing.”
Remember to order a packed lunch the night before. I recommend the Cornish pasty, a pastry pocket of potatoes and meat that packs well with an apple, a slice of fruitcake and a thermos of tea or coffee, though you can certainly opt for a roast beef sandwich and cider or beer to wash it down.
The center of gravity of fishing at the hotel is a restored 18th-century cockpit in the garden in back, one of few such surviving structures in England. At the cockpit, after a sturdy English breakfast, you will meet with David or Alex to consult about the day’s fishing: which flies to use, the configuration of the beat, water conditions and, in salmon season, which pools to fish and where. On one morning, conversation among the fishermen gathered in the cockpit centered on the killer fly du jour, a jingler. It was a mayfly imitation, and, as it was late spring and all rivers were “troutable” (David’s word), it was a good bet that a jingler was the way to go.
May and June are the best months for trout. On my most recent trip at the end of May, I was on my third and last day assigned to beat 6B on the Wolf, one of the smaller rivers. There were trout to be caught, of course, but in the course of that morning with David, I also learned the composition of the jingler (cock and partridge feathers); how to soothe the sting of nettle (crumple a dock leaf and rub it on the wound); the different breeds of sheep in a nearby pasture (Suffolk, Border Leicester); the flight patterns of kingfishers (they will fly straight down a river until they spot a human, then sharply veer off); the downside of badgers (farmers hate them because they can infect cattle with tuberculosis); the difference between hay and silage (hay is baled dry, silage wet, which allows it to ferment and enhances nutritional value); and the seasonal blooms corresponding with the appearance of different fish (the best brown trout fishing coincides with the bloom of hawthorne; sea trout is honeysuckle time; and salmon season correlates with the appearance of foxglove).
I also learned something about the ethos of English country life, a distinguishing characteristic that mandates a code of behavior beyond the proper cut of one’s tweed jacket. It seems that in his younger days, David was sent to a neighboring estate to pick up some pheasant for the kitchen. He arrived, and the head gamekeeper directed him to a feathered pyramid of birds.
“I went and grabbed a brace by the feet,” David told me, “but the gamekeeper, an older man, took them out of my hand and, with a reproving look, turned the birds around and handed them back, head side up. ‘Show respect for the birds, sonny,’ he said. It was a lesson I never forgot.”
Likewise at the Arundell Arms, there is respect for the fish. The rule is catch and release, an approach slower to catch on in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but that the hotel firmly encourages. Though four trout may be kept if they meet the size limit of 8 inches, nearly all guests return them to the river. Last year, 1,657 brown trout were caught, and 1,657 were released.
Should you, however, want a trout for breakfast and it meets the criteria for keeping, you may bring your catch to the hotel, place it on the silver tray on the sideboard in the hallway, jot down instructions for the chef on a slip of paper, roll the paper like a tiny cigar and place it in the fish’s mouth. I have kept only one trout in 20 years of fishing at the hotel, and the tug of guilt was, I confess, offset by the satisfaction of breakfasting on a perfectly fresh fried trout I had caught myself.
To catch a moorland trout from one of these rivers is a solid accomplishment. There is nothing like a wild brown to shame you with the fish version of nose-thumbing, as I have learned time after time on beat after beat. “If I say strike, you strike before the S is out of my mouth,” David tells fishermen under his tutelage. The strike is that fast. It is a statement, not a question, and I have too often been caught without the proper rejoinder. Most of the time, when lifting the tip at the first sign of a strike, I catch air.
Usually guests have their own cars, but I am an uneasy left-hand-side-of-the-road driver, so I take the train from London to Exeter and have the hotel hire a cab to take me the rest of the way to Lifton. Some beats are walkable from the hotel, but the Wolf is not, so I hired David for a half-day, rode with him to the beat and settled on a 4 o’clock pickup time.
I’ve fished these rivers before, so I was perfectly happy when he left to tend to a tree that had toppled into one of the rivers. It was lunchtime, anyway, and after raising and losing a half-dozen fish it was time to let things settle: the water, the trout and myself.
For me, at least, the last day of a fishing trip — any trip, really — is bittersweet. It is not by chance that rivers are metaphorically linked with the flow of time. My three days on the river were coming to a close. Tomorrow, early morning, I would be leaving Lifton to return to London, and then several days after that heading back home to Washington. I’d asked David to pick me up at 4. It was approaching 3:30, and so it had come to that point where one starts repeating just one more cast. Earlier I had spotted a nice-size trout in one of the downstream pools. In typical fashion, it had snubbed my fly twice. With the hubris of Babe Ruth pointing to that imaginary spot in the center-field stands, I resolved that the fish would be my last trout of the day.
This is, I am sure I have made clear, a delicate business. Backtracking to the pool, I switched from a black gnat to the jingler, crept along the edge of the bank, stepped softly into the river and cast. Another two rises, another two misses. Too slow. Too quick. Too clumsy. Hadn’t Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It written that, factually and theologically, there is nothing like fly-casting to reaffirm the fact that “man is a damn mess”? Sometimes, though, we are blessed by a moment of grace. My third cast was one of those moments. The fly settled gently on the water and drifted. Then — the soft kiss of a rise, a strike, the set hook, the stretch and lift of the line. I coaxed a lovely 9-inch wild brown, sides speckled with ruby and black, to shore, released him happily and climbed out. It was exactly 4 o’clock.
“What will Americans accustomed to big fish in big rivers think about these small trout?” a fellow from Surrey asked as I lingered over a cup of tea and shortbread biscuits in the hotel lounge afterward. He’d fished the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River for steelhead, so it was a reasonable question. The rivers that hotel guests fish here are anything but brawny. A few good strides will get you across the upper stretches of smaller rivers, such as the Carey or Lyd. As for the fish, well, though the sea trout and salmon have heft to them, no one would ever award the Devon browns any medals for size. A 1-pound fish is exceptional; most run in the 6- to 8-inch range.
I told the fellow it would be a matter of individual taste and sensibility, that these were waters more in the key of Izaak Walton than Ernest Hemingway. In retrospect, I should have just quoted Henry David Thoreau. On Sept. 26, 1853, Thoreau jotted an entry in his journal about the fishermen at Walden Pond: “I am disappointed and surprised to find that they lay so much stress on the fish which they catch or fail to catch, and on nothing else, as if there were nothing to be caught.”
Thoreau’s dismay was directed toward those oblivious to the other sights and senses experienced while fishing: a lifting cloud of mayflies, a distant arrowhead of geese, the honeyed fragrance of hawthorne in bloom. He understood that observation, as important in fishing as the right choice of rod, is a virtue in itself.
So much about fly-fishing takes place below the surface. The locals Thoreau wrote about were fishing for pickerel, but I like to think the best and most content angler is a mindful angler no matter the species sought — be it pickerel, salmon or a “seriously wild” brown in the small, sweet streams of Devon.