The Way (Not) to Catch A Monster Trout in the Early-1980′s…
The following is an article regarding a part of the country in Northumberland. For those of you who have never visited before this is a great chance for you to find out more about what you can expect to find while you are here.You can spend your days walking this land and your evenings in B&B’s socialising, playing around at partypoker and getting ready for another day in the country. There’s a lot to be discovered in the region, all of which you can find out more about below.
A few miles north of Scots Gap in central Northumberland there is a lay-by on the B6342 from where, on a clear day, you can take in a panoramic view of the county’s celebrated coastline some thirteen miles distant. From Ewesley Fell, 253 metres above sea level, you can see all the way from St. Mary’s Lighthouse in the south, to the corresponding feature on Coquet Island, a gap of almost thirty miles. In the foreground, a hotchpotch of farmers’ fields fades into the distance, an outlook of pastoral serenity that contradicts the neck break pace of modern life. Even the urban sprawl of South East Northumberland, spreading over five miles inland in places, appears only as a thick pencil line drawn onto the far-off shore, punctuated by an ever dwindling number of chimneys and other tall features.
To the west, moorland echoes to the call of lapwing and curlew, whilst from May onwards, swallows glide along the contours of those descending fields to the east, like low-flying fast jets attempting to conceal their radar signature. This is rambling country, with hardly an acre of gorse or heather untouched by walkers’ boots in the months from April to September. Foresters’ tracks, trails and bridle paths criss-cross the moorland en route to Harwood Forest, Simonside and back over towards Coquetdale and the beginnings of the Cheviot Hills proper. Tourist income may well be the name of the game here but, hidden from sight in the folds of the Simonside Hills, a man made feature collects almost as much revenue, year on year, as the tourist industry in all its finery.
The land rises up almost uniformly but over the ages great valleys have been hewn into these ancient hills by the fast flowing currents of the area’s rivers and streams. Seven miles north of Ewesley, at Rothbury, the Coquet spectacularly bisects the high ground of Simonside and Cartington Hill, while a similar distance to the south, the Wansbeck slips more sedately out of the wilds of Wanney on a similar eastbound trajectory – trout streams of widely differing pedigree, but in the early 1980’s, all there was to sustain the dreams of teenage trout aficionados like myself. And maintaining those spotted images in my head was never something I found that difficult: there wasn’t a book on the subject of trout fishing I hadn’t read, nor a map detailing the course of those great Northumbrian rivers that I hadn’t studied in the finest detail. My only problem was, despite all this research, I had still to study the fine detail of a specimen brown trout in the mesh of my own landing net!
There were stories and tips to keep me going as well as the literature, of course – with regard to the Coquet, mostly credible, if a little beyond my capabilities, in the case of the Wansbeck – all complete fantasy! Nevertheless, it was easy to get carried along by such myth and hyperbole, as there was little alternative to the rivers in respect to the problem of catching monster trout. Nowadays, the region’s enthusiasts have an infinitely better option in the form of numerous commercial stillwater fisheries but, back in the early Eighties, these were few and far between and, in any case, well beyond the pocket of the average teenager. The closest thing we had in those dark days of recession was a medium sized reservoir at the head of the tiny river Font, lying just three miles north west of Ewesley Fell, about a mile off the B6342.
It may seem inconceivable, given the unprecedented stocking it receives today, but Fontburn Reservoir was still something of an unknown quantity twenty-odd years ago, as back then, the idea of making reservoirs into commercial fisheries was largely lost on its owner, the Northumbrian Water Authority. To little in the way of fanfare, Fontburn was added to Northumbria’s pitiable list of ‘wild trout waters’ in the spring of 1981 but the Authority did at least venture to suggest it might contain ‘wild trout of unimaginable sizes’. Whether this was mere lip service or demonstrated a burgeoning flare for marketing that would later serve the privatised company well, interest from the ‘grown-up’ trout fishing community was predictably muted. To a fifteen year-old fanatic, however, this sort of rhetoric was manna from heaven and so, on May 3rd 1981, Fontburn’s inaugural Saturday as a fishery, I ventured forth with my angling pals Tonka and Danny, on a quest to capture one of those leviathans – and to be the first to do so into the bargain.
The journey to Fontburn’s desolate hinterland that breezy Saturday was made all the easier by a lift from one of our parents up to Forestburn Gate, a place on the B6342 a couple of miles from the entrance to the reservoir. Within half an hour, we’d backtracked the two miles towards Fontburn and the full spectacle of the upper Font valley briefly revealed itself, spanned by a redundant viaduct a mere eighth of mile from the premature head of the gorse clad dale. We approached the great dam in awe; it was a huge and imposing structure, forming an artificial neck in the valley, like Helms Deep, with grassy slopes topped by gothic stonework. This was to be no mere Saturday afternoon casting session like those on the sheltered banks of our usual haunts.
Above the dam, the sheer scale of our new fishing venue filled us with still greater apprehension and a growing sense of anxiety as to the size of the task at hand. Unlike at most modern reservoirs, there was no slipway to take water smoothly down to the treatment works. Instead lake water gushed over a sill beneath the dam before pouring down a bottomless shaft and passing beneath us in some unseen subterranean tunnel to settlement ponds lying way down at the bottom of the valley. Twenty yards beyond the crest another gothic structure, the valve tower, appeared to bob in frothing waves atop the reservoir itself, connected to land by only a rickety cast iron bridge.
As we made our way towards the fishing lodge on the southern shore, it quickly became apparent that the wind was far stronger and gustier above the dam, whipping up to what felt like gale force over the open surface of the vast lake. The phrase ‘still’ water was merely a concept here as flotsam, jetsam and waterfowl alike skimmed past on the brisk surface current that the breeze created. It was obvious that unless we could find a sheltered corner somewhere, conditions were going to be testing to say the least.
Valiantly, we made our way along the southern shore to what looked like shelter – a finger of higher ground topped by tall trees, where the widest part of the reservoir narrowed sharply and straightened out into an east-west orientation. By the time we got there, though, the wind felt even stronger! Far below, in the valleys of the Wansbeck and Coquet, May was generally the month the weather finally warmed up, marking the beginning of the trout season proper. Up here on the moors, spring was still only a promise, and one that didn’t seem about to be let loose anytime soon from the teeth of the force seven ripping across almost 100 acres of upland water.
What was almost as great a source of discomfort was that none of the Northumberland trout fraternity seemed as eager as we’d been to do battle with Northumbrian Water’s giant wild trout. There was no-one here but us – even the day tickets had come from a machine! The only humans likely to brave such an ungodly location would most probably have beaten a track to the independently-run Derwent Reservoir, thirty miles south, or been part of the syndicates that ran Hallington and Catcleugh, further west. Stocked rainbow trout were, after all, more likely to provide reliable sport than wild brownies – even we knew that! But we’d already paid our £1 each and were determined to fish, so we set up our stall in the lee of the gale with the sound of crashing waves resonating in the breeze.
First casts were made – arlesy bombs thrown out forcefully into the wind, but to no avail – twenty yards was about as far as we could get them. Fly rods never made it out of the bags and even the original plan of float fishing had had to be abandoned before the bait rods were set up – the days of purpose-built golf ball size bubble floats, with the casting weight of a swimfeeder, were still a decade off on the Northumbrian reservoir scene! So we persevered with our legering. An hour passed without those colossal trout troubling our lobworm baits. Unlike at any of the nearby natural lakes where fishing was allowed, there was no second option; the rules were fly, worm or bust at Fontburn, as they would remain for another twenty years. There was just the rhythmic nod of the rod tips every three or four seconds as another giant wave crashed over our lines.
We were already beginning to feel more than a little pessimistic when the first shower hit at twelve-fifteen. The headland had provided some small amount of relief from the prevailing winds up to now, but under these fast moving black clouds, squall-force gusts came at us from all directions, the horizontal rain soon finding every imperfection in the linings of our cheap waterproofs. We hadn’t even started to dry out by the time of the second squall. If the prospect of catching anything after almost two barren hours of fishing was already bleak, the idea of sitting out these conditions for another six was unthinkable! Plans were drawn up for an immediate retreat and by three o’clock we were in the car home, a hastily arranged early lift having been organised by phone from one of the cottages at the top of the valley.
So my first attempt at fishing for Fontburn’s monsters had ended in failure, but go back there I would, even though for the first three weeks in May I was revisited by constant nightmares about the place! It wasn’t Tonka or Danny that persuaded me; they’d vowed never to go further than two miles west of Morpeth again with fishing rods in their hands. It wasn’t even Phil, my most accomplished piscatorial buddy, who, by collecting the entire 52-week run of The Fisherman’s Handbook had learned more about the sport than practically anybody else in Northumberland, even me! It was, in fact, somebody much more famous.
My enthusiasm for all things ‘angling literature’-related had recently brought me into possession of a copy of the 1978 Anglers Mail Annual, which contained an article by the renowned angling journalist, Geoffrey Bucknall. Entitled “A Beginners Guide to Stillwater Fly Fishing”, Bucknall’s elegant prose, then so typical of the angling weeklies, was more beguiling than anything Northumbrian Water had said the first time round and, out of the blue; the debunked theory that you could actually catch trout at Fontburn Reservoir was reborn. Geoffrey’s magic proceeded thus:
“Around the turn of the century they started putting trout into reservoirs, those pleasant large lakes deep in the countryside and it soon became clear that they grew to much larger sizes in lakes than rivers. All you need to fish for them is a 9 to 9½ foot fly rod and a size 7 or 8 line. Reservoir fly fishing has a way of getting hold of you, so that you yearn to delve deeper into its mysteries.”
He was right about mysteries – and history – Fontburn had indeed been flooded at the turn of the century. He’d even described my own fly fishing set up to a tee, but over enthusiasm made me take the rest of his words completely out of context. Even so, once more was I hooked on the idea of chasing leviathans up at Fontburn and this time I would go there on my own if I had to!
Another Saturday was duly chosen and, not surprisingly, everyone else baulked at the idea of coming along! Indeed, Phil even added a rider to his refusal, as if to put me off the outlandish scheme completely.
“If there are big fish in Fontburn they will be ferox,” he explained, “wild brown trout that only feed on smaller fish and stay well out into the lake. As you can only use fly or worm and don’t have a boat, you’re hardly likely to catch any of the big ones!”
I took his point, after all, Phil was the best trout fisherman in Morpeth; but Geoffrey Bucknall said otherwise, and he was one of the most respected anglers in the UK! What had been lost on me, of course, was that what the article actually meant by “putting trout into reservoirs” was restocking them, an exercise that had still to occur at Fontburn. The only trout in there would be the progeny of those left stranded by the damming process eighty years before and any big ones would almost certainly be un-catchable. Phil had been right and another harsh lesson awaited me up on the moors. For a second time, commercial breakdown beckoned!
By now it was June: Saturday 21st to be exact, Midsummer’s Day, the time of year crazy people danced naked round Stonehenge at sunrise, or went up to Fontburn Reservoir seriously believing they were going to catch big brown trout! Looking back from Ewesley Fell towards the coast, I could see a thick blanket of mist enshrouding the distant shoreline where Tonka and Danny would be, round about now, making first casts in pursuit of small flounders or pollack. This sea fret or harr indicated an onshore breeze, common at this time of year, which brought in cold air off the North Sea, forming a thick mist or fog. To the west, the clouds were scudding along, suggesting that up at Fontburn conditions could be almost as blustery as six weeks before. To the south east, Phil seemed to have picked the best option out of all of us: seven miles away under broken light cloud, in the lee of Northumberland’s conflicting weather systems, he would be setting up his stall at Bolam Lake, a shallow haven for perch, pike and the occasional rudd. I turned about and marched on towards my own destiny, the blackness in the sky beyond Fontburn’s great dam making my journey look not merely an expedition to Helm’s Deep, but on to Mordor itself!
Any plans to capture the reservoir’s giant trout were once again delivered a mortal blow once I passed the crest of the dam. The wind did indeed pick up, throwing more giant waves across the water and gulls, ducks and coots, to speeds of up to mach two, from one side of the reservoir to the other. This time I headed for the north shore, there, at least, there would be some shelter. I intended to fly fish on this occasion, trying various black patterns, as suggested in what little information I could find about reservoir brown trout fishing, before switching to mayfly imitations, which I guessed might just work, given the time of year; but to no avail. One hour passed, two… There was no indication of any fish movement within casting range, which wasn’t that far anyway – or beyond it for that matter – and the gusts from behind me were causing havoc with my back cast leading to wind knots in the leader every two or three throws. I had no faith in worming – that had been a complete waste of time six weeks ago, surely wild trout would never take a worm on a reservoir in any case…? But it soon became apparent, after four or five changes of location and fly, that fly-fishing was useless also. If there were any trout in this reservoir, to locate them I would indeed need a boat, and a fast sink line to boot! After four hours of hopeless perseverance, I quit, defeated by the mythical Fontburn trout again.
The cries of “told you so” didn’t bear thinking about, so there was no way I was going to walk away this time without an exit strategy involving the long hours of daylight still ahead. There were several options. The easiest alternatives, in terms of distance, were the nearby small lakes at Rayburn and Rothley, both just four miles from Fontburn, so that I could easily make my 8.30 rendezvous for a lift back from the reservoir entrance. The problem was, in both cases, that I didn’t have permission to fish and, being on my own, there was every possibility of being caught if I fished without consent. Then again, there was Bolam Lake, an undulating seven mile walk on the way back towards home at Morpeth, with only a 50 pence charge for a day ticket, if the warden was even still there. But this was the venue where Phil would probably be several pike to the good by now, and one for which I was only properly kitted out to fish for the much smaller perch. Go to Bolam and any lingering thought of catching a monster on this particular day would have had to be abandoned! It was just as well, then, that I had remembered to stuff my permit to fish for trout on the river Coquet into my bag. So as I reached the end of the track leading away from Fontburn, I veered left onto the B6342, rather than right, and put my faith in running water. The journey was a seven and a half mile hike over the foothills of Simonside but at least once I got there, that dream of a big wild brown trout would still be on!
The final steep descent into Rothbury was heralded by the first proper summer weather of the day. The fast moving low clouds that had made the heights of Fontburn feel so unwelcoming had broken and sunlight now warmed the valley, glittering on the swift waters of the upper Coquet far below. This was a river famed for its prodigious runs of salmon and sea trout but, back in the early eighties, it still had a top notch reputation for brown trout fishing, many fish carrying distinct markings, singling them out as the river’s own unique wild strain. The picture in my mind’s eye of the trout I wanted to catch had thus changed – from a silvery dark brown fish covered in black spots to a golden hue, splattered with brown and red speckles in equal proportions.
My chosen spot was the well-known local landmark Thrum Mill Falls, an outcrop of limestone in the shadow of the aptly named Cragside Estate, through which the Coquet rushes impatiently. The valley narrows here too, which I hoped might provide more shelter from the breeze, although in truth it had dropped considerably compared to the insistent gusts up on the moors.
The mayfly patterns I had used latterly up at Fontburn provided the perfect tools for the job in these more recognizable surroundings – water I could read, containing trout that in most instances I could actually see. In fact spotting them in the fast clear water at the top of the falls was relatively easy: all that was needed was a good cast into a likely looking spot and fish could be seen flexing and chasing back and forth in the gin clear five foot deep channel. Every now and then, what looked like a really good trout was flashing in the brisk current and it didn’t seem too unduly bothered by the regular casts I was placing in its direction.
On my fourth or fifth chuck into this hotspot, the big fish finally threw caution to the wind, lunging with abandon at the point fly and practically hooking itself in the process. The aerobatic display that followed quickly drew a crowd of eager spectators – Thrum Mill was a hotspot for day-trippers, as well as trout, at that time of year – a fact that only seemed to cause still greater anxiety to the acrobatic fish. Nonetheless, like with almost all of the homespun members of its species, my adversary’s struggle was short lived, if spectacular, and the eighteen-inch wild trout came fairly quickly to the net. My crowd of onlookers by now numbered the best part of fifteen and I couldn’t bring myself to kill such a magnificent looking creature in any case. So I weighed it – 2lb 2oz – and returned it safe and sound to fight another day. It was a quarter past six and I had caught my big trout with time to spare, if not without a quite avoidable 10-mile expedition over the hills of Northumberland to get it!
Many things have changed in the years since that long gone midsummer expedition. The privatisation of Northumbrian Water in 1989 brought about a not unexpected explosion in commercial activity from the new company. Within a few seasons, the fledgling ‘put and take’ fishery that had been experimented with at Northumbria’s Teesdale operation, Grassholme Reservoir, was rolled out across most of the former authority’s deep-water sites. Fontburn quickly became the centre for the water utility’s independent stock rearing practice and, not surprisingly, it assumed flagship status as the North East trout fisheries business mushroomed into one of the largest in the country. By the mid nineties, Fontburn was being stocked with Rainbows and North American Brook Trout by the thousand and the fishery record quickly spiralled out of all semblance of reason.
Bearing in mind my own experiences of more than a decade earlier, perhaps the most significant event at the ‘new Fontburn’ came in the warm months of one mid-nineties summer. A young woman angler, fishing legered worm on stout tackle for one of Fontburn’s monsters, caught a leviathan whose description featured nowhere in Northumbrian Water’s glossy 1996 reservoir fishing brochure – a twenty pound pike that had grown fat on a diet rich with stocked rainbows! It immediately brought the memories flooding back of those epic fishing expeditions and posed the obvious question: If there were giant pike in the reservoir, had I been wasting my time after-all, all those years before? Clearly not, I resolved – somehow, I always knew the place had potential!
Written by Pete McParlin
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