It’s that time of year again! The days are getting longer, the worst of the winter weather is (hopefully) behind us and – Hallelujah – the trout fishing season on Northumbrian rivers gets back underway on March 22nd. Unfortunately, due to our geography and climate, just when we think the snow and ice have receded for the last time, all too often back they come with a vengeance in the midst of force eight northerly, just in time for the first or second week of the season! In such circumstances, trying to cast a fly can be a thankless and most unrewarding endeavour, however there is an alternative.
The humble worm is maligned both as a creature and a fishing bait, yet it is at least loved by the trout, in common with most other species of fish. Its importance to anglers is thus more universal than many would like to admit! For as little as £2 you can buy them from tackle shops – lobs, brandlings or dendrodbaenas – all of which have their uses for catching river trout. You can even dig your own out of the ground if you so wish… It may be seen as ‘cheating’ by some trout angling purists, and it might even be against the rules on certain waters, but done properly worm fishing is far more than simply a ‘chuck it and chance’ it method.
Legering a worm may indeed be rudimentary, but in everything other than a full-on flood it’s also a largely ineffective technique. Float fishing and upstream worming, however, in their own ways, require as much finesse, skill and knowhow as fly fishing, and can be devastatingly effective methods on their given day. Nowadays, owing to local restrictions, my own first casts are invariably made using a fly – or to be more precise, a weighted nymph – but as I myself started out as a worm fisherman, there’s no way I’m going to overlook this particular trout angling discipline.
Harking back to the long-lost days of my youth on the River Wansbeck, although the bank-side remained off-limits until the last week of March, I used to ease my growing sense of anticipation for the new season by preparing rods, reels and terminal tackle in readiness. I’d often start as soon as late-February and it’s with this in mind that I’ve prepared this article early too!
The checking of regulations is important when we come to start fishing for the trout, for while the old byelaw that once prohibited the use of ‘bait’ on many rivers in the region before June 1st no longer applies, many clubs and associations still retain this as a local statute. As a general rule, therefore, it is best to assume that worm fishing is only allowed before June on those rivers where the old byelaw never applied – namely the Wansbeck, Blyth, Wear and Tees (and also the Yorkshire rivers) – and even then club rules should also be consulted.
Worm fishing for trout is subtly different to its equivalent for coarse species (and to some extent grayling) and this needs to be taken into account too when devising effective tactics for presenting a bait to them. Unlike many other species, the river trout is in essence a solitary fish, being fiercely territorial at all stages of its life and never living in shoals, in contrast to many other types of river fish. It therefore follows that, like in fly fishing, a trout has first to be ‘seen’ before it can be cast to – as running a bait through any likely looking spot will not necessarily locate a feeding fish in the way it might in coarse angling! It has also to be understood that loose-feeding or ground-baiting is rarely allowed – indeed on those rivers such as the Wear and Tees, where coarse fish are present, it is strictly prohibited before June 16th!
Therefore an understanding of where to expect to find a trout is of great importance, especially as on early-season North East rivers, the colour often carried in the water is likely to make visualising them near-impossible. In reference to the previous article in this series, on winter grayling fishing, in terms of habitat what goes for grayling usually follows for the trout. Look for tell-tale features – deeper swiftly flowing stretches are ideal for this sort of fishing – as while a trout will live happily in just a few inches of water, fishing a worm in such locations is much less straightforward than a fly! Creases in the flow in these sorts of places are also good, as are deeper channels cutting through areas of generally shallower water, weir pools – any sort of pool for that matter – and anywhere with overhanging foliage. Slow deep stretches do hold trout – often very big ones – but they don’t offer the advantage of being able to sweep a bait through a lie fast enough to entice a trout to take a gamble.
Where better place to start then than the River Wansbeck, a cracking trout stream that only requires you to hold a standard EA rod licence to fish in the vicinity of Morpeth town centre (see The Credit Crunch List in “North East Fishing Marks & Venues” for more information & directions). Worm fishing is allowed in this area right from the start of the season, although on those stretches outside the town (controlled by the Wansbeck Angling Association) it is fly only until June 1st.
The Morpeth ‘town stretch’ is only about a mile or so in length – and it’ll soon become apparent that several sections within its boundaries are barely worth a look – however those places that are can provide an excellent opportunity to the roving early-season worm fisher. To get the best out of this stretch, you’d be best advised to float fish (a 10-11 ft rod, 3-4lb line fished straight through to the hook, and a stick or avon float will be quite sufficient), as the delicate casting necessary when using fly tackle to present a worm is unlikely to deliver the bait into many of the best places. Moreover, as most anglers who fish this stretch use ‘bait fishing’ set-ups anyway, you won’t look out of place!
Beginning at the uppermost end of the beat (on the right bank looking downstream) the first place that warrants a visit is the water on the downstream side of a footbridge on High Stanners, known locally as Skinnery Bridge (Location 1 – see map). Running for about a hundred yards down from the bridge, this stretch consists of a far bank channel that gradually deepens the further downstream you go, losing pace as it goes. Being only about four to five feet deep and fed by slightly faster water from upstream, the hotspot is the pool immediately downstream of the bridge, beneath the overhanging branches on the far side. Be sure to plumb the depth of the far bank channel right under the overhang (using a plummet lead as shown in Diagram 1A) and shot the float ‘shirt button’ style (Diagram 1B) so the worm is carried along just clear of the river bed.
While trout will normally be found under the tree, the continued presence of far bank features hanging over from the gardens on the opposite side means that venturing downstream a few yards can also be worthwhile. However, adjusting the float setting to compensate for the quite considerable increase in depth the further downstream you go is unnecessary, as the fish in this area generally lie only a few feet or even inches below the surface, using the overhanging features for cover.
The amenability of this stretch to trout fishing gradually decreases as the river swings round to the right – the increasing depth (30 feet at one point) and languid current making it unsuited to anything besides legering. However it’s only a couple of hundred yards, walking on downstream past the widening grassy expanse on the inside of the bend, until the next place of interest (Location 2).
With the river shallowing-up again on approach to a set of stepping stones, this is the sort of place where the use of a good float rod (and good technique) will come into its own as the Wansbeck is quite wide here and the channel to be fished is once again close to the far bank, necessitating a powerful but controlled cast. What’s more, this spot is far more featured, with the sloping gardens having been superseded by fairly dense far bank foliage, providing cover for the trout and dictating a cast close-to or right underneath the overhang.
If you look at Diagram 2, which explains how to ‘feather’ a cast using a fixed spool reel, you’ll understand the relevance of this technique to this particular kind of fishing location. It allows for a far more confident cast to be made from distance towards a line of features such as overhanging trees. The cast can then be slowed on its final approach, to avoid the problem of getting terminal tackle hung up in the foliage. In order to ‘feather’, you keep your index finger close to the rim of the spool after releasing the line and, as the float nears its target, dab your finger lightly against the rim of the spool in a manner that causes line leaving the reel to flick the fingertip on each turn, slowing the momentum of the cast as it travels through the air. The trick is to apply just the right amount of pressure so that you gradually slow the flight of the float – you don’t want to stop the line dead as not only will this leave you fishing in the wrong place, it might even cause the bait to fly off the hook!
Of equal significance, this technique also compensates for the fact that the harder you attempt to cast a float (and the shot carried with it on the line) the more probable it is that the whole lot will hit the surface of the water simultaneously (Diagram 2C), increasing the likelihood of tangles and/or the line looping round the float. Either way the resultant presentation isn’t going to fool many trout! As the feathering action slows the progress of the tackle through the air, it causes the line to straighten (Diagram 2B), so that the bait hits the water first, followed by the shot and float in the correct order. Carry out this procedure on every cast and your bait is far more likely to be presented in a manner likely to deceive a trout.
A hundred yards downstream of the stepping stones is probably the most quintessential trout fishing spot on the entire ‘town stretch’ – a place anyone who has read The Wansbeck Wonder Years (in the “Angling Culture” section) will immediately recognise as the ‘Willow Tree’ pool… well maybe…! The willow is long gone, struck down by lightning in the early 1980s, but the pool that was once caressed by its trailing branches is still there (Location 3) – and still amenable to a well presented worm. The main part of the pool is a five to six feet deep ‘hole’ (plumb the depth to check!) but this only shallows-up gradually as the river approaches the sandstone bridge just downstream (Oldgate), meaning that the float can be fished right through almost as far as the bridge under-croft – although false bites will occur as the depth decreases.
There then follows a long stretch of slow deeper water, which comes under the category “barely worth a look”, but if you follow the river on downstream through Carlisle Park and beyond a large weir with a fish ladder, another section with trout fishing potential is soon at hand (Location 4). The short stretch of river between two bridges that cross from the town centre not far downstream of the weir – one a footbridge and the other the main ‘Telford’ road bridge – still retains much of the pace provided by the obstruction and is a place where, in the olden days, I used to catch many a small trout from its shallow waters. Back then, the gravel bed of the river here was scraped-flat annually by the Water Authority JCB in the name of flood prevention, but for the last two decades the river has been left to its own devices, allowing the current to create fish-holding hollows that are reshaped by the floods from year-to-year. Don’t be completely surprised by the presence of the odd leviathan – especially in the darkened waters beneath the main bridge arch!
Downstream of Telford Bridge, the Wansbeck runs over another set of rapids before deepening slightly alongside a concrete flood wall situated on its right bank. The river now begins to deviate to the left – its third right angle turn in less than a mile – guided for most of the way by the flood wall, before it fizzles out at the end of the housing estate it was built to protect. The completion of this bend marks the start of the third and final place worth fishing on the town stretch – a shingle beach just upstream of a metal footbridge – the only part of the beat to be fished from the left bank.
This spot can be approached by either crossing a metal footbridge from the ‘flood wall’ side, or from the town centre by walking down Gas House Lane past Morpeth Library. A float can be trundled quite effectively through the shallower pool just above the bridge, although fishing is usually better downstream of the rapids that begin underneath it – do watch out for the power lines that straddle the river in this area, though! These rapids quickly break into deeper, slower-running water that is deceptively good for trout fishing (Location 5) – and especially-well suited to a roving float fishing approach from the grassy one hundred and fifty yard expense of the left bank immediately before the river turns sharply to the right to resume its easterly trajectory. This is the point at which the town stretch ends – the water downstream of here being controlled by the Wansbeck Angling Association, for which day tickets can be obtained at Game Fishing Supplies (beside Morpeth Bus Station) but on whose waters worm fishing is not permitted before June 1st.
Getting to Morpeth is easy – just follow the A1 and then signs for the town centre, with parking not a problem at this time of the year, as there are numerous car parks dotted around the town centre – although there is a charge in most places. Getting a car close to the beat at the High Stanners end is more tricky, however, as parking here is by the roadside only and often reserved for the residents of the nearby housing estate.
What should also be mentioned at this point is that in contrast to the coarse fishing style of long-trotting, where the float is allowed to drift downstream, when fishing for trout you’ll usually find that casting a bait upstream is more effective (Diagram 3). This peculiarity may owe itself to the trout’s solitary lifestyle or to its habit of lying just below the surface of the water, affording it a much better view of any angler standing just upstream. Whatever the reason, it is this characteristic that gives its name to our next technique, a subtle variation on float fishing in which the worm is presented on either a ‘free line’ (no float or weight attached) or on the end of a leader attached to a fly line.
The ‘upstream worm’ (Diagram 4) is a deadly technique of old, once recommended in all the best trout fishing guides for the North of England and the Borders, but nowadays all but forgotten, what with the modern fashion for fly fishing and easier ways of casting a worm. The problem is that most of these ‘easier ways’ are more cumbersome and intended ideally for fishing in deeper water and at longer range. Even a stick float, presented correctly and cast delicately upstream, stands a good chance of spooking a trout in anything less than three feet of clear water. In a situation where a trout can be clearly seen, it is therefore much better to cast a free or fly-lined worm a few yards upstream of the fish, allowing it drift back into its lie.
Traditionally, the best time for upstream worming is in the early morning, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work at any other time of the day. The technique comes into its own on stretches of river with classic trout pools fed by quicker water from rapids and glides, and wherever you find such a series of features, you’ve potentially found somewhere you can fish all day! There’s no better example of exactly this sort of place than the River Wear at Croxdale.
The Wear at Croxdale is controlled by The Ferryham Angling Association, an amalgamation of Ferryhill and Durham City Angling Clubs as well as one or two others, with access restricted to members of these clubs ONLY (see Fishing Opportunities on Rivers in Co. Durham & Yorkshire in “North East Fishing Marks & Venues” for more details). This particular venue is situated right beside the main A167 Durham to Darlington road and cars can be left round the back of the Honest Lawyer pub, which is alongside the main road (see map).
One of the foremost reasons this beat is so suited to upstream worm fishing is that it’s possible to wade fairly easily at the tail of most of the pools, with easy access to each from the bank. It’s therefore a fairly straightforward task to flick a worm from a good standpoint downstream of your quarry and cover most of the water in each pool; however it goes without saying that you’ll need a folding landing net that you can carry into the river with you! Also (until the river deepens markedly towards the mouth of the River Browney) most of the pools are relatively shallow, making it easier to spot a fish and get into range before it sees you!
Beginning at the downstream end (as per convention), the first pool you’ll fish (1 – see map) is at the very top of the long deep section of river that runs for several hundred yards above the confluence with the Browney. The thing to do here is to wade almost all the way across the shallows at the head of the pool, and then make your way downstream and back towards the middle of the river, just where it starts to deepen. If you now look back across towards the bank you came from, you’ll notice that there’s a slightly deeper channel running very close in on that side, beginning immediately downstream of where you entered the river. By now, you should be standing a little way downstream of the point at which it begins and, provided it’s safe to do so, continue to wade until you have about ten yards of the feature to cast back upstream to.
The current here rushes under a tangle of roots and the branches of an old tree that fell into the river some years ago and this is a spot that always contains a few trout – as well as the occasional big chub, so beware! Simply flick the worm to the head of the run and allow it to trundle through, watching the line for tell tale movement (which of course is much easier if you’re using fly tackle!)
The pool immediately above the long shallow glide that feeds the first swim is really too shallow for this type of fishing, but above the next set of rapids, just beyond the point at which the path crossing the farmer’s field from the Honest Lawyer reaches the riverbank, there is another excellent pool (2). The advantage with this one is that it’s nowhere near as long and deep as our first port of call and being fairly swiftly flowing throughout its length, can be ‘upstream wormed’ all the way from tail to head. The problem however is that, in contrast to the firm gravel that you wade on just downstream, the margins close to the left bank in this pool consist of very soft mud in places, so greater care needs to be taken! Nonetheless, once you do locate a firm foothold, there shouldn’t ever be too great a distance to cast your worm, as the trout here abound.
There are also a couple more pools worth a shot just upstream of our second stop, as the bank sides get steeper and the general pace of the water more swift on approach to the A167 road bridge. There’s even the River Browney situated just the other side of the farmer’s field, which flows into the Wear at the bottom of the beat and has several deep pools that will respond to the same tactics – by now you’ll have got the gist of what to do!
There are of course a great many other places in the North East where these two methods of worm fishing for river trout can be practised – although do check the rules before you set out. Of course, worm fishing works well in the summer also, so after June 1st there’ll be even more opportunities to fish in this way. Get out there and have a go – there’s no more exciting way of catching a trout!
By Pete McParlin
©2012 The Fishing Archives
There is much more information on all aspects of North East Angling in the book, The Lambton Worm: The Definitive Guide to Angling in North East England, by Pete McParlin, published in August 2011.
Published by Amberley and in stock at branches of WH Smiths and Waterstones throughout the North East & North Yorkshire – look in the Angling and Local Interest Sections! Also available from Amazon.co.uk