This article never could be written without the help from my English friends Mike Mee, Oliver Edwards and John Roberts. Mike is a very fanatic grayling angler like me. He loves nature and wildlife and respects it as much as I do, which makes it easy to become very close friends. His historical knowledge is of inestimable value not only to me but also for many other people. Because he lends me some of his classic and historical books I was able to find more and even some secret background information for this hopefully nice story. A lot of things I will put on paper would be unknown to many and Mike surely deserves all the credit for it. He also sent me a lot of unpublished work and patterns, which he allowed me to use for my further investigations and writings. The discussions and conversations I had with Mike during our all fishing trips, gives me an enormous inspiration to write this article and let more people enjoy about one of the best fishing places in the U.K. Thanks to Mike I got in the spell of the Yorkshire fly fishing, tradition and history and I became a collector of the history behind Yorkshire spiders or North country flies but that would be another story!
In attempting to describe the wealth of Fly-Fishing in Yorkshire, it is first necessary to define this area as an old County that was split into three separate Counties some years ago. The bureaucrats could probably never allow One County to have so much of everything! Excellent fly fishing, a wonderful countryside, good food and not to forget such friendly and hospitable people. The rivers I will describe in this story all rise in the Pennine Hills and then flow east and south towards the huge river Humber. All rivers are known as freestone Spate Rivers and long series of pools and runs provide a fascinating and varied challenge to every fly fisherman. Unfortunately the industrial revolution destroyed the southernmost of Yorkshire’s river system and there is a preponderance of industry on the rivers Aire, Calder, Dearn, Don and Rother but the Swale, Ure and Wharfe are still beautiful clean rivers. It will be mainly those three rivers were I would talk about in this article.
Yorkshire has also a long and fine tradition of fly fishing and some argue that modern fly fishing was founded here. Sometime around 1620, William Lawson was the first who describe the “cast” of the fly in his “Comments on Secrets of Angling by Dennys. His description of casting a line more than twice the length of the rod is surely the foundation of our modern fly fishing. It previously was a form of dapping with the line just a little more than the rods length was the norm. The line was then attached directly to the rod tip as in today’s pole fishing. Izaac Walton regarded as father of angling was at this time only 23 years old and Charles Cotton which could be regarded as more then fly fisher then Walton claimed already that the best fishing rods were made in Yorkshire.
In the middle of the last century began a series of books on flies and fishing for both trout and grayling and Yorkshire produced writers like John Jackson, who preferred his flies tied to a single strand of horse hair of less than 0, 5Kg breaking strain.
Michael Theakston who listed and collected many fly dressings of the Yorkshire rivers. Then came Pritt and Walbran. The last one was a fishing tackle maker and dealer who fished the middle reaches of the river Ure intensively. Walbran seemed to know or fish with all the noted fishing writers of his day. Pritt, Francis Francis, R. B. Marston, Marriot, Sherringham, the list seems endless. The esteem in which he was held can be seen reflected in his gravestone in Tanfield Churchyard. A man who lived for his grayling fishing tragically died because of it. He was drowned while grayling Fishing at Tanfield on the Ure on February the 15th 1909 aged 57 years. His grave with is carved headstone showing a creel, net, rods and fish is alongside the path runs between the two roads that run parallel to the river. I was there and I it gave me a strange but also a very good feeling. I even cleaned the gravestone so that everything got better sighted.
It is still possible to locate the exact spots described more than a hundred years ago when a good fish was taken and capture recorded in one of their books. For me it was a unbelievable experience to walk in the footsteps of those great fishermen. Two more Yorkshire authors Edmunds and Lee wrote “Brook and river trouting” in 1916. This work is still regarded as the standard on North Country Flies. Later during my researches for the birth of the Spider I also discover names such as: Chippindale, Swarbrick, Wade, Turton and Brumfitt all persons who definitely set some very important basics to the Yorkshire way of fly tying.
This long and proud tradition has given the Yorkshire man a special style of fly fishing and fly dressing. The flies known as North Country Spiders are series of tiny sparsely dressed patterns, which are in general fished on a cast of three flies. These are cast across and are worked round and down streams, searching the water for fish. This is no “chuck and chance it” type of fishing, in the hands of the Yorkshire man it is a deadly method. The most essential is that the flies are always fished under control, the rod will be held high and the takes detected before a sudden pull which usually indicates a missed fish. Unfortunately are the traditional tying methods and flies misunderstood by many Fly dressers and it will be very hard to detect a perfectly tied Yorkshire spider in articles published during last 10 years. I tried those special Fishing techniques in Scandinavian and even in North America and with considerable success as well. In Holland the spider is one of my absolute favourite for catching roach, rudd and even bream by fly!
The Yorkshire men are not hidebound by tradition, new and innovative patterns are still evolving. My very good friend Oliver Edwards is an excellent example of this. I fished with him frequently and even have give classes and workshops together with him and in my personal opinion there is no better fly dresser (and fly fisher) who knows how to handle realistic flies better then he does. His fly dressings skills have give him a famous international reputation already and he is one of the most skilful Dales river fishermen I know. His exploitation of the caseless caddis larvae, Rhyacophila and Hydropsyche, with his unique tying techniques, has proved most successful for both trout and grayling. Together with Oliver I developed my leadheaded grayling bug further into an even more successful cased caddis pattern that has been published in his excellent book Fly Tyers Masterclass as the peeping caddis.
The rivers are all managed and most of the waters are in the hand of a local fishing club. There are however many miles of some of the best fly fishing available to the visiting fisherman, and much for an accompanying partner to explore while the fishing is enjoyed.
THE RIVER WHARFE
The Burnsall Angling Club controls the upper water. It is one of Yorkshires oldest and most prestigious fishing clubs. This length is well stocked with brown trout but unfortunately access is restricted to visitors. Immediately below this is the Bolton Abbey Estate Water and here you can fish for five miles on both banks. Brown trout are also stocked but the grayling fishing is here much better. There is a daily limit of four trout and barb less hooks are recommended as one can catch and release Fish.
This part of Warfdale is outstanding for its scenery and as in one of the National Parks. The Bolton Abbey water as the name suggest includes a historic ruined abbey on the right bank side. This area is very popular with a lot of visitors, especially in the weekends. The cost of both of these fishing is not too expensive and day tickets are available at several places but if you ever go there please check out those locations first. The Tourist Center surely will lead you into the right direction but I always advice a visit to a tackle shop first. Please note that a Yorkshire Water Authority Fishing Licence is necessary in order to fish in any water in Yorkshire. This can be obtained from any tackle shop and costs just a few pounds for a whole week.
Accommodation could be range from a modest farm or guesthouse providing bed and breakfast to stay at Bolton Abbeys own Devonshire Arms Hotel on the banks of the Wharfe. This superb Hotel offers accommodation and excellent cuisine as well. Of course it is also possible to put your tent or caravan at camping places close to the river and try to get day tickets for several other club waters like: The Appletreewick, Grassington or Barden club water.
THE RIVER URE
This river flows through Wensleydale (The only dale which isn’t named after the river) the area famous for it’s dairying and cheese is quite different in character from Wharfdale. The upper reaches provide accessible fishing around Hawes where tickets can be obtained from the sport shop at Hawes. Bainbridge further downstream has fishing, which includes the river Bain, England’s shortest river. When I fished here tickets were available from the Rose and Crown in Bainbridge.
Masham, in the middle reaches provides real classic Dales Fishing and is amongst Yorkshires most historic Fishing. Its one of my favourite locations. I fished this wonderful beat several times and I must confess that this water belongs to my selection of best European rivers. The water can be strongly coloured but you still are able to catch fish by dry fly. There are many kingfishers in the area that are a good company to the enjoyable fly fisherman.
The Masham water provides some of the best Grayling Fishing in Britain, with occasional specimen sized fish. The river here is also stocked but only with native Brown trout. I was particularly successful by using my large Klinkhåmer in combination with some of my Scandinavian Fishing techniques. During one of my trips to Masham I amazed John Roberts by catching fish with Klinkhåmers from size 20 up to 8. In the autumn the rise for Aphids is really unbelievable and I once wrote an article about fishing this tiny little insect. It seems that when leafs are falling the Grayling gets mad.
Masham is a typical, pleasant small Dales town and an excellent base from which to fish the area. It has a small hotel named the Kings Head. There are also some Inns and Guesthouses. Bankfoot villa, by the river is a pleasant guesthouse and the High Main Farm will also take some visitors. Masham also has his own brewery where Thaekston beer is brewed. It is famous for its “Old Peculiar” a dark and powerful drink with a little sweet taste, not to be missed.
Below Masham you will find the village of West Tanfield, home of John Jackson, famous for his book “The practical Fly-Fisher”. Here on the Tanfield water, Sturdy, who developed the “Sturdy’s Fancy” an outstanding grayling fly, was river Keeper. Still people belongs to the Sturdy Family live in Masham today.
THE RIVER SWALE
I only fished this river once and this was a rather long time ago, so the best information came from Mike directly. The Swale is said to be England’s fastest flowing river and the upper dale has real spectacular scenery. At the top you can find England’s highest pub the “Tan Hill”. The Swaledale with its tiny little villages founded on lead mining during the 18e century, is sparsely populated. There is only one road that you can follow near the river down to Richmond. There is little Fishing in the upper part and the river is here rather small. I bought my ticket in Richmond from the local tackle shop.
Downstreams, The Northallerton Angling Club have some good water and the scenery here is gentler. The river her holds more grayling then trout and there are even some species of coarse fish.
All the rivers are spate rivers and a sudden rain can put them out of fishing order. All is not lost because between the rivers Wharfe and Nidd in Washburn Valley are a chain of some superb still waters. It would be unjust to regard these fisheries as only a fallback because they have an excellence of their own. The two waters owned and managed by the Yorkshire water Authority are Swinsty and Fewston. Set in the Dales in pleasant surroundings, they provide fantastic sporting opportunities, particularly to the skilful fisherman. They have a good natural hatch of flies, particularly the rare large mayfly Ephemera vulgata, which appears from June. The sedge hatch like the Yorkshire rivers is the best late in the evening. Lake olives, black gnats and midges are the most successful. There are very large fish in these waters some over 5 kg, so it doesn’t always pay to fish too fine tippet. Tickets are easy to obtained from the lodge and when it is not managed there are some tickets machines around.
FLIES AND INSECT LIVE
The main Fly groups in the rivers are the Olives, Sedges and Stoneflies, the latter more localised in distribution, The Sedges in some locations are really abundant. The flies must be lightly dressed with a wisp of soft mobile hackle and, here and there, a mist of dubbing, the tying silk shining through. Good patterns are difficult to get because most of them are overdressed. Most Spiders I see in fly boxes have enough hackle on it to tie a half dozen more flies from it. The tradition said that the flies have to be fished in teams of three, about three feet apart. A very popular set of three is Snipe and Purple, Partridge and Orange and the Needle Fly.