Back in July my oldest friend was getting married at Mitton Hall in Lancashire. As I live and work in Moscow, I decided to make a long-weekend of the trip back to the U.K. and, amongst catching up with friends and family, sneak in a day’s fishing.
Fortuitously, the wedding venue was sat on a prime beat of the River Ribble, so killing two birds with one stone was made easy. By another stroke of luck, reasonably priced day tickets for trout, grayling, sea trout and salmon were available through the excellent Ribble Rivers Trust ‘Angling Passport Scheme’. The final piece of the puzzle was finding a room for the night. The Shireburn Arms at Hurst Green was 10 minutes’ drive from the wedding venue and 9 minutes’ drive from the top-end of the beat, so looked a decent bet.
Expecting to be chasing picky wild brown trout in low water summer conditions, I’d refreshed my stock of small dry flies and nymphs in advance. I’ve only recently returned to fly tying after a 15 year hiatus and my skills are rather rusty. That said, the bunch of emergers and tiny beadhead nymphs I’d cobbled together looked like they could tempt a wild Lancastrian brownie or two given the right conditions.
However, driving to Clitheroe in torrential rain on the morning of the wedding had me thinking that my best laid plans may go awry. Although the sun thankfully put in a brief appearance for the ceremony and photos of the happy couple, the rain was pretty much incessant all day.
Unfortunately my wife and daughter couldn’t make the trip and had to stay in Moscow, which meant I ended up being seated on the ‘single lads’ table for the wedding breakfast and the day quickly got quite boozy. To ensure I’d be in a decent state to tackle the Ribble the next day, when the dancing started I decided to take some fresh air, grab my umbrella and head down to the river to see how it was faring. Standing on the bridge below the village of Great Mitton, I looked down to see a high and colouring river. With the continuing rain, it would be touch and go whether it would be fishable the next day.
After a good night’s sleep and hearty breakfast, I was back at the bridge before 9am the next day. Parking up, I was joined by a couple of local anglers who took one look at the river and said it was too high, advising me to give it a miss. Having come all that way, I was nonetheless determined to wet a line. Although it was no place for the tiny flies I’d tied up in advance, at least on first inspection it didn’t look unfishable, not for trout, and certainly not for sea trout or salmon.
I have caught plenty of trout in high water over the years and usually remain confident in all but the most coloured water conditions. As regards sea trout and salmon, my experience is rather more limited. I’ve fished a handful of times for these species, on the Rivers Annan and Bladnoch in Scotland and the River Till in Northumberland. In probably six or seven attempts, I’ve had one fresh run salmon of 10lb on the Bladnoch on a spinner when I was about 16 and a kelt on fly on the Till a few years later. I’ve never caught a sea trout.
These migratory fish certainly epitomise the saying, ‘there’s more to fishing than catching fish’. Firstly, it is not clear whether they even feed when they return from the sea to spawn in freshwater rivers, which questions the logic of even trying to catch them on real or artificial baits. Secondly, their behaviour is exceptionally fickle – highly dependent on water levels, seasons and a whole host of other variables. Yet even the slightest chance of connecting with them is something magical, not least because the rivers they run are invariably some of the most beautiful in our lands. In this regard, the Mitton beat of the Ribble proved no exception.
Given I’d never fished this river before, let alone this particular stretch, I decided to walk the length of the beat before deciding how to fish it. There was about 2km of single bank fishing on the Ribble and about 500m up the Calder (a tributary which joins the main river at the bottom of the beat). By the time I’d reached the lower limit, there was no getting away from the fact it was running high and powerful. Thinking the smaller River Calder may be in better condition, I decided to start there. However, after a fruitless hour trying to tempt a brown trout or grayling with a team of weighted nymphs, I returned to the main river to work my way slowly back up to the bridge.
My instincts told me salmon and sea trout may be the better bet in the conditions and, despite my relative inexperience with these fish, I felt quietly confident setting up my spinning rod with a size 4 silver and blue Mepps spinner. Even in the high water I’d seen several potential ‘taking strips’ (areas of smoother water off the main flow) and other inviting pools and glides that looked like they could hold a resting fish.
My instincts proved correct. Whilst carefully covering all the likely looking spots I had a total of five takes: I saw two decent fish come up and nip the back of the lure as it swung round close to my near bank (it was hard to make out if they were salmon or sea trout, but they each looked around 5lbs); I had two arm-wrenching thumps retrieving the lure midstream; and another rattling take in a nice pool under some overhanging trees. Whilst I’ve never experienced bumping-off so many fish before when spinning, merely getting so much interest from these capricious fish was a fantastic result for me.
By the time I’d made it back to the bridge, the river had dropped-off considerably. Conditions would have been near perfect the next day, but alas by then I’d be on my plane back to Russia. My Dad had joined me in the afternoon and we finished the day with a lovely pint at the Aspinall Arms, which was conveniently located at the top of the beat. We sat in the beer garden that runs down to the water’s edge and toasted a great day – no fish on the bank, but sometimes just making contact is enough …