A common lament in the angling press these days – at least in the UK – is the dwindling number of people, especially youngsters, entering the sport. Nowadays, with so many other distractions offering instant gratification, encouraging people to take up a hobby which by its very nature requires quiet contemplation, concentration and patience (after all it’s called fishing, not catching!) is bound to be a hard sell.
That said, there is a new generation of ‘influencers’ taking advantage of social media to raise awareness of fishing as the endlessly fascinating and rewarding pursuit that it is. Not long ago I had the pleasure of spending an amazing day on England’s premier salmon river – the River Tyne – with two of them.
It was a gloomy Sunday in March and I was in the middle of a challenging and very busy time at work. Needing some light at the end of the tunnel, I submitted a speculative bid on the Wild Trout Trust‘s annual auction. The particular lot was a day’s fishing on the River Tyne with James Stokoe.
Once a dead river as a result of Newcastle’s industrial past, the river Tyne has been cleaned up massively over the past few decades and now boasts prolific runs of both salmon and sea trout. I had seen James on social media and he looked like a great guy to spend a day’s fishing with and hopefully help me catch a first salmon on the fly! My bid was submitted on the last day of the auction so absent a last minute flurry of bids I knew I was top. Thankfully, no other bids came in and I woke the next day to a nice email from Andrew Jackson, secretary of Hexham Anglers’ Association (on whose waters I would be fishing), congratulating me and putting me in touch with James to arrange a date for the trip.
Due to James’ busy guiding schedule and commitments filming a new fishing series – Iconic Fish – I would have to wait until late October. However, I didn’t mind as Andrew had recommended the back end of the season as giving the best chance of a fish, and a wait of over six months gave plenty of time to plan and get excited about the big day. There were distractions in the meantime with American largemouth bass and exciting saltwater fly fishing in the Norwegian fjords, but always in the back of my mind was the prospect of ‘chasing silver’ in the Autumn.
As ever, preparations began well in advance. I had only ever landed one salmon previously (despite trying for them on a number of occasions) and that was caught spinning. I was really keen to get one on the fly and duly started researching the favoured patterns for the Tyne. For the back end of the season, flies sporting the suitably autumnal hues of orange and red seemed to be popular. Some appropriately coloured shrimp patterns – including a patterned designed by James himself, ‘The Stokoe Shrimp’ – were duly tied. I also prepared some standard patterns in other colours in case the Northumberland fish proved particularly discerning. This was the first time I had attempted to make salmon flies and it was really enjoyable to work with some rather exotic materials – Arctic fox , mallard and golden pheasant. I was pleased with the results and looked forward to giving them a ‘swim’ come October.
Finally October came around, I put in a call to James to see how the prospects were looking. Even on the phone his enthusiasm was infectious and he promised that we would have a great day whether we caught or not. The fickle nature of the salmon means the rational angler always knows that a blank is more likely than a catch, but I was really looking forward to spending a day’s fishing with someone who was as equally keen as I am. James also informed me that Marina Gibson would be joining us for the day. Marina is another famous ‘new generation’ angler who does great work promoting the sport through various projects, including the Northern Fishing School. Now I would be fishing with two ‘stars’ for the price of one – surely we would catch?
We were due to fish on the last Friday of October and I had booked myself in at a pub in Hexham on the Thursday night just a stone’s throw from the mighty River Tyne. Having spent my student days in Newcastle and my early twenties playing music in bands around York, the drive from Leeds up the A1 to Northumberland brought back many happy memories. Not fishing until the next day I was in no rush and even took a brief detour at Ripon to have a few casts on the River Ure to dust off the cobwebs as it had been a few months since I had last put out a fly line. It was a beautiful late autumn evening (see video below) and it was glorious to be alone by the water, full of anticipation about what the next day may bring.
I had been badgering James about getting on the river at first light – my modus operandi when pursuing my usual Autumn targets of pike and perch – but he assured me that an extra hour or two of sleep would be of more use. I learnt that in Autumn, salmon will rarely take until the air and water has lost some of their dawn chill and it is better to be well rested to fish hard during the key hours of the day rather than tiring yourself out early doors.
Nonetheless, full of excitement I was up with the larks and to pass the time until meeting James and Marina I enjoyed a hearty full English breakfast in the pub before taking a quick drive up the Tyne valley to inspect the river. The river looked a decent level – neither too low nor too high – the weather was fair and the countryside was beautiful with the grass green and lush, and the trees in their full Autumn regalia of yellow, orange and red.
Finally it was time to meet James and Marina and I was greeted with big hugs and high fives from both of them. Clearly they were as up for it as I was and we headed upstream to the beat for the day on the South Tyne. Just upstream of Hexham the River Tyne splits into the North and South rivers. The North Tyne flows out of Kielder Reservoir which was releasing water that day. James explained that most anglers would be fishing the North river believing that the extra water from the reservoir would be stirring the fish into a taking mood. James was adopting a contrarian approach, in his view at this time of year the extra cold water from Kielder was more of a turn-off than a turn-on for the fish and so the steadier water of the South Tyne gave us a better chance.
We parked the cars and rigged up the rods for the day. Whilst I was keen to get one on the fly, I had never fished with a traditional double handed salmon fly rod before. Not wanting to waste time learning new casting techniques, I set-up a single handed 10ft 8 weight rod with an intermediate line and a Stokoe Shrimp on a tippet of 17lb fluorocarbon. I was a little undergunned particularly with 20lb plus fish running the river at that time of year, and certainly lower down the Tyne it would be much too wide and powerful for this outfit, but James though I could just about get away with it this far upstream. Certainly we would be in for some fireworks if I hooked anything on such tackle! To hedge our bets I also set up a spinning rod with a red flying-C, and Marina would be fishing ‘properly’ (see video below) with a 13ft double hander. Unlike some guides who might set up a rod of their own, James was the consummate professional and armed himself just with a large landing net so he could concentrate on putting Marina and I on to, and hopefully netting, some fish.
As we crossed a single field from the car park to the river we passed a dog walker who said the salmon were already wide awake and crashing about the pools. Indeed, we saw several fish show while crossing the suspension bridge to get to the left bank where we would commence fishing. Our expectations were sky high.
James led Marina and I to the top of the first pool, which looked absolutely stunning (see video above). Streamy water at the head drifted towards the far bank where a sandy cliff entered the river suggesting a deep and inviting run beneath. I could just about reach the other side with the single hander and didn’t hesitate to take up James and Marina’s kind offer of heading down first. The instructions were simple – (1) don’t wade too far, as fish would run the nearside of the river as much as the more obvious run on the far side and (2) keep the fly moving with a steady figure of eight retrieve or short strips.
James stood alongside me as we worked down the pool. It took a while to shake off the habits of a trout fisherman – no mending or dead drifting here, the fish want a moving fly. James was great company as we fished with salmon periodically showing to keep the sense of anticipation high. I think we were chatting about the trials and tribulations of Newcastle United when there was a slow draw on my line as the fly swung midstream. My trout fishing background was my undoing however as out of instinct I struck at the first pull rather allowing the salmon to draw the line tight as a more experienced salmon fisher would have done. I grunted some expletive knowing that with salmon chances like that can be few and far between. We fished on.
Both Marina and I fished through that pool several times – me with both fly and spinner and Marina with different flies and lines. However, whilst fish still were jumping there seemed to be no takers amongst them, so after a couple of hours we broke for lunch.
James was desperate for us to get a fish and kept telling us there’s always one taker amongst them, we just needed to stick with it and fish hard. We moved downstream to another fantastic looking pool – a short set of rapids spilled into deep, swirling pot followed by a long steady glide. Again, there were good numbers of fish showing up and down the pool and our confidence remained high. However, after a couple of runs down the pool with various flies, we had still failed to connect.
After a bright morning, the afternoon had turned cloudy and by the third run down the pool the wind had picked up, it had started to rain and there was a distinct chill in the air. It was if the season had suddenly changed from Autumn to Winter. With only a couple of hours of fishing remaining, it was that point in the day when anglers often feel like time is running out and maybe, with the changing weather, it’s just not going to happen. Conscious of our heads potentially dropping, James paced up and down the bank between Marina and I uttering words of encouragement and repeating his mantra “there’s always one taker amongst them”.
I was reaching the bottom of the run for the third time and had my spinning rod in hand. Whilst the common tactic with salmon fishers is to cast across the river with fly or lure and swing the bait down and across the stream, James had advised that it is always a good idea with the spinner to occasionally put out a big upstream cast and retrieve the lure fast down river over the heads of the fish as they lie facing upstream. The logic being that the fish may have got wise to lures swinging across their line of vision left to right or right to left, as the case may be, and a sudden lure whizzing quickly over their heads can sometimes trigger a reaction.
Remembering these wise words and a fish that had shown a couple of times midstream I put out a long line back upstream. Retrieving the lure fast there was a sudden thump on the rod and I was in. After so many casts and so much effort, there was a split second of disbelief, but there was no mistaking the thump thump of decent salmon. “I’m in!” I shouted to James and Marina who quickly joined me with net and camera. The fish gave some powerful runs taking line upstream and I prayed that the hook hold was firm. After several minutes of strong fight however, James slipped the net under a beautiful 8lb hen fish and we were all over the moon. James and Marina genuinely seemed as excited as I was (testament to their enthusiasm for the sport) and there were more high fives and hugs all round.
It had been a real team effort, fishing hard throughout the day trying different approaches and tactics between us until one finally paid off. The fact the fish fell to my rod made no difference, on another day it could have been Marina’s. We fished on for another hour with renewed energy, even returning to the first pool for the last 30 minutes, but alas there would be no further fish. It didn’t matter, it had been a fantastic day. It was great to share some time on the bank with two great anglers and great people, I couldn’t recommend a day’s fishing with either James or Marina highly enough and with these two in our sport the future, hopefully is bright.
PS – thanks to Marina for the great action shots below.