Challenging Fishing on the Usk

The second outing of my working away weekender took me into Wales, and onto the River Usk up in the Brecon Beacons. A river totally unknown to me it was recommended ( both the river and the beat I ended up fishing), by Glen Pointon. I had hoped we might meet up this weekend but personal commitments got in the way for him so I ended up “flying solo” on this unknown water.

Skeleton river?

Penpont Beat top view

View from the top of the beat looking downstream

River Usk

A low river? Very shallow in much of the beat and gin clear

I had utterly no idea what to expect, high water, low water, fast or slow water, fish on the bottom or the top. As I surveyed the upper section of my beat for the day from a bridge and saw a fish rise in the pool by the bridge, the answer to the last question seemed to be “on top”. However, the river looked low ( to me) though having no prior knowledge of this area I couldn’t be sure. this wasn’t how it always was. There hasn’t been that much rain of late though there had been a few heavy showers where I was staying in the Bristol area, and one would imagine being in the Brecon Beacons there has to be significant amounts of rainfall generally and so I imagine the river can be much higher than I experienced today. If it wasn’t on its bones, it wasn’t terribly far off it.

All that said I was taking nothing for granted and set up one nymph rod with a French leader which I felt was the right thing for low water and a couple of small bugs, and my other rod was set up with a long tapered leader, a 12foot Varivas Dry Fly leader and a couple of feet of tipper on the end. Keeping it long for the low water conditions.. My opening pattern there was a size 14 CDC and Elk which I felt was a reasonable enough “general” pattern until I had seen what flies were on the water. The first couple of sections were very shallow, little more than shin deep but tailed out in some faster deeper channels and I decided to give these my opening casts with the Nymph Set up. I am almost sure I contacted a fish in my first few casts, there was a  distinct rattle of my line but as I reacted there was no fish there. Maybe it was just a snag, I suppose we will never know. The rest of my fishing through these first two sections went unrewarded and I decided to leave the “dead pool” ( I called it this as there was a dead sheep lying on the beach of boulders), and head much further down the beat. I thought maybe I should go all the way to the bottom, about a mile beyond, and then work my way up.

If you can’t be bothered reading all my blog post this video covers the same ground.

Big Hungry Brown

Red rock river

Red Rocks- big flat red stone slabs with deeper channels were where the big fish were if you could reach them.

As I skirted the third field behind a fairly high barbed wire fence I was catching an occasional glimpse of the river, a long slow glide,  below me down a high steep embankment through breaks in the fairly dense foliage. In one I could see a deep cleft in some rocks and sat right in the middle was a very nice Brown Trout almost every 10 seconds or so it was taking something off the top, over and over again. I reckoned it was comfortably a 1.5-2lb fish. But how to get anywhere near? Certainly, the bank here was way too high and also the fence meant there was no way to get to the bank.

Shockwaves

I just had to keep moving until I got to the next field when I saw an access to the water. Here the tail of the glide was easily crossed being no more than ankle deep. The water here above the tail was very slow. Ideally, I would like to have made my way back upstream up the far bank but it was practically wild forest and there was no way you would get through without a machete or a chainsaw! Nope, the only way upstream was along the edge of the river. I noticed a couple of fish rise here but my dry was ignored if indeed the fish stayed long enough to see me cast. The big problem was going to be any step you took in the river sent a shockwave travelling upstream against the current. No self-respecting wild fish was going to hang around when It witnessed that pass above it. The next big issue was the wind….there was a really strong and gusty wind blowing right down the river. Accuracy in placing your fly was turned into a bit of a lottery. You could, of course, try to wait until the wind dropped a little before trying to cast but then about 50% of the time a gust would pick up the fly or the line just as you were about to deliver the fly.

The Shallow Lie

Stonefly nymphal Shucks

Big Stonefly shucks, there wer eloads in one area, though I never saw any of the flies

I did my best, though soon changed my fly to a small CDC Greenwells pattern. I like this fly, it clings to the surface like a spent or waterlogged fly and resembles so many olive or paler insects. I had observed a few bright yellow flies fly by, something like Yellow May Duns or similar as well as a few light olive coloured flies and the usual midges. There were also some very much bigger flies I witnessed rise off the water in silhouette and I would hazard a guess they were Mayflies.

It was therefor a bit of a lottery trying to guess what the fish might be wanting. As I very slowly and carefully made my way along the edge of the river I had noticed a swirl right in the side ahead of me about 10 meters directly upstream, and at my next step there was a bulge of water and a good fish bolted from water not 4inches deep, a second later a second did the same not three feet further upstream. I was astonished. These fish were sat in water barely covering their backs and seemed aware of my presence from a fair distance despite the fact I was literally right behind them, not even slightly to the side and was stepping as carefully as I could possibly manage.

On reaching what was little more than a”puddle”  between some rocks that the fish had been in I could see they were full of pin fry- were these fish fry feeding? Probably.

Looking for the Lie

Fish this alert and as spooky though were going to be incredibly hard to catch, not to mention even getting close enough to cast to. I fished the nymphs behind any rocks and channels I could see Though had already had to reduce my weighted flies to just a small one on point and a spider on the dropper as anything more was catching on the bottom almost instantly. At some point I fished through and past where I had seen the big fish earlier. I was watching for this deep cleft but from the river level and the other side it was a lot less obvious where it was. In fact one of my main takeaways of the day was, fishing like this would be much easier as a two man job with one observing from the high bank where you could see where the fish really were. At river level even with polaroids on the downstream glare was too bright to see much at all. I realised I must have passed the big fish’s lie when I could see the dead sheep lying on the stone beach upstream.

Having clambered back up the steep bank I wandered back to see if I could spot where I had seen the fish and this time the area was more obvious to me and I made a mental note where it was and what to watch for on my return. No sign of the fish now or when I had fished through.

Time to Regroup

Stealthy approach

Trying to be stealthy in low water and at times a gale

I returned to the car and had a spot of lunch and tried to consider options. Once refreshed I decided to make my way right to the bottom of the beat bounded by an old bridge. I did stop to try my luck at a rising fish on another slowish glide but as the afternoon wore on the wind picked up even more and I would be surprised if I landed a cast remotely near the fish before it decided enough was enough and moved on. I cannot tell a lie but frustration that the fishing gods had it in for me today was starting to be felt.

On my way once more the river turned sharp right and I was finally at the bridge. The turn meant that now the wind was blowing directly into me when on the left hand bank looking downstream which actually was less of a hindrance than it had been coming right downstream at me. I was at last able to land a few casts as the shelter of the far bank allowed my flies to turn over properly and on target. It did though also mean I got hooked up on trees in front, and high grass behind me when the odd inopportune gust took control of my flies and whipped them off course.

Stupid Sport

Wild Brown Trout

Wild Usk Brown, fat and heavier than it looks

I had resorted to the duo for a wee while as there seemed to be a deep channel under the trees and though there was the odd fish rising here and there, I was still utterly clueless to what they were taking. Terrestrials from the trees, midges, the odd crippled emerger… I had no idea. After losing my nymph and parachute fly to a branch that swung in the wind as my cast landed I was nearly giving up on this stupid sport and selling my gear on eBay. Why was I putting myself through this? But I sat down sorted out my leader and tied on a tiny black split wing CDC midge. This was close to last-gasp now. I had seen a fish move under some heavy branches opposite and casting directly across the river rather than slightly upstream as normal, I was actually better able to control the line and get a longer drag free drift. My first cast was inches long and took the fly very close to a log trapped against the far bank, but which seemed to be a magnet for leaves and all sorts of flotsam. I had to twitch the midge out a couple of inches just to stop it catching in this debris and as I did a fish rose and looked at my fly. That was a first for the day. I lifted off and recast this time reducing the length by about a foot just to clear the log. The fish came again and finally I was hooked to a wild Usk Brown. Not a big fish but actually REALLY fat and a lot heavier than its length would suggest. This was a very well fed fish. Small it might have been but I was genuinely relieved.

A Final Push

Bridge on River Usk

Bottom of the beat Bridge at foot of the beat, near where I finally caught one small fish

I was by now pretty tired, it had been for me a hard day clambering up and down banks and fishing in the wind so I started to make my way back upstream. Just down from the last corner on the beat I noticed a cutting that was accessible and from the gap on the edge of the river spotted a fish moving upstream of me. The wind was blowing hard and creating short sharp waves that I felt sure would give me an element of concealment, enough to let me get into position along a pretty deep looking furrow up the middle of the river. I decided to access the river but wanted to have both options of dry fly and bugs so took off my jacket, though it was far from warm, and leaving all but the barest essentials tucked my dry fly rod in the back of my waders and waded to the far side of the abdomen deep channel and started nymphing upstream. The fish leapt clear of the water in pursuit of something as I got close to casting range though what it was after was not clear. I put the bug and wet spider over the rough area where it might be sitting but got no indication of interest nor any sign it had bolted. Time to try the dry? I still had the wee midge on but wasn’t sure it was the best choice for the fast deep water coming towards me. I tried it anyway and landed a few casts in the right area but it never took. Eventually, I run out of water to fish here and returned to pick up my gear. I did though spot a crippled and easily identifiable BWO- Blue Winged Olive. Don’t think I have ever definitively seen one before, small about size 16 sized with very big blue coloured wings. Whether this was the magic fly to be on I tied one on and had one final explore up the glide with the deep cleft where I earlier spotted the bigger fish. I was now better “informed” and was able to cast a fly into the areas the fish might be holding to and also was better able to observe where I might be at risk of encountering a fish but the weather was getting distinctly unpleasant with rain being carried on the stiff downstream wind and I decided to call it a day, knackered.

A Challenge Too Far?

It had been a hard day of graft on the river and while not a blank, and I felt my one small brownie had been very hard-earned, it was definitely an education for someone who has never really encountered such clear low water with big fish before. It is truly a lovely stretch of water but I imagine coming at it with fairer conditions and a foot more water, it could be epic. For me, in this wind, and on my own it was a very, very hard slog and it nearly broke me as an angler to be honest. Physically it merely broke me as a human being, as I could barely move when I got back to my abode for the night and by this morning was definitely feeling the burn in my arthritic extremities. Overdone it? I think so.