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Spring Fly Fishing on Northumbrian Rivers, Part One (The River Wansbeck)

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The Wansbeck near Scots Gill The Wansbeck near Scots Gill

The brown trout fishing season on rivers commences on March 22nd in the Northumbria region. So to help get everyone in the mood, this article is part one of a two part guide to a couple of quintessential North Eastern trout streams, detailing the fly fishing available on each. This description comprises a linear walk beginning at the upstream end of the waters of the Wansbeck Angling Association and includes, where appropriate, some idea of the techniques most appropriate to each section of the seven miles of the River Wansbeck the club controls. There is advice on how to get to and how to get through the fishery on foot, with places to park your car or, alternatively, an explanation of how to get there by public transport.

There are few nicer thoughts when you’re caught in the grip of a cold and unrelenting winter than that of walking along a river bank, fly rod in hand, on a pleasant spring day. So to help get you in the mood for the forthcoming trout fishing season, this article features a guide to two quintessential Northumbrian trout streams, detailing the fly fishing available on each. The descriptions take the form of a linear walk beginning at the upstream end of the waters of a particular club or association on each river – the Derwent and the Wansbeck. The explanations will include, where appropriate, some idea of the techniques most appropriate to each beat, but as I can only claim to be an ‘enthusiast’ at any form of fishing, I’ll assume that in most cases you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions! The guide is intended to be exactly that – advice on how to get to and how to get through each fishery on foot, with places to park your car or, if you prefer, an explanation of how to get there by public transport. And there could be no better river to begin with than the Wansbeck, close to where it runs through the picturesque market town of Morpeth in Northumberland. A typical north country trout stream, the Wansbeck rises on moorland scarcely twenty miles west of where it runs into the North Sea, and within a few miles of its source, the infant river enters two artificial lakes known as Sweethope Loughs. Created in the late eighteenth century by the famous landscape gardener, Capability Brown, this became the first put-and-take commercial trout fishery to be established in the area and is now a highly popular venue, offering loch style trout fishing from a boat out on the windswept 140-acre great lough. Flowing out of Sweethope in an almost continuous easterly direction, the Wansbeck then runs through the grounds of the National Trust’s Belsay Hall before continuing on to meet its first major tributary, the Hart Burn, just a few miles further downstream. In fact, most of the upper river runs through private land and thus fishing has never been available upstream of Morpeth, except to the occasional private syndicate. The same can be said of its second significant tributary, the river Font, which converges with the main river at Mitford. The Font rises on the southern edge of the Simonside Hills and includes another locally famous commercial fishery, Fontburn Reservoir, in its headwaters. The confluence of the Font with the main river makes the Wansbeck downstream from Mitford a more substantial flow, although on those parts round Morpeth, where the river has been dammed by weirs, its width can be somewhat exaggerated. Meandering spectacularly beneath the tall valley sides in the market town of Morpeth, the river descends four weirs in the three miles between the mouth of the Font and the downstream edge of town, then two more in the five-mile chicane between Whorall Bank and the tidal limit at Shepwash. Indeed it’s the sheer scale of these obstacles that’s the main reason why the Wansbeck has yet to gain any serious recognition for its sea trout or salmon fishing. But for brown trout, admittedly mostly average in size, it does have an excellent name – although the occasional specimen can’t be ruled out, with a record fish of 8lb 8oz having recently been caught from the lower reaches. The fishing from the upstream edge of Morpeth down as far as Sheepwash is, except for a mile long stretch of free water on the ‘town section’, more or less all controlled by the Wansbeck Angling Association, a club whose roots are ingrained in Northumberland’s most vibrant market town. At its upstream end, WAA’s water commences on the left bank in an area of woodland open to the public called Scot’s Gill. Access is straightforward, with a footpath running adjacent to the riverbank all the way, and the stretch is easy to get to both on foot from Morpeth town centre (about three quarters of a mile) or by car, with a free public car park situated at the entrance from the B6343 Mitford Road, next to Morpeth Rugby Club. Scot’s Gill begins at a moderately deep pool where the river runs over a limestone outcrop, a location that nearly always contains one or two decent-sized trout. The river then cascades down a fairly long glide before accepting the outfall of a mill race and settling into a slightly longer section of gradually deepening water. The trees here are very close to the waters edge and hence casting on this fly-only section has to be conducted with extreme diligence. Nevertheless, the rewards to the careful angler can be exceptional given the extent of cover afforded to the trout. And while the job of actually getting a fly onto the water may be quite demanding all the way down this beat, the job of fly selection is at least less of a challenge – the March Brown and its related wet fly patterns will work early-season, the Partridge & Orange, Snipe & Purple and Iron Blue Dun can all account for fish during April and May, and come early-June the Wansbeck’s prolific mayfly hatches are a spectacle to behold. After the deep section there is another short glide – where the river can be forded from the main road on the far bank – which then breaks into another long pool that never quite plumbs the depths of its upstream neighbour. A slight advantage is that it’s less overgrown; making casting less tricky, although this, combined with the shallower depth, leaves you with the feeling that there aren’t likely to be as many monsters lurking. A tip here would be to try casting a wet fly upstream towards the rocky protrusions that mark the edge of the slightly more sheer far bank. Again, the long pool gives way to a shallow glide after a few hundred yards, with this one breaking into another shorter pool, whose main current slips more or less straight down the middle. This pool too is amenable to either a dry or a wet fly, although heavily weighted nymphs are only really necessary on any part of Scots Gill right at the start of the season. The river now becomes a more swiftly running stream broken by boulders, before it slows and deepens slightly on its approach to an old stone road bridge (the B6343), marking the first interruption of Association bank. There follows a three hundred yard break on both banks – an area of strictly private fishing that was once known as ‘Matty’s’, after the local landowner. Access to the next short stretch of Association bank is by crossing the bridge and heading downstream – the club water continuing here on the right bank. Access is far more tricky, however, with towering banks making entry something of a scramble unless you take a sneaky short cut by plodging through the margins of the shallowing downstream section of Matty’s! Unless you’re an advocate of fishing a very heavily weighted nymph in very slowly moving deep water, only the top end of this long pool will be of interest to the fly angler. The rapids descending from Matty’s deepen markedly after about twenty yards and the lower section of the beat – up to fifteen feet deep in places – is far better suited to fishing a worm, a method that is permitted on this section after June 1st. Downstream from the second section of Association bank, a stretch of free fishing commences (water fishable, in season, by any angler in possession of a valid rod licence), consisting of deeper, more languid water normally suited, like the adjoining section of Association water, to worm fishing – as described in some detail here: http://www.fishingarchives.com/spring-fishing-part-one-worm-fishing-for-trout-on-northumbrian-rivers/ As the Wansbeck exits this mile long meander, a loop in the river that encloses Morpeth town centre on three sides, Wansbeck Angling Association bank recommences on the right hand side, just downstream of a metal footbridge connecting Gas House Lane on the left bank – the main route through from town going past the county library (the best place to park!). As the river bends sharply back into an easterly direction, you can either follow it round as it swings to the right or take the farm track that crosses a wide flat area of flood plain called The Parish Haugh. If you follow the river, you’ll notice it deepening on approach to a weir about quarter of a mile below the footbridge, this one having been built to provide water to power the mill buildings which still stand on the left bank. Below the weir, the Association’s waters continue on the right bank, with the river now becoming more similar in nature to Scot’s Gill, with a constant series of glides and pools. Access from the track that crosses The Parish Haugh is by cutting along the perpendicular boundary hedge between the two fields to the left of it, close to a pair of semi-detached farm workers’ cottages. The weir pool is itself always worth a few casts (it’s a scramble to get down to from the high bank, so be careful!); with either a wet fly or nymph from a safe stand point on the weir sill, or with a dry from the tail end of the pool. A worm will score here too after June 1st, at which point the early season ‘fly only’ rule is lifted on WAA waters, with the excitement of watching a float trundling towards the bottom end of the pool palpable every time its progress is interrupted. For the next half mile, the Wansbeck runs through open countryside, twisting sharply first left and then right before disappearing into the dense undergrowth of Quarry Woods and settling into a south-easterly direction for another half mile. This woodland is more or less continuous from here to where the river reaches its tidal limit five miles downstream and, as the river swings left and then right again, an imposing viaduct soars overhead carrying the main east coast railway line. The river now meanders again beneath the steep banks of nearby Climbing Tree Farm, before settling back into a due easterly direction within the constraints of a tight deep valley. Not far downstream of here, the footpath that has been following within a few yards of the right hand bank begins to climb away up the valley side, making access to the river on this side far less straightforward. This problem can be solved by either wading across to take the footpath that has joined the riverside on the left bank or, if you’d prefer, by doubling back to the bridge at the entrance to Quarry Woods, crossing over, turning right and following the main road up the hill until you reach a waymarked sign for Bothal. This right turn is the footpath that will drop down to reach the far bank just before the viaduct, by which time the fishing is from either side. The long trek or the wade across could be well worthwhile, however, as while the dense bank-side vegetation makes even the simplest of casting far more difficult, it is the inaccessibility and secluded nature of this place that makes it a haven for so many of the river’s better trout. After about two miles of overgrown glides and pools, the river starts to deepen on approach to another large weir just upstream of the small village of Bothal. The riverside path on the right bank has by now climbed all the way to the top of the valley, so access back down to the river is via the winding road down Bothal Bank. On the left bank, the footpath follows the riverside all the way. We are now about three miles downstream of Morpeth (as the river flows), so if you weren’t planning on following the river all the way through the woods, parking is possible by the roadside in Bothal village, provided due care is taken not to obstruct any access. If you’ve read the article ‘A River Runs Through It’, you’ll recognise this as the place where a young Jack Charlton used to partake in his illicit trout fishing forays using a worm and ball of string, but assuming you intend to use less rudimentary tackle, all the patterns, techniques -and more- described for Scots Gill will also work here. The river begins to meander again for its last two miles as a strictly freshwater stream, as it slowly widens on approach to the tidal limit at Sheepwash weir. The Wansbeck Angling Association’s waters end here, close to the appropriately named Anglers Arms in the village of Guide Post. This is the area in which the record 8½lb brown trout was caught, so you never know, taking the trouble to follow the river all the way down could pay dividends! Getting to Morpeth by car couldn’t be more straightforward. Following the A1 from either the north or south, the town centre is only a couple of miles after you turn off. To get to Bothal, take the A197 out of Morpeth towards Ashington and at the second roundabout, turn right. Busses to Morpeth are frequent from all points of the compass, but getting to Bothal or Guide Post is less straightforward. The bus services from Newcastle Haymarket Bus Station to Morpeth are the 501, 505 and 518, while the X18 goes to both Morpeth and Wansbeck Estate, Stakeford, which is close to Guide Post. All services are operated by Arriva. There is also an infrequent train service from Newcastle Central Station that calls at Morpeth and Pegswood (one mile from Bothal). Wansbeck Angling Association doesn’t currently have a website but reasonably priced permits and day tickets can easily be obtained from the local tackle shops: Game Angling Supplies, 3 Fawcett’s Yard, Morpeth, NE61 1BG (opposite the new bus station), telephone 01670 510996; and McDermott’s at 112 Station Road, Ashington (telephone 01670 812214). Part Two, about Fly Fishing for Trout on the River Derwent near Rowlands Gill will follow soon. In the meantime, to see other articles similar to this, please visit: http://www.fishingarchives.com/

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