URBAN FLY FISHING
Words by KATE FENSTERSTOCK
Photography by CHARLIE CHICHESTER
As a young American girl relocated to London five years prior, I am immediately considered a fly fishing outlier in human form. The image in mind when it comes to the average British fly fisher features snapshots of tweed, a gentleman of a certain age, and a rich bucolic landscape devoid of fuss and freneticism. Enter the stark contrast of cowboy boots pounding on city pavements, rod and net under one arm in a frantic rush to catch the District line tube train. Although many may not realise it, both embody the identity of the fly fisher today, both of which have equal access to some of the best destinations in the UK, found in rural and in urban locales. Our city-dwellers however, enjoying increasingly healthier waterways in cities around the country, foster an emerging community of younger sportsmen and sportswomen and inspire corporate companies to nurture this interest, to the point where urban fishing could be the key to sustaining our sport for the future.
As an adventurous spirit who relishes the outdoors but finds herself tied to a London base, Thornwood Springs is a godsend. A short tube journey from my Fulham flat, where I encountered confused yet entertained looks from fellow passengers, I grabbed a cab from the station and made it to Thornwood in a little over an hour. The fishery is a modest sportsman’s retreat, located on the edge of the Epping Forest with the faint sound of Essex traffic in the background. Owner Peter Thurston built the infrastructure himself and has employed a hands-on approach to nurturing the plentiful supply of blue, brown, rainbow and tiger trout in each of his lakes. Peter explained that he would guide me on two lakes that day; the first one is considered a bit easier to get fish from. “It lacks obstructions that would otherwise make it challenging to cast, and as this lake is catch and keep, fish do not wise up easily,” Peter explained. I was admittedly encouraged by this as I was keen to feel that enviable tug, watching the line pull tight as I hooked into a fish. Peter expertly advised how to fish the water, suggesting I let my blue flash damsel fly sink low since the fish were feeding on the bottom due to the cold weather. The lake was sizeable, and a double haul was necessary. After a few casts, carefully working a wide spectrum of the water, I felt a small bump. As I was fishing deep and unsure whether the bump was the bottom or a fish’s nose, I kept stripping before another slam followed and I felt the fly stick. I was into a little rainbow trout of about 2lbs who fought well, providing my photographer with a few jumps for the camera. “Keep your rod up!” Peter reminded me, as I instinctively lowered the tip to the side as though I were fighting a Miami tarpon. My last fishing trip was to Florida and saltwater monsters require this lower rod. The feisty little guy enjoyed a few more splashes before I was able to sail him into the net and snap a few winning photos. As the rule was catch and keep, we left our friend netted in the lake to keep fresh during our day, while I made a mental note to find my favourite recipe for smoked trout pâté to make that evening.
Spurred on by a challenge to catch the next biggest and best, we moved to the next lake, where Peter explained fish of up to 15 lb are known to reside. We started at the top end, where I had easy access to a small island in the middle. My experience led me to believe that the fish would enjoy hugging the perimeter of the island, feeding off nutrients that drifted through the vegetation and keeping protected by the structure. However, forever the enemy of the fly angler, the wind blew toward me sending my fly astray no matter how I manoeuvred my cast. To avoid any collisions or further tangles I repositioned myself on the opposite end of the lake, putting my double haul to the test again as I tried to reach the target area from a further distance. I just about managed the distance and allowed the damsel to sink low, alternating my retrieve method from slow to quick. After a few minutes of fishing different water levels, the wind died down, and I decided to try my first spot again. With still no luck, Peter suggested a small white alternative with a heavier bead. This particular cast was a bit of a mess, and as I rushed to sort my line, I felt a huge slam and lifted the rod in time to strike. Sure enough, after that one cast I was into a much bigger fish.
This spot boasted blue, tiger and brown trout as well as rainbow and while playing my catch, I carefully peered into the lake to try and catch a glimpse of a flash of colour. “That’s another rainbow,” Peter said confidently. “But she’s a beauty!” By beauty, he meant big. She didn’t leap like my last, this fish swam down, taking more and more line with her. I held the line in my right hand as I wound with my left to get her on the reel, but Peter stopped me. “I know what you are doing,” he chuckled. “A good idea for wild chalk stream trout, but hold on to some line, she will run back at you, and you can’t wind as fast as she will go.” Sure enough, he was right, and I kept a careful amount of tight line between me and my prize. She was a strong girl, and keeping my rod up with a few pounds of pressure on the end was not easy after a few minutes. She eventually started to tire, enough to get her in the net for a quick picture.
As this lake is catch and release, we were extremely careful to look after her. Perched on the side of the bank, I got her up, just long enough for a photo before propping her up in the water so she could catch her breath and swim off. “Watch her gills,” Peter explained. “She will perk up shortly, and you will see a double tap - then she’s ready.” As he predicted, she was off with a playful splash of the tail. I was shaking, having landed my personal best trout weighing in at nearly 7 lb. The memory would not fade anytime soon.
Spending a day here is a no-brainer for the Londoner with a taste for fly fishing. “Thornwood provides stocked fish in excellent condition which anglers have access to all year round,” Peter explains. “Finding fishing that is so flexible and so accessible really inspires new people to come to visit us from London on a regular basis.”
Having indulged in a bit of wintertime trout angling at Thornwood, I decided to next pursue wild species on the fly with Damon Valentine. A close friend and invaluable resource for fishing on the River Wandle, which flows right through southwest London. I initially asked him what inspired him to explore this area. “I grew up on the banks of the River Ribble, and as a budding young professional relocated to London, I was determined not to leave my passion behind. I discovered the Wandle and its diversity of species, moments from my doorstep, and have been fishing here ever since.” I had heard tales of the Wandle’s odd locale, a rich and biodiverse riverscape juxtaposed against a backdrop of urban architecture, city transport and the odd construction site. I couldn’t quite get my head around how a river could thrive in such a location. I had a chat with renowned urban fishing expert and writer Theo Pike, chairman of the Wandle Trust river restoration charity and author of the famed titles Trout in Dirty Places and The Pocket Guide to Balsam Bashing (Merlin Unwin Books) who explained how this is possible. “Many rivers like the Wandle simply died during the Industrial Revolution, when their water was used to flush away every kind of unwanted waste,” Theo explained. “Only when privatisation started channelling significant investment into sewage treatment did many rivers start to recover. Now other forms of pollution like litter and urban runoff can be tackled – often by local volunteers.”
Thankfully, the system is working, and studies show the UK’s city waterways are the cleanest they have been in decades. Remarkably, some say more so than their rural counterparts. “All rivers need to be viewed on a whole catchment scale, but it’s ironically true that nearly-fully-urbanised catchments (for example in London, Sheffield or Manchester) are often relatively healthier than their rural counterparts. Much of this is down to the pressures of intensive rural farming and everything they imply: nutrient, fertiliser and pesticide runoff, soil management problems, abstraction and so on,” claims Pike. With this information at my fingertips, I was excited at the prospect of visiting with Damon who could navigate this distinctive area in pursuit of its thriving wildlife.
The River Wandle is 9 miles long and runs through the London Boroughs of Croydon, Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth where it joins the Thames on the Tideway. Our expedition started about three minutes from Colliers Wood tube station, where my photographer and I received more bemused looks as we changed into waders in front of the tube station. Damon explains we are going to fish a series of pools that he knows to be quite lively, as he quickly helps me fix a longer leader and lighter tippet to my five-weight rod. Since we are fishing outside of the wild trout season (fishing for stocked fish was still allowed at Thornwood), we are looking for chub, dace, roach, and the elusive barbel. Damon landed his PB barbel on the Wandle last year, weighing a whopping 12 lb. My heart soars at the prospect of this, and I eagerly hop over the railing and lower myself down into the river, wading slowly behind Damon so as not to disturb any lurking monsters. As we stroll through the rushing water, whizzing cars and the odd horn almost fade away, drowned out by the peacefully natural sound of the river. What reminds me that we are still in London are the curious eyes of passersby who stop to ask what we are up to. As the photographer snaps away bankside, he answers their questions about our fishing story. “No one could quite believe there are any fish in the river,” he recounts later, pointing out the odd landscape of roadworks, construction, and traffic mixed with a healthy natural ecosystem. We encounter two other curious folk, this time they are coarse fishermen and are keen to advise us on the most plentiful areas. Damon smiles, but I catch a slight eye roll. “One of the best parts of fishing this part of the Wandle is that the community of fishermen are very tight-knit and eager to help each other out. But it also suddenly makes everyone an expert - who knows, maybe he does know where our barbel is.”
Due to heavy rain, the river is flowing aggressively, so I elect to use an indicator that will dip below the surface if a fish takes. Unless something particularly chunky decides to surprise us, we are dealing with much smaller fish on this river, so the technique is much softer and every interference infinitely more subtle. Using a long leader in cold weather (as we did at Thornwood to let the heavy flies sink) in moving water also opens the fisherman up to snags on growth along the bottom of the river. This isn’t great for my nerves as I use every ounce of attention I have to sense a take from a fish.
“Calm down!” Damon laughs. We have fished together enough times for him to know I get overly excited. I roll cast upstream and lift my rod and line to let the fly drift naturally. The fish will know something’s up if there is any drag. Navigating the low hanging trees and structures in the river, Damon and I reach a rhythm, and before long we have two tasty flies creating interest in the pool and Damon gets a tiny dace in his net. We snap a photo before moving on, slowly wading upstream and inspecting more pools swirling powerfully.
As we head to a new spot, I can’t believe my eyes as I spot an entire motorcycle stuck on the bank of the river, disposed of by some careless owner. “With city fishing comes more heavily populated areas, and there is trash about,” Damon admits, “But it is infinitely better than it was and with the help of the Wandle Trust who host regular clean-ups, the problem is managed.” With waders folded around his waist, sporting a crew neck jumper and a Hacklemoor beanie, the “hipster fishing style” Damon has become known for did not disappoint. Currently working at a tech startup, Damon embodies a new generation of fly fishers who are working hard to change the sport’s traditional identity largely through digital marketing. “There is a substantial and still growing online community of young talented fishers on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. It gives fishing a totally different angle that kids find attractive! They can combine photography and film into a passion, opening many doors to making new friends, collaborating and being part of a community,” Damon explains. “Arguably there is a fear from older generations that the future looks bleak because there aren’t as many youngsters into it. Social media and new media will help fix this.” Damon claims.
During our conversation, we have reached a busy weir that is churning water forcefully. I am reminded of fishing the River Test with Damon the year before where he helped me land a wild trout that was excited by the oxygen in rushing water like this. He put me near the top to cast in and fish the far bank while he stood below to cover water behind me. A water tank attached to the concrete bank limits my access, but I lean forward to cast, supporting myself on a shelf made of old brick. Short of crawling into the weir, I covered as much as I could to no avail. Bumps on my line may have been small fish nudges, but I found it hard to tell. “If in doubt, just strike,” Damon explained. “And keep slowly lifting the line through the water level, so you are taught when there’s contact.” My expert guide had considerable success, landing dace, roach and even a couple of gudgeon which was a first-time species for Damon. A small crowd has gathered, entertained by Damon’s catch and intrigued when we explain our project. An elderly pair sits on a bench and watch, mesmerised by the sight of us. As the sky grew dark, I was advised to return another day for my prize barbel, who had outsmarted me…until next time that is. The three of us decide to head to the pub for a well-deserved drink following the fruitful day, despite the sneaky barbel. Another benefit of city fishing, our destination is a hop across the road. “In the summer, it’s not uncommon for the river to host professionals after work,” Damon suggested. “We should get a group together and meet up around 6:30 pm in the week.” Sounds like my kind of happy hour!
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