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Fly fishing on the River Hodder

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 September 2017

A fly fisherman on the River Hodder

A fly fisherman on the River Hodder

glynn ward

There really is more to fishing than catching fish. Conservation is the keyword for one of Lancashire’s top angling clubs, as Martin Pilkington discovers

Martin (left) gets some tuition from a member of Bowland Game Fishing AssociationMartin (left) gets some tuition from a member of Bowland Game Fishing Association

On a sunny summer’s day on the river below the Higher Hodder Bridge mature trees lean out from the steep southern bank, while across the wide waters an ample grassy margin shelves gently upwards. A newly-hatched mayfly flits above the fast-flowing stream whose surface breaks as a trout intercepts another. It’s the perfect place for fly-fishing, as members of the Bowland Game-Fishing Association know very well.

That pristine scene isn’t just down to nature. ‘Miles of fencing have been put up along here to stop cattle getting to the river and polluting it,’ explains Brian Wells, chairman of the BGFA, which owns seven miles of water here. ‘Livestock break the fences and rub against the banks, then the soil clogs the salmon redds so the eggs in them are lost.’

Here, and at their waters on the Cumbrian Derwent, the Aire in Yorkshire, the Lune and on the Ribble, the BGFA is fighting on multiple fronts to keep salmon, trout and grayling stocks, and the wider environment, healthy. ‘We’ve recently planted a lot of trees,’ Brian continues, ‘partly because salmonids are sensitive to the rising temperatures that climate change is bringing, so increasing shade helps keep the rivers cooler.’

Insects that fall from the leaves into the water also feed the fish, as do others given a habitat in the water by strategically placed stumps of tree trunk. Members have taken on the spiling of stretches of bank to shore them up – driving stakes into the river bed and weaving willow around them; they are active in regional river trusts; and the association contributes funds to many ecological initiatives, and takes plenty of its own, like a programme to place bird and bat boxes along their stretches of water.

The association has some of the loveliest beats in the northThe association has some of the loveliest beats in the north

Of late, a lot of work has gone into efforts to improve the industrial rivers of East Lancashire that feed into the traditional fishing rivers, but the invisible fertiliser run-off from farmland is of more concern than industrial pollution these days, so members like Ken Maylor monitor the association’s various waters to check on their health.

He demonstrates what kick-sampling – disturbing a small area of river bed and netting the creatures that flee his size 12s – reveals. This time there’s a two-inch long bullhead fish, several minnows, the aptly named agile darter (an aquatic Billy Whizz), stone-fly nymphs that jerk side-to-side in a Ray Charles fashion, scooting water beetles, case-caddis larvae, and a host of others too tiny to identify without a microscope. It seems healthy enough, and the ripples created by rising trout in the shade by the south bank add to that picture.

The fish are catchable too, as another BGFA member, Keith Owen, soon demonstrates, hooking and liberating a fine brown trout. With about 150 members, the BGFA’s fishing of its 27 miles of water is light, and while it’s not compulsory to release fish, very few trout are taken, and last year all salmon and sea trout caught were released. The club’s anglers now use barbless hooks exclusively, to reduce stress on fish fooled into taking a fly, though it means more wriggle free before they can be netted. ‘We’re a civilised lot,’ says Brian, ‘and there’s more to fishing than catching fish!’

The very patient Alan Davies gives me a quick lesson in casting a fly, and we wade stealthily towards where Keith has demonstrated there are fish, trying a variety of methods, tempting the finicky trout with a selection of flies tied by Alan’s own hands. ‘It’s like golf,’ Alan explains as I fall short of the target area again, ‘the more you try to force it, the shorter the distance you achieve.’ On the occasions when the line flicks out neatly, and the tiny fly on the gossamer-thin tippet seems to float down to the water it is rewarding in itself. That’s just as well, as no fish volunteer to make my day.

Ken checks the bugs taken in a sample from the riverKen checks the bugs taken in a sample from the river

Alan then shows how it’s done, landing and letting go another brownie. My failure may not be entirely due to inadequate skill. ‘We have a good head of fish on this river still,’ says Brian, ‘but there has been a decline in numbers – last year’s salmon catch was considerably down from our average.’ The major suspected cause is problems created by fish-farming, but pollution, climate change, and poaching may be contributing.

A decline in fish stocks is not just bad for fishing; it also impacts on the rural economy. ‘Along with our local members, we have plenty who live further afield – in Derbyshire, Birmingham, the south east – and come up to Lancashire for a few days’ fishing every so often, staying in hotels and B&Bs, eating out,’ says Brian. ‘And likewise, when we go to our fishing on the Cumbrian Derwent. As fish numbers drop it becomes less attractive to make those trips.’

In spite of that decline the association, which can trace its origins back to 1865, still has a waiting list of those eager to join. The beauty of the settings in which they fish could almost be enough in itself. But catching a perfect fish on a perfectly cast fly would surely make it even better?

Large numbers of bug and small fish indicate a healthy riverLarge numbers of bug and small fish indicate a healthy river

Join the cast

* Visitors to this year’s Lancashire Game and Country Festival will have a chance to try their hand at fly fishing, while getting some casting tips.

For anyone considering taking up the sport, Chorley-based Sunray Fly Fish will be demonstrating how it’s done and offering visitors the opportunity to try casting a fly.

Sunray MD Tom Bell said: ‘Fly casting looks easy, but it does rely on the ability to correctly grip a fly fishing rod and to make the right stroke with the right amount of power and the right timing. It takes a bit of learning, but no more so than learning to properly hit a golf or tennis ball with the appropriate equipment. And it’s always best to learn from a professional.’

You can also contact The Game Angling Instructors’ Association, GAIC. If you are interested in joining Bowland Game Fish Association go to

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