Fishing on the Upper Eden

The upper reaches of the River Eden rise on Black Fell Moss, Mallerstang, on the high ground between High Seat, Yorkshire Dales and Hugh Seat. Here it forms the boundary between the counties of Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Meandering through some of the most scenic and tranquil countryside in the north of England on its way to the Solway Firth, some 60 miles away, this unique stretch of water offers the visiting angler almost every opportunity (and challenge) one could wish for in a day’s fly fishing.  The upper Eden and its tributaries hold good stocks of some of the most beautifully spotted, hard fighting wild brown trout available in the UK. On a bright day, high sided banks often give the careful angler a view of some of the specimens which inhabit these stretches. It is not uncommon to gaze into a pool or run and witness numbers of fish in excess of 2-3lbs (and bigger) ‘going about their thing’ with not a care in the world. However, this beautiful piece of water can at times provide some of the most challenging and frustrating fishing I have come across. And the beautifully spotted specimens mentioned above, let’s say…..didn’t get that big playing by our rules!” A recent trip to the river with a good friend gave justice as to why us select few or ‘complete idiots’ as our better halves refer to us, wake at some absurd hour, whilst the rest of the world sleeps, to go and stand in freezing water, ”and then you throw them back………??” 

An early start anticipating what’s in store for the day

Arriving at the river, we were met by a welcoming warmth despite the recent ‘cooler than average’ weather we had been experiencing. Although there was no evidence of rising fish just yet, the fish that could be seen off the bridge, were flickering their fins and showed signs that they were getting ready to feed. The bright sunshine was not going gives us everything our own way so we both opted to fish New Zealand style or Klink and Dink and try and concentrate our efforts on tempting these fish to the nymphs. Given the varying depths of the pools at the start of the stretch, we varied the lengths of the tippet to the nymphs and agreed that we would share setups to maximise our chances. We would all be lying if we said we had never been slightly envious watching a friend catching a big fish, but for them to do so on your own rod, can often be hard to stomach to say the least. However, we decided on the ‘chair’ rule and agreed that we could significantly increase our chances by fishing together; taking turns on each fish or pool (Whichever came first). A recent dry spell had allowed river levels to drop, and with the bright skies, a stealthy approach, combined with long leaders were ‘a must’ if we were to be successful today. The water was running almost clear, and trout were easy to spot in the shallower water. However, it quickly became evident that the trout residing in the shallows were like us, enjoying the warmer sunny weather, and were not at all interested in our offerings.  The first piece of faster water we encountered held feeding fish as we quickly connected with a couple of lively fish, both around the pound mark.


A short line is required to keep the fly line off the water and avoid unwanted drag

By now it was 09:00am and there were still limited hatches of fly on the surface. Despite this, trout were still confidently feeding away below the surface. We continued to pick up fish on nymphs which were giving a very good account for themselves in the faster water. It is easy to get side tracked when placed in such beautiful surroundings, but this was not an option today, as takes were at times lighting fast in the quicker water, and any hesitation resulted in the fly quickly being spat out resulting the ‘walk of shame’ to remove your fly from the tree behind you.     

 (top) A Gold bead pheasant tail accounted for this lively trout in the fast stuff. (bottom) being returned.

Shortly before midday, a few olives could be seen on the water, and the fish began to react to these by aggressively consuming them as the warm air allowed the flies to leave the water with the minimum of fuss. We quickly changed over to the dry fly. I tied on a size 16 Olive Klinkhammer, whilst Richard opted for a Parachute BWO. Given that the trout were in confident mood and were feeding with far less caution than only moments earlier, we enticed a further 3 trout in quick succession. Fish were soon playing ball, and given accurate casting, well-placed offerings were getting the thumbs up, as we quickly bagged a further few fish, albeit slightly smaller than previous. After lunch, we continued up the river, we reached a bridge which we had to cross to avoid private land. I stood in awe, as in literally 6-8 inches of water only 20 yards up from the bridge, a fish which I estimated to be approximately 3lbs was feeding away, breaking the surface every few seconds to engulf whatever came by.  This feeding frenzy continued for the next few minutes until temptation finally gave in and I quietly dropped down under the bridge to pitch my efforts. As I edged closer, ensuring not to send any bow waves in the direction of the fish, it became evident that the fish was happily feeding away on the black gnats that were beginning to carpet the surface of the river. I would suspect in such circumstances, that this trout would ease off, (if at least for a few minutes to rest), but it quietly continued with its business.  I quickly tied on a further 2 feet of 2lbs breaking strain copolymer, to which a lightly ginked Griffith Gnat was tied. My first cast was perfectly placed, giving about 4 feet lead. The fly passed towards the fish, and straight over the top of it without even a second look! Perhaps with so many naturals to contend with, the fish decided for another fly, rather than refusing my own offering. Again, I recast, only for the same response. The fish was by no means spooked, as it continued to feed away, none the wiser that I was stood only yards away, scratching my head as to what was going on in front of me. 

 ‘Back to the drawing board’: The red circle shows where the fish is feeding. Despite my efforts, I cannot convince the fish into taking.

A Black Parachute Gnat, then a Black Klinkhammer was tied on to try to bring a halt to the stubbornness, only to be dismissed in the manner of their predecessor. Even a drop down in size was met by a solid refusal as naturals continued to float down.. Anglers often refer to a chosen tactic as ‘give em something’ different as I reached into the fly box for a slightly larger (size 14) Olive Klinkhammer. In normal circumstances, an olive Kink is a ‘go to’ fly for me and a must in every angler’s box when encountering a hatch of olives, but placed in amongst literally thousands of gnats, the odds were certainly not in my favour. I’d say the choice was merely desperation. The first cast was accurate, however, the leader did not turn over completely and as the fly neared the fish, an unforeseen current lane forced the fly to drag. Fly fishing is not an exact science and by no means ‘black and white’. The now ‘skating’ olive should have not only put the fish down, but  should have sent it racing off to seek cover under the trees. Years and practicing casts and perfect drag free drifts were thrown back in my face, as the trout turned, gave chase, ignoring the bow waves caused by my fly and bang – I was connected! The fight that followed was more of a formality than anything as I struggled to work out what had just happened. The beautiful fish (pictured below) was weighed at just less than 2.5lbs and released.  “What did you get it on Hine?” was asked  -my constant changing of flies had obviously been noticed from the bridge… “Sometimes you got give em something a bit different”  I confidently replied. 

Just when you think you know how, this beautifully marked wild brown trout taught me otherwise 

‘Sods Law’ shows itself in various walks of life, but I’d argue that as fishermen, we encounter this term more than most. A few examples are as follows; trout hammering dry flies as you are trundling tungsten beaded nymphs through a swim, a trout rising on the far bank when you have no back cast and the day you go for a walk without a rod, there are heaps of fish feeding away, almost laughing at you. Well on this particular instance, we came across a pool which was literally full of trout in the 2-3lbs region, all actively feeding, yet this was on a private section within the middle of the beat- Sods Law! If you look closely at the image below, you will see a trout lying just off the bottom. This fish was easily in excess of 3lbs and continued to feed as we stood and watched.     

       A closer look shows where the fish is laying. 

Having no choice other than to leave this group of fish alone, we decided to have a quick look up one of the most upper tributaries of the Eden; Scandal Beck. In low conditions, Scandal Beck offers some of the most challenging fishing I have encountered. Apart from after heavy rainfall, the Scandal tends to run almost gin clear and the lower stretches can become very slow and tired looking. However, a number of large trout frequent these stretches, and the ambitious angler does not walk past without at least having a look. Of the few occasions that I have cast a line on the Scandal, I have only managed two or three fish to the net, despite my best efforts. Anything other than a perfectly placed fly with minimal disturbance will alert these fish, in turn, spooking the whole pool. It was back to the main river……. Above the joining of the Scandal and the Eden, the river quickly becomes narrower and a slight increase in gradient creates more glides and pools which hold good numbers of fish. Again, fish can easily be spotted in these areas, but blind fishing in likely runs can bring good results. This stretch of water tends to receive less pressure from anglers and therefore, the fish are generally less spooky than further downstream. This does by no stretch of the imagination mean that they are easy to catch. We continued up above the weir where casting becomes very hard given the amount of overhanging trees which line both sides of the river. Here we could see trout feeding in large numbers on gnats and any form of terrestrial which had lost its footing as the wind was beginning to pick up. Casts needed to be placed close to feeding fish, as varying currents were again causing drag. A small CDC F-Fly was tied onto the leader which was quickly greeted by a solid take from a fish of about 1 ¼ lbs. This was followed by a further 3 fish of a similar size in quick succession. 

A quick photo as fish continued to rise under the trees

As quickly as the hatch had started only a couple of hours ago, it suddenly ended as the river went quiet again almost as though someone had pressed the ‘off’ switch. It was hard to think those only seconds previously, I was able to choose which fish to go for and now……… well nothing. With that in mind and in agreement that we had added a good handful of memories to the ever growing fishing tales box, we both agreed, “Well, That’ll do!