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UNLOCKING THE LOXLEY

Dr Clark Colman fishes the duo method on a little-known tributary of Yorkshire’s River Don, and finds some quality fish within its narrow urban confines….

The merest glance at our Ordnance Survey maps cannot fail to notice hundreds of small, frequently nameless rivers and streams criss-crossing the length and breadth of England.  To the uninformed, they often appear lifeless and - in the case of urban waters like the River Loxley, hidden away within the old industrial heartland of Sheffield - hardly likely to contain a head of wild fish.  The reverse is often the case, for such environments can offer ideal habitats for some quality brown trout and grayling.  Catching them involves some real close quarters fishing where, even in the most broken and turbulent of areas, a stealthy approach is necessary if the fly angler is to make the most of what can often be instantaneous action to the nymphs and dries that frequently bring the most success on such waters.

My first day on the Loxley happened almost by accident.  After a very successful hour on the River Don upstream from Hillfoot Bridge, I wandered past a long, canal-like stretch in search of more fishable water.  Approaching a small industrial complex, I noticed a mill wheel half-buried in undergrowth to my left, and decided to investigate.  Following the old mill race through a thicket of brambles and nettles, I found myself back beside the Don opposite its confluence with the Loxley.  My online researches had confirmed the presence of trout and grayling here, as discovered by some pioneering anglers decades ago; however by all accounts they were ‘small and spooky’.  On a whim, I decided to find out for myself.

Getting to the downstream limit of the Loxley was no mean feat!  The confluence area was too deep to be waded safely, so I forded the Don a little further upstream across a riverbed strewn with slippery stones and boulders, before mounting a final assault up and down a tree-lined bank containing all manner of snags and obstructions just waiting to snare waders, the landing net on your back, or a carelessly placed rod tip.  The Loxley lay at the bottom of this bank, a dark little stream rendered all the more atmospheric and mysterious by overhanging willow branches, a high stone wall opposite and a succession of fast flowing channels and pockets. 

With a distinct chill to the air and no rise in progress, the duo approach - involving a high riding dry fly and a nymph fished together - seemed the most appropriate opening gambit.  This method is simplicity itself and a great searching technique when faced with unfamiliar waters.  The flies are pitched upstream on a fixed line and carried back towards the angler by the current, with the nymph sinking and the dry fly floating above on a short dropper.  The angler must keep in touch all the while by raising the rod tip to take up slack line, so that if a fish takes the dry fly, or if the dry fly falters in its progress (signalling a take to the nymph), contact can be made straight away.  This essentially involves ‘leading’ the flies back downstream by raising the rod tip at the same speed as the current.  At no time should the nymph be suspended directly beneath the dry fly or tuck downstream of it.  The angler must aim for as straight a line as possible upstream from rod tip to point fly, with the dry always downstream from the nymph, so that takes to the latter are instantly registered by the behaviour of the former. 

In this case, the dry fly was one of my friend John Tyzack’s size 15 Balloon Caddises, which.  With its yellow foam thorax, elk hair overwing and light orange polypropylene underwing, this highly visible pattern floats like a cork, and gives an attractive ‘footprint’ on the water that can bring fish up out of nowhere.  The nymph was my favourite generic pattern for small rivers and streams like the Loxley - a size 14 Hare’s Ear with a 2.8mm copper tungsten bead head.  When fishing the duo method on fast flowing waters, a weighted nymph must be used if the fly is to combat the current and quickly reach the riverbed where the natural food items being imitated are to be found.  Tungsten beads are perfect for this, and must surely be one of the most significant developments for the river fly fisher in the history of the sport, as they allow even the smallest of nymph patterns to be presented at the required depth.  Copper is always my first choice colour, being far less likely to spook fish than gold.  Switching to a black bead can also produce good results in hard-fished water whose residents are warier and refuse even copper-beaded nymphs.    

Three small and feisty wild brownies, whose profusion of black spots and dark coloration was quite different from that of their Don cousins, quickly approved of the Copperhead Hare’s Ear presented directly upstream in the pocket water immediately above the Don-Loxley confluence.  A fish’s only blind spot is right behind its head, so an upstream approach with careful, quiet wading is far less likely to spook them when fishing at close quarters.  Combine this with the added cover provided by fast flowing water, and it is often surprising just how close to the angler that fish can be caught.  This is particularly useful given the close confines of small streams like the Loxley, where a rod-length cast is often the best that can be achieved.  Even in the deeper, slower run around the first bend, the Balloon Caddis disappeared not five feet from where I stood, and the rod buckled over to the familiar kick-kick of a good grayling.  A plump, well-fed male fish, it was comfortably over the pound mark, and quickly shot off upstream after being released from wetted hands.

As was abundantly clear during my visit to the Loxley, small streams can be very snag ridden.  The duo angler faces the problem of the hook point being blunted and picking up weed as the heavy nymph bumps along a stony riverbed.  It is advisable to carry a hook hone and check the point fly regularly, for as Oliver Edwards once memorably remarked: ‘trout and grayling don’t like salads!’  Ultimately, it is wise to have the flies in the water for no more than a few seconds at a time, fishing the nymph as it descends rather than directly along the bottom on a lengthy drift that is almost guaranteed to end in a snag.  Besides, it is often the case that fish will take the dry fly or the nymph within the first few seconds of the drift anyway.  This was confirmed by a quick succession of smaller trout and grayling that took the Copperhead Hare’s Ear confidently in the shallower neck of the run.  

Fishing urban rivers like the Loxley also entails negotiating more than the occasional piece of man-made detritus, such as the sunken tires, old bike frame, wire mesh and various other indeterminate bits of rusted metal that I encountered.  These can deceive onlookers into thinking the water is polluted and not worth a cast.  In actual fact they can create ideal habitat in the form of pockets and pools for territorial fish to take up residence in.  Combine this with natural obstructions such as boulders, rocks and submerged logs, and the angler has very few areas in front of him that would not repay having a fly put through them.  I was about to see for myself just how true this was! 

Below a small footbridge, a narrower, quicker run offered everything you would look for when seeking out a small stream ‘monster.’  Depth, oxygenation, an overhanging bush opposite to provide shade – it was all there.  A splashy half-pound brownie came straight away; then, on the very next pass through, the Balloon Caddis shot off upstream and a flick of the wrist saw the four-weight hoop over into an alarming curve.  Something big and angry had taken the nymph a mere foot or so from where I had hooked its smaller cousin.  Even with a 3.5lbs tippet I felt very under-gunned, and as the fish torpedoed off downstream, ripping line from the reel, I had little choice but to follow in hot pursuit.  Leapfrogging over and around the large rocks and other obstructions littering this stretch, my antics would have appeared amusing to any spectators.  It was a full ten minutes before I could slip the net under two pounds of wild River Loxley brown trout, one of my biggest river fish to date – and from a small urban stream too!

Surprisingly, a promising lie directly underneath the footbridge failed to produce, so I continued upstream through a fascinating series of wall-lined runs, channels and pools, where the river runs parallel to the A61 Penistone Road, and below a number of car showrooms, trading estates and other concerns.  Virtually every area covered yielded more trout and grayling; the latter in particular were consistently of above average size for such a water, and five easily topped the pound mark.  In the slower, deeper runs and pools, fish that had been given more time to inspect and reject the full-bodied Copperhead Hare’s Ear nymph could be tempted with a more anorexic version, incorporating a bead, hackle-point tail, tying thread body and just a thorax of fur.  When wet, this offers an exaggerated, generic nymphal profile that serves as an additional trigger point for hungry but warier fish. 

The owner of a roadside car valeting service came across for a smoke and a chat as I worked the river below with the “Half Hare” (as I have since christened it).  ‘You’re the first bloke I’ve seen fly fishing up here’, he said as I brought another good grayling to hand.  Then he added ‘there’s some nice fish in here - we feed them every day during our lunch break.  They’re like pets!’  As if on cue, the dry fly buried itself and another beautifully marked brown trout made a spirited dash for freedom.  ‘See what I mean?!’ he smiled as I held up the pound-plus fish.  By the time I reached the main road bridge over the Loxley, and climbed out of the river into the car park of B & Q, three hours had passed, in which I’d lost count of the number of fish landed.  Talk about time flying by when you’re having fun! 

As I made my way back down the A61 to the car (prompting some strange looks from motorists and pedestrians along the way), I reflected on the principles that my first trip to the River Loxley had confirmed.  However unattractive their surroundings may be, small urban streams - with their high banks and walls, overhanging trees, shaded lies and the many obstructions (natural and man made) creating them - can contain a staggering number of wild fish.  Comfortable in sharing their respective micro-habitats, they can reach an impressive size and are only too happy to feed.  Very often the flies were hit almost immediately after landing, and in such ‘hungry environments’ (to quote John Tyzack) there is no need for subtle, close-copy imitations that could, after many minutes of painstaking tying, be lost in seconds to one of the river’s many snags.  The simplicity of the Copperhead Hare’s Ear nymph, and my own Half Hare, should offer heart to the novice fly-tier keen on an introduction to urban fly fishing.  Fished in conjunction with the Balloon Caddis, both flies had worked together in true duo style to ‘unlock’ so much more of the Loxley than could have been covered with any other method.

FACT FILE

The River Loxley rises in a series of small streams on Bradfield moors by Damflask Reservoir.  A mere six miles in length, it joins the Don near Hillfoot, and provides free fishing for wild brownies and grayling.  Given a helping hand by the Environment Agency and SPRITE (Sheffield Partnership for Rivers In the Town Environment), the Loxley has benefited from the remarkable recovery of Sheffield’s rivers that began when the city’s iconic steel and electroplating industries went into decline in the 1970s.  Badly affected by floods in 2007, the river near Malin Bridge is now undergoing a £4 million flood prevention and habitat regeneration programme.  The removal of trees, debris and silt has been complemented by judicious riverbed management to provide more areas for fish to shelter, feed and spawn.