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Of Exmoor Fishing

William Caine
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Of Exmoor Fishing

William Caine enjoys the delights of the West Country*



In Scotland the angler’s ambition is to deceive the trouts and fill his basket.

In Exmoor it is to dodge the trees and economise in tackle.

In Scotland the Golden Rule is ‘Keep your flies in the water’.

In Exmoor one is well satisfied if one can get them on to the water at all.


Every form of fishing has its own peculiar problems and for their solution its own peculiar methods. A word or two, therefore, about the Exmoor angler’s outfit will appropriately inaugurate this paper.

The first requisite is a ladder. There are many patterns, but the best is one which Messrs Harlow have designed, after suggestions of my own, and list in their catalogue as ‘The Exebury’. It is made of aluminium, so as to be light and strong, in sections twelve inches in length, each costing 3s. 6d. Every ection is provided with two sockets into which the two points of every other fit easily. Thirty of these (weighing just eleven pounds and four ounces) may be carried in the fishing bag, and it is very rarely that, after joining them up, the angler will find it impossible to recover his fly or flies.

For exceptional cases, however, he will do well to carry an axe. Messrs Harlow make one that I can recommend. It is fitted with a handy clip which enables it to be slung from that ring of the bag to which the landing net is (elsewhere than on Exmoor) usually attached. Axe and ladder together make it unnecessary for any landing net to be carried.

The rod I can most honestly recommend is one that Messrs Harlow purvey, called ‘The Qualm.’ It is my own design and so I know that it is good. Its length is just twenty-five inches. It is made of solid steel in one piece, and it will bend point to butt without breaking. A few strong slashing strokes with this excellent little weapon will clear a path to the river for the angler through all but the most thickly grown parts of the bank. In such exceptional places the axe may usefully be brought into play.

As regards flies, it will perhaps assist the angler who proposes to make experience of Exmoor fishing if I give a short list of the most useful patterns, together with the number of each which he should take with him for, say, a week’s sport.

Blue Uprights . . . . . 500
Half Stones . . . . . 450
March Browns . . . . 400
Red Uprights . . . . . 350
Greenwell’s Glories . . . 300
Olive Quills . . . . . 250
Wickhams . . . . . 200
Yellow Uprights . . . . 150
Purple Uprights . . . . 100
Bolt Uprights . . . . 50
Fisherman’s Curses . . . 1,000,000,000

He will hardly need more than sixty casts, since Sunday fishing is not allowed in most places. For both flies and casts Messrs. Harlow are unapproachable.

It is well that all clothing should be strongly made, because the thorns which beset the angler’s passage under the banks are only a little less tenacious than barbed wire. Messrs Harlow purvey a cloth both for suits, and, waterproofed, for waders and mackintoshes which I can thoroughly recommend. It is woven of very fine steel thread, which being in two shades, black and white, makes a very trim material hardly distinguishable from Irish tweed.

To protect the head from the briars a trench helmet may usefully be worn, for to leave an ear behind in a bush is an incident of a day’s fishing with which most anglers will gladly dispense. Messrs Harlow have a very serviceable model, furnished with a cock band wherein those flies may be stuck which serve to mark off the fly-fisher from his inferiors.

Thus armed and caparisoned the novice in Exmoor fishing may approach the valleys of the West Country with a reasonable degree of confidence, not only in his own security from laceration or maiming, and in his not running out of tackle before the end of his visit, but also in being able to hold up his head among the other people at his inn. For in Exmoor it is not the fellow who creels the largest number of trout that is esteemed, but he who can declare, at the end of the day, that he has lost no more than twenty or thirty flies, and one, two or three new casts.

The Exmoor trout are bold fighters and free risers. It is quite possible, therefore, that if the angler can succeed in placing his lures before them he will have sport. Should this happen and should a fish be taken its degree of smallness becomes a matter of some moment; for to slay a trout less in size than the law allows exposes the perpetrator of this wickedness to a fine of five pounds sterling. This limit varies with each locality, so that it is impossible to be dogmatic on the subject, but, the licence with which the angler must provide himself always furnishes the necessary information. It is well therefore to carry a measure of some kind to the arbitrament of which every doubtful case may be submitted. Messrs. Harlow sell a convenient little knife, the handle of which is marked out in inches, half inches, quarter inches, eighths and sixteenths of an inch. It will go easily into the waistcoat pocket, and its blade may be used for cutting the throats of the trout, since it is difficult to knock them on the head without hurting one’s knuckles. Generally speaking the fish run about sixteen, but on the best waters they occasionally average as much as twelve, to the pound. The best basket I have ever seen was one of eight fishes which turned the scale at 139 pennyweights, but I understand that this was nothing absolutely unprecedented.


I have said that they are bold fighters, and this is one principal cause of tackle trouble to the angler. For if your fish is not struck very gently he emerges from the water and leaps into a tree, where the gallant struggle which he puts up inevitably implicates flies, cast, and casting line to such an extent with the twigs and branches that very often there is nothing for it, if one proposes to fish any more that day, but to cut one’s loss. The knife of which I have spoken may be used for this purpose also.

The cynic can always get a good deal of pleasure from listening to a number of fishermen boasting and lying to one another about the deeds they have done, and the monster fishes that they have. lost. To hear a great hulking animal of six foot high and scaling a good fifteen stone relate how, at the cost of some twenty or thirty sovereigns (for tackle and railway fare), he has just got the better of and slain one or two small creatures twelve inches long and in weight perhaps a pound each is a lesson in human fatuity which no thoughtful person can fail to enjoy. On Exmoor, however, the thing becomes so absolutely pathetic that the observer can only turn away - not to laugh, but to weep.

For this is how it goes in the West Country:

A. (Entering the lounge) Well, what sport?
B. How did you do ?
A. (Reluctantly) Oh, nothing very grand. I killed five.
B. (Satisfied) Ah! I got six.
C. (Who has been lurking behind the newspaper, quickly) I got seven.
A. Good fish ?
C. Two were beauties. A quarter of a pound if they were an ounce.
B. Together ?
C. Each of them.
B. My best one was very nearly five ounces. A beautiful trout. I never saw one with redder spots; and fat as a pig.
A. I had rather bad luck. I must have returned at least twenty small fish.
C. Oh, I put back quite thirty.
B. I could have filled my basket, with the little chaps. They absolutely persecuted me. But I lost a huge fish under the weir. He must have taken out quite a yard of line. If he wasn’t a half-pounder I’ll eat my hat.
B. I had a couple on of that size, or perhaps a bit bigger. I saw one of them. He showed a great yellow side, yellow as a buttercup. The other one I never saw at all. He just, dived down into the bottom of the dark pool he was in and got round a stone. An immensely strong fish. There was absolutely no holding him. If he was a pound in weight I shouldn’t be surprised a bit.
C. I saw one colossal fish up in that still water by the wood. He was easily a pound and a half. I wouldn’t have believed there was such a trout in the river if I hadn’t seen him. I tried him with every fly in my box, but the old devil wasn’t having any. A cannibal, I’ll bet. He ought to be had out of the water.
A. I expect some wretched boy will get him on a worm one day when there’s a flood.
C. Ha, ha!
B. Ha, ha!
A. What fly did you find them taking mostly?
B. I got two on the blue upright, two on the Half Stone, one on a Greenwell and one on a red upright.
A. Ah! I got every one of mine on the Half Stone.
C. I got four of mine on the Greenwell and the other three on the blue upright. But I missed at least twenty to the red upright which I had on for my dropper at one period.
B. They were coming damned short, weren’t they ?
C. I believe you. I never knew them come so short. I must have moved two hundred fishes during the day.
B. I should say that if I moved one, I moved three hundred.
A. Well, I don’t want to exaggerate, but at a safe guess I moved a thousand.
B. I didn’t lose a single fly all day.
C. (Realising the hopelessness of his position) Well, I’m off to change for dinner.

In the foregoing dialogue
A. stands for anybody you please, B. stands for the friend who accompanied me, and C. stands for myself. For I - even I - am an enraged Exmoor angler, and all this has been written with the object of curing myself of a folly.

But I do not, somehow, seem yet to have sneered myself out of it. I suppose I shall be seen emerging from the train at Dulverton as usual one day next Spring, all loaded down with rods and creels and waders and things of the kind, bought at vast expense from Messrs. Harlow (whose name I emphasise now for the last time in the timid hope that they may send me a few complimentary dozen of blue uprights in recognition of my efforts to popularise their wares). And I suppose that when I have climbed into the dogcart, and the mare has set out upon her nine mile trot up the valley road, I shall, as usual, ask her driver what fly they’re taking mostly and how they’re running this year for size and whether they’ve got into the stickles yet, and all the other ridiculous questions that I always ask and shall, I imagine, ask each Spring as long as the opportunity to do so shall be mine.

For Exmoor fishing is like cigarette smoking. Your salmon and your chalk-stream angler despise it, even as your cigar and your pipe smoker despise the cigarette. But once the cigarette has told you her secret, all other smoking becomes vanity; and once you have met the Spring in an Exmoor valley, and acquired some little deftness in foxing Exmoor’s tiny fishes from out of their jungle, it will be odds that no Scotch salmon river or Hampshire chalk-stream will ever again say very much to you. Salmon fishing is a matter of writing cheques and sticking at it; Hampshire trout fishing is an affair of money and manual dexterity; but while Exmoor calls for little of your coin, it is very exigent of skill, and even more so of that which is greater than skill - I mean knowledge.

*If you would like to read more about fishing on Exmoor, try Michelle Werrett's wonderful new book Song of the Streams . . .

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