A few weeks ago I signed up to a long weekend fishing after browsing an interesting thread on an internet forum, in a spontaneous moment I PM’d a colleague and soon after I was booked on my first outing to the legendary annual social event put on by those generous fellows at the Monnow Fisheries Association; I’d heard the waters that run through the crevasses around the Black Mountains in Monmouthshire are something to behold, the time had come to venture amongst them. I decided to immerse myself fully in the weekend and blocked the Friday out the diary in order to join the advanced party. This meant three solid days of river fishing with an eclectic group of affable and dedicated fly fishing folk; you couldn’t wish to meet a better bunch, or for that matter, ever hope to match the logistics involved in assembling them in one place on your own; it was a privilege and an honour to meet everyone and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to partake in such an event. During the weekend I was blessed with some remarkable fishing on three sections of the Monnow catchment and more ‘social’ possibilities than you’d expect to undertake with all the fishing going on. The waters I fished all offered quality fishing, every turn in the water bringing variety; I am left with the lasting impression of a diverse water system nestling amongst stunning border scenery, the dramatic terrain and twisting vistas hint at the gems that lie in the valleys. The rivers or tributaries appear to be woven into everywhere you visit, they certainly don’t disappoint either, taking centre stage amongst the slopes; in fact I think I’ll go as far as to say the area has got to be classed as a fly fishing Mecca (the pictures and clips in this entry will speak for themselves).
The Friday kicked off well, we all hooked up at 10am over a cup of coffee in the Crown at Longtown. The pub is a short hop from the B&B and camping site next to the river, providing a perfect venue to hold the event. Robert (Cranefly) informed us of our beats, I was told that the fellow I’d just been chatting with named Paul would be my fishing partner for the day and we were to test a new beat in Clodock; being a little slow on the uptake I didn’t twig it was ‘Lighthouse’ until a little later, so we set off chatting in polite mode, all very civilised for two frequent FFF users (the well honed insults were parked for a while). Paul and I got on like a house on fire; it was a good way to start the weekend with some relaxed stream fishing (normal to me) and it dawned on me that I was finally out fishing with a Monnow veteran in the ‘real world’, Paul had not been out on the streams this season so like a golf game, we were almost on equal handicaps; this is nonsense of course as really Paul was being detored by my newbie banter and I was just happy to be living the dream, rather than looking at pictures of other people enjoying themselves on the internet. Fishing together isn’t compulsory on the Monnow event though, as you are free to split up to tackle things in anyway you like but as conditions were low and slow and the conversation was flowing better than the river, we stuck it out together, making the most of the social aspects of the day. There was an added bonus in this, as it allowed me to scrutinise Paul’s GAIA casting skills, hoping some of it would transfer into my grey matter by osmosis; despite the technical challenges from the conditions, it transpired to be a positive first day and we managed to catch just a few small but perfect fish in the deeper sections.
We had wasted no time in getting out fishing as Paul had suggested gambling on the weather and leaving setting up camp until later. This was a good move, as the prompt start and dry afternoon allowed an early return to camp to get organised before the main group arrived. On arrival at camp I was greeted by Vince (VGB) who took a few moments to say hello between his wanderings fishing around the locality; it was good to put a face to a name at last. As well as ‘potential’ outstanding fishing, the event offers plenty of chances to meet fellow anglers and swap stories (the clue is in the name). As more people arrived, the event started taking shape, the advance party and early arrivals settled down to relax, as others trickled into the site by car and camper van. Dave (Tigermoth) arrived in his classic ‘motor’ and said hello to everyone, I said a brief hello but pushed on with finishing the business of pitching camp in order to be unhindered for later; soon after this I ended up sat down with TAFNACothi & Sewinman. Hightower, Tony (& a transient Dave) sat round as well followed by Paul, Splash2, Tim and a few others who soon joined in (hope I’ve got the names right and haven’t missed anyone?). The discussion circle gradually expanded to include many of the well known veterans and the banter livened as the evening unfurled. A few tipples are a factor in most social environments and of course they are a part of this weekend but things were not as excessive as imagined; things do get a little lively but the chat and micky taking is all good-hearted stuff, if a little risqué at times (sadly I won’t be able to print much of it here); it’s clear that ‘Derek and Clive’ jokes are something I need to brush up on! On the whole it was proving to be a broad ranging event, you don’t have to overindulge, as it’s also possible to take yourself off early, or find solitude along the river bank walks, or get involved with some casting practice (Frank had managed to take a moment out of a busy schedule to make an appearance). Some of the late arrivals made up for lost opportunities with some leisurely evening fishing right in front of the campsite. Gradually the light faded and the aroma from the barbeque wafted across from the marquee to draw the group closer around the mess tent. Somehow a well formed event had sprung up and by half light it was looking like a bizarre travelling circus with casting acrobats doing their tricks outside the big top, a kind of bespoke country pursuits event, staged exclusively for fly fishing compulsives.
It was clear that a technical discussion was possible with some of ‘the gurus’ if you were that way inclined but you only needed to do this if it took your fancy. Most of us just settled into the weekend feeling confident that a knowledgeable pair of helping hands would always be somewhere nearby to answer any fishing queries as / if / when necessary. My lasting impression is that this was an event for everyone to enjoy, complexities were kept to a minimum. Anyway, to pick the pace up a bit, much joviality entailed as the night rolled on and I made full use of the opportunity to be away on tour!
I’ll fast forward a bit to the Saturday morning (ahem). The second day was a tough start due to over enthusiastic après-fishing but I just about managed to make it to breakfast and out on the Garway section on time, I did at least attempt to engage fully in fishing with Neil (Quicksilver) who was only due to be with me for a short spell in order to get me moving. Now Neil had managed to pace himself well the night before (I think?) and was full of enthusiasm; he’s as passionate as it gets when it comes to all things ‘Monnow’ and was champing at the bit. I was lucky to witness further technique pointers and film him catching a good sized fish within minutes. The second day was different in style to the one spent with Paul, we were playing for real and I was nowhere near match fit; the Friday was familiar small stream territory for me (in terms of water characteristics) and it was obvious the conditions were not great so there was little pressure on us but today I was out of my comfort zone on a big river with perfect conditions and huge potential laid out in front of me.
The fact Neil had just plucked a whopping great brown out without even thinking about it was a little daunting but like all the Monnow team, he was concerned to make sure I was set up right and gave me plenty of pointers. His demonstration of the potential offered by the water was a kick start, this might have had me on the ropes of course but I’ve never been one to dodge a challenge and it helped to serve as a nudge in the right direction. Rob showed up to collect Neil within 15 minutes, reporting that my fishing buddy had already caught two fish downstream. They were both keen to get their own day underway and sensing I needed space to work out a game plan they left me to it; after a further 10 minutes of duffing casts and dodgy presentation, I decided to sit on the bank side and collect my thoughts. Somehow I had managed to find the sense to grab a can of ginger beer and put it in my pocket as we left the car earlier, once consumed it made me feel a little less ragged. Whilst sat there looking down the river I had a moment of epiphany witnessing plenty of rising fish along the right bank. Having just wrestled last night’s excesses into submission and re-tuning the mental focus, the path was now clear; it was time to press reset, walk back down to my previous entry point and start all over again – this proved to be the right decision, as things really started happening, a large fish rose after the first few attempts and unfortunately it broke off a tippet but the mindset was readjusted and a small fish soon obliged, other fish kept on coming. What at first appeared as a daunting prospect quickly turned into one of the best days fishing I’ve ever had, particularly pleasing on a totally new water. I should thank Neil for the boot up the rear, he’s a really good guy and fairly local to me, so we’ll no doubt be able to catch up and fish again soon.
My fishing buddy Nick caught up with me at 2pm, just as I was releasing another fish. I’d only really fished 300 metres in half a day, time almsot stood still, having lost count of the number of fish I had snarled, many were subject to long-range catch & release and most were small but plenty came to hand, the typical size of fish is pictured above. Nick had done reasonably well also so it was clear the crew had helped get us both get up to speed; there was no stopping us now, we carried on taking small and medium-sized fish throughout the afternoon and only called it a day when our wading was halted by a deep section of water. By now clouds were spitting and turning sombre, so we returned to base camp having both notched up a good day. Contrary to the warnings and probably due to the fact that the pub didn’t have a beer festival this year, the Saturday evening proved to be a civilised affair (for me at least); just a couple of beers in the pub and then back to base for local steak prepared perfectly by the catering lads; the auction came soon after and was entertaining and suitably rowdy. After a couple of glasses of red I got caught up in all the enthusiasm, resulting in a reduced bank balance but with a future fly fishing event to look forward to.
We all managed a relatively early night, allowing many of us to get up at circa 7am; this time I got my act together making use of the campsite’s shower facilities to set the day up right. After a good breakfast I was well prepared for the last day; unfortunately the torrential overnight rain had brought the river up, which had the campers a little concerned, it didn’t look bad but people were scratching their heads a tad. Rob (Cranefly) was soon on the case and nipped out in the car to survey the catchment for opportunities to fish, returning in a surprisingly short time and calling us into the mess tent. We were still able to fish parts of the system, Nick and I were pleased to ve allocated part of Skenfrith waters for our final venue; this is somewhere that’s been on my to do list for some time, so quite a result.
We broke camp as the sun poked through, said our goodbyes, before following Patrick to our parking spot; he aimed us at the start of our beat and wished us well. After walking ¾ mile through picturesque fields we were confronted by balmy late morning temperatures and some moving fish. By now the Monnow crew had worked their magic to full effect, Nick was tackled up first and quickly snagged a fish, it was only small and he failed miserably in copying Vince’s overhead fish flicking technique (the one where you strike at an unknown sized fish with a bigger rod than you’re used to, in order to throw the little par backwards over your head when striking too hard). Nick hasn’t quite perfected it yet, as the fish took it on itself to jump off the hook on its own accord and only travelled a few feet.
I knotted on my fly a short while later, I had said I would take a back seat and gillie a while to begin with for Nick but unfortunately (for Nick) I’m a liar and nipped in front as the rising fish were popping too many circles to ignore. I managed to spot and raise a good fish immediately, a missed take to my first cast was soon converted to catching a fin perfect brownie on the third presentation (Neil would have been proud). Nick and I then worked away at metronome paced set of rises for just over an hour and a half , they weren’t easy to fool though and the tentative half rises and trigger happy missed takes were plentiful; however, with a little perseverance and careful presentation, I managed to repeat the success two more times in the first 100 metres of the beat. We fished on a little further and time had slipped into the early afternoon as the wind got up. By now the rises were less frequent in the slack water. I have no doubt there was still lots of promise in the faster water but the fish had gone off the boil on top (patches of gusting riffles were spooking them). I was questioning the way forwards now, not wanting to put Nick off and close a decent day down early but feeling too shattered to match his enthusiasm. I had my long nymphing rod in the car and all the right bits of leader kit for French nymphing but I wasn’t minded to begin fishing in this way at this stage of the weekend though. I was out of steam and felt that the proceedings had reached their end point for me; it couldn’t possibly get any better and knowing when to stop is a principle I’ve been toying with since Friday, so I decided to bow out gracefully. I left the ever enthusiastic Nick practically the whole section to enjoy by himself (he’d not managed to fish on the Friday, so was due a little extra to make up for this). I headed for home via Monmouth and the Wye Valley, the old Severn Bridge was soon behind me and a few miles later I settled back in an armchair at home, utterly exhausted but with a great sense of satisfaction.
The weekend definitely lives up to the hype; the fishing is great and the social side is equally well supported. The success of the event can be attributed to an abundance of natural assets and the sense of place, coupled with planning, hard work, judgement and extensive local knowledge among the Monnow crew. An exemplar bunch of guys who show enviable stewardship of their waterways, recently the Wild Trout Trust held their annual get together there, this is for obvious reasons.
Robert, Patrick, Dave & Neil front the proceedings well and many thanks to them and their support crew; I would particularly like to thank Paul (Lighthouse) for getting me going on Friday, his scalpel like wit is better experienced in person and acts as an ice breaker that makes you feel at ease straight away. It can be a little daunting to turn up to a new water and fish side by side with experienced river fly fishermen / casting instructors but any trepidation soon dissolves once you get going. I was aiming to learn a few new casting tricks to practice at home and I was able to do this by simply watching someone good in action, it was exactly the kind of mentoring that I like, examples of real world fishing by someone who knows their stuff. I should also take the opportunity to thank all the guests for being good company, everyone made an effort to look after the new recruits and make us feel part of the family. One last point I should make is that the event was well assembled with careful consideration given to the allocation of beats; Rob and crew were good at gauging the river and forming an action plan which seemed to suit the changeable conditions well.
I would recommend this event to anyone, the non-fishing catering guys even managed to have a first go at fly fishing on the Saturday under some instruction and caught some fish; I believe this demonstrates an admirable level of accessibility, making the fishing available to all abilities. Simply put, it’s a top weekend that serves as a great introduction to the area. I’m already looking forward to returning next year; perhaps I’ll even fit in the occasional trip in between when I get the chance.
Finally, I’d like to quote Nick Steedman’s signature on the FFF (he’s already far too wise for a young one, the smartarse), he didn’t write it as that credit lies with Bernard Venables but I think he gets it better than I do already:
Fundamentally fishing is a philosophy. A philosophy of earth, and growth, and quiet places. In it there is a rule of life, a recognition of permanences. It makes you notice the little things of nature, wherever you may be.
Tight Lines, Splash