Since a child I have been fascinated by water, particularly streams and rivers, and can vividly remember catching bullheads with my hands, building dams and generally messing about in our local stream. That interest has stuck with me throughout life and I’ve ended up working in the environment sector on a range of river restoration and conservation projects. I’ve also progressed to fishing with a rod. What’s always intrigued me about rivers and streams is how the river corridor acts as a wildlife highway but more so the abundance of life beneath the surface.

I am a keen fly fisherman and member of Taunton Fly Fishing Club who’s members have access to sections of a number of rivers including the Tone, Yarty and Axe. The River Tone is my local water and I’ve spent the last few years eagerly exploring the upper reaches with rod in hand. It’s a river that always surprises me. Upstream of Wellington and further into the headwaters, the river meanders through pasture and native woodland and is welcome contrast to the more intensively farmed landscape downstream. It’s usually challenging fishing with more time often spent climbing trees to retrieve my fly than actually fishing but thankfully occasionally I am rewarded with a fish!

Fly fishing on the Tone is all ‘catch and release’ using barbless hooks so any fish caught are quickly are carefully returned to the water. People often ask me what is the point in fishing if you don’t eat the fish? The reason I enjoy fishing is about more than just catching fish. For me it’s about exploring seldom visited sections of river, standing beneath mighty ancient oaks and experiencing wildlife up close. Spawning brook lamprey can often be seen wriggling on the river bed in spring and I regularly see kingfisher and dipper. The Tone also has a healthy population of otter and it’s great to see evidence of the previous night’s activities in the form of spraint and footprints. Very occasionally if you are lucky you get to see these amazing creatures first hand (I’m now well into double figures). Then there are the fish themselves, beautifully marked wild brown trout and the elegant grayling (aka the ‘Lady of the Stream’) with its large colourful dorsal fin.

One of the essential tools of fly fishing is the fly. These are artificial imitations of some of our native aquatic invertebrates, made from coloured threads, feathers, fur and other ‘stuff’ tied together onto the hook. They can be fished ‘dry’ floating on the water’s surface during the spring or summer months when then imitate emerging insects such as mayfly or caddis fly, or weighted and fished under the surface where they imitate the insect in its larval stage. Nothing beats the satisfaction of outsmarting a fish with a hand tied artificial fly.  Freshwater invertebrates are a fascinating subject and are used to assess a rivers water quality (watch out for a future blog post on the subject)  - for an introduction and some amazing images take a look at local photographer Liam Marsh’s website by clicking here.

Our rivers and freshwater species have faced a really tough time over the years – river channels have been straightened, weirs have disrupted fish and eel migration, pollution has killed fish and invertebrates and excess sediment has blocked spawning gravels and only 11% of waterbodies in Somerset are currently classified as having ‘good ecological status’ under the Water Framework Directive. Encouragingly there has been a huge amount of effort in recent years to clean up our rivers and progress is slowly being made through the work of organisations like the Rivers Trust’s and through Catchment Partnerships. Sadly its often one step forward two steps back but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

James Maben is the Somerset Catchment Partnership Coordinator at FWAG SouthWest. If you would like more information on the partnership, click here.