Chris Ogborne spends his whole life fishing in Cornwall these days. Here he shares
three fundamentally different views of his favourite river, the Camel, with a personal
insight into the remarkable transition from spring to estuary that takes place in
barely twenty miles.
Buzzards mew from an impossible height, invisible, yet the sound still travels.
I'm less than a mile from the source of my favourite river, though here it barely
qualifies as a stream. The water is like fluid crystal, with no hint of the peat
stain that it will gather in its course. The sheep have close-cropped the sparse
grass right down to the water, so much so that it looks in this respect like the
manicured banks of some Hampshire chalkstream, although these banks have seen no
mower in their history, and probably no man this season. Granite tors break through
the thin soil and in the clean air they look stark, even rugged against the eggshell
The infant river has endless character, running metre-wide in places through its
own miniature gorge or in others like a shimmering sheet only inches deep. It threads
its way between the gorse, polishing the stones and pebbles on its bed. It is so
infinitely delicate that only the lightest tackle will do. There is rarely need for
a cast longer than twenty feet, and if I'm not going to spook the trout then that
cast will need to be made some fifteen feet from the bank. Occasionally I have the
luxury of a gorse thicket for cover, but for much of the time I'm on my knees or
even on my belly: moorland fishing brings a whole new meaning to 'skylining'. I
must look comical but it matters not - nobody comes here and I've yet to see another
soul this far out on the moor.
Fly hatches here come at any hour and this day is no exception. Tiny black duns skip
over the water on the breeze and the rise forms are splashy and aggressive, almost
like Irish lough trout at mayfly time. They have to be fast: food for the trout is
scarse and feeding is competitive. Even as I watch, two little quarter-pounders rise
for the same insect, the flurry of water making a lie of their diminutive size. As
the rings subside I watch intently, yet so good is their camouflage that still can't
see them against the pebbles. I know they're there, but until they leave station
they are invisible. So it's a blind throw, a cast to the 'best guess' spot should
do. The three weight line lands softly, the 7X tippet even more so, yet still I see
the flash as I've spooked them both! No wonder the locals don't bother with these
fish - possibly the toughest challenge in the county!
A big fish here is half a pound and the one I'm looking at now is all of that. He's
lying behind a two foot boulder which in turn is snugged against a huge gorse bush.
I can't help but wonder at the scent of that gorse in the air, sweet, almost like
coconut in the warm June sun. The fish rises more slowly than his siblings, sips
more delicately at the skating duns, and returns with precision to his twelve inch
territory. Ten minutes of manoeuvring and I'm below him, still with enough angle
to drop the fly on the boulder. A tweak of the rod before drag sets in and the fly
has its hackles in the film. In less than a breath there's a splash - so much for
the previous delicate rise forms - and he's on. Sixty seconds of excitement follow.
I have to bully him because I want to release him quickly, yet at nine ounces he
fights better than any Chew three pounder. I have no option but to follow him ten
metres downstream, he's that powerful. I wet the hand, slip the barbless Calabaetis
from his lip, admire him briefly and he's away.
For maybe an hour I'm lost in the beauty of the place, sitting quietly on the same
boulder and breathing in the gorse scent. I'm reminded of another moment on another
continent, with the scent of the Tea Tree bushes in Australia. But I know where I'd
The male Buzzard shatters my reverie, calling from less than fifty feet up and now
stooping to a young rabbit. I decide to climb to the top of the Tor, for a sandwich
lunch but more for the view. Twenty miles away the Atlantic pounds the Cornish coast
and holidaymakers throng the beaches. Yet here is near silence, absolute peace and
total solitude. The unique beauty of the Moor is mine.
The single-note call of the Kingfisher slices the morning air, before he is gone
in a blur and flash of impossible colour.
Birdsong is everywhere, almost deafening on occasions as Chaffinches, Tits and Warblers
declare their territory. Or perhaps they simply sing to welcome the sun, only now
at 11am cresting the hills and sending warm fingers into the valley. The Camel is
wider now, ten metres in places, and has become a full grown river. The valley is
deep, almost Swiss in character, with intense emerald firs blending with ancient
oak and beech. The tapestry has more rich hue and tone than any artist could imagine,
or ever contrive to mix.
Bankside growth is dense and often impenetrable but these are the spots where the
better fish lay. Members of the local club fish here and in autumn the fishing becomes
exclusive, as the late run of Salmon comes in from the Atlantic. But in high summer
I rarely see another angler and there is time to stalk a fish undisturbed. Easy access
to the bank means that other rods will have bent here, so I look for the tougher
spots: nettles may sting and brambles may scratch but there are no footprints in
the mud and it's likely no line has laid on this pool this season.
I rest for a moment after the struggle, letting my eyes adjust to the pattern and movement
of the water. It's clear certainly, but tinged brown with the peat through which
it has flowed. The rocks and pebbles are brown too and weed growth is negligible.
So for the trout, camouflage is all. They move only when they feed, detaching themselves
from the river bed to become visible for a moment, only to sink and blend like ghosts
into the brown.
Last year I watched as a shoal of Peal moved through this pool but I've yet to see
them this year. It's probably still early, but the hope is there. Close to the bank
is a deep eddy, backflowing for many metres and scouring to a depth I can only imagine.
I debate fly choice with myself: should it be Czech nymph, or will I soon see rises
to the little sulphur duns. A tiny ring on the far bank confirms the choice, and
then another farther up seals the matter. I enjoy the nymphs when I have to, but
there's no challenge like the dry fly challenge. Nymph fishing here can forgive the
clumsy cast, but nothing less than perfection will turn the dry fly under trailing
brambles. Any kind of drag will be greeted with scorn.
The five weight line is definitive for most of the Camel. Gossamer casts and featherlight
presentation are fine up on the Moor, but here I need more. There's also the wind
to contend with, funneling up from the estuary, warm and with the faintest scent
of the sea. The 8 1/2 foot Gem is the rod, long enough for the backbone yet short
enough to be a good friend in the scrambles through the undergrowth. But there can
be no compromise on the leader: it's still 7X or at the very most 6X. Anything more
and you can hear the fish laughing.
I love this river. In the space of five minutes the sun has reached us, light has
touched the river bed, and fish are rising everywhere. I literally don't know where
to cast. The smaller trout and the Parr are mid-stream, but the better fish are under
the banks. Last winters floods have left huge logs in their wake, with cover aplenty.
The rise form I caught in the corner of my eye comes again, no fuss, with deliberate
and thicker rings. Only a better fish could move water like that. The fly lands,
drifts, and is ignored. Two casts, two fly changes, no interest. Exaggerate. The
breeze is pushing the flies across the film, skating them in places. So a tiny Stimulator
as all else has failed. A huge boil. I lift and tighten too fast, against all experience
and training. Solid for a second, then gone. The price for 7X leader has been paid.
A Dipper sits on a stone and pokes his head under the water. He bobs for a moment, then
disappears. I'd bet that his success rate this morning is better than mine.
Hunting Terns scream at each other as they lift, then plunge for sandeels. Their
'crick crick' call echoes off the rocks and says 'summer' like no other sound.
It's debatable whether I'm fishing the Camel here, or the Atlantic. Out from the
tidal reaches at Wadebridge, still further out from the sandbars at Padstow. On my
left is the soft bluff of Stepper, once home to the Lifeboat before the Doom Bar
made it's home impractical. Across the estuary mouth is the mighty rampart of Pentire,
almost purple now with the heather glowing in the afternoon sun. I'm way out on
the sand, at the very bottom of the Spring Tide, on a beach only revealed with these
few big tides each year. I'm sharing the sand with just one man and his dog, and
they're two miles away.
Waiting. The west wind pushes big swells into Polzeath but here I have shelter from
the waves. It's up to my knees, scarcely splashing my shorts, and my bare feet sink
gently into the softness. I wait and watch because now, exactly now, the tide has
turned. The tables say 7.5 metres tonight and 0.2 right now. I've been waiting for
this tide for the last six weeks.
And here are the first Bass. As each wave lifts I see the grey shapes, betrayed by
the sunlight. The first 'schoolies' are here, just a few at first but in ever-growing
numbers. In seconds they are behind me and I take my first steps. I can't help the
silly grin from spreading because I know that I now have three hours of absorbing
sport in front of me, following the fish and the tide as it runs up the beach.
Here's a shoal of bigger fish. I lift off twenty metres of line, possible only because
of the new rod. The Hardy Saltwater was designed for exactly this, even if Andy Murray
and his colleagues had Bonefish in mind and not Britain's sea Bass. It's sight fishing,
totally visual. You need to be fast, and false casts are out: even fish feeding as
hard as these will spook and they seem to have innate understanding that line flash
means danger. Amazingly these fish are feeding in two inches of water, so shallow
that their backs are showing clear. How do they know that they're safe doing this,
only because of the speed of the advancing tide?
I cast behind me, then turn and cast along the wave. I see the grey shape surge,
flash, and so I strike. If I'd waited till I felt him he would already have gone.
Visual fishing, in the extreme.
An hour has gone in what felt like two moments. I've already released ten schoolies,
and two bigger fish in the 2 pound class. In the deeper water by the rocks, standing
on the sand bar, I took a Mullet. In the rougher water out towards the estuary flow
I took a three pounder. But the real fun are the school fish. They fight like no
other fish in England, except perhaps a mackerel on fly, which is another story. Today
they feed avidly and with abandon, though on other days and other tides they can
be infuriatingly selective.
The little fry imitators are perfect, though if I've left the tails too long I get
only bumps instead of takes. Barbless hooks mean that only the most solid of takes
are converted to fish, but such is the sport that it just makes the smile wider.
My three hours have run. The water has reached almost to the dunes and its time for
home. Two bass are in the pouch, and later tonight they'll be in foil, with only
butter and Chardonnay for company.The sun has left the Camel for today, but the
bare wisps of mare-tail cloud say that the gold will be back tomorrow.
The magic of the River, which for me is the magic of Cornwall, will return.