Sam Carlisle spends a night swinging flies in pursuit of ferocious Welsh sea trout.
“God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.” So wrote Izaak Walton, during the turmoil of the English Civil War, in his pastoral classic The Compleat Angler. With the Milky Way shining bright, illuminating the Teifi valley, the river flowed gently around a steep, wooded bank and the troubles of a global pandemic seemed to fade into obscurity. My friend Nat and I were chasing sea trout, or sewin as they are known in this part of the world. The night was calm, the only noise was the water rushing on its downstream journey to the Irish Sea. Beneath the water’s surface, pods of brilliantly silver sewin swam against the current, fit from a winter or more feeding at sea and pulsing with oceanic energy. They were heading up river in search of their natal streams.
Neither of us had spent much time fishing for sea trout at night, and so had employed Steffan Jones to guide us. Steff grew up on the banks of this river and first laid eyes on a sewin when his father tickled a fat five-pounder from the depths to feed his family. Mesmerised from that moment, he started guiding on the Teifi at the age of 15. Too young to drive, his father would drop him at the river and his clients would return him home in the early hours of the morning. Since that auspicious beginning, he has become perhaps the most knowledgeable man on sea trout in the world, combining a scientific outlook with having spent many years catching them wherever they swim. A few years ago he wrote what is now considered the definitive work on sea trout fishing.
I cast my line across the pool, sending the flies into the darkness. I prayed I hadn’t cast too far and caught the trees on the far bank. The line swung freely through the water, safe. But had I cast far enough to cover the critical area, where the sewin were resting? Unaccustomed to fishing at night, I questioned my competence. Deprived of your eyes, you must fish by feel and intuition. This might come naturally to Steff, but Nat and I seemed to catch the bushes or tangle our lines with worrying regularity. I tried to channel my inner Walton, remembering that the point of fishing is to be calm and quiet and innocent. One thing that Walton didn’t mention about fishing though, which is something that I believe is common to all field sports, is the immense sense of anticipation. And it is this anticipation, this roll of an uncertain dice, that makes pursuing wild things in wild places such a passionate affair.
“What I love most about sea trout fishing is that in the dark all your senses are on edge, trying to understand the world around you without being able to see it,” remarks Steff. “You are fishing in the most peaceful setting imaginable, alone in a moonlit valley, but all the time waiting to be interrupted by the violence of a fish attacking your fly. A sea trout’s speed and aggression can almost rip the rod from your hands.”
An enormous splash interrupted us. “Decent fish!” Steff proclaimed. A sea trout, clearly of prodigious proportions, had caused a commotion just a little further down the pool. The anticipation heightened, as I felt my way through the next couple of casts. “Just move that fly a little faster,” instructed Steff in a whispered Welsh accent. I picked up the pace of the retrieve and there was an explosion, the white froth of the water visible even in the dark, the line streaking through my fingers, and my rod bending deeply under the weight of a vigorous sewin. It cavorted around the pool, leaping twice before submerging again into the depths. Steff took the net off his back in readiness. I backed towards the bank to help manoeuvre it in his direction. And then, as suddenly as the fish had taken the fly, the line went slack. The hook had not held and my brief encounter was over.
Steffan checked my flies to make sure they were not to blame. All was in order, and while dejected at the loss, I unfurled my line again in hope. A patch of mist drifted over the water’s surface. “That’s not good,” was the unwelcome suggestion from Steff. “This is the dreaded tarth, a mist that rolls along the top of the river and absolutely kills the fishing. It arrives when the day has been hot, and the night is clear and cold. It acts like sediment in the water, clouding the fish’s vision. They feel insecure and entirely switch off.” Steff reassures me that a bank of cloud is forecast to roll in, and this can have an equally dramatic effect, bringing the fishing back on. It’s 11pm, and time for a riverbank coffee.
“The sewin is the emblematic fish of Wales,” says Steff. “We have some of the most famous sea trout rivers in the world and people travel from all over Europe to fish here. We really must do more to protect our fish though. Sadly, the Teifi is the most heavily netted river in Britain.” Sitting in this tranquil setting, it’s hard to imagine an industry of exploitation taking place just a few miles downstream. Steff goes on to explain that while Natural Resources Wales has told rod anglers that there is not a harvestable surplus of sea trout running the Teifi, they continue to issue licences, charged at a pitiful £250 per year, to 15 netting stations. Worse, there are no quotas they need to abide by, which seems the definition of unsustainable. Last year they took close to 1,000 sewin, averaging a shade under 4lb. In an unexplained scientific quirk, most big sewin seem to be females. “These are our brood stock,” says Steff, “the very fish we need to be saving.” While salmon nets have been, bit by bit, closed or bought off over the last 20 years around the coast of Britain, the Welsh government seems unwilling to interfere with these sea trout nets, perpetuating an act of cultural and environmental vandalism.
Invigorated less by the caffeine and more by the cloud that has just arrived, we pause our conversation to head back to the river. The next pool is a maze of currents, but just where the river starts to braid into a couple of little streams, there’s a glassy tail out. It’s Nat’s turn to cast and Steff has tied on a surface lure, made from deer hair and foam, that skates across the surface. The wake of the fly will hopefully prompt a lurking sewin into a ferocious strike. The night is warmer now, and anticipation after the tarth-induced pause is at fever-pitch. We wade along a shallow gravel ledge and Nat lengthens his line, casting first under the far bank, and then methodically at incremental angles across the pool to cover every possible lie.
“Did you see that?” A fish had clearly inspected the fly and then turned at the last minute, sending ripples just visible by the moonlight lapping across the pool. The next cast had the same effect, but from slightly higher up the pool. At the third cast there was an audible swirl, and yet still no tangible contact with the fly. “If the cloud would just thicken they would be absolutely annihilating the fly,” whispered Steff. Each movement is a different fish. The pool is heaving with sewin and we are all a bundle of expectation. The lure wakes through the surface film and the current kicks it close to where I am standing, towards the tail of the pool. The water froths with startling speed, the fly is engulfed, and an angry sea trout scorches its way upstream, the line fizzing through the water. Nat is attached to a steam train, headed for the hills. It is two in the morning. The valley is still, but the three fisherman standing in the middle of the Teifi are anything but calm and quiet.
This article was first published in the Summer 2021 issue of My Countryside magazine.