Although the exact origins of fly fishing are the subject of much debate (most people credit a guy Roman guy called Claudius Aelianus as the first to record the use of an artificial fly to catch fish, in the second century AD), but there can be little doubt that the United Kingdom played a pivotal role in the development and popularisation of the sport. It was here that the notion of fishing for sport rather than the pot first emerged, and with it many of the techniques, tactics and philosophies of the game. Below we run down some of the fly fishing opportunities available in the UK.
The UK is the undisputed home of the dry fly. Frederick Halford, the man credited with developing the dry fly philosophy, if not the techniques, wrote that “The purists among dry-fly fishermen will not under any circumstances cast except over rising fish, and prefer to remain idle the entire day rather than attempt to persuade the wary inhabitants of the stream to rise at an artificial fly, unless they have previously seen a natural one taken in the same position.”
It was on the idyllic and legendary chalkstreams of the south of England - the Test, and the Itchen, for example, that he developed this philosophy, where the famously clear water made such sight fishing all the easier. Fishing on these storied waters is not cheap - the cliché is that the water is “as clear as gin and twice as expensive” - but it is far more accessible than it once was, especially if you venture on to one of the less well-known rivers such as the Wylye or even the Wandle, which flows through London itself. For many, a trip to ‘where it all began’ is an act of pilgrimage as much as a fishing trip.
If all that sounds a bit la-di-da for your tastes, there are plenty of other options that are also easier on the wallet - the freestone rivers of Derbyshire spring to mind. Rivers like the Wye and the Dove flow through the rugged hills of the Peak District, and the fish are truly wild. The Wye also has the distinction of being the only river in the UK with a population of wild rainbow trout - browns are the only ones native to the UK. The rivers and streams of Wales also offer the trout angler some amazing sport in their upper reaches. For an even wilder experience, head to the lochs and burns of Scotland, where you’ll be battling the weather and the midges, as well as the fish.
The UK may not be home to the largest salmon, or the biggest runs, but in many ways it is still the spiritual home of the sport. The ‘big four' salmon rivers: the Dee, Tweed, Spey and the Tay are all to be found in Scotland. Each of the rivers as its own particular characteristics and feel, some of which have had a lasting impact on the sport. For example the Spey is typically fast flowing with steep banks. It was this that prompted the development of the Spey Cast, which allows for a long cast where there is no room to for an overhead cast.
If you’ve never used a double-handed rod the transition can be a tricky one, but there is usually an excellent ghillie (a cross between a riverkeeper and a fishing guide, usually employed by the estate) on hand to offer some tuition and advice. These guys have often worked on the same beat for decades and know every rock, lie, boil and pool of their patch like the back of their hand, so its worth paying attention to them, even for experienced anglers.
Fishing one of these rivers offers the best chance of a fish, since they enjoy the biggest runs, but you’ll have to work hard for them even here. I was fortunate enough to fish the Spey for ten days last summer and hardly even saw a fish, let alone catch one, but salmon fishing is very condition-dependent, and we had low water and high temperatures.
Your options are not limited to the big four - Scotland’s East Coast rivers all offer some great sport, and you can also enjoy salmon fishing south of the border. The Tyne in the North East of England was once so polluted that the salmon run had all but vanished, but in recent years the river has come on hugely, thanks to clean up and hatchery programmes. Further south, the Hampshire Avon has a reputation for producing the biggest fish of all, while the salmon of the south west have been recognised as being a genetically distinct strain from their northern cousins.
Wales also has some great salmon fishing, in particular on the Usk and the Wye, but what Wales is best known for is sea-trout fishing. The two aforementioned rivers, the Taff, the Tywi, the Teifi, Dee and and Tawe would probably be among the most productive.
Northern Ireland, so far unmentioned, is an oft overlooked resource, offering the same wide range of fishing as Scotland, with salmon rivers, trout streams and loughs.