The Monnow had flirted with me months before I got to fish on her hallowed waters. On a journey from South Wales up to the Welsh Dee one cold, frosty February day the train clattered and meandered its way through border country, traversing many a fine river as it did so. Just south of Hereford the trainline teased its way enticingly past a fairytale stream – unbeknown to me at that time this was the Monnow, a river that I was to fall in love with.
Twice the train drew a parallel course with the Monnow and on both occasions I spotted rising fish, which amazed me due to the fleeting glimpses I was bestowed of the river and for the fact that it was February. Such an occurrence left me in awe of this seemingly magical river, and, as any red-blooded angler would, I vowed to return to see if the river could produce in correlation to my now exuberant expectations.
A few months had now passed yet the vivid image of those rising fish could still be conjured on a whim. It was time to lay the demons to rest and have a day on the Monnow. Prior research had helped me unclothe the Monnow, with most roads leading to the Monnow Project and its team of enthusiastic, knowledgeable operators.
Up until recently the Monnow had been rather a ‘closed shop’, with day-ticket water and access for the venturing angler being minimal. In addition, although it was once renowned throughout the UK for its Trout and Grayling, the river had been largely neglected in recent decades – allowed to fend for itself in light of increased farming pressures, especially in the upper catchment areas and its associated tributaries. The Monnow Project proposed to change this predicament, and change it they have. In fact, the Monnow Project has been heralded as exemplary for future projects, being; the largest river habitat restoration project motivated by improving the stocks of Brown-Trout and Grayling of its kind, achieving record funding by DEFRA for the project and, most recently, winning the Wild Trout Trust’ Classic Malt professional category conservation award.
Being in its evolving stage this seemed like a good time to pay the Monnow a visit and see what had been undertaken. Hearing that the river had a fantastic Mayfly hatch this seemed an apt a time as any to visit. I was to meet up with 2 gentlemen who had kindly offered to ‘show me the ropes’ on the river, both of which would give me a great insight not only into the fishing but also into what had been occurring and achieved on the river, since, one was an initiator of the Project, Robert Denny, with the other, David Smith, being an angler who has benefited from the Project, gaining access to the prime fishing.
Warm, sunny skies greeted us at our meeting point perched above the Monnow – ideal conditions for a hatch. Formalities over we ventured forth towards a rickety old bridge that perilously looms over the river near the village of Kentchurch – a quaint rural hamlet if there ever were one. Early morning fishing usually dictates sub-surface fishing before the sun starts to hit the water and initiate a late morning flurry. As such, a team of nymphs were set up with pocket water and tight runs targeted for the opportunist trout. Sport was almost instantaneous with the grayling making their presence known with an infectious regularity. The thing that instantly struck me was their size, with two of the first five grayling being over 40cm, a fine a fish as I had come across throughout the winter months. The trout really turned on a spectacle as the day progressed, chomping at the clumsy mayfly on their aerobatic strive.
I’m not sure what it is about grayling but for me they are a truly magical fish, one that commands respect whilst being ever obliging. What shone through on my first taste of the Monnow were the leviathan grayling, feeding avidly even in this seemingly unproductive time of the year.
As the trout season drew to a close in September my attention returned to the Grayling, and, in particular, the large grayling of the Monnow. A phone call later and the date was set – now the grayling were going to be targeted in earnest. Robert Denny kindly agreed to join me once more. We decided to try the spots where the fish had been taken earlier that year and see whether we could entice the leviathans from their lairs. Robert opted for a New-Zealand setup with a klinkhammer on the top and a beaded hare’s ear suspended off the bend 3ft underneath. With the classical runs and pocket water you are confronted with on the Monnow I opted for a short-line-nymph setup, with 3 nymphs on an 8ft leader using Stream Tec XT fly rods. Robert put the first score on the board backed by “that’s 3 for me, and none for you, isn’t it?” and an accompanying wry smile, taking fish on both the dry and the nymph whilst I contently plumbed the depths. The pools on the Monnow change in character quickly, with a mixture of cascading pools, classical ‘head-body-tail’ pools, and long meandering glides. The two previous nights had seen the first of the winter’s frost, as such, I didn’t think that the grayling would be too tightly packed yet. Sure enough persistence paid off, and it wasn’t long before I started to find the grayling.
For the river the size of the Monnow – which I would describe as ideal water to introduce someone to river fishing on yet possessing enough character and intrigue to keep even the most weathered angler happy – I have never seen such high and concentrated shoals of grayling, especially with their accompanying size. One after another grayling of over 30cm drew up from the glassy depths, stimulating a healthy bend in my 5 weight rod, which was succumbing to the plunges and strive of the fighting-fit grayling. Robert continued to plunder the stocks, with an increased interest to his dry as the morning progressed. The day’s sport could be described as manic, enthralling, and captivating. A healthy number of grayling in the 15cm bracket were brought to hand, too, which was both encouraging for future years and highlighted the ‘health’ of the river, health that could be directly attributable to the work of the Monnow Project.
A good number of grayling in the 30-38cm were landed, yet the magical 40cm bracket, although coming perilously close to being broken, seemed a bridge too far. Large grayling are often nomadic creatures, and with so much grayling throughout the pools the wise old fish may have taken shelter, fully aware of our seemingly Neanderthal techniques. We had lost count of the grayling numbers we had brought to hand – such number counting becomes rather irrelevant when fishing for sport, or was that just my way of coping with a humble defeat by my fishing partner?
We had taken grayling in almost every imaginable pot, nook, and cranny throughout the stretch at our disposal. Yet, one area had produced better than all other pools we had fished through, and, ironically, it was the first pool we had fished through. Making the best of what light was left in the sky as the winter days draw sport to a conclusion long before the angler would appreciate, we made our way back to the pool to see if we could induce a last minute conversion. Large grayling are often caught on dries, especially in slower glides where they get more of a chance to rise to an offering, however, I would advocate deeply fished nymphs as producing with greater regularity – especially in the colder winter months. My Airflo 6lbs G3 nylon was laced with 3 flies, all of which had varying levels of weight in order to fish them in a stringer fashion. A tungsten bead and leaded nymph took the point position, a smaller beaded nymph took the midfield, whilst a lighter fly took the top dropper, allowed to flutter enticingly as the bottom two dredged the depths.
Grayling settle very quickly and a rested pool can be re-fished with amazing regularity. The sport continued at the pace upon which it had commenced, with all three patterns scoring well. Large grayling can give the lightest of takes; almost a lethargic stopping of the line akin to that of a salmon and the old proverbial “hooking a rock”.
Steffan runs Angling-Worldwide, a company that specialises in sea-trout fishing packages, courses, and guiding in Wales, with a history of doing so stemming back for over a decade. For further information contact:
Phone: 07879 898 344
Mail: Angling-Worldwide, Crosslane, Dolgran, Pencader, Carmarthenshire, SA39 9BY