Last September, my fiance and I moved to the United Kingdom for a quick year. She is pursuing a masters degree while I spend as much time as possible mountain biking and fishing. I was surprised to learn this is a nation with fishing opportunities at every corner with a rich history attached!
Between 13th-15th century, fly fishing gained popularity in the UK as a sport. It evolved to what most of us have in our minds as the classical fisherman from the early 1900’s - a well-dressed man in a fancy wool cap and jacket with elbow patches and a wicker creel in tow. Funny enough, I witnessed this stereotype of an English fisherman out at the stream today!
The picture above is the scene in my mind of an English day out
In the States once you have your license, access to the water is free and plentiful but intel on good spots is guarded by the locals as they protect their prized fish and serene areas. We often daydream of these fly fishing trips as an excuse to explore and adventure into the unknown backcountry. Hunting for these prized stretches along a wild river, bushwhacking our way to that magic pool, or riffle that only you may discover.
The UK has a much different approach to fishing than the US. In the 1900’s the sport developed for the upper class to make it approachable to the “gentleman.” Over time, clubs developed along stretches of river, that were managed privately. These clubs maintained the grounds and protected the fish by practicing catch and release or regulated catch rates. There is no need for wading at many locations, and the stretches are built to put you in the right spot to find a fish - they even provide room for a back cast! What is also surprising is that everyone around is happy to provide all the details necessary to get you on a fish, no information seems guarded.
Example of private chalk stream venue from Fishing Breaks
There are helpful websites like Fishing Breaks and Fish Pal which have all the information you need, including how to reserve private water access. During the high season in the summer it is costly but the offseason can provide just as much fun and fish for a fraction of the cost. Most are even approachable by train or bike (stay tuned for more bike packing and fishing trip later or see out Bikefishing 101 Article here)
The physical structure of the streams are different too, “chalk stream” fishing is the desirable fishing in the UK and after visiting a few I see why. The white chalk and gravel bottomed rivers lead to crystal clear waters and gentle scenery - even directly after a rain! The setting is particularly serene, with long grasses growing from the bottom and swaying slowly in the current. The pace of these rivers are noticeably slower than the mountain streams of the west I know well since there is very little elevation change across the countryside.
Above shows the clear gentle waters of River Lambourne
This controlled and structured fishing may have you yelling - “but I want the freedom to explore!” Don’t worry, if you want to explore freely in the UK there is plenty of this too. By nature, the UK has a Right to Roam (READ and LISTEN) and you can wander the country by foot, bike, or horse through large swaths of land and private property – but be respectful and learn the rules! In certain regions, there can be limitations on where to fish. But, many rivers run straight through the towns and are open to anglers to fish, whether it be free or you possibly pay the local club a few GBP to drop a line for the day.
Wales and Scotland are much less restricted. Wales has a great program called the fishing passport to help anglers access private and public land. All of the funds for this program go directly to the area for land access and conservation. The land owners also get some of these funds to provide incentive to keep cattle out of the river and help maintain the wild rivers and fish populations.
My first grayling that I could clearly see move to take my fly - what a joy
Here canals and rivers cover the countryside, making the fishing opportunities endless! In London I saw a guy pull a 20lb pike out of St. Regents Canal only 5 min walk from a major commuter train station. I was not as lucky on this day, but I did find a handful of perch hiding under the longboats. And later, in the suburbs of London, I pulled an 8-10lb pike out of the stream just outside of town.
Fancy other species? They have all kinds of crazy stuff here to fish for, whether you fly fish or not. The carp and “coarse” game is big here where these are essentially non-trout/salmonids (grayling actually are included in the coarse grouping too) and the season is open all year long in public waters or private club areas. These fish may not be as pretty as our holy grail trout – but you know what – they are just as fun to figure out how to catch.
I have been exposed to literally a whole new world and perspective on fishing and well... I like it. Yes, I am looking forward to summer mountain trips in the US but I am happy with the amazing and convenient options I have right now. I can walk 5 minutes out my front door to catch pike and perch, ride my bike less than an hour and catch trout, pike and grayling or even take the train to somewhere unknown for an adventure! This proximity to fishing is true anywhere in the country, which seems to also be true when it comes to pubs! Most stream and/or lake access is within a stones throw of a pub. You can grab a pint and even stay the night for more remote locations. Travel on, bring your rod. Cheers!